Monthly Archives: September 2011

Aleksander Scriabin

Saturday, October 1st, 2011, 5:00-6:00 p.m.

Aleksandr Scriabin (1872–1915). Piano Concerto, Op. 20 (1896). Roland Pöntingen, Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Leif Segerstam. Bis 475. Tr 1-3. 24:15

Scriabin. The Poem of Ecstasy, Op. 54 (1905–8). Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano. Telarc 32630. Tr 9. 21:05

You needed a ticket to get into the funeral. All the services and all the tributes and all the writings bear witness that when Aleksandr Scriabin died in 1915 at the age of 43, Russia believed its standard-bearer of art had been taken away.

Ten years earlier, Russia could hardly have cared less.

Scriabin was not unknown, far from it. He was an extremely talented pianist, and had taught at the Moscow Conservatory. He was known as a composer, too, although some of his orchestral premieres had been ravaged by the public and the critics. But he performed his own inventive piano music often, and others began to. It seemed to flow out of him effortlessly.

He just couldn’t gain traction, though, and he had himself to blame for much of this. He quarrelled with his friends and with his publishers (often the same people). He fought with those who could help him artistically and financially (Diaghilev, Koussevitzky). He moved constantly, left his family, and alienated those close to him. He drank. He struggled with demons emotional and, some said, mental.

Then he started getting ideas.

After 1900 and especially during the years he lived outside Russia (roughly 1904–1911), he increasingly studied symbolism—the philosophy sweeping a new generation of artists and writers—and theosophy. He made a pilgrimage to the London room where Madame Blavatsky, the spiritualist and founder of theosophy, had died a decade earlier.

Scriabin was no dilettante, but approached philosophy the way a homesteader approaches a new land, keenly observing the terrain and choosing just those elements necessary to construct a dwelling. He read books and talked for hours with other thinkers, and began processing it all the only way he could, by writing music.

The Piano Concerto of 1896 had been influenced by his early idols Chopin and Liszt, and is in a traditional multi-movement form. But in looking for new modes of expressing the inexpressible, as he would call it, he abandoned comfortable forms and harmonies. Works in one movement—Poems, without standard thematic development—began appearing. His music drifted away from the major/minor duality to a system of interpenetrating chromatics, small melodic cells, and specially constructed chords.

To Scriabin, this wasn’t just theory. Music, he thought, was the highest of all the arts and was therefore the greatest bridge to that indivisible Reality in which all souls long to be united. We may already experience openings to that Truth in various ways throughout our life. These open windows, whether physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual, are moments of ecstasy, and so he composed The Poem of Ecstasy over four years. He had no interest in writing an exegesis on some philosophy. The Poem of Ecstasy was to be the bridge itself.

“I am a moment illuminating eternity… I am affirmation… I am ecstasy,” he wrote. Now, Scriabin was the composer Russia was waiting for. Now, Russia started to care.

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

(What a) Wonderful World

[This article republished with permission from the Broad Street Review.]

Grady Tate, the renowned jazz drummer, probably had no idea what to expect from the recording gig when he set up his drums. The song looked like nothing on the page. The title alone would be enough for a sarcastic grunt from a veteran musician. “(What a) Wonderful World.” 1967, Vietnam, right.

But then Louis Armstrong walked in. “I see trees of green, red roses too…”

I’d always thought the song was pretty, but it’s more than that. I can’t help it, but it’s unsettling. It evokes a premonition, the way a russet-gold sunset opening up after a storm is defined by the purple clouds that frame it. It’s beautiful and disquieting at the same time.

We all know Armstrong’s iconic interpretation, but it almost didn’t see the light of day. The president of ABC Records hated the old-fashioned arrangement and wanted to pull the plug on the recording session. He was talked out of it, but the record was never promoted, and it disappeared after its 1968 release.

(That executive obviously discounted Armstrong’s similarly archaic “Hello, Dolly!”—with banjo, of all things—which had knocked the Beatles out of their three-single, 14-week stranglehold on the No. 1 Billboard spot four years earlier.)

