Monthly Archives: March 2010

St. Matthew Passion

My brief WRTI Newsletter description for the Good Friday broadcast:

A 20-year-old steps on the stage to conduct a piece by an almost-forgotten organist, and the course of Western music is changed forever. In 1829 the St. Matthew Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach was resurrected by Felix Mendelssohn in Leipzig, the city where it had been written a century earlier. The reputation of the old master shot to the stratosphere, where it continues to orbit over all of music today. This three-hour work has been called—probably more than any other piece—the greatest music ever written. The opening triple chorus staggers us in its powerful expression of grief and faith, and as we journey through the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus, we are moved by the emotions of suffering and comfort. Join in our Good Friday tradition and listen to this “majestic cathedral of music” with us on April 2nd at noon.

Thrice blest

violin, viola, cello
5 minutes

Thrice blest was commissioned by David Yang, Ensemble Epomeo, and the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival and is based on “100th Psalm Tune New,” generally considered to be composed by John Tufts (1689–1750). Besides being a minister in Newbury, Massachusetts, he is important in American music because of Introduction to the Singing of Psalm-Tunes, with a Collection of Tunes in Three Parts, which he published in 1715, and in which he included this tune. The earliest extant edition dates from 1723, and “100th Psalm Tune New,” attributed to “Anon.,” is the first known music written by an American. Its popularity is signified by its many reprintings in other tunebooks until at least 1813 (it was also called “Geneva” by Andrew Law). I quote the original setting, with only a few harmonic changes, at letter E.

The text often connected to the tune, “Thrice Blest the Man,” is from 1752, by John Barnard (1681–1770), also a Massachusetts clergyman. The hymn is a versification of Psalm 1. Because the music follows the text in this composition, I’ve placed each verse in the score where it applies.

Thrice blest will be premiered on May 21st, 2010 by Ensemble Epomeo (Caroline Chin, violin, David Yang, viola, and Kenneth Woods, cello) at the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Thrice blest the man who ne’er thinks fit
To walk as wicked men advise,
To stand in sinner’s way, nor sit
With those who God and man despise.

Whose pious soul directs his way
By sacred writ, his sweet delight,
Through all the labors of the day,
And meditates thereon by night.

As planted trees by rivers’ sides
Yield timely fruit a vast increase,
So in fresh verdure he abides
And God his handiwork will bless.

But those that spurn at sacred laws,
Shall no such favor with him find;
For God will blast them and their cause,
And whirl as chaff before the wind.

However in the Judgment Day
The wicked shall not stand the light;
Mix with the righteous shall not they,
Nor any formal hypocrite.

The Lord, who now with pleasure views,
Will then applaud the just man’s way,
But who his name and word abuse
Shall feel his wrath and melt away.

Until such time as I can post the real thing, here’s a midi version of it, with fake piano sound, which is at least tolerable, unlike fake string sound:

Vespers in American Recorder

From the March 2010 magazine of the American Recorder Society, and a couple of surprises for me, most obviously and stunningly: “post-modern.” Really? Yikes. And a reference to world music, interesting, never thought of that. But after the jump, no surprise at all, well-deserved praise for the playing of Piffaro, the singing of The Crossing, and a shoutout to one of the secret weapons of Vespers, who is no secret, Greg Ingles…

…serendipitous juxtapositions in the collaboration of composer Kile Smith with ensembles Piffaro and The Crossing. Smith, a well-regarded composer steeped in the streams of Lutheran liturgical music, accomplishes a remarkable feat in his vespers setting. He employs a Renaissance wind band and choral group that focuses on newly-composed music in his successful post-modern setting of a Reformation period vespers service.…

…read more here.

