Monthly Archives: February 2009

Pēteris Vasks

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

Pēteris Vasks, Message

Riga Philharmonic Orchestra, Krišs Rusmanis, Catalyst 64286

vasksSubjugated throughout most of their history, Latvians are now free, and they adore their country. The composer Pēteris Vasks is enchanted by the sharp splendor of the forests and streams, and in Cantabile for strings he wants “to tell, in eight minutes, how beautiful and harmonious the world is.” He is in love with his land and his people, and we might call him romantic. But not starry-eyed. A “sad optimist,” he calls himself. He has witnessed the struggle to independence, the unarmed thousands braving Soviet troops. His music is tectonic: granitic slabs churn against pearlescent layers and the inexorable power grinds into you. Message—for strings, pianos, percussion—is nothing less than the battle between good and evil. “Every honest composer searches for a way out of the crises of his time,” he says, “towards affirmation, towards faith…if I can find this way out…then I offer it.” It is music of courage, passion, sensuality, and ecstasy. Listening to Vasks, you feel that out of subjugation, people will triumph, nature will triumph, beauty will triumph.

Mason Jones

mason-jonesSomeone from the Philadelphia Orchestra let me know last week of the passing of the great hornist Mason Jones. The obituary by Daniel Webster in the Philadelphia Inquirer captures the magnitude of his influence, and the International Horn Society also remembers him here. I met him only twice, but the first meeting in the Fleisher Collection was (for me) memorable.

Mr. Jones walked in one day (probably 20 years ago now), wanting to look at some score or other. He did not identify himself, but I immediately knew who he was. Well, yes: I knew, but no: not immediately. I am not always the best with names. He looked familiar, but I did not know why. I couldn’t place him, in the second or two before he spoke and while I said something like, “Oh, yes! [As if I knew exactly who he was.] May I help you?” But then he spoke.

Now, I have a recording of the Hindemith Sonata for E-flat Horn and Piano. The players are supposed to recite a poem before the last movement, and they do on this recording. So, the instant he spoke I recognized his voice from the poem. So I knew who he was, but I still couldn’t come up with his name, not for the life of me. Famous horn player…many years principal in Philadelphia…recorded that Hindemith with Glenn Gould (I’d recognize his voice, too) that I have, uh, uh, begins with…

So I nonchalantly said that I loved his recording of the Hindemith E-flat (which was true), and that I played it often (also true). He could not have been kinder or more self-effacing, something confirmed to me by the experience of many others. When he left I breathed a huge sigh…and then remembered his name.

A wonderful man, a great player and teacher, and I am told that he was good with names. May he rest in peace.

John Field, Eugene D’Albert

On Kyle Gann’s excellent blog PostClassic a couple of weeks ago he related that a biography he saw of John Field hammered together two adjoining paragraphs this way:

“…He died in Moscow January 11, 1837.

Field’s execution was distinguished for taste and extreme delicacy…”

He made a wry comment on the proximity of “died” to “execution,” and with that comment ran headlong into the danger all writers face (and he’s a good one) when attempting wryness. Some folks just do not get wry. Wry alone is a bread on which they, to a man, do not live. Their resistance to wry remains unceded.

Thus, a commenter or two unnecessarily lectured Mr. Gann that there are different meanings for  the word “execution,” and then I just couldn’t take it anymore. He needs no help from me, goodness gracious, but something mischievous occurred to me and I quickly posted before I could think better of it. My comment is below; read the entire exchange here.

I have no idea why I lit on D’Albert as my example, but I remembered his wives, google-mapped Riga to get my bearings, and was off and running. I see lots of places for editing now, and I thought I hit on a great joke with “forensic musicology” until it started sounding vaguely familiar and then I realized that it’s an actual (but different) discipline but really, I really must, really, stop.

Dear Professor Gann,

I must come to your defense against your critics. You are obviously aware, as they are not, that it was quite common for 19th-century pianist-composers to be executed. It is far and away the leading explanation of why so few manuscript full scores exist of 19th-century piano concertos. The executions traditionally took place in Russia because of favorable union rules and up-to-date mechanisms that fostered taste and delicacy, as you note. But there are exceptions.



