Monthly Archives: April 2011

Looking for the ‘Harp’ Quartet

I didn’t see it, and only read about it later from pundits, but I empathized with Sarah Palin when she apparently booted a question from Katie Couric a couple of years ago. She was asked to name a book she was reading, I believe, and hemmed and hawed in place of an answer. Well, that would happen most days if someone were to ask me. I’m always reading a book, and usually more than one at a time. I read on the train to and from work when I’m not in the last stages of a piece, editing last night’s printouts. So it’s usual for me to stop and start one book, get going on another, and be partially through two at a time; consequently, answering any question like the above will probably start with, “Um…”.

Plus, I’m awful at remembering titles.

But yesterday’s New York Times reminded me of a book I’m reading now. Pam Belluck’s article, “To Tug Hearts, Music First Must Tickle the Neurons” is an attempt scientifically to explain expressivity in music. By measuring speed and loudness and other factors, scientists hope to find out why we think some performances are more beautiful than others. Fascinating stuff.

But while the Times article is a lovely gloss on the subject, if it interests you, I can’t recommend highly enough Markand Thakar’s book Looking for the ‘Harp’ Quartet: An Investigation into Musical Beauty.

I am overwhelmed by the breadth and geniality of his knowledge. It is painstaking and delightful at the same time. Daedalus (a gruff music professor) leads occasional-know-it-all Icarus on a journey to discover where beauty lives in music, using Beethoven’s string quartet. It’s one of the books I’ve wanted to write. If I was smart, that is.

While reading it, I keep saying things to myself, and then Icarus says exactly the same thing. Daedalus then demolishes it, and points in another direction. But every once in a while Daedalus agrees with what I just said to myself, and… O frabjous day! What a jaunt this is. It is rare for schooling to be this blissful.

So, that’s what I’m reading now. Well, was. I’ll get back to it soon, but right now I’m fussing over the ending of The Waking Sun.

Priscilla has a new website

Priscilla Smith, our oldest daughter, has already been a busy musician. She plays oboe, Baroque oboe, Classical oboe, oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia, English horn, let’s see, recorders, shawms, dulcians, and… just about every other historical wind instrument. I saw her play bagpipe once or three times. Well, she’s busier than ever, and just about to receive her Master’s in Baroque oboe performance from Juilliard.

Here’s her new website.

She was in the first class of the new Historical Performance program at Juilliard, studying with Gonzalo Ruiz (here’s the link to his page on Magnatune, of which I know little, except that they have the world’s best business motto: “We Are Not Evil”).

Priscilla’s Master’s recital of mostly French Baroque music was a revelation to me. It not only made Mom and Dad proud, but it opened a lot of eyes (and was well attended, I thought, for a Master’s recital). It also saw the debut of a hot new band. She and her colleagues—cellist Ezra Seltzer and harpsichordist and organist Jeffrey Grossman—created an amazing energy, and maybe it’s the start of something.

We were just up in NYC again a week ago, as Juilliard415, the new Baroque orchestra created from the program, accompanied soprano Dorothea Röschmann and countertenor David Daniels in an all-Handel concert at Carnegie Hall. Priscilla was principal oboe for this concert, and had to navigate numerous solos, one more difficult than the next. After one piece, which involved her weaving intricate lines with Daniels, he turned during the applause to acknowledge her, clapping and bowing. That’s the kind of thing that one might take for granted, but not everyone does it, so it struck a deep chord in me.

I imagine she’ll become even busier, but I can’t imagine being any prouder than I already am.

Now is the Time, Sunday 10 Apr 2011

My contemporary American music program Now is the Time airs every Sunday night at 10 o’clock on WRTI-HD2. Listen on HD radio or online here. The complete schedule and more information are here.

Coming up this Sunday night:

10 Apr 2011

Cornelius Dufallo. transcendence

Robert Maggio. Aristotle

Michael Gandolfi. The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, Part 2

Cornelius Dufallo. waiting for you

Cornelius Dufallo. lighthouse

Cornelius Dufallo. naiad

It Is Time

Navona just released on Monday the new CD by The Crossing, It Is Time. It’s available at NaxosDirect, ClassicsOnline, Amazon, and many other places, including The Crossing’s own site.

Where Flames a Word appears here, the work this wonderful new-music choir commissioned from me two years ago, setting three works of Paul Celan.

I share the disc with extraordinary pieces by Paul Fowler, David Shapiro, Kirsten Broberg, Frank Havrøy, and Erhard Karkoschka, all using words of Celan and Philip Levine, and all pushing The Crossing’s artistry to places I wouldn’t have thought of.

It was a joy to sit in and be an extra pair of ears at the recording sessions last summer, and I realize now even more how virtuosic these singers are. The technical prowess is unmistakable, but their love for the music was just as powerful, even through the long hours of taping. I remembered this from Vespers, but it was particularly noticeable on this all-unaccompanied CD, their first solo release.

As always, Donald Nally’s directing is organic and riveting. His love (that word again) for the music, the words, the singers seems all-encompassing. It was ear-opening, during the sessions, to hear what he could hear.

I think a lot of people are going to have their heads knocked off by what The Crossing does. Thrilling it is to be a part of it.

Now is the Time, Sunday 3 Apr 2011

My contemporary American music program Now is the Time airs every Sunday night at 10 o’clock on WRTI-HD2. Listen on HD radio or online here. The complete schedule and more information are here.

