Monthly Archives: September 2009

Victor Herbert, George Chadwick

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

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

Victor Herbert (1859-1924). Natoma, selections (1911). Bratislava Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Brion. Naxos 8559027. 15:31

George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931). Symphonic Sketches (1895-1904). Brno Czech State Philharmonic Orchestra, Serebrier. Reference 2104. 30:09

Two composers lose parents early on. One receives his musical education on another continent with the blessing of a supportive grandfather, and the other begins to eke out a living in music after his stepfather refuses to help. They soon become two of the most important and influential American musicians of their generation.

Herbert,VictorVictor Herbert was born in Dublin 150 years ago, and when his father died, he was raised by his maternal grandfather, who was a writer, painter, and songwriter. In addition to his talent for composing, Herbert blossomed into an excellent cellist. Continuing his studies in Germany, he was quickly in demand, playing for many of the top conductors of the day, including a year in Vienna with the orchestra of Eduard Strauss. In Stuttgart to play with the opera, he fell in love with and proposed to their lead soprano. When an agent for the Metropolitan Opera wanted to hire her to sing Aida, she agreed on the condition that he hire her fiancé as well. They married and moved to New York, and Herbert was soon the Met’s principal cellist.

His career took off. He played everywhere, conducted everywhere, and taught at the conservatory where Dvorak was (it was Herbert’s second cello concerto that inspired Dvorak to write his concerto). He became Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, started the Victor Herbert Orchestra, testified for the rights of composers at the hearings leading up to the Copyright Act of 1909, and helped to found ASCAP (the first composers’ rights society) with Irving Berlin and John Philip Sousa, among others.

Oh, and he wrote music. Some of it, like the second concerto and the tone poem Hero and Leander, is greatly admired in the classical world. But he was also writing the most popular music of the time with dozens of operettas such as Babes in Toyland and Naughty Marietta. Natoma was a rare foray into opera. While the production was somewhat successful, everyone agreed that the music was gorgeous, and in these selections we can hear why.

ChadwickGeorge Whitefield Chadwick overcame the early death of his mother, but his path to music was not as smooth as Herbert’s. His stepfather was against any profession in music, so Chadwick supported himself by dropping out of high school, working in his stepfather’s insurance office, and accepting church organ jobs. He took lessons at the New England Conservatory, tried his hand at operetta, taught school in the Midwest, founded the Music Teachers National Association, and then traveled for further study to Germany. His success as a composer began to attract almost immediate notice, in Europe and back in the States. New England offered him a professorship, and he eventually became its Director for more than 30 years.

His tenure at the Conservatory, the long list of composers he taught (including Converse, Farwell, Parker, and Still), and his serious symphonic pieces cause some to think of him as a humorless academic. That would be a mistake. He loved teaching, and he was passionate about the state of American music. Some effective lighter compositions such as his Symphonic Sketches are witty and good-natured. All of his music is luscious.

Herbert and Chadwick—born nearly at the same time—are represented here by works completed nearly at the same time. We think of Herbert treading the Great White Way and Chadwick strolling the corridors of academe, but there is so much more to each of them. In any case, because of them, music in America was forever changed.

Two Laudate Psalms

It delighted me when Lyric Fest approached with a commission for a concert titled “World Spirituality in Song.” I like this organization. Timothy Bentch had beautifully sung one of my Gerard Manley Hopkins songs, “Spring and Fall,” on a Lyric Fest concert, and I’ve enjoyed other programs I’ve been able to get to. They generate a joyous energy in their concerts, and have expanded beyond art song to vocal ensembles and collaborations with the Pennsylvania Girlchoir.

Various factors led to the timetable being tight when they approached me, so the concert was closer upon us than we might otherwise have chosen. So I suggested a piece for two psalms, one of which would be an adaptation of the already-composed Psalm 113 from Vespers. I also liked the fact that it was already in Latin, that most universal of languages, for a “World Spirituality” concert. They agreed.

I don’t think I saved myself any time, though. Psalm 113 is originally for SATB (with some divisi), two sackbuts, and harp. My job now was to transcribe it for mezzo-soprano solo, 2-part girls’ choir, and piano, an enticing combination to me, especially with Suzanne DuPlantis and these wonderful musicians. But it was quite an undertaking.

The sackbuts, doubling the men in that gorgeous carpet of sound: all gone. That piquant touch of the harp: gone. In their place: three treble lines and piano. Everything had to be re-imagined; all of the voice-leading, re-worked. The entire sound had to be thrown out the window and rebuilt from top to bottom. Since the texture of the male chant choir, emerging out of silence, no longer existed, I thought it would be better if the soloist’s entrance proceeded out of something, so I composed a few introductory notes for the piano. While all in all it was a lot of work, it was exhilarating meeting the challenges in the construction of this new piece.

For its companion I chose Psalm 150. It is, after the 23rd, the most well-known psalm. It needed to be as fast and relentless as 113 was relaxed and thoughtful. The repeated Alleluia was sandwiched around the call-and-response verses that naturally lent themselves, I thought, to the solo/choir tapestry. That Alleluia came to me first, although I changed it a good deal from its original conception. I had written an accompaniment to it, but I wanted its first appearance to be a capella:Ps150.1

At the finish, I tried differently elaborate iterations of the Alleluia, in the voices and piano, but the voices refused to be fussed with any further. Good for them; they were right. The piano part was right in front of my nose, being the left hand of bar two above:

Ps150.2

I felt that it was now pared down to its essence, and so anything else added would be unnecessary. Thanks to Suzanne for suggesting the title. I’m not very good at coming up with titles, and was using the quite literally true yet quite boring Two Psalms. The premiere performances:

Friday, October 30, 2009 at 7:30pm at The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill
Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 3pm at The First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia

[Update. There’s an interview with me about the piece on the Philadelphia Camerata site here.]

