Monthly Archives: September 2010

Thrice blest with Ensemble Epomeo

Ensemble Epomeo has performed Thrice blest a few times since last Spring, and is bringing it to Philadelphia this Friday, October 1st. They’re playing at the First Friday Concert Series at Christ Church in Old City, on 2nd Street just above Market. The free concert starts at 8 pm.

Read about the work here.

Ensemble Epomeo is violinist Caroline Chin, violist David Yang, and cellist Kenneth Woods. Click on the names to read about the vast experience each brings to the group. Ken is also an excellent blogger. Here’s a recent post of his about playing on a borrowed cello. I love reading inside-baseball stuff from musicians. Things I’d never consider play such a big part in the lives of those who make the music for us.

Caroline, David, and Ken play with many different people and ensembles, and they each run groups of their own. They are busy as can be, so I’m delighted that they’ve taken on this little work. I’m writing a companion to it, but it’ll have to wait until after Friday.

In David’s kitchen a week ago I heard part of a recording of Thrice blest from a recent performance, and David was telling me how much the piece has come together and how much they’re enjoying it. I think I nodded but I really wasn’t listening; the lentils and sausage he was cooking grabbed all my attention. Sure enough, “cooking” is in his bio, but you can take my word for it: he’s the real deal.

The program:

Hans Gál, Serenade
Kile Smith, Thrice blest
Richard Strauss, Variations on “’s Deandl is harb auf mi”
Ludwig van Beethoven, Trio in D Major, Op. 9, No. 2

Diabelli podcast

Charles-Valentin Alkan—a great publicity shot or what

In addition to the Bernard Rands interview, Network for New Music has also released a podcast about their Diabelli Project, 25 variations on that theme made famous by Beethoven. The variations, ranging from 48″ to 2’44”, were written by Philadelphia composers to celebrate Network’s 25th Anniversary.

Listen to Peter Burwasser interviewing Jan Krzywicki and Linda Reichert here. Linda relates that they asked for variations of no longer than a minute and a half, knowing that they’d get a bunch of plus-two-minute pieces. Oops, mine is 2’07”.

Part of my Diabelli Variation, for solo piano, is featured on the podcast. Jan says that it reminds him of late-Romantic Alkan, and hey, I’ll take it. Except that late Romantic always sounds that you intended to be romantic but you were, you know, late. (The City Paper review is here and the Philadelphia Inquirer’s, here.)

I don’t think I’ve ever heard any Alkan, but I have now looked at his music. It is very, very… very hard. My variation is just… well, I asked Charles Abramovic if there was anything goofy or unidiomatic in the writing (something I always ask performers, and I believe I always do use the word “goofy”). “No,” he said, “it’s just hard.” Then he said, ”Write some more.”

Here’s the premiere:

and here’s the 4-page score:

Diabelli Variation

Ooh, child

[A revised version of this, without musical examples, published in Broad Street Review 20 Mar 2012 as “Between Bach and ‘O-o-h Child'”]

One of the best pop songs ever produced, “O-o-h Child,” from 1970, is #392 in Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” It crackles from Stan Vincent’s economical and unusual writing, its eight lines broken into two stanzas that see-saw back and forth. Their first lines:

Ooh child things are gonna get easier…
Someday we’ll put it together and we’ll get it undone…

Back and forth they pivot, the first stanza in F, the second in A-flat, odd for any song, pop or not. Another oddity is the tune’s beginning. It’s on the subdominant, not the tonic. “Ooh” is sung on a D, the third of the B-flat chord, “child” is on F; that’s sweet.

Sweeter still are the shifts between stanzas. Sounding for all the world like a night-club goose-it-up-a-half-step melodrama, the stanza-ending C (F’s dominant) indeed ascends, but the twist is that this D-flat is another subdominant, of A-flat, and so there you are: “Some” is a D-flat chord (sung on its third, which happens to be the tonic F, further camouflaging the shift), and “day” gets you to A-flat. Very sweet, indeed.

At the end of stanza 2, A-flat’s dominant, E-flat, makes a smooth Amen cadence under the sung B-flat, to the B-flat chord—the original subdominant—of “Ooh.”

All of that is delicious, and a brilliant pop vehicle for The Five Stairsteps. Add strings, pump with brass, and the arrangement sparkles. It’d be a top hit right there, but one element lifts it into the jet stream. I felt it when I first heard it in eighth grade, and it came rushing back to me when I heard the song a few weeks ago (on HD radio—I recommend it).

