Monthly Archives: January 2013

Percy Grainger

Broadcasting Saturday, February 2nd, 2013, 5-6 pm on WRTI

Percy Grainger (1882-1961). Hill-Song No. 1 (1902, rev. 1921/23). Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Geoffrey Simon. Koch 7003, Tr 3. 13:12

Grainger. The Warriors (1916). City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle. Angel 56412, Tr 15. 18:42

Grainger. In a Nutshell (1916). City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle. Angel 56412, Tr 1-4. 18:52

Grainger1913If you know Percy Grainger at all, you know Country Gardens, that simple frolic every beginning pianist, every wind band, every school orchestra has assayed at one time or another. Percy Grainger knew that you would know that, and that’s why Percy Grainger grew to detest Country Gardens.

His life was a series of course corrections. That’s true of most of us, but he had the talent of switching from success to success. He enjoyed more success than most artists, but his weren’t always the kind he would have chosen, so he’d change directions. He was born and raised in Australia, then studied piano and composition in Germany, where he became friends with Frederick Delius and the composers in his circle. After concertizing in Europe, he relocated to London to teach and play.

He composed all this time—Hill-Song No. 1, one of his favorite works, is from this period—yet he felt he needed to establish his credentials as a pianist before engaging the world with his own music. He was also busy collecting the British folk songs that would figure so greatly in his art for the rest of his life. Even though the two Hill-Songs celebrate vistas from around the world, they’re overflowing with British sound.

Grainger composed The Warriors and dedicated it to Delius. It exists only because of an off-hand suggestion by the conductor Thomas Beecham for a ballet to which he, Sir Thomas, would write the story. Beecham never did, but Grainger wrote the music anyway, calling it “An Imaginary Ballet.” It’s unusual for a Grainger work in that it’s one long movement. In a series of dances, soldiers from all ages and places meet in the afterlife, and the music honors each vigorous culture in turn.

The suite In a Nutshell pulls together four separate works that are closer to the popularly known Grainger. It ends with “The ‘Gum-Suckers’ March,” hailing the nickname for Australians from Grainger’s home state of Victoria, who would chew on eucalyptus leaves while hiking. The first movement’s title, “Arrival platform humlet,” looks like a typo, but how better to describe a little nonsense tune one hums while waiting on a train platform?

A “humlet,” then, is an example of an endearing Grainger idiosyncrasy, his use of language. He knew many, including many Scandinavian ones, but he felt that a person who spoke English should use it (and, as much as possible, Anglo-Saxon) in his scores. So, he called chamber music “room-music,” arrangements “dish-ups,” molto crescendo “louden lots,” and coined new tempo markings such as “Accompanyingly” and “Hammeringly.”

With a world war threatening, Grainger moved from London to America and spent the rest of his life there, serving in the U.S. Army and becoming a citizen. But he always seemed to be on the move. He was a prodigious pianist who wanted to compose, a composer who wanted to educate, an educator who wanted to innovate. The popularity of his “dish-ups” tends to overshadow how brilliant his scoring is. That gift is obvious in the thoroughly original works we hear today. Unfortunately for Grainger, perhaps, it’s also unmistakable in Country Gardens.

Brilliance of that kind doesn’t always explain something that’s popular, but it does explain something that lasts.

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.

Lyric Fest and Winterreise, Clearfield, Hagen

crowA festive afternoon with Lyric Fest at AVA: triumphant premieres of song cycles by Andrea Clearfield and my dear friend Daron Hagen.

Congratulations to all the singers: mezzo-soprano Katherine Pracht and baritone Randall Scarlata for the Clearfield, and soprano Justine Aronson and tenor Joseph Gaines for the Hagen. Laura Ward, at the piano, was the brilliant partner to all. I enjoyed each of the musicians so much, and I believe I enjoyed, by proxy, the feeling a composer has when served so well by completely devoted and winning artists.