Something bothered me

The British loved “(What a) Wonderful World” and made it a month-long No. 1 hit and that year’s top-selling single. In America it poked along in nostalgia radio formats until Barry Levinson placed it in the 1987 movie Good Morning, Vietnam. A surge in popularity forced a re-release, and the song’s standing continued to grow. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. Armstrong had already died 28 years before.

Something continued to bother me, though. It wasn’t the words. They’re sentimental, but they can’t touch Parsifal for sheer cornpone. Nor was it the arrangement. It’s sweet but admirably restrained, actually—as sweet as it ought to be and no more, like Vermont maple syrup.

The rhythm is unobtrusive, behind the simple guitar bubbling under the strings. The drummer’s right hand plays brush on the ride cymbal, matching the guitar triplets—a throwback to the doo-wop piano style of songs like “I Only Have Eyes For You.” His left hand…

Wait a minute. The left hand—that’s the problem. It’s that backbeat (beats two and four in a 4/4 meter). It should be a shoosh or maybe barely a tap in this delicate piece. But it’s an intrusive thwap. And because they used far fewer microphones then, that thwap reverberates ominously. Yes, that’s the problem.

A hand whacking my forehead

Right-hand brush, why not a brush in the left hand? Swiffff, baff, swiffff, baff. That would be normal. Ten thousand wedding reception drummers would play it that way, and why not.

But here, the left hand raps the edge of the snare drum with a stick. It’s a type of rim shot, probably a rim knock, where the tip of the stick is laid on the drumhead, and the butt of the stick is smacked down against the metal rim of the drum. On this song it just doesn’t fit. Instead of a gentle come-along, it’s the heel of somebody’s hand whacked against my forehead.

Grady Tate probably had no idea what to expect. But when Louis Armstrong walked in—67 years old, with worsening health problems increasingly keeping him from the road, all his old sidemen dead—when he walked in and started singing, “I hear babies cryin’, I watch them grow / They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know,” I’ll bet Tate put down one brush, picked up a stick, and decided to become Armstrong’s companion.

On a knife’s edge

Tate plays on the exact top of the beat, never lagging or scooching in for effect, never pushing, but square in the middle. It’s incredibly difficult to play rim knocks this way, while keeping the sound even, and his sound never wavers. In a syncopated feel, it would be easier, because you can swing it, and the ear makes allowances.

Here, though, the decision he makes exposes him utterly, as he walks on a knife’s edge, a string orchestra swirling at his feet. Breath, thwap, breath, thwap, I keep waiting for a falter, but right alongside Armstrong he relentlessly dogs every step: a ticking clock; a cane; even, indeed, Death itself.

Louis Armstrong draws us in with a voice that makes the sentimentality real. Grady Tate keeps us honest. That’s why the song is something other than just pretty. And that’s why it’s unsettling.

Honesty always is.

We see what Louis Armstrong sees. Trees, roses, friends shaking hands. We hear what he hears. Babies crying… and that relentless knock, reverberating through sunsets and backbeats and halls of fame.

Now, whenever I hear this song, I’m not bothered any more.

He meant it all along?

Reading up on Grady Tate, I find that he’s known for two things: playing on the beat, and an imaginative use of rim shots. Ha! Maybe he knew all along how he was going to play “(What a) Wonderful World.”

He was ahead of me the whole time. No, alongside. Now, he’s dogging me. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

The Penalty Kick

[First published in the Broad Street Review as “Sports and music: a common link” 13 September 2011. Reprinted by permission.]

penaltykickRegulation was over, and the entire game came down to a penalty kick shoot-out. If I stopped this last one, we’d win. If I didn’t, we’d lose.

I put my heels on the goal line, and the rival forward loped the few steps to the ball and launched it. I had guessed correctly—I took a step to my left and dove—and the ball came that way.

Long before I became a composer I played soccer, simply because I loved sports, all sports, whoever was playing what. Baseball, football, track, volleyball, dodgeball, wireball, jailbreak—didn’t matter, I loved all of it.

I was good, too, as far as it went, in my Pennsauken neighborhood, in gym class: In those places I was always the best, or pretty nearly so. I was quick and fearless and could think ahead, and that served me well most of the time.