It’s the drummer.

At 13 I liked the energy, but now I can appreciate what a monumental force he is. The first thing that came to me when I heard this song again was, “Who is this guy?” It took a while, because I don’t know of any encyclopedia of session players, but I found him: Bernard Purdie.

Well, I just found him, but everybody, it seems, knows Bernard Purdie. See how many different folks he’s played for. He’s the laid-back funk shuffle in Steely Dan’s “Home at Last,” and the slap in Aretha’s “Rock Steady.” Miles, Hall & Oates, Percy Sledge… I confess a new-found respect for Van McCoy’s disco doodle “The Hustle.” (I know, I know… but when I heard it recently, I was about to change the station, and then a burst of machine-gun fire got me thinking, “Wait, that’s Purdie!” And sure enough, it is.)

He kicks the door in on “O-o-h Child” and takes over the room. I’m imagining him at the recording session, slamming into fifth gear, swerving into the left lane, and stomping on the gas, with the rest of the band g-forced into their car seats, stealing glances at each other. Hear it for yourself. Look at this Soul Train video (1970 was also Soul Train’s first year). The group is lip-synching of course, and the onstage drummer is just approximating, but the music you hear is the actual release.

Compare that to another TV performance here, on Barbara McNair’s variety show. The drummer’s big and busy, and the choreography sure is frenetic, but there’s no electricity. Purdie’s not there, and neither is the energy.

Bernard Purdie picks up “O-o-h Child” by the scruff of the neck and makes it the song it was meant to be. His tempo: polished granite. In this podcast interview with WFMU’s Michael Shelley, he refers (about a half-hour in) to the struggle to get his tempo across to everyone, and that had to have influenced his playing. His tommy-gun fills are a constant reminder of where the tempo is. Even the cymbal ride under the opening vocal (you can barely hear the 16ths between those rim knocks: tsit-tsit-tsit-tsit) is a friendly reminder from HQ that this is the tempo. It’s soft, insistent, and exactly in place, a steel needle stitching with silk thread. The long runs between stanzas are rivetingly precise, but the real truth lies in those phrase-bridging double- and triple-flams, little giddy-ups that make me smile every time. They aren’t show-off flourishes; they’re horse whips. Tight and righteous, they propel you through the song. And his hi-hat is a smart-bomb, close and hard: small, targeted explosions that make you flinch.

I thought of all this at a recent Baroque concert at church. Our Priscilla came down from New York to play oboe and recorder, James Finegan was the violinist, Ken Borrmann, the harpsichordist, and Jackie sang. But in this kind of music the Bernard Purdie chair belongs to the cellist: in this concert, our middle daughter, 15-year-old Elena.

Nellie’s been playing for six years, and it’s been a pleasure beyond describing, seeing her grow as a musician (as we’ve witnessed in Priscilla and are seeing in Martina the horn player, our youngest). She plays in different chamber ensembles, in a youth orchestra, Jackie keeps her busy playing in all sorts of situations in church, and she’s taking the occasional job here and there.

Nellie has exactly the right engine for a cellist, driving without pushing, tempo spot-on. She takes over when necessary, which takes nerve, and lurks in the foliage when called for, which takes humility. It all takes talent, of course, and all musicians need these qualities, but these particular ones often fall to the cellist as priorities, and in quick succession.

There are times when the cellist has to kick in that door and follow George C. Scott’s advice from the opening Patton monologue: “Wade into them! Spill their blood!” But when all is going well, as with this ensemble at this concert of Telemann, Schütz, Johann Nikolaus Hanff, and J.S. Bach, there are no such dramas. Everyone takes care of business; you can follow the eyes and see magic happen.

Jackie programmed the concert to end with “Mein gläubiges Herze” from Bach’s Cantata 68. Here, the cellist is hardly a continuo player anymore but soloist, wildly disproportionate for a soprano aria. It’s the element Bach uses to launch what would be a perfectly fine and beautiful tune into his jet stream. (Frankly, it’s the kind of nutty thing Bach does all the time and that redefines him out of the Baroque.) Here it is, with Concertus Musicus Wien, at perhaps one tick slower than where Jackie, Nellie, et al. performed it.

My faithful heart, rejoice, sing, be merry, your Jesus is here! Away with sorrow, away with lamentation! I shall just say to you: my Jesus is near!