[Update. Here are excerpts from the premiere performances:]
Reviews
Psalm 113. View excerpt
Psalm 150. View excerpt

I like what A. J. Keller of Beloit College wrote when he conducted this with his Chamber Singers Masterworks Chorus on May 2nd, 2016:

He sets [Psalm 113] in a sort of 21st-century version of Gregorian chant, in the Lydian mode, loosely familiar to contemporary ears but always containing a sense of harmonic buoyancy. The second piece is a setting of the familiar Psalm 150, a jubilant affirmation of faith and adoration. Smith uses the inflections of the text to counteract the metrical regularity of the accompaniment, essentially creating polymeter; the singers and the piano have only a tenuous connection to each other. The resulting music has a childish, innocent joyfulness and fragility; it constantly feels like the piece is on the verge of completely falling apart.

Suspension, balance, Mozart

Picking up my car [see photo below—no, not that one, all the way at the bottom] at the shop—inspection, brakes, wheels balanced, suspension and things—and the guy says, “You take the train here from work, don’t you, from in town? That work out for you?”

“Yeah, but I caught it at Temple today.”

“Oh, what do you do at Temple?”

Note the nuance: not, “What do you take at Temple?” or, “What do you study at Temple?” or even, “Do you teach there?” but “What do you do at Temple?”: Remarkably diplomatic, as I am well past the time when I could be confused with a student, yet for some reason I do not look like a professor—a younger or older professor—to this guy at the shop, who’s 28, 30. This will haunt me. Why it should haunt me also haunts me.

“I work at the radio station there sometimes.”

He smiles. “Yeah, you got that ‘I work at a radio station’ look about you.” (Laughs.)

I have no idea what that means. Make that three haunts. “Yeah.” (Laugh.)

Kile4.2009
The “I work at a radio station” look. I guess.

“So what do you do there?”

“A radio show, a couple actually, we play music.”

“Really?”

I would make this up? “Yeah.”

“No kidding?”

“Mm-hm.”

“I was thinking like a talk show or something.”

“Or something,” ha!, I wonder what something… WAIT, this is what I look like, like I do a talk show? I look like Johnny Carson? Nope, music.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“’Cause I was thinking? That Howard Stern, you know? He’s funny. Crazy, you know?”

“He sure is popular.” I make myself sound studiedly noncommittal… WAIT, I look like Howard Stern? And WAIT, that’s his conception of what a talk show host looks like? And WAIT, I THOUGHT JOHNNY CARSON? What am I, 97? Haunt #4.

“So, what kind of music?”

Here we go. “Oh, classical.”

“Classical? You’re kidding!”

I’m such a kidder. “Yeah, we do jazz and classical at the station, and I’m on the classical side.”

“All right!” What? “I like classical.” What?

“Really?” He would make this up?

“Oh yeah. Wait, you mean like Mozart, right?”

Get that. For talk show he thinks Howard Stern, yet he’s concerned that his Mozart is not my classical. Well, now that he mentions it, okay, there’s Baroque, Romantic, Post-Minimalist, Seconda prattica, Second Viennese, No Wave, um…

“Yeah. Like Mozart.”

“Yeah he’s cool. I got him on at home all the time.”

“He’s cool”? I’m so out of it I think Johnny Carson, and even I don’t say anybody’s “cool.” Wait. Yes. He is cool. Mozart. And this guy. This guy at the shop, what is he, 28, 30? I think I just got an education. What do I do at Temple? Well, whatever it is, I need to keep doing it. For the Howard Stern fans. Oh, and the car’s running great. [For obvious budgetary and insurance reasons my employers won’t allow me to show my actual car, but it’s similar to the one pictured below. It was made in the same decade.]

sportscar


French Horn music

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

Chant d’Automne / French Horn Music
Music of Saint-Saëns, Radoux, Pessard, Jeanjean, Kunc, Guillemyn, Strong, Chabrier
Ulrich Hübner, natural and valve horns, Kölner Akademie, conducted by Michael Alexander Willens
Ars Produktion 38027

Chantd'Automne

It’s unknown repertoire on instruments that dropped out of sight a century ago. Then why is this CD so magical? Three reasons. First, the music is loveliness itself. The pieces will be new to most listeners, as the literature for solo horn with orchestra doesn’t receive a lot of play. I’ve always wondered why, since the sound of the French horn can be equally noble, pleading, heroic, self-effacing, warm, and brilliant. Every Hollywood score calls for the French horn at the big moment, but it’s so much more than that. It has everything we want in a solo.

Second, the soloist is stunning. On two different types of instruments, the pre-modern valved horn (as if the modern horn isn’t hard enough to play) and the older “natural” horn (with no valves, no kidding), Ulrich Hübner weaves a rainbow of colors. There’s particular enchantment here: the older instruments, with touchy personalities builders have tried to hammer out, had moxie to spare. Everyone desires elegant phrasing, but there was a time when elegance did not mean monochromatic. Character was king, and if one note in a phrase had a completely different color from its neighbors, well, vive la différence.

Third, this period-instrument orchestra is lithe and supple, with a rich, plummy sound, proving that Romantic doesn’t mean over-stuffed. Willens is an athletic leader, and the music-making exhilarates.

That’s magic enough. Add that all the pieces are jewels, and this is a CD that charms from beginning to end.