But when football tryouts came up in junior high, and I wanted to be a wide receiver, like Bob Hayes in Dallas, the World’s Fastest Human, they threw me a couple of passes and I couldn’t catch up to them. So I wasn’t that good, and that was that for football.

Learning from Bernie Parent

I tried soccer. I’d been playing informally for a while and was a goalie because no one else wanted to be a goalie. I wasn’t big and strong, but I was fairly quick and smart, and most of the time that sufficed.

I became the junior varsity goalie. Our team had a good defense and a middling offense, and while I was no star, I stopped my share. We were average, but I hated to lose. I despised every goal scored against me.

So I studied shot percentages. I watched the Flyers goalie Bernie Parent to see how he massaged angles. I waded into corner kick traffic, pushing, jumping, attacking the ball. Three-on-twos, two-on-ones, breakaways, positioning defenders, looking through legs, anticipating: I improved.

All of us in that team improved: We played together better, and we learned. But so did the other teams. We’d win or we’d lose, but we learned not to strut and not to mope, and after every match we cheered the other team’s name, trundled into the showers and went home to do our schoolwork.

Keeping score in a choir

Sports taught me the same thing music teaches me. I’ve sung in choirs all my life, usually in church choirs but here and there alongside folks who sing for a living. In a choir there are no points—no one’s keeping score. Of course you want to sing well, but there’s no perfect performance. Making music together is the thing.

Professionals know this, and while they (like the rest of us) always strive for improvement, a humility and a humanity arise from the performance itself, no matter what happens. The people who actually do the work know this, even though nobody’s keeping score.

In church I’m told that I must pick up my cross daily: If I try to gain the world, I’ll lose my life; but if I die to myself, I’ll find my life. That advice reminds me of sports and music making.

The tai-chi disciple

It also reminds me of the story of the tai-chi disciple preparing for his master’s arrival. He sweeps and sweeps the court where he will serve tea. His master arrives and the student shows him how clean it is; even with branches overhead, not one leaf lies on the ground. The master replies, “It is not perfect.”

Sure enough, over in the corner there’s a small twig, so the student hurries over to remove it. The master says again, “It is not perfect.”

The student, distraught, looks at every square foot and can find nothing. Then a thought occurs to him. He reaches up, takes hold of a branch, and shakes it. A few leaves drift to the ground. He looks at his master, who smiles and says, “That’s better.”

Moment of truth

The ball was heading to my left. I was diving that way, but it was out of reach. Way out of reach, in fact. Thanks be, it hit the post. But like a heat-seeking missile, it roared straight at me, and before I could react it smacked off my outstretched hand and lazily bounced twice and rolled into the back of the net.

I was incredulous. I had knocked in the opposition’s winning goal. Their team exploded into delirium while I lay there, face in the turf, ashamed.

After a moment, I gathered myself up, and all around me were my teammates, patting me on the back, telling me, “Good try” and “Nothing you could do.”

It didn’t make me feel better right then, but I would remember them for the rest of my life because of it.

Out of the winning team’s triumphal scrum, the forward who had just scored came walking over to me. He knew what had just happened. And in one moment he taught me, as my teammates just had, what character is. The score no longer mattered. The sport had brought us together, and the score had made us work, but after that, it was just the two of us.

And really, that’s all it ever is. That’s what sports teach; that’s what music teaches. He and I together. He came up, looked me in the eye, and put out his hand. “Good job,” he said. I looked at him, and, taking his hand, said, “You, too.”

The top ten reasons I'm leaving the Fleisher Collection

Such a long time ago, I hardly recognize myself

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011, will be my last day at the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music, after 30 years, the last 18 as Curator.

When I started as a part-time copyist in 1981, working on Louis Gruenberg’s music (pen and ink on vellum), I was getting my Master’s in composition from Temple. Mrs. Morgan retired (Sadie, but no one would ever dream of calling her anything but “Mrs. Morgan”), I applied to fill her position, and in 1983 I became a full-time civil servant. That’s right, the City of Philadelphia once administered a test for music copying. In a year or so I was promoted to Copyist Supervisor, still copying but also overseeing the work of outside hires. Romulus Franceschini, the Assistant Curator, retired, and I moved into his job, Curator Sam Dennison retired and Fred Kent, Head of Music, became Curator for a few years, then retired, and I became Curator in 1993.