Coming up this Sunday night:

3 Apr 2011

Klaus George Roy. Inaugural Fantasia

Paul Epstein. Landscape Variations: Book II

C. Bryan Rulon. Res Facta

Steve Reich. Electric Counterpoint

Relache. Press Play

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

Relache: Press Play

Music of Mark Hagerty, Guy Klucevsek, Cynthia Folio

Meyer Media

Relache has been slipping the thin leading edge of new music into Philadelphia since 1979. They’ve done it with a jolly indifference to the clashing of styles or the rocking of boats. Even their name, which in French means “the show is closed,” exhibits their iconoclasm and humor. Downtown, uptown, no town, doesn’t matter: if it’s new–brand-new–Relache is all over it.

They’ve kept to that raison d’etre through the inevitable changes of personnel over the years. Their concerts include the annual Christmas-time Phil Kline “Unsilent Night” boombox procession around Rittenhouse Square, and they’re turning up at this Spring’s Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts with new music for an old silent film.

Every once in a while they come out with a CD, and Press Play, from 2006, is worth getting to know. It includes the buzzing music of Delaware’s Mark Hagerty, represented here with High Octane. More than just hip, though, it sings with depth, in this case an emotional response to the 9/11 tragedy. Cynthia Folio is a flutist and music theory professor at Temple University; When the Spirit Catches You is a stunningly intense look at her daughter’s epilepsy, made more powerful from its simplicity.

Accordionist Guy Klucevsek is a founding member of Relache, and although he doesn’t play on this recording, his music is the gravitational center of the disc. Wing/Prayer is another look–a personal, riveting look–at 9/11. All of his music dances, however. At once traditional and outrageous (one title, Tangocide, clues us into his irreverence), Klucevsek’s music embodies everything Relache has exemplified for more than three decades.

Relache punches with precision and abandon. Press Play excites, and is a great look at one facet of the vibrant new-music landscape of Philadelphia.

Richard Wagner, Robert Volkmann

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

Richard Wagner (1813-1883). A Faust Overture (1840/44/55). Philadelphia Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch. Angel 56165. Tr 3. 12:43

Robert Volkmann (1815-1883). Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in A minor, Op. 33 (1855). Peter Bruns, cello, Mendelssohn Chamber Orchestra Leipzig, Jürgen Bruns. Hänssler 98.594. Tr 4. 16:36

Richard Wagner. Overture to Rienzi (1840). Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Yakov Kreizberg. Pentatone 041. Tr 2. 12:53

Two composers are born within two years of each other, and they both die in the same year. One is world-famous; the other is almost unknown.

Richard Wagner hasn’t previously appeared on Discoveries, where we usually focus on under-the-radar composers. But there are two slightly less-played works, both from the same year early in his career, that show his voice struggling to be heard. Well, Wagner was always struggling against something, it seems (whether real or imagined), and 1840 found him in Paris, writing librettos as well as music when he wasn’t scraping a living from commercial arranging.

The beginnings of A Faust Overture come from this time. Wagner wanted to write a symphony on the subject of the Goethe play, but that didn’t materialize, so he worked it into a concert overture. He also wanted the Paris Opera to take up Rienzi, but the continual disappointment of hopes raised and dashed, the leitmotiv of pursuing creditors (the threat of debtor’s prison had prompted his flight to France in the first place), and the acceptance of Rienzi in Dresden brought Wagner to Germany and eventual celebrity. Rienzi, interestingly, is really a French opera: in five acts, with finale ensembles, ballet, and the grand spectacle (anticipating Götterdämmerung!) of a building crashing down at the end. Even with revisions cutting it to under six hours, Rienzi is the longest of all Wagner operas. And that’s saying something.

Robert Volkmann is the polar opposite of Wagner, not only in fame, but in temperament. He trained to follow in the footsteps of his father, a church musician, learning organ, piano, violin, and his favorite instrument, cello. He taught voice in Prague and piano for a time, played organ and directed the choir at a Budapest synagogue, and wrote reviews for the music journal in Vienna. He composed all the while, his music inhabiting the sound-world of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. And yet we detect something else. Perhaps from his time in Prague and his years in Hungary, the belt loosens just a little. An avuncular approach to form and the rippling of slavic folk rhythms charm us just when we think we’ve got him figured out.

It was a piano trio that caught people’s attention in the early 1850s. The pianists von Bülow and Liszt played it, as did another giant of the time, the violinist Joachim. Volkmann had just moved to Vienna from Budapest, and now—in the center of the European cultural world—he was starting to make waves. A publisher took on his entire music catalog, important people sought him out, and he was writing the concerto that was to become the most significant work for cello between Schumann and Brahms. With all this going for him, at the height of his fame… he moved back to Budapest.

After three years in Vienna he’d missed his friends in Hungary, missed the life in his adopted country. Liszt offered him a job at the National Academy of Music, he became a professor, and little by little he stopped composing. He said that the desire of some to pigeonhole him as a modern composer in the mold of Liszt or as a traditionalist in a wig was quite beside the point. “One side sees me as a musician of the future, while others see a ponytail on me… I want neither to be a futurist nor a ponytail, simply Volkmann.”

There was one other giant of the time who saw the real composer, who could discern the art from the hype. It was someone who knew a thing or two about hype, certainly, but also about the struggle to find one’s own voice. Yes, Richard Wagner, that creator and destroyer of staged gods, admired the church musician’s son, Robert Volkmann.