Monthly Archives: December 2008

Exsultet

2007; hn-str; 18′
Premiered 2 Mar 2007, Jennifer Montone, Philadelphia Classical Symphony, Karl Middleman. Commissioned by the Philadelphia Classical Symphony. Review

1. In the darkness, fire is kindled
2. Procession
3. Exsultet

The Exsultet is an ancient chant sung near the beginning of the Easter Vigil, and is without parallel for its ecstatic yet profound utterance of joy. The Vigil, fixed on the Saturday evening between Good Friday and Easter, balances, as all services do, repentance and thanksgiving. But on this day the tension is the most acute. While the remembrance of Friday’s sacrifice still resonates, the anticipation of Easter’s glory intensifies as dusk falls.

This horn concerto follows the unfolding drama of the Vigil’s opening, the soloist reflecting the interior meditations of the assembled. The three movements are played without pause. The people gather after sunset outside the sanctuary, with unlit candles. The rubric from the Book of Common Prayer states simply, “In the darkness, fire is kindled,” providing the title of the first movement. One by one, the candles receive flame. Contrition and the memory of sacrifice mingle with the growing light as each person is illuminated in silence. Only when all have received is the darkened nave entered.

During “Procession” the evening chorale “Christe, du bist der helle Tag” comes to mind, although no hymn would actually be sung now. In the presence of the light of day, night is banished. At appointed times “Lumen Christi” is intoned, answered by “Deo gratias.” This is the only music from the service that appears in the concerto, here radiated by three solo violins. The enormity of the sanctuary regards the congregants as they gradually become aware of the space that both humbles and uplifts.

The Deacon approaches the lectern, and the upturned faces, reflecting the candlelight pressing against the darkness, follow the one who will announce what, until now, has only been hoped for. To the Deacon, the lowest-level cleric, to this one alone is given the work of proclaiming the one word all have gathered to hear, the word that will shatter the gloom of despair and pierce the soul.

“Exsultet.” To all angels, rejoice. To every created thing, rejoice. To all gathered here and around the world, rejoice. This is the night we must pass through to rejoice. This is the night where all sacrifice ends. This is the night that turns clear as day.

It is an ancient, mystical invocation. One imagines the angels and all creation slowly turning, attracted to the light and the chant, and stepping into a dance, giving themselves over to an estampie of praise. All are caught up in it: one leads, then another. Even in rejoicing, though, contemplation travels alongside, and so the concerto ends much as it began, in the silence of remembrance, in the warmth of gathering, in the flicker of the light of hope.

First performance 2 March 2007, Jennifer Montone, horn, with the Philadelphia Classical Symphony, Karl Middleman, conductor, at the Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia.

Julián Aguirre, Jenö Hubay

On the first Saturday of the month, Jack Moore and I host Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection on WRTI, where we take a look at some of the treasures housed in the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. It’s the largest lending library of orchestral performance material in the world. Listen to WRTI 90.1 FM in Philadelphia or online at wrti.org. We broadcast encore presentations of Discoveries every Wednesday at 7 pm on WRTI HD-2. For a look at all the shows, click here.

Saturday, January 3rd, 2009, 5:00-6:00 p.m.

Julián Aguirre (1868-1924). Due danze Argentine, La huella, El gato (orchestrated 1938 by Ernest Ansermet). Orquesta Sinfónica de Entre Ríos, Gabriel Castagna. Chandos 10185. 4:59
Jenö Hubay (1858-1937). Scènes de la Csárda, No. 4, Hejre Kati (Come on, Katy) (c.1882-6). Ferenc Balogh, violin, Hungarian State Orchestra, Mátyás Antal. Naxos 8.550142. 6:22
Jenö Hubay. Violin Concerto No. 3 (1906-7). Ragin Wenk-Wolff, violin, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Dennis Burkh. Centaur CRC 2790. 30:11

Juliàn Aguirre

Julián Aguirre

We look at two folk traditions through the eyes of Western classical music on this Discoveries. Julián Aguirre from Buenos Aires studied composition and piano in Spain, then returned to Argentina to make his career. At first, Aguirre was mostly known as a pianist, but he quickly became an indispensable part of the musical culture in Buenos Aires for his compositions and for his part in the establishment of two music schools. “La huella” (The footstep) and “El gato” (The cat) show Aguirre taking the leap to use folk material, something that very few in his country were doing at the time—soon, Argentina began breaking European hegemony over its concert music. The conductor on this recording, Gabriel Castagna, continues to champion not only the music of Aguirre, but also others from Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America.

