Monthly Archives: August 2012

Not what the composer had in mind

Saturday, September 1st, 2012, 5-6 pm

Franz Schubert (1797–1828). Wanderer Fantasy (1822), orch. Franz Liszt. Philip Thomson, piano, Hungarian State Orchestra, Kerry Stratton. Hungaroton 31525, Tr 2, 22:28

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897). Liebeslieder Waltzes (1868-9). Ensemble Vocal Michel Piquemal, Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, Armin Jordan. Erato 45457, Tr 1-9, 14:32

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). Prelude and Fugue in E-flat, “St. Anne” (1739?), orch. Arnold Schoenberg. Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen. Sony/CBS 89012, Tr 6–7, 15:24

Music will always challenge our assumptions, if we let it.

For a couple of generations now, those who unearthed music from earlier times have wanted to play it the way it sounded in those earlier times. These “authentic” or “historically informed” performances open our ears to new delights hidden in Medieval and Renaissance music.

As playing techniques and instruments improved, the movement grew to encompass Baroque and Classical music. Even Romantic and later music has been influenced by the growing research. We can now listen to Brahms symphonies on “original” instruments.

The quote marks around “authentic,” “historically informed,” and “original” are deliberate because the early-music experts know better than anyone that exactly recreating a centuries-old listening experience is impossible. For starters, conflicting manuscripts often make divining the composer’s original intent very difficult. Add in often-unknown tunings, playing abilities, halls, and audience expectations, and we begin to see the scope of the problem.

But when we hear ancient reeds skirling, or notice the ever-warm Brahms even warmer with gut strings and natural horns, we feel that we can better approach a closer understanding of the music.

And just when we’re patting ourselves on the back for being so open-minded, someone comes along and slaps us on the side of the head.

Franz Liszt alters a perfectly fine Schubert solo piano piece, the Wanderer Fantasy, into piano-with-orchestra. More than just perfectly fine, the Wanderer is a summation of Schubert’s piano writing. It’s very difficult as a piano work, but Liszt, the leading virtuoso of his day, could certainly play it as it was. So why did he mess with it?

Because he loved Schubert. He wanted to hear all the possibilities of this music transformed into a modern orchestra. Liszt searched deeper than composer’s intent (and being himself a great composer, Liszt knew all about the slipperiness of intent). He searched deeper than notes on a page for what every composer wants: music that lives on, no matter what.

Brahms wrote his adorable Liebeslieder Waltzes for singers with two pianos. The Fleisher Collection has an arrangement for string orchestra, and then there’s this recording of singers with full orchestra, blooming the sounds outward until they change the entire character of the piece. Does it succeed? Hard to say; it may depend on asking ourselves the question, Do we love Brahms because of it?

The J.S. Bach “St. Anne” Prelude and Fugue for organ is the most stark example challenging us on this program. Schoenberg rips the titanic work apart, then rebuilds it piece by piece into a modern monument. Far from an attempt to get close to Bach (let alone the sound of an organ), Schoenberg’s orchestration spirits Bach to now, imagining what the old master might say now, with the resources available now (or 1928, anyway).

Audacious, isn’t it, but is it so silly? Listening to this stunningly brilliant orchestration, we think, Maybe not. Maybe less so, when we remember that Bach himself wrote the Prelude and Fugue as a re-imagining of the chorale of two centuries before his time. He was re-living and re-working the music he loved. He searched deeper than notes, and passed it onto us.

Maybe what Bach was saying was this: Challenge your assumptions.

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

Robert Moran, Trinity Requiem

My latest CD review for WRTI…

Robert Moran has written music for entire cities to perform—San Francisco, Graz, Bethlehem, Pa.—with cars, airplanes, multiple orchestras, choirs, and bands joining in raucous mélanges of celebration. You wonder what he would write for a city’s terror.

Trinity Wall Street commissioned Moran’s Trinity Requiem for the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 destruction of New York’s World Trade Center. Trinity is the Ground Zero church. Its St. Paul’s Chapel was covered with the debris of the 2001 terror strike, a lone sycamore tree’s upshot roots miraculously shielding it from damage. It held rescuers and mourners, and for months its sturdy iron fence supported an ever-growing drapery of photos of the thousands lost that day.

The Trinity Requiem is for youth choir, four cellos, harp, and organ. The youth choir became the compelling reason for Moran to take on the project. He thought of all the children in all the wars who lost their parents, who lost everything, and told Robert Ridgell, then the director of the Trinity Youth Choir, “Rob, this is what ‘our’ Requiem is about, these thousands and thousands of kids left with nothing.” Then he composed this haunting music.