We doubled circulation and tripled income since then, not counting the gifts and bequests that’ve been entrusted to us, totalling more than twice the original Fleisher endowment. The number of titles has grown by one-third, to more than 21,500. We ran a concert series for nine years, then Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection started at WRTI, now beginning its tenth season. We produced a newsletter, and when the internet came along we began an e-newsletter. (We’ve spent years building up our email addresses, all from public sources. You’ll hear it bruited about that there are 1,800 American orchestras. Don’t believe it; we know of about twice that number.)

We helped produce a recording series on Albany, and now dozens upon dozens of recordings using Fleisher materials have been made by companies all over the globe. We continue to produce materials for contemporary world premieres and new editions of historical works. We’ve gone from printing our own music on ammonia-developed blueprint machines to large-format copiers to a digital, networked large-format printer. I can still smell the ammonia, though.

We converted the catalog after a long period of repentance, so all Fleisher titles are now searchable online. The goal of an integrated e-commerce system—with ordering, tracking, and searching by full instrumentation—is still to be realized, but we’ve made great behind-the-scenes progress laying the groundwork. We rewrote and continue to streamline every aspect of our music-lending procedures.

Fleisher’s been hit hard with staff cutbacks—as has the rest of the Library, as has everywhere—but I am blessed to work with the best people, nice folks who go out of their way to help patrons and each other. It’d be hard to imagine better coworkers than Stu, Abu, Judia, Saul, and Gary. I inherited a tradition of the best, most knowledgeable service in the best and by-far-the-largest lending library of orchestral performance material in the world. I am very happy to see that continue.

Then why am I leaving?

Well, I always wanted to be a composer when I grew up. I’ve been pretty busy at that for a few decades, but the opportunities (and deadlines) are piling up, so I figured it was time to take the plunge. I’ll still co-host Discoveries with Jack Moore and write up the shows, since everyone wanted to keep it going and we don’t know how long the transition to a new Curator will be. But it’s time for the next chapter to begin.

So that’s the main reason. There are others, but I don’t know if… oh, OK, here they are:

The Top Ten Reasons I’m Leaving the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia:

10. Last week I finished reading all the books. Wait, that wasn’t my job?

9. The year I started was the same year Hosni Mubarak became President of Egypt. I have heard the voice of the people.

8. Can’t blame my problems on previous Curators anymore.

7. I talk to everybody but only Haley Joel Osment answers. [Email me if you don’t get this one.]

6a. I dropped my briefcase during my daily right-hand to left-hand briefcase exchange at the exact halfway point between the Library and Suburban Station, and that’s never happened before.

6b. It occurs to me that I have a daily right-hand to left-hand briefcase exchange.

6c. It occurs to me that I know the exact halfway point between the Library and Suburban Station.

5. My exploratory committee says the 2012 field is wide open.

4. So you know how you’re behind somebody leaving the Central Library, and how they go through the automatic door and they just, you know, stop? And you’re like, “What, you can’t walk like three more feet but no you’re just going to stand there, and what… I mean what are you thinking, I can’t like walk through you, you know, hello?” Yeah, so I figure that if I leave I’ll never come across that situation in any other public building with automatic doors and that I’ll like, be happy then.

3. I used to know all the phone numbers for the orchestral rental publishers by heart. Then the area codes changed—not the numbers, just the area codes—and I can’t remember the numbers anymore. Wait, that was 15 years ago.

2. Stu’s told all of his jokes now and sometimes it looks like… well, it’s crazy I know but I think I see his brain working, just when the light comes in the window a certain way and… I’m almost afraid to say it, maybe it’s just me, but… I think he’s trying to learn some more.

and The Number One Reason I’m Leaving the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia:

1. They’re starting to figure out what I do here.

John Williams

My latest CD mini-review for WRTI, including podcast. You can read all my CD reviews here.

