Monthly Archives: February 2010

Hotbed of Intrigue, redux

Another Top Ten list does Vespers make, and the most catholic of them all (small c); in there with David Lang and Lady Gaga. Dave Allen, in his blog. Don’t say he didn’t warn you about the other C. And, oh my, the R:

A Philly-centric recording and the most capital-C classical of my selections, and it’s capital-R religious to boot, but the way Smith repurposes the earthy sounds of Renaissance instruments for modern music is a marvel. Same goes for the impeccable blend of the singers.

The Soloist in Thousand Oaks

Catching up to Thousand Oaks, California, where their library chose The Soloist for last year’s One City, One Book celebration. Here’s a page where they list the descriptions I wrote up for the 46 musical works Steve Lopez mentions in the book, when the Free Library of Philadelphia chose The Soloist for its 2009 One Book, One Philadelphia award.

California asked, and Philadelphia was happy to say yes, feel free to use these if you like. Here’s my post on it from last year. I also link to YouTube examples for the works; there’s everything from Bach to Stevie Wonder here.

Valentine’s Day, Der Rosenkavalier

WRTI asked us once again to come up with Valentine’s Day recordings—something for romance—and this offering occurred to me. And once again I chose something another announcer did. Last year I doubled up on Bob Perkins with my Johnny Hartman choice, and this time around Gregg Whiteside and I both settled on this Strauss. We don’t consult on this, but synching up with these fine gentlemen makes me think I’m onto something.

Richard Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier

Te Kanawa, Howells, Haugland, Bonney, Solti, Schlesinger (The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden) (1986) DVD released 2004

It’s love hidden, proclaimed, delayed, found—and love not to be. A kaleidoscope of romance, Der Rosenkavalier of Richard Strauss includes unparalleled orchestral fireworks from the opening explosion to the final joke, and a moment of vocal writing so blindingly luminous that, out of the entire operatic repertoire, it is called, simply, The Trio. Many great recordings; I’m partial to this DVD.

You can read all my CD reviews here.

Vespers in Choral Journal

A very thoughtful essay by Thomas Lloyd appears in the February 2010 Choral Journal. It casts an eye on David Lang’s Pulitzer-winning the little match girl passion, Phil Kline’s John the Revelator, and my Vespers. Here’s a bit of it:

These three premiere recordings of recent sacred choral works by American composers shine a light on a distinctive area of new vocal music well worth our attention. While each work has its own identity, they share several significant traits. All three are longer works for small vocal ensemble or chamber choir with unorthodox instrumental accompaniment. Each uses a traditional liturgical form as its starting point, around which other texts of varied origins are inserted. Together, these elements create the context for performances that fall somewhere in between a concert experience and a worship service.… This sacralized musical experience was not unknown to nineteenth-century audiences, but it has been renewed in the more recent European spiritualism of Pärt, Tavener, MacMillan…

The liturgical form providing the basis for Kile Smith’s Vespers is the Lutheran service of evening prayer. The sound palette is again quite unique: chamber choir (The Crossing, directed by Donald Nally) with another unconventional accompaniment: a Renaissance wind band (Piffaro), complete with full consorts of recorders, shawms, dulcians, sackbuts, and continuo (lute, theorbo, guitar, and harp)—27 different instruments played expertly by seven musicians… As with the other works discussed here, the composer has reshaped a traditional liturgical form to serve the musical design… Smith points to the earliest Lutheran composers such as Praetorius and Schütz as inspirations, writing at a time when wind consorts were in their prime. Plainchant, chorale variations, and complex imitative counterpoint abound.

On the other side of Bach, the music also recalls the probing and angular music of Hugo Distler, but with a lighter heart and a natural exuberance. Stravinsky’s neo-baroque fanfares come to mind in several of the instrumental flourishes… The closing of the final movement (“Deo Gratias”) is almost giddy in its exuberance.

Smith also writes music that draws fully on the remarkable talents of his performers… Not only are the demands of sonority, range, ensemble, and intonation more extensive, but performers are asked to contribute a more varied palette of inflection, shaping, shading, and rubato. Smith writes idiomatically and inventively for Piffaro… The composer is said to be considering an arrangement for modern instruments as well…

Along with Smith, Kline, and Lang, those composers are writing new music that is quite accessible on the first hearing but also rewards repeated listening (and, especially in the case of the Smith Vespers, repeated singing). This is richly gratifying music to know.… we need to create the musical space—a sacred space—for this evocative repertoire…

Read all of it here.

Edward Elgar, Dorothy Howell, Edward MacDowell

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 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, February 6th, 2010, 5:00-6:00 p.m.

Edward Elgar (1857-1934). Froissart Overture (1890). London Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin. RCA 60073, Tr 1. 13:45

Dorothy Howell (1898-1982). Lamia (1918). Karelia Philharmonic Orchestra, Marius Stravinsky. Cameo 9037, Tr 1. 15:00

Edward MacDowell (1860-1908). Lamia (1888). London Symphony Orchestra, Kenneth Klein. EMI 49263, Tr 3. 13:12

Poets figure greatly in the world of classical music, of course, and John Keats touches all the music on this week’s Discoveries. Edward Elgar wrote on the score to his Froissart Overture this line: “When Chivalry lifted up her lance on high,” which is from the Keats poem “To * * * *,” which is about a secret admiration for a lady, which has nothing to do with Froissart, who was a medieval French historian, who traveled all over England, who wrote about its glorious history, thereby causing patriotic Englishmen such as Walter Scott, who mentions him in Old Mortality, and our previously mentioned Elgar, to hold him (Froissart) in the highest regard as a metonymy for all that is great about England.


That’s clear, yes?

Howell bases the music on the Keats version of the Greek myth, where a young woman, cursed, is changed into a snake. Her pleas to Hermes are answered, she is changed back into a woman and falls in love, but at the wedding celebration is recognized and denounced, whereupon she vanishes and her groom dies. The story is ripe for the romantic symphonic treatment, and it’s interesting to juxtapose hers and the one by the American Edward MacDowell, who composed his Lamia 30 years earlier.

He was only 28 at the time he wrote it, but it wasn’t published until long after, and never was performed during his lifetime, the premiere taking place months after his death in 1908. A debilitating illness and a traffic accident (he was run over by a horse-drawn carriage) sadly ended his composing and teaching. But his widespread influence in American music can be inferred from some of the names of the people who supported him in his remaining years: Victor Herbert, George Chadwick, J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and Grover Cleveland.

Sir Edward’s fame is set, MacDowell’s has waned and waxed, and Howell—buried in the same graveyard as Elgar—is hardly known, but it is our hope at Discoveries that they will not, like Lamia, vanish completely. May their poetry live on.