It moves mostly at a calm and peaceful pace, not unlike Fauré’s Requiem. That may seem at odds with Moran’s post-minimalist tapestry, but he shares with the French master this quality: lyricism without shame. Moran makes you forget labels. All that’s left is to embrace the music.

Also on the CD is an intriguing collage of elements from Trinity Requiem remixed by composer Philip Blackburn, called Requiem for a Requiem. Moran has two more choral works here, Seven Sounds Unseen, introspective settings of passages from letters John Cage wrote to Moran, and Notturno in Weiss, a setting of a poem by Christian Morgenstern (1871–1914).

…The family of stone,
Fashioned from marble,
Kneels unto a lily,
In the deathly still of night….

Unearthly, questioning, and grounded at the same time, it reflects—as does Moran’s Trinity Requiem, as does all of Moran’s music I’ve heard—on the hope of humanness.


It’s all saxophones on Now is the Time, Sunday, August 26th at 10 pm. Sopranos, altos, the Prism Quartet on Laganella’s Leafless Trees, accompanied by piano, harp, trumpet, and on the Crossroads Songs of Evan Chambers, piano and percussion.

Now is the Time means American contemporary music on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at

Marilyn Shrude. Renewing the Myth
Keith Kramer. Brink
Lawson Lunde. Sonata for Soprano Saxophone and Piano, “Alpine
David Laganella. Leafless Trees
Seymour Barab. Suite for Trumpet, Alto Sax, and Piano (excerpts)
Evan Chambers. Crossroads Songs

Now is the Time combines all styles of concert music by living American composers, every Sunday night at 10. Here are the recording details and complete schedule.


It’s August, and boy is it summer on Now is the Time, Sunday, August 19th at 10 pm. From McFarlane’s lute combo on Augusta to Augusta Read Thomas’s Eclipse Musings, from Lewis’s summer musings to a work from Diemer’s Summer Day CD, and with Summer by Dan Coleman, it’s American contemporary music on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at

It’s American contemporary music on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at

Emma Lou Diemer. Aria & Scherzo
Peter Scott Lewis. A Whistler’s Dream
Augusta Read Thomas. Eclipse Musings
Dan Coleman. Summer
Ronn McFarlane. Augusta

Now is the Time combines all styles of concert music by living American composers, every Sunday night at 10. Here are the recording details and complete schedule.

The Chambered Nautilus

Commissioned by the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Boston, Ed Broms, Music Director, for its 100th anniversary as the cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, October 7th, 2012, and the dedication of its new sculpture, The Nautilus, on November 2nd, 2012. More about the sculpture here. First page example and MIDI realization of the beginning are below.

The Chambered Nautilus
Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (1809–1894)

This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign,
Sails the unshadowed main,—
The venturous bark that flings
On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings
In gulfs enchanted, where the Siren sings,
And coral reefs lie bare,
Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.

Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;
Wrecked is the ship of pearl!
And every chambered cell,
Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell,
As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,
Before thee lies revealed,—
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!

Year after year beheld the silent toil
That spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,
Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.

Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,
Child of the wandering sea,
Cast from her lap, forlorn!
From thy dead lips a clearer note is born
Than ever Triton blew from wreathèd horn!
While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:—

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

Live recording from the Boston Cathedral: 

Summer Games

It’s music to jump and run to on Now is the Time, Sunday, August 12th at 10 pm. Campbell and McLean circle groups of sounds around each other, Currier is on the verge of tipping over, and Newman Taylor Baker marches up and holds our attention with just a drum set.

It’s American contemporary music on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at

Newman Taylor Baker. Marchin’ David
Sebastian Currier. Verge
Christopher Campbell. All-Clear (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
Barton McLean. Concerto: States of Being
Newman Taylor Baker. Thank You, Ms. Jones, Hold On!

Now is the Time combines all styles of concert music by living American composers, every Sunday night at 10. Here are the recording details and complete schedule.


Whether it’s light or dark or exotic, it’s hot on Now is the Time, Sunday, August 5th at 10 pm. Sainte-Croix takes us to a Central American jungle; Vierk, to the desert with multi-tracked cellos.

Korean-American Yoon is recorded live, with water bowls and bells, and Stiefel is all sci-fi electronics and guitar.

It’s American contemporary music on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at

Judith Sainte-Croix. The White Birds of the Deep Night
Lois V Vierk. Simoom
Bora Yoon. g i f t
Van Stiefel. Solaris

Now is the Time combines all styles of concert music by living American composers, every Sunday night at 10. Here are the recording details and complete schedule.