Eugene D’Albert proves the rule, you remember, on two counts. He died from choking while dining, after his sixth wife slapped him when he made an inappropriate remark concerning Teresa Carreño. Witnesses disagree on whether the cause of the outrage was the joke itself or because he kept referring to Ms. Carreño as “my wife” when she was, of course, wife #2. Leaving the magnitude of such an error to be judged by those most closely concerned, the real irony, of course, is that the dinner took place in Latvia where he was awaiting execution. It was, in fact, his last meal before the dawn ceremony.

But here’s the thing: he was actually on his way to Moscow for his scheduled demise (he was on a concert tour of his native Scotland when the papers came through notifying him that his execution had been approved), but when they arrived in Riga via Oslo and Stockholm, they found that the trains to Moscow had been overbooked that week with other to-be-executed-pianist-composers, spouses, ex-spouses, and other mourner/celebrants. So the authorities approached the Latvian government, which proved remarkably accommodating, seeing as how no objections could be found, especially in view of public and foreign relations. So it was decided that one outsourcing exception wouldn’t hurt. In a manner of speaking.

You know, of course, that forensic musicologists differ on whether this is an exception after all, since this occurred in 1932, stretching the scope of “19th-century.” But it is still ironic, since that dinner was going to be his last meal no matter what happened—regardless of his sense of humor, or his wife’s lack, or the lack of same by your critics.

Yr most humble, etc.,
Kile Smith

Happy 80th, Mom!

Dear Mom,
My memories of you are many, but seem always to revolve around your patience. I never told you that I always admired how good in math you were, for instance, but your patience hovers over everything. You taught me to drive. On a stick. 1897, I think it was. You took me to the big hill, coming up from the trestle to Walnut and Bethel at the stop sign. You put it in neutral, put the parking brake on, and I got in the driver’s seat and had to take the brake off, put it into first, give it gas, and let out the clutch. I was petrified—to say nothing of the line of cars behind us—but you never lost your cool. Actually, I
don’t know what you were thinking because you didn’t get back into the car, you just walked home. I drove by there not too long ago, and I see it’s hardly a hill at all. How tall was I back then, eight inches? A foot? And then you drove me over to Center City Philadelphia and made me drive back. Why did you scare me like that? What is wrong with you, woman? A one-foot tall kid driving on Vine Street, the Ben Franklin, and Route 130 with lanes that are about 36 inches wide? (I just drove there, and they still are.) But we made it back to Cedar Avenue somehow, and now I’m a confident, carefree driver. Those are not the words Jackie would use, so I’d just like to tell her that it’s all due to you. Not that I inherited any of that patience—no, you don’t catch me teaching Priscilla how to drive. You’ve just given me this impossible model, this bright, shining example of what a loving person should be, something I can never live up to, thank you, thank you so much. I’m already older than you were when you taught me to drive, but your model of patience gives me something to shoot for when I’m 80, and if I’ve got the math right, you’ll be 320. Love, Kile

Two CDs released?

Definitely one, and maybe two CDs will be released this weekend. Vespers, we’re still waiting to hear for certain, but a box  o’CDs may show up at the Piffaro concerts February 13–15. I plan to be at Friday’s concert at St. Mark’s in Center City Philadelphia.

The CD of hymns with cellist Anne Martindale Williams and pianist Paul S. Jones just came out. I’m not sure of the CD title, but my American Spirituals, Book Two is on this recording. To launch this, Anne and Paul are performing four concerts, tonight through Sunday, and will play, along with Beethoven, Bach, and Prokofiev, some selections from the CD, including two of the three spirituals. I plan to be at tonight’s concert in Paoli; for all the concert details go to the calendar.

And my mom’s 80th is this weekend…parties all around!

Update: CD and sheet music published by Paul Jones Music in the collection Sacred Music for Cello.

John Coltrane, Johnny Hartman, Antonio Vivaldi

hartmanFor Valentine’s Day, WRTI asked us for our “favorite romantic CDs.” I came up with one easily enough (the same one Bob Perkins did…I am not worthy and no, I did not peek), but then thought that a classical CD might be expected of me, so then I was stumped. Favorite classical would be hard enough, but favorite romantic, hm, that took some thinking.