Jenö Huber, a composer and violinist from Hungary born into a German family, later adopted the Magyar form of his last name, Hubay. Like Aguirre, he also returned home to become an influential educator. Studying in Berlin and Paris, the supremely talented soloist became friendly with many of the stars of the day: Liszt, Joachim, Vieuxtemps among them. His works, especially for violin and orchestra, make use not only of Hungarian themes, but also of the feeling of improvisation that is associated with much of the popular music from that area. Hubay took these elements and folded them into the world of late European Romanticism he knew so well. The composer wrote a lot of music, including eight operas and four violin concertos, but is known today almost solely for the 14 Czardas Scenes, especially the one we hear today.

Jenö Hubay

Jenö Hubay

While much of his music has faded from popularity, his greatest legacy may be as a teacher. The violin training he gave (and oversaw, as Director from 1919 to 1934) at the Budapest Academy of Music produced some of the greatest players of the 20th century, including Jozsef Szigeti, Stefi Geyer, and many others. Their playing and that of another institution he founded, the Budapest String Quartet, still affect music-making today: especially, it could be argued, in Philadelphia, as his string sound lived on through one of his violin students, Jenö (Eugene) Ormandy.

In this new year, as the world of classical music looks around the globe for new inspiration, let us take a moment to remember those who have forged this path already. Both Aguirre and Hubay fused national themes into works to create new languages—and pride—for their cultures. Their lives expanded possibilities for other composers and performers, and they live on through their music.

Top Ten in 2008

vesperstitle1David Patrick Stearns of the Philadelphia Inquirer includes the premiere of Vespers as one of the top ten musical events of 2008 hereabouts. I’m surprised by this, and delighted by this, as  I have been surprised and delighted by the reactions I’ve gotten over the year to this wonderful collaboration with Piffaro, the Renaissance Band and The Crossing. Stearns downplays the idea of all such lists as being, at the very least, limited to what one can listen to, and of course he’s right. But it includes some fine company with whom to rub shoulders. And we can all breathe relievedly, now that we didn’t make The Guardian’s year-end list of Top Ten headlines from The Onion, can’t we?

Vespers has indeed hovered over 2008 for me. This time last year, all the music was long finished and in the hands of the musicians. Not sure if “long” is the correct word, but the musicians had been getting bits and pieces  of it for months, the last of it being sent off a couple of weeks earlier, I’m recalling. All, that is, except for the instrumental In dir ist Freude, which I wrote three days before the premiere. We all thought the choir deserved a breather between Psalms 27 and 113. Why that obvious hitch had escaped our notice until then is one of those magical delights of premiering music. But I was glad for the chance to write for Renaissance guitar.

Then, the rehearsals leading up to the premiere concerts of January 5th and 6th. Then, in the weeks and months after, clips from the premiere showing up on YouTube (here’s one), the good news of grants received for a commercial recording, and the feature on WHYY with Ed Cunningham. All the while, I was writing other pieces (including, but not limited to this and this), editing Vespers, fixing some little things, fixing some big things (major reconstruction on Psalm 27), and writing some new music for it. One more instrumental before the Deo gratias was needed, more as denouement after the long Vater unser than anything else. And the Deo gratias needed expanding. Then, the recording came together at the end of July, which you can read about if you go here and nose around that page and previously. Then, the filmed interview.

Then, going through all the takes and putting the CD together, a task that had to wait a bit because Piffaro already had a CD in the pipeline that understandably had to be finished first. While that was going on, I edited and re-edited the program notes and continued to fix little things in the score, until everything was sent to Parma Recordings on December 1st. The score too, by the way: they’ll be adding a PDF of the full score to the enhanced CD. They’ll include recording session photos and all sorts of extra things on it.

jagermeisterTwo items to clarify. One: Stearns has mentioned an Anglican sound to some of this, and this puzzles me. Well, I think I know what he means (that is, I think I know what parts might be so construed, now that I think about it); I just find it funny. Funny hmm and funny ha-ha. Funny hmm because you never know what influences may crop up, nor in what manner. Funny ha-ha because I hear this music as so identifiably Lutheran that I can hear nothing else, and it’s just, well, it’s a good joke on me, I suppose. I’m still too close to it; what do I know. But to me, Vespers is Jägermeister and Anglican is sherry. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; sherry’s a fine and noble libation. But it’s funny. Again, I think I know what he means; I don’t know for sure.

Two: could they find a worse picture of me? No, you won’t see it here, nuh-uh, you’ll have to get the Sunday paper or go to the link and find it yourself. I know it’s a cliché not to like pictures of yourself, but…I’m supposed to look, I guess, like I’m ruminating over a take heard through those headphones and all I see is a slightly dazed psychopath with the littlest hint of a twisted smile. Someone told me to relax and not take it so seriously, the picture’s good because it tells a story. A Stephen King story, maybe. I should feel better, as I often do, by reading Jeremy Denk’s blog. He reports similar bouts of agita over photographs. There, I feel better already.

