Monthly Archives: March 2009

Albert Hurwit, Felix Draeseke

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 (seven years and counting) every Wednesday at 7:00 pm on WRTI HD-2. For a look at all the shows, click here.

Saturday, April 4th, 2009, 5:00-6:00 p.m.

Albert Hurwit (b.1931). Symphony No. 1 “Remembrance” (2002), Movement 3, Remembrance. Michael Lankester, Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra. MSR Classics MS 1134. Tr 3. 16:09
Felix Draeseke (1835-1913). Piano Concerto in E-flat major, Op. 36 (1885-6). Markus Becker pno, Berlin Radio Orchestra, Michael Sanderling. Hyperion  67636. Tr 7-9. 30:28

On this Discoveries we take snapshots of journeys by two composers who are separated by a hundred years. Albert Hurwit travels a path from Prague to Russia to America, following the persecution and survival of his family in a symphony he calls “Remembrance.” And while that history was unfolding, Felix Draeseke was on his own journey from progressive to traditionalist, nicely encapsulated in his E-flat Piano Concerto.

alberthurwit_150x150Connecticut-born Albert Hurwit came to composition fairly late in life, after a career in radiology. For a long time he had wanted to immerse himself in the creation of music, and after taking retirement he was able to devote all his energies to it. Successes with smaller works led to this symphony, which recounts the discrimination against the Jewish people in Europe throughout the 19th century. In particular, his family went from Prague to Russia, and suffered through the pogroms there. The third movement, also titled “Remembrance,” hearkens to their sadness after being dispersed. They survive tragedies to come to the United States, but the memories of separation, as well as the strength of love, live on. Hurwit’s music is cinematic, charming, and suffused with sweeping melody. This third movement may be performed by itself and has been used as the setting for a ballet.

Felix Draeseke’s biggest journey was philosophical. He began in the avant-garde of German culture with Liszt and Wagner but came to disown that world, preferring conservation to provocation. His liberal bona fides came from a hearing of Wagner’s Lohengrin that changed his life. As if that weren’t enough, Liszt himself stood at the barricades and defended Draeseke’s modernist (for 1861) Germania-Marsch to an angry audience (which Wagner witnessed). Here was a rabble-rouser in the making.

felix-draeseke

But a move to Switzerland didn’t prolong the festivities. He had to earn his keep as a piano teacher, he started to lose his hearing, and an engagement to a French-speaking young lady was revoked by her parents when they discovered that her intended was a German (a little thing called the Franco-Prussian War had just broken out). He moved to Dresden, became an established professor, married, continued to compose, and wrote articles condemning the younger generation of composers and their harmonic experiments. This concerto comes from just after his move back to Germany, and is a tantalizing mix of both sides of Draeseke. Its harmonic palette is basic, but there are just enough Lisztian flourishes to show us a portrait of this 50-year-old artist as a young man.

The Best of All Possible Worlds

eakins

Thomas Eakins. Max Schmitt in a single scull

The sufferings of the world and the desperation of a hopeless love conspire to drag Candide from naïve optimism to resigned skepticism, yet, even in the face of Voltaire’s ridicule he clings to the belief that this is, in fact, the best of all possible worlds.

That was the fourth draft, but I still wasn’t sure. Then I saw the painting, and that convinced me, finally, to leave it be.

Those words are in the score of my new string quartet, The Best of All Possible Worlds. “New” is not quite right; it’s my only string quartet. Well, the first since a student piece called Rondo, which I sure hope I’ve burnt by now. That was actually performed in a real, non-student concert and got a nice little review. I remember it vividly, because the headline of the review called it, let me see, what was it?…oh yes, Rodeo. Not the actual title of the piece, no, that wouldn’t do, let’s call it, in very large type, hm, here we go: Kile Smith’s Rodeo. Ah, Rodeo for string quartet. Ah yes, I remember it well.

[First draft]:

The world beckons Candide from optimism to realism, deploying profound suffering and the despair of unfulfilled love. But he remains, in Voltaire’s eyes, a naïf, retaining the unreasonable belief that this is, in fact, the best of all possible worlds.

I would never name a piece Rodeo, any more than I would name a piece Water Music, La MerSloop John B, or Candide. (Okay, maybe Sloop John B). But there I was, reading Voltaire’s Candide. I was reading it for the same reason I read many things. I was shamed into it because a person I admired brought it up in conversation and I had never read it.

[Second draft]:

Tremendous suffering drags the young naïf Candide into realism. Thus Voltaire satirizes the optimism of Leibniz, often epitomized in the phrase “this is the best of all possible worlds.” Despite Candide’s popularity, optimism has much to offer. Still, suffering is real. This quartet is

So I read it, and it has stayed with me. I wasn’t sure, at first, why. It is a silly little satire, quite over the top. Voltaire ridicules the philosophical optimism of Leibniz, but he doesn’t really comes to grips with Leibniz; he keeps playing the same joke over and over on his cardboard characters. Moreover, his own worldview seems to be summed up, at best, as a shrug of the shoulders, which seems (again, at best) sad. Nevertheless, I came to a grudging acceptance of Voltaire’s talents. He does strike a chord when he says, basically: Life Happens, Stop Whining, Take Responsibility. And it has stayed with me.