Okay, enough thinking…here’s what I wrote for the newsletter:

1. John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. Every ballad here is swoon-worthy, but “My One and Only Love”* is worth the price of admission alone. That tune (from 1952, late in The Great American Songbook game) and this pair (at the top of their game) are glowing embers. Warm yourself.


2. I try to resist, but I keep coming back to Vivaldi. If you attend to the concertos in the Opus 111 series—say, the CD of concertos for various instruments—and amble past the sweet young things on the cover, you will find music of unfailing sumptuousness and clarity. How rare is that, and how enticing? It softens the heart, sharpens the appetite, renews courage, and promotes civil discourse: all indispensable, I aver, to the proper incubation of romance.

* For my one and only band piece—actually, for solo trumpet with concert band—I took from this song the words “an April breeze” for the title, and then took the changes, over which I wrote a new tune. Rehearsing the band, the conductor said to me, “This doesn’t sound like band music.” I must have stared blankly at him, because he quickly followed that with, “That’s a compliment.”

You can read all my CD reviews here.

William Grant Still, William Dawson

On the first Saturday of the month (but on the 2nd Saturday this month because of last week’s fund drive), Jack Moore and I host Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection on WRTI 90.1 FM. You can hear us in the Philadelphia area or online at We also broadcast encore presentations of the entire Discoveries series (seven years and counting) every Wednesday at 7:00 pm on WRTI HD-2. For a look at all the shows, click here.

Saturday, February 14th, 2009, 5:00-6:00 p.m.

William Grant Still (1895-1978). Kaintuck’ (1935). Richard Fields, piano, Cincinnati Philharmonia Orchestra, Jindong Cai. Centaur 2331
William Dawson (1899-1990). Negro Folk Symphony (1934/52). Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Järvi. Chandos 9226

Throughout their entire lives they fought prejudice and shortsightedness, but William Grant Still and William Dawson succeeded in breaking into the classical world more than most African-American composers of the 20th century. The term “African-American music” is as misleading as “American music,” since there are as many different kinds of music as there are composers. It may be helpful, though, to recognize two broad groups: those who use African-American folk material and those who do not.

William Grant Still

William Grant Still

William Grant Still is in the second category. As his name became more widely known—and after his time studying with Varèse—he sought to write entirely original music. Still didn’t want to be known primarily as a “black” composer, but as a composer. He concluded—as Amy Beach had earlier, for women—that a composer of any minority had to compete on the same playing field to be considered legitimate, even if the playing field was not level.

And compete he did. Of his many accomplishments, Still was the first African-American to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra, the first to have an opera produced by a major company, and the first to conduct a major orchestra. He composed, taught, authored books, and arranged for W.C. Handy, Artie Shaw, Paul Whiteman, and many others.

He first sketched Kaintuck’ on a train ride from Cincinnati to Louisville, and it is a naturalistic piece describing the landscape. The classical repertoire brims with works like this, from Mendelssohn to Debussy back to Beethoven and before. The prominent piano part allows Kaintuck’ to bubble over with friendliness.

Dawson, Stokowski, 1963

Dawson, Stokowski, 1963

William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony exemplifies the first group, but Dawson had yet another battle as well. Not only did he face racial discrimination, but he was also known purely as a choral composer (anyone who’s ever sung in a high school choir knows his arrangements for the Tuskegee Institute Choir), and it took some doing to get this symphony off the ground. But he went to the top, showing the score to Leopold Stokowski, who premiered it with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1934.

He populated the symphony with the spirituals he knew so well. Although Dawson tells the story of the African-American struggle through the movements “The Bond of Africa,” “Hope in the Night,” and “O Le’ Me Shine,” he trusted that it could also be heard as pure music. Like Still’s music, it is awash in the American symphonic sound of the 1930s. Dawson and Still did break through into the classical world, and as we listen to some of this ravishing music by these prodigiously gifted men, it may occur to us to ask why they haven’t succeeded even more.