Monthly Archives: October 2012

Sounding Landscapes

It’s ten people hovering over a piano on Now is the Time, Sunday, October 28th at 10 pm. Stephen Scott wrote Paisajes Audibles, Spanish for “Sounding Landscapes,” for his Bowed Piano Ensemble and soprano Victoria Hansen. The Spanish, French, and English texts are inspired by the physical landscape Scott has seen on the Canary Islands, and the inner landscapes of imagination.

The “bowed” piano, played with guitar picks, horsehair, fishing line, and percussion mallets, sings like an orchestra. Or a steel drum band. In it you’ll hear the voice of jazz, flamenco, West African music, and Terry Riley. It is fun, it is evocative, it is mesmerizing.

Host Kile Smith brings you Now is the Time, American contemporary music on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at wrti.org.

PROGRAM:

Stephen Scott. Paisajes Audibles / Sounding Landscapes

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.

Maybe you were wondering whom I’m voting for

[Reprinted with permission from the Broad Street Review under “From Beethoven to Wagner: The political uses and abuses of music”]

Before you hear any more of my music, maybe you were wondering whom I’m voting for. We’ll get to that after a word from Beethoven.

After hearing that Napoleon had declared himself emperor, the composer angrily crossed out the dedication to him on his newest symphony. This, his third, was to have been the “Bonaparte Symphony.” Now it would be the “Eroica,” the heroic.

That’s one story about the title; there are others. Beethoven had planned to move from Vienna to Paris, and a tip of his hat to the French in a new piece, by way of their leader, wouldn’t have been a bad idea. But the move didn’t happen.

Or, Beethoven was mulling the possible lost patronage if Prince Lobkowitz’s name wasn’t on the work.

Or, the publisher may have had a say in it. Audiences—Viennese or other—might not be overly thrilled about a work dedicated to a man who was gobbling up Europe, no matter how much they liked his revolutionary ideals.

Beethoven’s despair

Or, it may not have had a thing to do with any of that. The “Eroica” label may have been a response to the composer’s growing deafness. Years of hearing less and less of conversation caused the sociable Beethoven to withdraw from society. “Such incidents drove me almost to despair,” he wrote in his will: “A little more of that and I would have ended my life—it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.”

Beethoven started composing the “Eroica” a few weeks later.

So there are many stories. But Beethoven’s dismay over a once-loved political leader remains a plausible explanation. We’re all anti-imperialists now, and we applaud Beethoven; but did he improve the work by scratching out Napoleon’s name?

I wonder what we’d think of “Eroica” today if it were called the “Bonaparte.”

Stalin’s pal or nemesis?

In our own time, we’ve lived through a sea change of meaning behind Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. We’d always loved it, even while sniffing at its celebration of Soviet greatness. But when we learned that it’s actually a secret exposé of the Stalinist state, a samizdat evisceration of the lie of forced acquiescence, did our love of the work change?

Ask it this way: Has the Shostakovich Fifth now convinced us of Communism’s weaknesses? Did it convince us of Communism’s strengths before? More to the point, is the Shostakovich Fifth a better work if we approve of its politics?

No. Our love of it—our love of music—lives on a different plane. It is Shostakovich we meet in the Fifth, not Stalin. Let the dictator write his own symphony. It is Beethoven we meet in his Third, not Napoleon.

As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote about the genius of Henry Purcell (another composer exposed to political change):

Not mood in him nor meaning, proud fire or sacred fear,
Or love or pity or all that sweet notes not his might nursle:
It is the forgèd feature finds me; it is the rehearsal
Of own, of abrupt self there so thrusts on, so throngs the ear.

Nazi victim or religious zealot?

That “sacred fear” brings up religion’s role in music, and it is just as suspect as that of politics.

One work provides a good example of both. Olivier Messiaen wrote his Quartet for the End of Time in a German prisoner-of-war camp; immediately we want to like it because of his striking heroism in the face of evil.

But look further and see the exegesis of Judgment Day from the Book of Revelation, with sections called “Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets” and “Praise to the eternity of Jesus.” If this is not our theology, do we then draw back from what we had first approached?

Depending on how dear our positions are, or how near the surface, perhaps we do. But that’s on us, not the music.

Israel brooked no performances of Wagner within its borders for a long time, and who can blame it? But there comes a time when—if the music is good—we get over its politics or theology. The quibbles, disagreements, even offences dissipate in time. All that’s left is the music.