Sounds like dancing

Here is where I keep the archives of all the Fleisher shows, but until now I haven’t posted any of the descriptions. May start doing that now, it’s just once a month. I was happy at how the Serly CD came out, and as I had written the liner notes for it, I edited them a little [a lot—Ed.], and with the chance to play another work of David Heuser’s, which fit in nicely, there’s a show.

Next on Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection
Listen to WRTI 90.1 FM Philadelphia or online at wrti.org. Encore presentations of Discoveries every Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. on WRTI HD-2.
Saturday, December 6th, 2008, 5:00-6:00 p.m.

  • Tibor Serly (1901-1978). Six Dance Designs for Orchestra (1932-33). Czech National Sym Orch, Paul Freeman. Music from the Fleisher Collection, Vol. 5. Albany Troy 876. 11:26
  • Tibor Serly. Concerto for Violin and Wind Symphony (1953-58). Carla Trynchuk, violin, Czech National Sym Orch, Paul Freeman. Music from the Fleisher Collection, Vol. 5. Albany Troy 876. 13:54
  • David Heuser (b.1966). Three Lopsided Dances (2008). Texas Music Festival Orchestra, Franz Anton Krager. Live recording. 19:28

Figuring out where Tibor Serly stands in the history of 20th-century music is not easy, since he’s known mostly as the editor of Bartók’s Viola Concerto. But Serly’s own music is ingenious, rugged, melodious, subtle, and never far from the lightness of humor. Born in Hungary and brought to the U.S. as a child, he returned to Hungary to study music. He and Bartók met there and became lifelong friends. Back in the States, Serly played viola in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under Reiner, then violin in Philadelphia under Stokowski (who even appointed him Assistant Conductor). He later played violin in Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra before turning solely to composing and teaching.

soundslikedancing

Tracy: South Bend! It sounds like dancing, doesn’t it?

Popular winks and asides fill the Six Dance Designs for Orchestra as it beguiles with engaging rhythms and sly tempo changes. It’s for a large orchestra, but it rarely sounds that way, as Serly uses colors and dynamics judiciously, regardless of the number of players he’s using at any one time. He includes two fox trots—“1920,” which he mocks, and “1934,” which he does not. He seems genuinely to enjoy what we only see as the stylized Hollywood of The Philadelphia Story era, but which was au courant when Serly composed this.

The Concerto for Violin and Wind Symphony, which the composer never heard performed, is as affable as Dance Designs, but loosens harmonic expectations in an interesting way. It’s easy to apprehend, though, as he anchors fluttering outcroppings of scalar material to vast slabs of pedal-point. The opening Improvisamente leads into a Dance Concertino in 5/4, feeling like a 4/4 with breaths. Young Serly was a violinist in his parents’ New York German-Hungarian opera company, and we can understand how the old world inspired this very new-sounding music.

David Heuser, who we’ve heard before on Discoveries, today brings us Three Lopsided Dances, which begins with the halting, expectant qualities of Serly’s Concerto. The first movement, Lilt, propels a long/short 5/8 pulse around a lovely tune. The next movement, Drag, is “slow with frequent pauses, like a swimmer floating between kicks,” Heuser says. Then he sums up this eccentric but invigorating work in Jump, using refrains of syncopations in between Lilt’s melody and Drag’s water music. Bracing stuff.

Heuser and Serly both use dance to create a music of America—the land of one composer’s birth, the land of another composer’s choice. The music reaches to us and pulls us close. That sounds like…well, as Katharine Hepburn says to James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story, “It sounds like dancing, doesn’t it?”

Stile antico

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

Stile Antico, Music for Compline
Music by John Sheppard, William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, others
harmonia mundi 807419

musiccompline200There is music—an Ives song, a Gesualdo madrigal, a late Beethoven quartet—that seems to have been drop-kicked through a time warp, that leaves you muttering, “Now where did that come from?” Stile Antico may have you muttering again. The works these 16 voices sing, which spring from a Renaissance England in the grasp of now Catholic, now Protestant monarchs, are a wafting of delicate counterpoint, time-stopping repose, and harmonic surprise.

Listen to some of the mind-bending paths John Sheppard takes through settings of “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit,” a traditional text for Compline, the final monastic hour of the day. Notes clash, then snuggle into phrases, and you’ll wonder how Bartók slipped into the court of Edward VI. The beyond-modern flexibility of Thomas Tallis and the mystic stillness of William Byrd may leave you questioning where this ineffably beautiful music came from. But you’ll want to be there.