Monthly Archives: December 2011

50,000

The website passed 50,000 hits a few weeks ago. Researching the significance of 50,000, I discover from Wikipedia that it is the number between 49,999 and 50,001. Deciding to end my fact-finding there, I’ll report, then, that it seems like a lot, all things considered. It very well may not be. I have little idea what things, in fact, ought to be considered, so I’ll leave it there.

Since I finished two big composing deadlines and am about to start on another, I thought it was time to brush up the site. I changed templates to a cleaner, simpler one. It’s so clean, in fact, that it eliminates the sidebar on all but the homepage, yikes. So I beefed up the every-page top menu, hoping to make it easier to find music, writings, other things.

Nellie and Martina wanted me to keep the picture of the guy carrying the log, so it’s still there in the header, in rotation with shots of me looking at you or not looking at you.

Now on to ASCAP reporting (months in abeyance) and database updating for Now is the Time.

The Nobility of Women, first rehearsal

Mélomanie rehearsed my new dance suite, The Nobility of Women, Monday night for the first time. More of a read-through, it gave us a chance to get to know the eight dances, lock some tempos in, and identify possible issues. The 20-minute work takes its name from the 1600 dance instruction manual Nobiltà di Dame by Fabritio Caroso.

The name of the book alone captivated me. Although there is no other significant connection between it and my music, I imagined a piece that would grow out of a work with that name. The players in Mélomanie are all skilled in Baroque and new music, and I’ve enjoyed writing for historical instruments in the past. The sound-world is entrancing, and I’ve tried to compose a work that would release the beauties of these fabulous instruments.

It was a lovely first hearing. I sat between Douglas, the cellist, and Tracy and Mark’s Christmas tree, a great way to listen to a rehearsal!

I’m delighted to have the opportunity to write for my daughter Priscilla again, this time on Baroque oboe, a first for me. Listening to her and all these wonderful players has been a joy and an enlightenment. Also a first: writing for Baroque flute, viola da gamba, and harpsichord. Baroque cello and violin I had a go at previously with The Waking Sun, the setting of Seneca which premiered this past summer with The Crossing and Tempesta di Mare.

Oh, the dances: Overture, Allemande, Branle, Musette, Canario, Sarabande, Branle Reprise, Ciaccona. Among the other music on the program is some Telemann Tafelmusik and a work by Mark Hagerty inspired by Steely Dan’s “Babylon Sisters” (Priscilla’s playing modern oboe on that).

I’m looking forward to the performances, which are on January 14th and 15th in Wilmington and Philadelphia. More later as we get deeper into it.

Yannick interview is online

My impromptu interview with Yannick Nézet-Séguin from last month is available here on the WRTI site. And hey, here’s another photo, taken through the broadcast studio window (you can make out some reflection). To my left, Cecil B. Moore Avenue. Behind Yannick is the news broadcast booth, I remember Joe Irrizary being behind the glass, preparing for his 11:57:30 airtime. I’m checking, and… yes, the correct sliders on the broadcast console are up, whew. No, it’s not a board, it’s a console. There’s a very good reason for that. No, I don’t know the reason, and don’t tell the production manager, because he told me the reason once, and I’ve forgotten, okay? Okay. There’s also a very good reason they placed that huge window between the hallway and the broadcast studio. It’s to make brand-new on-air hosts as nervous as possible. And it works like a charm!

Shakespeare in the Park

First published in the Broad Street Review, 14 August 2011, and slightly edited since.

“No tights,” I said. I would dress up as an Elizabethan king, but I was not going to wear tights at the re-opening of Shakespeare Park. It’s the bit of land across Vine Street from the Free Library of Philadelphia’s front door. I didn’t know until last year that it was called Shakespeare Park. I knew the sculpture there, devoted to The Bard; I often ate lunch at a bench facing it, with Bob Gallagher (the poet and actor who would’ve been perfect for this job), and later, Sid (whose love of literature has inspired me for years).

The Library is in the midst of major renovations at Central, on Vine between 19th and 20th, and included in the project was an overhaul of the Park, fallen on hard times. New landscaping, lighting, benches, plantings, and irrigation has transformed it into an archetype of an urban oasis. Today was the day the protective fences would come down, and the Library’s President and Director would mark the occasion with brief words. I was to introduce her.

“I’m sure you won’t have to wear tights,” an Administrator assured me. Then I was handed over to the Development people, whose agenda the Administrator was innocent of. They wanted me to be, you know, like a King Henry. “King James, surely?,” I said, “if you’re talking Shakespeare,” but privately I was glad they didn’t insist on Elizabeth herself. Game, I am, but no dress.