But there’s more. Lady Cunegund. She’s what drives Candide around the world; she makes the story. He stays faithful to her throughout, but that’s not the problem. Voltaire doesn’t allow them to fall in love, both at the same time, that is: that’s the problem. I don’t know if it’s because Lady Cunegund stands in for Voltaire himself, who would not fall for the philosophy of Leibniz, or because she sees that Candide is a fool. I don’t know, and I’m not sure Voltaire knows, either. There’s the dilemma C.S. Lewis poses in Miracles: does Ophelia die because Shakespeare wants her to die, or because the branch breaks?

Voltaire wants to both accuse God and dismiss Him, but it seems to me that you can do one or the other but not both. If he’s mad, he at least could create some real drama (rather than this tract), maybe even try to save Ophelia. I mean, Candide. But if he dismisses God, whom does he accuse? Maybe that explains the shrug: it’s the best he can come up with. In Hamlet, we care about Ophelia; her death is a tragedy. But Candide, the Lady, Pangloss? We don’t care about them, not really. They’re just fools. Only Voltaire is wise.

[Third draft]:

Voltaire drags the young Candide from naïveté to realism by way of suffering, and thus satirizes the optimism of Leibniz, often epitomized in the phrase “this is the best of all possible worlds.” These days, the title of Candide is more popular than its text, but realism is held to be honest, optimism is ridiculed as childish. Suffering is real. And yet, Candide never did wholly

Well, I am no philosopher. As to the string quartet, I frankly take Candide’s side. The waltz—for that is what it is—remains blithely naïve, even through some hints of soul-searching. I’m indebted to the Beautiful Blue Danube of Strauss and to Ravel’s La Valse, one of the most ravishing pieces of the 20th century. One of the many things it demonstrates is that it is possible for a work to reach two contrary goals. La Valse both critiques the waltz, and is a waltz. On a less ambitious level, The Best of All Possible Worlds invites us to sit in judgment on Candide’s foolhardiness, and to join him in it.  This may turn out to be the middle movement of something larger, but for right now it’s on its own.

Violist David Yang is bringing in brilliant colleagues of his for this newly created ensemble, which will premiere this at Christ Church in Old City Philadelphia on Friday, May 1st, at 8 pm. Also on the program are the Stravinsky Canon and the Shostakovich String Quartet No. 15. I call my piece a Valse lent, and David thinks that if I’m going to call it that, then I might as well put all the score indications into French, too. He’s got a point; must think about that. The church is on 2nd Street above Market, cheek-by-jowl to galleries galore that are open on First Fridays, inspiring Christ Church’s First Friday Concert Series.

boat_house_row

Max Schmitt's milieu, now. Is there a better world?

Vespers is now available to order

vespers

Just got the word—you can get the CD here. With the recording is a 24-page booklet with texts, translations, and notes on the composition, Piffaro, The Crossing, and Donald Nally. Also, this is an enhanced CD; load it into your computer to see the full score and photos of the recording sessions. It is a beautiful production all around.

A Song of Sonia Sanchez

A Song of Sonia Sanchez is in two versions:

1998; medium voice, violin, piano, 3 latin percussion, double or electric bass; 7′ 

2000; medium voice, violin, piano, 3 latin perc, double bass-2.2.2.2-4.3.3.1- timp.2perc-str. 7′. Review 

latin-fiesta

Latin Fiesta, a rollicking band of about seven or so, commissioned me some eleven years ago to set the words of the poet Sonia Sanchez. (I have to hedge on the size of the group, because they add dancers and percussionists and others as the spirit and collaborations lead.) The premiere got such a huge reception that they asked me to arrange it for them fronting an orchestra, which I did, and which they’ve played with orchestras around the country. We’ve also done another work together, Alabanza, also with a Sanchez text, and also for the band with orchestra.

The first one, though, I had no idea what to call, since the text was not an entire poem. I ended up calling it A Song of Sonia Sanchez, not the snappiest title I admit, but one which I have grown to like.

They are on stage this Saturday, March 21st at 8pm, for the Third Hispanic Festival at the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia, and will perform A Song of Sonia Sanchez. Ms. Sanchez herself will narrate and local legend Lenny Seidman will assist on tabla. I wish I could be there, but I will be giving the pre-concert lecture at the Pottstown Symphony Orchestra that night, which is ironic, since it was Pottstown that premiered Alabanza.

The piece is for medium voice, violin, piano, 3 Latin percussionists, and double or electric bass, but every time I see it there’s more percussion. It’s seven minutes long.

Text by Sonia Sanchez (used by permission)

ayyy
i have cried all night
tears pouring out of my forehead
sluggish in pulse
tears from a spinal soul
that run in silence to my birth
am i born?
i cannot peel the flesh.
i hear the moon daring to dance these rooms.
O to become a star.
stars seek their own mercy and sigh the quiet like gods.