As if that were not enough, Randall Scarlata started the recital with a handful of songs from Schubert’s Winterreise, a reprise of the entire set he had given Friday. He shocked me with the power a casual, unaffected reading can produce. I saw the crows, and they made me shiver. Outstanding performance.

It was a warm happiness to see colleagues, a too-infrequent joy, to catch up with friends, to make new ones, and then off to dinner with even more!

Two Quartets

EllisonIt’s two different kinds of quartets, both inspired by great, but different, works of art, on Now is the Time, Sunday, January 27th at 10 pm. Michael Ellison heard the Borromeo String Quartet perform Beethoven’s late quartet, the Opus 131, and the experience prompted a desire to write for Borromeo; to write a work with the greatness of Beethoven’s in his mind. Ten years later he did just that, and his String Quartet #2, for Borromeo, is the result. 

The movements in Robert Maggio’s Two Quartets are 1. Desire, Movement and 2. Love, Stillness. He calls for an unusual quartet of two flutes and two cellos, which can produce a ravishing and mesmerizing sound. The title? Maggio was reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets at the time. The mystic, meditative parallel is apt.

from Robert Maggio: Two Quartets 

Michael Ellison: String Quartet #2
Robert Maggio: Two Quartets

Every Sunday night at 10, Kile Smith brings you Now is the Time, all styles of contemporary concert music by living American composers on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at Here are the recording details and complete schedule.

The composing of Red-tail and Hummingbird, Part 1

[First published 21 Jan 2013 in the Broad Street Review and reprinted with permission.]

RedtailCareening diagonally across the top of my line of sight, a large bird swooped down and slammed into the holly branches not seven feet away from me, scattering sparrows and exploding their screeching imprecations out into what had been a peaceful early evening.

The time was last summer. The bird was a hawk, a red-tail, and young—these three facts apparent in a split-second because a bird that size in this neighborhood is always a red-tail hawk, and the striated belly (noticeable even in the blur) is an adolescent’s.

If the red-tail had targeted a particular bird for prey, it had failed. But it stayed on its branch, first hopping, then shifting and twitching. Perhaps holly leaves were brushing against it, but it wasn’t quitting the tree just yet. The sparrows warily sneaked to other, farther perches, their din of rage devolving into less frequent yells, then tut-tuts.

Strange sound

One sound, however, was different, and insistent. Only gradually did I notice it: a scree higher than the sparrows’, raspy, buzzy like a cicada’s but violent and quick.

I couldn’t tell what it was, until I seemed to locate its source in mid-air, in what looked at first to be a large bug—a cicada? in mid-air?—or a junebug, or maybe a huge bee. No, bigger than…

Oh my, it’s a hummingbird.

My wife and I were delighted when, a few years into living in Fox Chase, a hummingbird showed up. We put up feeders and took them down, in fits and starts, but coneflower and bee balm and butterfly bush we’ve grown all along. All those, and more, attract these hummers, as well as bees of different varieties, and monarchs, and black and yellow swallowtails. But the hummingbirds are still a surprise.

Predator or prey?

This one floated just a foot from the holly tree, near the telephone wire strung from the street to the house, screeling and then—look at that!—launching itself at the hawk. From one moment to the next, this contest went on: hover, launch, back, hover, launch.

Now I see that these attacks caused the hawk to twitch all this time. It very well may have run to the holly as a house of refuge—not to pounce on a bird, but to escape from one.

It was no use; the red-tail had offended, probably, by trespassing too close to a hummingbird nest, and the hummer would now exact its revenge. Again and again it launched, again and again the hawk twitched, sometimes feebly pecking the air.

Holmes and Moriarty

Tiring of the abuse, the young red-tail flew off. The hummingbird took off after it, and they torpedoed into the Norway spruce across the street, covered from view by drooping branches. They were gone only a few minutes, but long enough to make me think of Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty tumbling over the Reichenbach Falls.