Well, the costume came in, tunic, belt, chain, bloomers, and… tights. But at this point, in for a dime, in for a dollar, and besides, the bloomers are downright modest. Shoes? “I have brown loafers and black dress shoes, you know, like wingtips.” “Oh, they’ll be perfect.” Oh. Kay. Then there was this crown. Wow, they really did mean a king. At this, I decided to throw down the not-included gauntlet. “C’mon, let’s lose the crown. No crown.” “OK, fine,” they readily agreed. What did they care. They had a guy from staff willing to dress up in a Shakespeare costume.

Of course, at this, nobody—least of all, me—knew whom I was supposed to be. Stripped of a crown, I was not recognizably Henry or James or anyone else. I was not Shakespeare, as I would refer to him in my remarks. I was, simply, an Elizabethan male, or, as the tag attached to my tights stated, “Elizabethian.” (Privately I cast myself as a Friend of Shakespeare.)

What saved me from the slough of jaundice, however, was the real reason I took this on. My speech. Here it is, written by a very smart young staffer:

Hear ye, hear ye, and welcome to the Free Library’s re-opening of Shakespeare Park. The Bard himself knew of the importance and sanctity of finding nature in the midst of our busy existence. He wrote, “And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in every thing.” Here to speak about this verdant space and its importance to the Free Library, is President and Director Siobhan A. Reardon. A hearty welcome to the good lady!”

That was it. That’s what sold me. Forty-five seconds, but good stuff. It is utterly remarkable that a city, that a functionary writing for a petty bureaucrat in a special collection in a department in a city, would present these words to the public. As if it were a normal and a good and an admirable thing that a city would do—in the course of its city-ness—that it would do for itself, for its citizens, for its visitors, for its indigent, and even for soi-disant poets and composers eating meatball sandwiches, looking up at a sculpture and not knowing that this place had a name.

I memorized it, parsed it, massaged and analyzed it, brooded, added breaks, lifts, laughs, moved and mixed them, practiced smiles, lifted eyebrows, waved hands, winked, gestured, barked, cooed, and tried to say Hear ye hear ye so it wouldn’t sound like Hear ye hear ye. And practiced it all again and again. How I ended up doing it at the time, I don’t know. But I felt those trees, I knew those brooks, and inside I pined and cried for public exemption. I didn’t care about tights or shoes, and even though I saw the looks of all the guys I work with who were thinking, “You’ve got. To. Be. Kidding,” I wasn’t embarrassed, not in the least.

When a reporter asked me afterward what I did, I said that I worked at the Fleisher Collection in the Library. “And you’re a Shakespearean actor, of course,” he replied.

I thought of Jacobi, and Branagh, and Olivier, and of my quasi-Irish-that-I-could-never-make-English accent, and of Robert Duvall asking Robert De Niro at the coffee counter in True Confessions if he wanted a piece of pie or something, and I thought of my Giant of Gath in Milton’s Samson Agonistes 35 years ago, the last time I did anything like this, and I almost fainted.

I did manage, “Well, today.” That was a lie—I’m no Shakespearean actor—but I’m telling you, it sure felt good to take the place of one, at least for 45 seconds.

A mother brought her little daughter up to me. The little girl wanted to meet Shakespeare.

Pictures at WHYY and the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Musik Ekklesia: The Vanishing Nordic Chorale

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

Musik Ekklesia: The Vanishing Nordic Chorale 

It’s well past time to listen to historical instruments because they’re, well, historical. Or “informed,” or “accurate,” or whatever word we might use to feel scholastically correct. It’s time to listen because they sound beautiful.

Musik Ekklesia, “music for the church,” is an Indiana-based Baroque ensemble led by bassist and violonist Philip Spray. He’s rounded up some of the top period-instrument players—including Stanley Ritchie, violin, Wendy Gillespie, viol, and Kathryn Montoya, oboe—for this sparkling CD of surprising chorale arrangements.

It’s immediately surprising because in addition to the expected chorale setters Praetorius, Scheidt, Crüger, and the later J.S. Bach, who should show up but 20th-century Carl Nielsen? There’s also Grieg, and Mendelssohn’s deeply felt Verleih uns Frieden (Now grant us peace, Lord, in these troubled times), sung in Danish (Forlen os freden, Herre, nu). The light sweep and brilliance of the older instruments bring out new colors, which ought to make Mendelssohn, that lover of old music, smile.

The Lutheran chorale began in Germany but quickly spread to Scandinavian and other countries. They added their own tunes to the repertoire, and emigre enclaves in the U.S. continued those traditions. Musik Ekklesia brings the music all the way to today. There’s some Christmas music here, and even a brand-new work, an improvisation by the Budapest-born Bálint Karosi, Music Director of the First Lutheran Church of Boston, performing on its new 27-stop North German Baroque-style organ.

