Monthly Archives: August 2010

Vespers in ArkivMusic

This is the truth. I wasn’t looking around for my CD (I mean, I do that sometimes, but not this time), I was looking for an Ethel Smyth recording, really I was, on my web resource of first resort, ArkivMusic, which I’m glad I have bookmarked because I’m always misspelling it as ArkivMusik, shouldn’t it be ArkivMusik, if you’re going to go to all that trouble of having the k and the iv? Well, on the way to Smyth (and I always go through Arkiv’s fun narrowing-by-letter-then-letters string instead of typing in the search box, whether I know the spelling or not, and after all I always want to put an e after Smyth), who is a fine composer, when I got to Sm I thought I’d take a detour to see if a Smith Vespers was in the house. Last time I had checked—a year ago?— it wasn’t.

And then there it was. Hoo-wee, went my heart.

Even though I have the Gramophone quote here, it seems so much more real in ArkivMusik, I mean ArkivMusic. Seeing it there, the album cover, the audio samples, my name spelled right, the buttons that everyone else has, it seems like now it’ll never be lost. It’s been on Amazon and everywhere else since the release, so I’m being silly, but seeing it on my favorite CD resource was a little thrill, I’ll admit.

I found Dame Ethel, too. Love that ArkivMusic.

Violinist Composers

In preparing for the next Fleisher Discoveries program, airing September 4th and featuring Henri Vieuxtemps, I wrote down the off-hand comment that he was right in the middle of the line of violinist composers. Then I thought (it often happens that way: I write, then I think), “I wonder if that’s actually true?” So I did some poking around and found to my amazement that I was correct. He’s not only in the middle of the 19th-century ones, but if you go way back to Corelli (b.1753) and forward to Roldan (b.1900), he’s still in the middle. I found 40 of them, and he’s No. 20. How about that.

Then I thought, “Wouldn’t it be neat to have one of those timeline charts?,” and tried to make one in Excel. Well, you can’t, not really. OK, I can’t. I discovered that they’re called Gantt charts (who knew?) and that Excel doesn’t do Gantt. But it will give you hints on some workarounds, so I worked around and came up with one.

It took an embarrassingly long time to make, and is unuseable for insertion into my normal description of the show, but after all that work, I had to let people see it. So here it is. Click on it for a version you can actually read. I know there are more names that could be added. But not many, and they wouldn’t upset the thesis of my original hasty remark. Anyway, these are the biggest names I could find, but even so, some are known only to the most learned of cognoscenti (among whom I do not count myself).

Henry Cowell

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, August 14th, 2010, 5:00-6:00 p.m. (The second Saturday this month!)

Henry Cowell (1897-1965). Concerto Piccolo (1942). Stefan Litwin, piano, Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra, Michael Stern. Col Legno WWE 20064. Tr 16-18. 13:07

Cowell. Irish Suite (1925-29). 1. The Banshee, 2. The Leprechaun, 3. The Fairy Bells. Cheryl Seltzer, string piano, Continuum, Joel Sachs. Naxos 559192. Tr 19-21. 16:39

Cowell. Ongaku for Orchestra (1957). The Louisville Orchestra, Robert S. Whitney. First Edition FECD-0003. Tr 2-3. 14:06

The name of Henry Cowell may be unfamiliar to many classical music listeners, but Cowell is one of the biggest influences on modern American music, inspiring composers as disparate as John Cage, George Gershwin, Burt Bacharach, and generations down to this day. His own music isn’t heard that often, but on this month’s Discoveries we’ll listen to three fascinating pieces out of his gargantuan and stylistically surprising catalog. We’ll also talk to musicologist Gary Galván, who will share some of the facets of Cowell’s life and music that made him the important figure that he is.

Henry Cowell was the author of an indispensable textbook for modern composers, New Musical Resources. He was the biographer of Charles Ives, the publisher of a new music journal, a formidable pianist, the inventor of playing techniques, the designer of instruments, and the composer of almost 1,000 works.

He never went to school as a child. His mother, a former schoolteacher, saw to his education, and among the musical talents appearing at an early age was virtuosity on the piano. As a teenager he experimented with different ways to play the instrument, and Cowell became the first composer to write pieces based on a fist-and-forearm tone-cluster technique. When he concertized in Europe, exhibiting this radical music before astonished audiences, Béla Bartók asked him if he could use these methods in his own music.

The Concerto Piccolo (small concerto) for piano is a later work but incorporates these youthful forays into sound. While they certainly grab our attention, they are not as jarring as we might anticipate. Rather, Cowell builds up textures that are both lyrical and powerful, and accompanies the piano with an often simple orchestral voice.

Cowell’s other non-traditional use of the piano was to play inside of it. In his Irish Suite the pianist strums and hits the strings, sometimes silently depressing the keys to accentuate certain notes. Cowell called this a “string piano,” but it’s the same instrument. He composed this for solo piano and then arranged it for piano with orchestra, which is the version we’ll hear.

Keenly interested in music from around the world, Cowell toured Asia in the late ‘50s with his wife Sidney, an expert in the burgeoning field of ethnomusicology. Out of this came Ongaku for Orchestra, based on the sounds of Japanese court music. Because of many works like this, and because he loved to use indigenous instruments from non-Western cultures, we might say that Cowell invented what is now called world music.

Even the folk movement can thank Henry Cowell. He introduced the two composers Charles Seeger and Ruth Crawford to each other; they married, and produced that American music icon, Pete Seeger.

The music on this program is just a brief look at the dynamo of influence Cowell was. Perhaps the always-observant John Cage said it best. Cage knew a thing or two about turning the musical world on its ear, but he called Henry Cowell the “open sesame for new music in America.”

The Wanamaker Organ

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

A Grand Celebration
The Philadelphia Orchestra live with the Wanamaker Organ
The Historic Grand Court Concert for Macy’s 150th Anniversary
Peter Richard Conte, organist, Rossen Milanov, conductor
Marcel Dupré Cortege and Litany, Joseph Jongen Sinfonia Concertante, Edward Elgar Pomp and Circumstance No. 1
Gothic G-49270

You’re careful—Indiana-Jones-careful—not to touch anything. You tip-toe over wires and ducts and around wooden stairways and you see them everywhere. The pipes. Pipes thick as elms that rise two storeys, pipes small as pencils, tin pipes, wood pipes, round and square pipes, growing, it seems, out of the fractals of corners, advancing on you… but the astonishing realization is that there are people here who know exactly where every pipe is.

This is the Wanamaker Organ. It has patio-sized bellows that could crush a lawn tractor. It is the largest functional musical instrument on the planet. The entire Grand Court of the store (now Macy’s), surrounded by condominiums of ranks and choirs and chests and louvers, is really the instrument, and it is for this instrument, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, that Joseph Jongen wrote his Sinfonia Concertante. The deaths of the composer’s father and the store owner postponed, and then cancelled, the scheduled 1928 premiere. The music has been heard around the world, but not until 2008 did it finally erupt in this place, as if it had been waiting all this time. The CD of this live performance is worth the wait.

Facing all this power, you might expect to be pummelled, but the surprise is how lightly Peter Richard Conte makes this dance. He and Rossen Milanov coordinate these two behemoths—this great orchestra and organ—with precision. They delight in the illumined edges of sound, where harmonies brush by each other and decays ruffle the silence. You can almost feel the space. Just don’t touch anything.