Then out they came, and back, straight for the holly, where the ballet of attacks resumed. This happened twice. The hawk could not shake its hound of hell.

Then the red-tail had had enough and departed for good, leaving the holly behind, as well as the spruce, and fleeing over houses. The hummingbird followed but returned. It darted around the porch, hovered, and then rested on the telephone wire, swinging lazily in the air.

The orchestra calls

Earlier that day I’d received an e-mail from Adam Lesnick, the executive director of Orchestra 2001, asking if I had a title for the short piece his orchestra and Piffaro had commissioned for their joint concerts in February 2013.

At that point I had a notion of what my piece would be, but not much more. At the time, the performance was a half-year away, with three deadlines still to meet before turning to this particular notion. But a title can be a good place to start, and it’s certainly preferable to “New Work by.” So as I walked onto the porch that peaceful early evening, to the corner of it next to the holly tree, I was searching for any inkling of a title.

hummingbirdAnd that’s how Red-tail and Hummingbird got its name.

I make no claim to how others work, but my description of the composing of this work might demystify what is sometimes called the creative process, at least the shadows of it that I’ve been fortunate enough to inhabit. The creation of Red-tail and Hummingbird involves these two birds, as well as two tuning systems, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Zappa, Praetorius, undetermined instruments, a tango, luck, and a colossal mistake with an F-natural. But that will take another article.

[Read Part 2 here.]

Etta James, At Last

[Remembering the anniversary of her death 20 Jan 2012; first published 31 Dec 2011 in the Broad Street Review and reprinted with permission.]

EttaJamesA spotlight pushes like a wave across the room, lifting up glints from the highball glasses and lacquered fingernails and cuff links in its wake, along with bluish pinwheel galaxies of Old Gold and Chesterfield smoke. It washes onto the stage, where a gleaming woman stands at a microphone, waiting.

Strings, close by, introduce a song. Their sinuous lines curl and dip, swooping and almost stopping as they crest, before lazily plashing at the woman’s feet.

She is young but sings old. Although she’s only 22 she has been waiting a long time for this song. Her improbably blond hair belies the hurt she’s known. She’s lived trouble to spare, has loved, but not happily, has eaten pain. But as the introduction ends, her eyes begin a slow, wise smile, and she sings,

“At… last.”

With these two words, with this pent-up exhalation, Etta James discovers herself and launches an anthem. “At Last” had been covered by a handful of artists, but the song became immortal in 1961 because of her; and because of her, it’s the icon of a poignant era in American music. (To view a more recent performance, click here.)

Backlash against Glenn Miller

Great things are sui generis, hard to define because they break models. Bach, the ultimate Baroque composer, is the least Baroque of them all. Robert Duvall, neither leading man nor character actor, reinvented the screen.

“At Last” is blues, to be sure; but with its bits of rhythm-and-blues, jazz, swing, doo-wop, and even country, it ought to have been nothing more than pop smush, a ’50s leftover. Harry Warren and Mack Gordon wrote it in 1941 for Glenn Miller, the year Miller recorded “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” Miller’s “At Last” is a slick, smiling, denatured big-band bonbon—in fact, exactly the kind of vanilla that triggered the be-bop and rock backlash.

Music of the ’50s has a peculiar affect partly because it’s an interregnum. The Great American Songbook had closed, for all intents and purposes, by 1953 or so, with Indian summer blooms like “My One and Only Love.” Hits such as “I Only Have Eyes for You,” “Blue Moon,” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” were remakes of ’30s show tunes. The ‘50s even brought forth three versions of “Stranger in Paradise”—melody by a Russian opera composer who was dead before Irving Berlin was even born.

It would all be tsunamied by “Rock Around the Clock” and its kin, which packed energy but little else.

Last gasp before The Beatles

Black singers sang white, white sang black. Everyone was trying to figure out who they were, all in the name of opening new markets. The music business was on the cusp of becoming an industry. The British Invasion was about to power-wash the American asphalt, and folkies and ex-jazzers would fan out into a new American pop landscape.