Jackie insisted that Nellie move to the front for this finale. She took her place, looked at Ken, and launched herself, the ensemble, and the piece, proceeding to show us what rejoicing really sounds like. We heard why Bach is great, we heard what a cello can do, and we heard why Nellie should be playing it. Ooh, child.

Bernard Rands

It was a delightful time spending an early evening with Bernard Rands last fall, when he was in town for a concert and recording with Network for New Music. After one of the recording sessions, I interviewed him for Network, and they’ve just released it as a podcast here. I won’t recount any of it, but take a listen to his fascinating discussion of the works on the also-just-released Network CD, Now Again.

In the 24-minute interview, Rands talks about each of the works on the recording: Prelude/…sans voix parmi les voix…, Scherzi, Walcott Songs, and “now again”—fragments from Sappho. He also gives some thoughts on teaching, on his composing voice, and on hard work.

Looks like I just recounted some of it.

Keep a lookout on the sidebar under Now is the Time, as this will show up on a broadcast before too long.

Henri Vieuxtemps, Louis Spohr

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, September 4th, 2010, 5:00-6:00 p.m. (Our ninth year!)

Louis Spohr (1784-1859). Overture to Jessonda (1822). Budapest Symphony Orchestra, Alfred Walter. Marco Polo 223122. Tr 6. 7:35

Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881). Fantasia appassionata, Op. 35 (1846-52). Misha Keylin, violin, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Mogrelia. Naxos 570974. Tr 1. 17:58

Vieuxtemps. Ballade et Polonaise, Op. 38 (1860). Misha Keylin, violin, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Mogrelia. Naxos 570974. Tr 2. 15:16

Interview with violinist Misha Keylin

Henri Vieuxtemps stands in the center of that line of Classical and Romantic violinist composers. In fact, a chronological list of the 40 biggest violinist composers, from the beginning (Arcangelo Corelli, b.1653) to well into the 20th century (Amadeo Roldán, b.1900) also places Vieuxtemps right in the middle, at number 20. For a chart—yes, we made a chart!—look here.

The list is an instructive picture of the legacy of Vieuxtemps, since he serves as a nice fulcrum between two eternally opposed forces in classical music. He balances entertaining the audience with satisfying the academy, surface virtuosity with musical depth.

It’s not easily done. Nicolò Paganini wowed the much younger Vieuxtemps—and everyone else—with almost magical pyrotechnics, but most agree that beneath the sizzle of his music there’s not much steak. Joseph Joachim, on the other hand, wrote solid works not known for brilliance. Vieuxtemps seems perfectly balanced between the two.

Henri Vieuxtemps, 14

What explains it? A clue may come from two Ludwigs, Spohr and Beethoven. At 13, Vieuxtemps met Spohr (then, as now, usually known by the French form of his name, Louis). Not only a virtuoso violinist, Spohr was a gifted composer who wrote in every genre. He saw depth as well as talent in the young prodigy and aided his career. Vieuxtemps was in Vienna with Spohr and other colleagues of Beethoven, who had died there seven years earlier. Someone showed the young man the titanic Beethoven concerto, and after only two weeks of practice the now-14-year-old Vieuxtemps fired a cannon shot over Vienna by performing it. His future was assured, and so too, incidentally, was the future of the Beethoven concerto. It had been almost forgotten since its ragged 1806 premiere, but Vieuxtemps put it back into the consciousness of the musical world. Its place would be cemented into the repertoire ten years later by the even younger (12-year-old!) Joachim.

The love of Vieuxtemps for Beethoven’s music continued, and he often played and taught the old master’s chamber music. Perhaps Beethoven’s influence explains the integration of orchestra and soloist that is a hallmark of the Vieuxtemps style.

We’re fortunate that Misha Keylin has made a special project of recording so much of this literature. Violinists may know the Fifth concerto; Keylin has recorded all seven. In addition to his gorgeous playing, we get to hear two quite different instruments on this program. Keylin performs the Fantasia appassionata on his own 1831 Gagliano, rich and burnished. But for the Ballade et Polonaise he turns to the 1715 “Baron Knoop” Stradivarius, loaned especially for this recording. The instrument is a wonder, all silver fire. Though the violins inhabit distinct sound-worlds, Keylin’s poetic soul glows throughout.

In the studio he’ll share with us why he’s attracted to Vieuxtemps, who sums up so much of what defines the violinist composer. In the process, we may find ourselves likewise drawn to Vieuxtemps, this man in the middle of all that brilliance.