Audio excerpts are above. I have to warn you. In the middle of a wonderful review of another piece, the reviewer mentioned “expressively reckless” audio samples on my website. I don’t know (I should ask him), but I’d lay money he’s referring to A Song of Sonia Sanchez.

Vespers at the airport

…and this is how I found out that pre-release copies of Vespers were at liberty…a carton from Navona Records showed up at the Piffaro office just as the group was leaving for Houston…Priscilla took this picture at the airport with her phone…the official release date is still 28 April…the only way to get one right now is to go to a Piffaro concert…more later as I learn more

vespersairport

Ferdinand Hiller, Max Bruch

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 (seven years and counting) every Wednesday at 7:00 pm on WRTI HD-2. For a look at all the shows, click here.

Saturday, March 7th, 2009, 5:00-6:00 p.m.

Ferdinand Hiller (1811-1885). Piano Concerto No. 2 in F-sharp minor, Op. 69 (1843). Howard Shelley, piano/conductor, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. Hyperion 67655. Tr 4-6. 19:55
Max Bruch (1838-1920). Suite on Russian Themes, Op. 79b (1903). Rhenish Philharmonic, Wolfgang Balzer. EBS 6071. Tr 2-6. 16:30
Max Bruch. Swedish Dances Nos. 6, 7, Op. 63 (1892). Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Kurt Masur. Philips 420932. Disc 2, Tr 9-10. 3:09

Max Bruch is known today mostly by his G minor Violin Concerto and Scottish Fantasy, while Ferdinand Hiller isn’t known at all. Yet in their day they were not only famous, but influential.

ferdinand-hillerHiller’s fall into obscurity is the more remarkable when we consider the heights he inhabited. He not only knew, but was close friends with Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Berlioz, Chopin, Rossini, Liszt, Meyerbeer, Cherubini, and many of the most powerful musicians of the time. He was a major musical force in more than a half-dozen cities around Europe, conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Italian Opera in Paris, was an early friend of Wagner’s, and was even at Beethoven’s deathbed. Hiller played the piano like a dream, taught organ, wrote articles, founded festivals, judged competitions, and composers from Bruch to Humperdinck came to study with him.

But his fame was not to last. His music, at first traveling with the progressives, decamped around the time of Wagner’s ascendancy, and the times were to pass him by. He increasingly opined against the new wave of German music, and his own music did not have the depth and melodic richness of a Brahms to buffer his reputation from the backlash. Still, he was an extremely talented composer of fine taste, which we can hear in his second concerto for piano, perhaps his finest work. From the unusual beginning, where the piano states its case alone, through the overlapping themes of the finale, Hiller balances the competing claims of soloist and orchestra in a satisfying example of the Romantic piano concerto tradition.

max-bruchBruch, Hiller’s student, was even more conservative in his generation than Hiller was in his. Interestingly, one hallmark of his style—folk music—has been employed by conservatives and progressives throughout the years; in his case, it was a safe outcropping from the slippery slope of Wagnerian harmonic confusion. Bruch used German and other folk elements in many of his works, such as in his choral music, the Kol nidre for cello and orchestra (Bruch was introduced to the Jewish cantorial tradition by Hiller), and in music on today’s program, the Suite on Russian Themes and Swedish Dances. Folk music was in the air, and Bruch helped to keep that spirit alive. One who famously carried the torch in his own country was the Bruch student Ralph Vaughan Williams.

It is fascinating to witness these student-teacher relationships playing out against evolving musical landscapes. There are no templates by which we can prophesy success, or rather, there are as many templates as there are composers. But regardless of the shifting places of Hiller and Bruch in the repertoire, hearing their music now can transport us to a world where they still hold sway.

Cello spirituals on the radio

Walked into WRTI on Saturday to tape a few more Now is the Time shows, and Mark Pinto was there holding down the fort, cataloging CDs during the Rigoletto broadcast and preparing for his post-opera airtime. “Hey, I’ve programmed your cello spirituals on New Releases,” he said.

“Fantastic, thanks!” I answer, “when will they be on?”

“Four o’clock.”

“Oh…today, you mean?!”

So that was it. On the air, for everybody.

I took a break from my taping at 4:00 and potted up the air monitor in the studio to have a listen. (The CD, with audio samples, is hereAmerican Spirituals, Book Two are tracks 11–13.) Anne and Paul sounded good as ever. Here’s where we made that octave change, oh, right, here’s that added rubato, and now here comes that whole bar we added. Funny how you live with and worry over a piece for months, and then—at some point—it’s just music, not yours anymore. Yours, yes, but not yours because there’s nothing you can do about it. Not anymore. Happened twice to me this weekend, as I just finished my string quartet, and since I was well ahead of any deadline I had to force myself to give it up to the players. I’d still be messing with it otherwise. It’s a piece of music, just let it go, it’s not yours anymore.

Now it’s for everybody.

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