John Williams: Greatest Hits 1969-1999 

A lone violin plays a simple, haunting melody, and you think of the people: the many taken away, the few saved, and the one who saved the few. His name is Schindler, and the violin plays. This forlorn, soft, heart-rending music—performed here by Itzhak Perlman—is by John Williams, the king of Hollywood composers. It transforms the movie, because as sad as Schindler’s List is, it is the sweetness of the music that drives the sadness deeper. John Williams makes magic happen in front of our eyes. In more than 75 films and counting, that’s what he does…. read more…

Fiesta Criolla

Saturday, September 3rd, 2011, 5:00-6:00 p.m.

Guillermo Uribe Holguín (1880-1971). Tres Danzas (1926/40). Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen, Gabriel Castagna. Chandos 10675, Tr 13-15. 8:05

Theodoro Valcárcel Caballero (1896-1942). Concierto indio (1940). Nora Chastain, violin, Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen, Gabriel Castagna. Chandos 10675, Tr 9-11. 18:47

Manuel Gómez Carrillo (1883-1968). Rapsodia santiagueña (1922). Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen, Gabriel Castagna. Chandos 10675, Tr 7. 11:57

Francisco Mignone (1897-1986). Congada (1921). Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen, Gabriel Castagna. Chandos 10675, Tr 12. 4:53

“I’ve been searching for these all my career!” The conductor from Argentina gazed at the more than 100 Latin American scores on the desks around him at the Fleisher Collection, just a fraction of the works found by Nicolas Slonimsky in Central and South America. Gabriel Castagna had flown to Philadelphia to study these, and he couldn’t believe his eyes.

Since 1909, Edwin Fleisher had scoured the United States and Europe for every orchestral work available, so in 1941 he turned to Latin America. He funded Slonimsky with $10,000 of his own money to acquire whatever he could find. The Collection then hand-copied or microfilmed the scores, extracted the parts for many of them, and returned the originals to their owners. Much of the music remained unpublished, and manuscripts sometimes disappeared in Latin America over the years, so it was often the case that the music existed only here, in Philadelphia.

Castagna was thrilled to discover music he thought was gone forever. From the scores he looked at come most of the music on this new CD. It’s called Fiesta Criolla, and on our program we’ll hear works by four of the composers on it.

Guillermo Uribe Holguín was the leading mid-century composer in Colombia. He studied with d’Indy in Paris, alongside Erik Satie. He became Director of the National Conservatory in Colombia until retiring to his coffee plantation. He conducted the premiere of Tres Danzas in 1927, then reworked the orchestration in 1940.

An Indian from both sides of the family, the Peruvian Theodoro Valcárcel Caballero was a talented child who at 15 studied music in Spain. He had no other formal training and loved to use Incan melodies he knew in his compositions. Some of his works were orchestrated by the German-born Rudolph Holzmann, who resided in Lima, but the charming Concierto indio is fully Valcárcel’s. He entered it into the Latin American Violin Concerto Competition funded by Philadelphia industrialist Samuel Fels, losing out to a concerto by the Brazilian Camargo Guarnieri.

Manuel Gómez Carrillo’s works are also often inspired by native music. His Rapsodia santiagueña is an example of his “accumulating folkloric material, and integrating it in established musical forms,” as he explained to Slonimsky. Based on tunes from his province of Santiago in Argentina, the Rapsodia premiered in Paris in 1924.

Francisco Mignone’s Congada is more of a Brazilian-Congolese-Catholic celebration than a mere dance. It’s his most successful orchestral piece, taken from the opera Contractador dos Diamantes. After studying in Italy, Mignone returned to Brazil to become a successful composer of concert music. He also wrote pop songs under the name Chico-Bororó, after the Bororó Indian tribe.

“The Collection saved… our repertory,” says Gabriel Castagna. He’s recording and performing as many of these as possible, to open the ears of the world to the richness and variety of this music. He comments on the good fortune of finding this safe in the Fleisher Collection, the start of what we hope are many such CDs, “You are doing a great service to the Latin American cultural heritage.” We think the same of him.

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