Etta James’s “At Last” might have been a last gasp by a disappearing remnant that wanted hits to be classic songs. But they didn’t overreach. “At Last” is a haymaker, so much better than the original. It’s not a deconstruction, re-imagining, or referencing of the old song. James and the producers grabbed and dragged it across 20 years and made that song the way it should have been made in the first place.

The notes for those first words, “At last,” are a cadence, an ending. Five-one, or sol-do, is the melodic progression, which usually comes at the end of songs, the end of concerto solos. You hear it and you know everything’s been said that’s going to be said. And, in a way, the words “At last” do wrap it up. The rest of the song—my love has come along, lonely days are over, skies are blue, I found a dream, a thrill, you are mine—is commentary.

Those strings are typical sweetening, but notice how few there are. Such small forces, yet so many chromatic notes: They sound as if they’re about to capsize. It’s slightly unnerving as you hear separate players (and, sometimes, separate intonations). Yet a full string orchestra would sound puffy.

Wise innocence

If one sound defined the ’50s, it would have to be those teardrop pearls of triplets dropping out of the middle-high piano register. Whether the arrangers were aping the faster rockabilly and R & B or were simply too impatient to allow a ballad to unfold on its own, they put those triplets there to span the gaps between beats.

The drummer usually handles it, but at some point a pianist threw a couple of fingers down and helped out softly. They’re fillers, a delicious weakness of the time. You hear the distantly miked piano, and lose it, and hear it again, giving these recordings an extra frisson of liveness, a wise innocence that slowly eroded and would be gone in a few years.

All this is contained in “At Last.” But the song is immortal because of Etta James.

Talking a song

Remarkably, she does hardly anything with it, singing it almost straight. Her instrument—her voice—she just lets go. It’s girlish at times, large and fanfaring at others, but always emotionally true. It sounds natural and confident, as if she could sing for hours and never tire.

She’s just talking to us, it seems, having no time for those inflections, the warbles and hammered squibs of preening TV idols, of national-anthem renditions longer than Telemann cantatas. A little scoop here, a blues bend there, and that’s it. She sings “over” the way you say “over.” She sells the song, not herself—a breathtakingly elusive concept.

I’ve never seen Etta James sing, but when I hear that song, I see that spotlight, the smoke, the glint of cuff links, and a 22-year-old woman with a slow, wise smile who knows what pain is, and now, what clover is. Etta James always sang old, but she’ll always be young.

Traveling Music

KronosIt’s the voice of the people on Now is the Time, Sunday, January 20th at 10 pm. Populism reigned in the very first commission from the Kronos Quartet, way back in 1973: Traveling Music of Ken Benshoof. Similar influences echo in the recent Close Tolerances of Christopher Braddock, written for the new music / Baroque ensemble Mélomanie, from their new Florescence CD.

We can’t think of the meeting of classical and popular in American music without soon encountering William Bolcom’s Cabaret Songs, and here we listen to live performances of the first two volumes, with the composer accompanying his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris.

from Ken Benshoof: Traveling Music 


Ken Benshoof: Traveling Music
Christopher Braddock: Close Tolerances
William Bolcom: Cabaret Songs, Vols. 1, 2

Every Sunday night at 10, Kile Smith brings you Now is the Time, all styles of contemporary concert music by living American composers on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at Here are the recording details and complete schedule.

Double bar

RedtailRed-tail and Hummingbird, my new piece for Orchestra 2001 and Piffaro, The Renaissance Band, slammed into the double bar a few hours ago, and not a moment too soon. Both groups play the same piece on the same concert: early and modern instruments.

The wailing finished before Christmas, the gnashing of teeth, last week. Now, just lots of tweaking to be done. Some dynamics might help.

Concerts 22, 23, 24 Feb. Check it out here; program notes to come. Yes, it really is about birds and yes, it’s the second new piece in a row with Red in the title.