Messiaen doesn’t move us because he convinces us of Christian eschatology, nor does Shostakovich because of his anti-communism. We don’t praise “Eroica” because we would’ve seen through Napoleon, by gum, just as Beethoven did.

Music doesn’t argue.

Meet the composer

Music opens a door to someone else. It opens us to the abrupt selves of Beethoven, Shostakovich and Messiaen, who thrust on and throng us. In their features we recognize ourselves.

Whom I’m voting for? Right. Well, I think I’ll demur.

If you see me, and yourself, in my music, it won’t matter, will it? If you don’t see me in my music, I won’t have done my job, and it absolutely won’t matter. All we’d do is pat ourselves on the back or argue over politics.

That’s fine in its place, but it avoids something better. When there’s music to hear, when there’s someone to meet—that’s something better.

Under the Rainbow

It’s exotic with a touch of pop on Now is the Time, Sunday, October 21st at 10 pm. Gandolfi writes tangos for wind ensemble, Hulse is rhythmic and quirky, Rosenblum bends the flute of Patti Monson with electronics, and Coleman dips into the orchestra and tips her hat to the Great American Songbook.

Host Kile Smith brings you Now is the Time, American contemporary music on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at wrti.org.

PROGRAM:

Michael Gandolfi. Vientos y Tangos
Linda Robbins Coleman. Journeys
Brian Hulse. Seastone
Mathew Rosenblum. Under the Rainbow
Linda Robbins Coleman. If We Could Laugh Once More

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.

Lyric Fest, On Zacheus

What a program Sunday afternoon! Lyric Fest’s “Old City—New Song II” at The Academy of Vocal Arts was a straight-up no-foolin’ art song recital, a heliotrope bouquet of tunes brand-new, kind of new, and new. They were all 20th- and 21st-century songs, and all the composers were connected to Philadelphia in some way.

The oldest were Menotti, Weisgall, and Bernstein. No, I’m wrong, Blitzstein slipped in (b.1905), one of the great surprises of the day, with “Sweet is the Rose.” Daron Hagen may be pleased to know that he followed Blitzstein, one of his influences. Daron’s “Echo’s Song” was gorgeous, his handling of “Our beauties are not ours” making my heart stop for a second. What a feel for line he has, he always has.

Sheridan Seyfried (b.1984) was the youngest, his “Love Song” a delight. Michael Djupstrom is not much older, and his “Spring Rain,” one of a few Sara Teasdale poems on the concert, had a confident pace and trust in the music doing its work.

Lee Hoiby’s “Goodbye, Goodbye World” was a heart-rending take on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town soliloquy. Lee died just last year. I was honored to have visited him at his upstate New York home a few times. He is a greatly undersold composer, but singers know and adore him. Ah, can he write a song.

Barber, Rorem, Persichetti, Schickele (as PDQ Bach), Danielpour, and Rochberg were represented well, and excuse my running past their deservedly known names. Benjamin C.S. Boyle, Curt Cacioppo, Andrea Clearfield, and James Primosch entranced the audience. Boyle and Clearfield had dramatic sweep and grandeur; Cacioppo’s “In Memoriam” was boiled down, inward pain, whispered. “Cinder” of Primosch masterfully balanced opposites. His orchestral canvasses are songs; it is only right that “Cinder,” well, it is a symphony.

Big premieres from Thomas Lloyd (“Ben Unleashed” humorously setting Ben Franklin aphorisms for the ensemble) and Allen Krantz (“From On the Road,” an energetic Jack Kerouac encomium) upped the ante on the afternoon.

Along with the Blitzstein, the other surprises were George Crumb’s early “Let it be forgotten,” stunning, and two ravishing songs by Romeo Cascarino. I know his music and perhaps shouldn’t have been surprised, but “The Shrine” and “Altar Candle” hold up to anything.

A very early song of mine, “On Zacheus,” from my Three Songs, No. 3, was sung with a passion that any composer craves. Soprano Kelly Ann Bixby sang this a couple of months ago, and went even further into it now. Is it the decades removed from the composing of it, or am I confessing something I shouldn’t by admitting that I was taken aback by the emotions in this Francis Quarles poem? It’s early (did I say that?) and, as I told a friend at the concert, “utterly naïve,” but I like it more now than ever. Quarles, the metaphysical poet from the time of John Donne and George Herbert, is always apt, succinct, and two steps ahead of you.