The times and instruments and composers spin, making any putative correctness happily unnecessary. It just sounds beautiful.

Samuel Hsu

[Most have now heard the tragic news of the passing of Samuel Hsu, our friend, colleague, and brother, on December 2nd. My…appreciation is such a weak word…some frail thoughts of mine on this truly great man are at the Broad Street Review, first published 6 Dec 2011 as “Samuel Hsu: A polymath’s giant shadow,” and reprinted here by permission. The biggest problem in writing this was deleting things, keeping it under a thousand words. Collegium concerts, walks in Center City, pinball, encounters with street people, hearing him play, watching him play, sitting next to him as he played, and talking, talking, talking deep into the night, drinking tea, breathing and learning, always learning. Rest in the Lord, Sam. See you before too long.]

Yiasou, Atanasiu! Tikanis?” (How are you, Atanasiu?)

Poly kala.” (Very good.)

And he was off to the races—conversing with the hot dog vendor, the cab driver at a traffic light, the pizza dough slinger. Sam Hsu’s landlord was Greek, and it seemed that every Greek in Philadelphia knew Sam. I don’t know who enjoyed the conversations more, they or he. The obvious lark of it was that Sam was Chinese…and that his name wasn’t Atanasiu.

Samuel Hsu was a pianist, specifically the last student of the legendary Rosina Lhévinne. He held a Ph. D. in historical musicology. He was Distinguished Professor of Music and chair of Keyboard Studies at Philadelphia Biblical University [now, Cairn University]. On Thursday morning, December 1st, a car struck him while he was walking to Suburban Station to catch the Langhorne train. Sam died the next day at the age of 64. You may not know it, but a great man has been taken from us.

After emigrating from Shanghai, where his parents ran a Christian bookstore, Sam studied Bible and music at Philadelphia College of Bible, as it was then called. After graduating, he skipped a master’s degree and went right to a doctorate at the University of California’s Santa Barbara campus. He started teaching at the Bible College in 1972—a year that represented a continental divide both for him and the school. This brilliant 25-year-old transformed the school from an excellent Bible college to an excellent Bible college that had Dr. Hsu.

From the moment of his arrival there, his name was spoken in hushed tones. But not everyone wanted to take his classes.

Mountains of books

My first semester, I wrote a paper about jazz pianists—I forget why. Sam said it was the best paper he had seen from a freshman. (It didn’t occur to me that he had only been there four years.) The grade on this “best” paper? A-minus.

After class I hemmed my way around to asking how one might get an A without the minus. “Oh, for an A,” he replied, “you need to tell me something I don’t know.”

Fat chance. In Sam’s Center City apartment and studio, books were strewn everywhere: fields and mountains of books, books recumbent and rampant. He read two or three at a time, remembering what he read. There was no subject about which Sam didn’t already know more than you, not to mention its relation to subjects you didn’t even know were subjects.

Sam was fluent in French, held his own in German and could translate Latin—and Greek and Hebrew, from their own alphabets—at sight. Linguistics, philosophy, science, theology, history, fine arts, archaeology, literature, ice hockey and Buddhism—he was conversant with them all.

Kidding Lubavitchers

All religions, too, with a particular fondness for anything Jewish. He was a visiting scholar at Penn’s Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. He helped produce concerts of Holocaust composers in Philadelphia, in New York, and in Austria. At a Philadelphia meeting of Lubavitchers, Sam would show up, joking that he came to assure they had a minyan.

This voracious appetite for knowledge translated into a teaching style that not every student warmed to, because Sam’s range—and therefore, his lecturing—was as wide as the world, far transcending music. Fastidious note-takers quickly became frustrated, filling pages and wondering later what the class was about. But the best way to learn from Sam was to breathe in deeply, and grow.

I learned more about music turning pages for him than from anything else in life. The breath, the line, and the universe-opening potential of the smallest movement transformed me.

Jazzing up chapel hymns

He was a poet at the piano, in the company of his beloved Debussy, Chopin, Mozart, and, above all, Beethoven. He embraced new works written for him by Lukas Foss, Ursula Mamlok, and Raoul Pleskow.

More than one student thanked God on his knees that Dr. Hsu played his meager little offering, making it sound better than it deserved. Sam wasn’t above enlivening chapel with blazing gospel hymn accompaniment, or heralding the start of a faculty meeting by sliding onto a piano bench and flourishing Roger Williams’s “Autumn Leaves.”

Elite he was, but never, ever elitist.

Gift for argument

Sam was equally gifted in political discussion, articulating the best intentions, and greatest dangers, of every position. Never did he utter a negative word (even in private, gloves-off conversation) about anyone. He really believed that his purpose was to build others up. Christians often talk that way, but Sam actually lived it.