Elinor Remick Warren

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

Elinor Remick Warren (1900-1991). Scherzo (1924/38). Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Ronald Corp. Dutton 7235, Tr 2. 2:49

Elinor Remick Warren. Suite for Orchestra (1954). Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Ronald Corp. Dutton 7235, Tr 10-13. 20:33

Elinor Remick Warren. The Legend of King Arthur. Intermezzo and Arthur’s Farewell (1939). Roderick Williams, baritone, BBC Concert Orchestra, Martin Yates. Dutton 7235, Tr 4-5. 10:13

Elinor Remick Warren. Along the Western Shore (1941/54). Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Ronald Corp. Dutton 7235, Tr 6-8. 12:02

She was pianist to the stars and the wife of a Hollywood producer, but Elinor Remick Warren was one of the leading American women composers of the mid-20th century. She is solidly in the American Romantic tradition of Howard Hanson and Samuel Barber, although there’s a streak of French impressionism shining through her music.

In 1900, the same year that saw the birth of Aaron Copland, Kurt Weill, and George Antheil, Warren was born in Los Angeles to musical parents. She was picking out melodies on the piano at age four, and a year later was writing them down. By 10th grade she was a published composer, with “A Song of June” accepted by G. Schirmer. She moved to New York after a year in college, studied composition with the famous organist Clarence Dickinson, and continued to write many songs and choral works. The press began to notice. An excellent pianist, Warren soloed with orchestras and made many contacts as accompanist for Lawrence Tibbett and others. Kirsten Flagstad, Richard Crooks, and Rose Bampton sang and recorded her songs.

She wrote and recorded solo piano works, later orchestrating some of them. Scherzo (originally “Frolic of the Elves”) was performed in the 1930s by a Los Angeles radio orchestra. But a bigger piece was soon to come. Warren remembered Tennyson’s Idylls of the King from a high school English class, and had always wanted to set it to music. For baritone soloist with orchestra, it became The Legend of King Arthur and was premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1940 and broadcast live across the country. In 1941 Sir John Barbirolli conducted the “Intermezzo” from it at the Hollywood Bowl.

Her reputation was growing. By this time she had given up touring as a concert pianist, was married and raising a family, and was composing constantly. A national magazine came to her house and glowingly wrote of her being a wife, homemaker, and composer (and felt moved to mention how pretty she was). Her husband, Z. Wayne Griffin Jr., was a writer and the producer of Burns and Allen on radio, General Electric Theater on television, and many other shows. They bought property in the hills outside Los Angeles and moved there, the vistas further inspiring Warren’s descriptive music. Along the Western Shore and the Suite for Orchestra are fully in this mode. She kept composing, and even took a few months at age 59 to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. They remained friends until Boulanger’s death in 1979.

Warren was widely known and her music was admired as being effortlessly beautiful and emotionally intense. Concerts celebrating the 100th anniversary of her birth included a performance of The Legend of King Arthur with baritone Thomas Hampson. Musicians and music-lovers are still discovering the delights of her music.

Kronos Quartet

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

Kronos Quartet: 25 Years
various composers
Nonesuch

It’s been twelve years since this was released, but as we pull further away from the 20th century, we may consider just what the last few decades in music would have been without the Kronos Quartet. Beyond a whole generation of black-leather-clad chamber musicians owing their hipness to them, Kronos invented the contemporary string quartet almost by itself. Marketing can’t accomplish that, but aggressive commissioning and relentless imagination can. Starting in 1973 with no money, they paid Ken Benshoof a bag of doughnuts for their first piece, and have been off to the races ever since (they’ve since made it up to him). A John Adams string quartet? Sure. Arvo Pärt, Alfred Schnittke, Osvaldo Golijov? You bet. Terry Riley, after his groundbreaking minimalist yawp In C, had practically given up writing music, but Kronos wouldn’t take No for an answer. We now have Terry Riley string quartets.

There are ten CDs in this boxed set, and each one yields delight and surprise. The wide variety of musical expression may surprise: going from Crumb to Piazzolla to Feldman can spin you around. But the fiery wizardry Kronos brings to each piece is no surprise; their playing is an utter delight. Well into the next century, that bag of doughnuts is looking pretty good.