Kelly was one of the delicious singers on the program, along with mezzo Suzanne DuPlantis, soprano Randi Marrazzo (both co-founders of Lyric Fest, along with the redoubtable accompanist Laura Ward), tenor Thomas Lloyd (I had never heard the conductor sing before!), and baritone Jarrett Ott. Bless them all. They’ve blessed us: Lyric Fest has been kicking it for ten years now.

Tru'a

It’s music with clarinet on Now is the Time, Sunday, October 14th at 10 pm. Tru’a is Hebrew for “fanfare,” and the work by the Israeli-American Amos Elkana is one of three pieces clarinet virtuoso Richard Stoltzman plays on this program, along with those of the neo-Romantic McKinley and Davidson.

From Panama, the composer and guitarist Emiliano Pardo-Tristan now lives in the Philadelphia area. His Ludus No. 1 is rich and colorful, as is all his music.

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

PROGRAM:

Emiliano Pardo-Tristan. Ludus No. 1
William Thomas McKinley. Six Movements for Clarinet and Orchestra
Amos Elkana. Tru’a
Roger Davidson. Meditation for Clarinet and Orchestra

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.

Karol Szymanowski

Saturday, October 13th, 2012, 5-6 pm on WRTI (2nd Saturday this month!)

Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937). Violin Concerto No. 1 (1916). Nicola Benedetti, violin, London Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Harding. Deutsche Grammophon 6154, Tr 1-3, 26:59

Szymanowski. Symphony No. 3, “The Song of the Night” (1916). Steve Davislim, tenor, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Pierre Boulez. Deutsche Grammophon 4778771, Disc 1, Tr 3-5, 25:28

Squeezed between a Russian revolution that destroyed his home, and a world war that destroyed the rest, Karol Szymanowski finally found escape in the art that had so long eluded him.

By 1914, the Polish composer, born in the Ukraine, had come to an impasse. His preparation and his training were failing him. Folk music had energized many other cultures in his generation, but he saw it as old-fashioned and an artifice. Chopin, whom he loved, was the greatest of all Polish composers, but seemed both ubiquitous and beside the point. Expression in the new century demanded different methods and different sounds. But how to choose from among them?

The extravagant German Romanticism of Mahler and Richard Strauss trumpeted irrevocable cadences of cosmic certitude. In France, Debussy and Ravel were knitting wisps of hinted harmonic incense into glowing twilights of ineffable sadness. Young Polish poets spoke of transcending life, penetrating the universe, and of an art evolving into the highest of all religions. The Russian Scriabin was singing of this new aspiration in his symphonies.

Everywhere Szymanowski looked, things were new. He traveled to Sicily and North Africa, studying Arabic, Greek, and Eastern mythology. As exoticism started to shift boundaries for him, he noticed something strange: even tradition could be enticing. But when the Great War erupted in 1914, he was forced to cease wandering and return home. There, through long hours of work, a new language began to emerge. By 1916, he had composed two works—huge works—that would define his career, the First Violin Concerto and the Third Symphony.

It was almost as if he wasn’t choosing a new musical expression, but that these influences were choosing him. The sure tonal direction of the Romantics was there, but rising and dissipating faster. Parisian Impressionism spun out high melismatic solos that sounded Moorish at times. Harmonies were at turns bold and muted, with altered scales suggesting Russian mysticism, Debussy, or the East. It was all fashioned with brilliant orchestration as strong as Strauss and as piquant as Ravel. The Persian poetry of Rumi was turned into a symphony about planets, constellations, sleeping, and gods:

“Such quiet, others sleep… 
I and God alone together in this night… Truth with gleaming wing is shining in this night!”

In that one year, Karol Szymanowski awoke his art. This concerto and symphony are astonishing works of freshness and expression. They sound like everything around at the time, yet like nothing else.

It is difficult to describe music at all, but Szymanowski’s music seems especially so, being so varied and striking. Perhaps Simon Rattle said it best. On his first encounter with this composer (with his later Stabat Mater), Sir Simon relates that it was love at first sight. “I cannot talk objectively about Szymanowski, for you cannot expect objectivity or reason from someone in love. And reason is out of place where his music is concerned.”

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