He had strong opinions, to be sure, but he couldn’t care less about winning an argument. He’d push his agenda just to goad you into revealing yours. Then the real work could begin, whether in a late-night bull session, a Collegium Musicum, or editing a book. When it was done, he directed all praise to everyone else.

Sam was the most “in” the world and least “of” the world of anyone I know. That quality rendered him exotic in evangelical Christian circles—this concert pianist, this Philadelphia Orchestra lecturer, this colleague of world-famous scholars. I suspect it also made him exotic everywhere else—this Bible-study leader, this Presbyterian elder, this Christian summer music camp teacher.

The best way to learn

As his teaching assistant, I was to instruct a class in chant. The best way to learn, Sam suggested, would be to copy it. So I drew four-line staff paper, got an Osmiroid music-nib fountain pen, and was soon producing the Gregorian neumes. It turned out that I was passably competent at copying music.

Later, the Fleisher Collection at the Free Library would hire me for a copying job, and 30 years after that, I retired as the collection’s curator. Sam created that sort of magic for a long line of students.

I finally asked him: Why Atanasiu? Well, he replied, he’d heard somebody mention a son Atanasiu, so when he was asked his name, Sam smiled and said, “Atanasiu.” They roared and knew it wasn’t true, but from then on, Atanasiu he was. It’s a common Greek name, but Sam knew that one of the great Christian creeds is named for St. Athanasius. My church recites the Athanasian Creed every year, on Holy Trinity Sunday. I think of Sam Hsu often, but always on Holy Trinity Sunday.

Tikanis, Atanasiu? I know, I know: Poly kala.

Jean Sibelius

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

Jean Sibelius (1865–1957). Nightride and Sunrise, Op. 55 (1907). London Symphony Orchestra, Adrian Boult. Vanguard 1202, Tr 2. 14:02

Sibelius. Romance in C, Op. 42 (1904). Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Järvi. Bis 252, Tr 4. 5:16

Sibelius. Valse romantique, Op. 62b (1911). New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Pietari Inkinen. Naxos 570763, Tr 12. 4:13

Sibelius. Humoresques, Opp. 87, 89 (1917/23). Mela Tenenbaum, violin, Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, Richard Kapp. Essay 1075, Tr 1-6.  21:42

Gustav Mahler famously remarked that the symphony “must be like the world—it must embrace everything.” This explains those disjunct themes delightfully butting against each other in his symphonies. What is often forgotten is that he said this to disagree with Jean Sibelius, who told Mahler that every part of a symphony must have a logical, ruthless interconnection with every other part. Not the world, replies Sibelius: a symphony is like the earth.

The orchestra was the reason Sibelius composed. He wrote songs, and early on dabbled in the string quartet. But mostly, he had no time for chamber music, which he considered too aristocratic—too Viennese—for his taste. No, only symphonic forces could express what he felt from the earth, the landscape, and the people of Finland.

Each country is unique, but Finland is remarkably set apart. It had been controlled by Sweden for centuries, so the language of commerce, culture, and education was Swedish. Russia took it over in 1809, and Finland wouldn’t gain independence until 1917, two days before Sibelius’s 52nd birthday. Finnish is unlike any other language; it’s not Romance, Germanic, Russian, or Scandinavian, and only distantly related to Hungarian and Sanskrit, of all things. Those who spoke it—usually rustics far from the cities—were almost foreigners in their own country.

The Swedish-speaking Sibelius was caught up in the Finnish patriotism burgeoning in the late 19th century. He took classes in Finnish, and immersed himself in the growing nationalistic literature. His music is so steeped in the national ethos that his own melodies have been mistaken (over “the smirks of the self-appointed authorities,” he wrote) for traditional tunes, such as the famous ending of Finlandia. His numerous tone poems based on the folk epic Kalevala would shape Finnish music.

But after popular works of the late 1800s he turned deeper, trying new sounds in the orchestra as he embarked on his run of seven symphonies. He continued to write smaller pieces, mostly to work out his ideas. Nightride and Sunrise is, frankly, odd. In the almost interminable churning of the horse ride, Sibelius strives for a gravelly, essential sound. It borders on mesmerizing.

In his Romance for strings and the little-played Valse romantique, another side of Sibelius emerges. It’s the husband and father Sibelius, living in the idyllic house in the country, away from urban distractions, close to nature. He composed the six Humoresques during the burst of brilliance of his final symphonies to keep his name in front of the public, as writing symphonies was tough sledding. Normally performed separately, they were originally heard together. There’s an element of gravitas hearing them this way, and it’s an education listening to an extended solo violin work other than his Violin Concerto, one of the greatest in the repertoire.

In the awakening of Finland, Sibelius invented its music. But it’s also true that Finland—its people and landscape, even its very earth—created the music of Sibelius.

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.