Monthly Archives: May 2013

Different Trains on Now Is the Time

GrandCentralIt’s two large works—one for piano, one for string quartet—on Now Is the Time, Sunday, June 2nd at 10 pm. The Sonata for Piano Solo by Judith Lang Zaimont shows its depth through color and a confident use of materials: not afraid to echo Beethoven’s “Pathéthique” Sonata in the second movement, she carries it off beautifully. The Van Cliburn Competition used the third movement of this sonata in 2001.

As a child growing up in New York City during World War II, Steve Reich traveled East Coast to West Coast and back by train (Grand Central Terminal at its founding in 1913, above). He later learned that there were other people on other trains at the same time in Poland, in Hungary, who were being taken to their deaths. Different Trains places the Kronos string quartet against its recorded self, along with the voices of some who survived the Holocaust.

from Steve Reich: Different Trains 

PROGRAM:
Judith Lang Zaimont: Sonata for Piano Solo
Steve Reich: Different Trains

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 wrti.org. Here are the recording details and complete schedule.

I've written 500 posts

Hard to believe but there it is; WordPress keeps track of these things and just told me, otherwise I wouldn’t have known. Now, 500 may seem like a big number, but for perspective on just how big it is, consider these facts:

If you laid all my posts end-to-end, there would be 500 of them.

If you stacked all my posts up toward the moon and stood on top of them, you would be 500 posts closer to the moon. I know, right? Probably you’d have to stack them into stairs or something so you could get up there, but anyway it’d be worth it because it wouldn’t be like standing way down here where you are now.

If each of my posts was like, I don’t know, a million-dollar bill…I would never copy my own music ever again. I would take one of my posts, like even one of the real small ones, to the bank, and I’d say, “Hi guys, go ahead and split this up and give me the cash for, I don’t know, each of the letters…and, and punctuation marks or even parts of them, like can you split a double quotation mark in half, stuff like that?” and they’d say, “Sure, whatever you want!” and they’d give me the money and I’d come to you and I’d give you like a small m or half a comma or something and say, “Here you go, now you can copy my music, I don’t want to anymore.” And you’d say, “Cool! This is great, Kile!,” and then you’d copy my music for me and tell your friends what a great guy I was.

So I know it’s hard to believe but there it is. 500 posts. This one is 501.

Haydn's Symphonies, First and Last

Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection broadcasts Saturday, June 1st, 2013, 5-6 pm on WRTI and wrti.org.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). Symphony No. 107 (A) (c.1758). Kevin Mallon, Toronto Chamber Orchestra. Naxos 572130 Tr 5-7. 13:32.

Haydn. Symphony No. 1 (c.1759). Adam Fischer, Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra. Nimbus 5265 Tr 1-3. 13:20.

Haydn. Symphony No. 104, “London” (1795). Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic. Angel 64563 Disk 1 Tr 5-8. 25:28

HaydnsHallWe call Joseph Haydn the “Father of the Symphony,” but he didn’t invent the form. A symphony is a multi-movement work, usually for orchestra, usually including a first movement that develops a theme, and another that’s a dance. When Haydn started producing these, people had already been writing them for about 20 years. His first is from around 1758 or so; fellow Austrian Georg Matthias Monn wrote one in 1740.

True, Haydn wrote a lot of symphonies. But so did others: dozens of composers produced dozens of symphonies each. Haydn wrote more than most (probably 107), but his younger friend Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf wrote 120, and 140 come from the pen of a Bohemian composer named Pokorný.

Haydn may rightly be called the “Father of the String Quartet,” however. A baron hired him to compose pieces in which Haydn would play with three of the baron’s friends—his estate manager, his priest, and the brother of another composer. The four happened to play violin, violin, viola, and cello, which quickly became the standard string quartet. The pieces were so successful that other people started hiring other composers to do the same thing.

These early quartets were in multiple movements: a first that developed a theme, and another that was a dance. Add wind instruments and maybe drums for big beginnings and endings, and you have the classical symphony.

Which is just what Haydn started to compose when someone bigger than a baron—a count—hired him. Numbering the symphonies is confusing, because these earliest ones weren’t found or attributed to Haydn until much later, after 104 had already been published and cataloged. So “No. 107 (A)” is probably the actual first of Haydn’s symphonies (it’s too difficult to re-number the rest).

He wrote the one now called No. 1 and others for the count, but then, moving further up the aristocratic chain, Haydn accepted employment with a prince in 1761. Haydn wrote almost all his symphonies for this family of Esterházys. He directed and composed for the brand-new residential orchestra installed at their country estate [pictured above, Haydn Hall, Esterházy Castle].

In 30 years Haydn worked for three princes, the last of whom economized in 1791 and curtailed music. This actually proved to be a huge blessing for Haydn, who longed to be liberated and to compose for others. He visited London twice with huge success, and wrote his final symphonies for English audiences. These we group as the “London” symphonies, but the very last one, No. 104, is officially subtitled “London.”

No, Haydn didn’t invent the symphony. But he infused the form with a vigor, profundity, humor, and audacity unknown until he came along. Mozart learned from him, then Beethoven, and every other orchestral composer who rightly looks to Joseph Haydn as, indeed, the “Father of the Symphony.”

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.

From Haydn’s first string quartets, the beginning of No. 2, performed by the prizewinning Attacca Quartet:

Komm und singt mit uns

[First published in the Broad Street Review, 27 May 2013, under the title The bearable weight of a German chorus.]

dandelionWould I be their Ansager at the spring concert? he asked. He sings in the Männerchor, the German men’s choir that performs, along with the Damenchor, at a local German club, the Vereinigung Erzgebirge in Warminster, Pa. I’m not a member—I can’t make the rehearsals—but they allow me to come in at dress rehearsals and concerts to sing with them, because my wife Jackie is the director.

Ansager is announcer, but in this case, what they want is an emcee, someone to speak for them, to introduce songs briefly, to keep it moving, while perhaps throwing in a German phrase here and there.

Many of the choir members come from Germany, but not all. Many have lived here for decades and speak English well but still with heavy accents. Some are American-born yet fluent in German; and some, like me, speak only a bit of it, and poorly.

Some don’t speak German at all, but pronounce it for the music. Some mix German and English together when they’re among friends and relaxed and the words flow.

‘Dandelion’ in German

They’re singing popular songs, folk tunes, and classical works by Schumann and Brahms. Since it is Wagner’s 200th anniversary, they bring out a few of his operatic choruses.

The Damen sing a song to a flower: Löwenzahn—lion’s tooth, just like dandelion and dent-de-lion from the Latin dens leonis, since the leaves are jagged. One American-born lady had asked, weeks earlier, “Who’d write a song about a weed?,” so another lady (German-born) brought one in. It was impressive, perhaps because it was in a pot and you never see a dandelion in a pot, but it was truly a fine specimen, its full yellow bloom bright and buttery and warm, big as a marshmallow.

“I dug it out of my neighbor’s yart,” she confided with a smile. “Day had lots of goot ones. Day’re getting a divorce or sahmting, day’re never home, so I didn’t tink day would mind.”

She brought it into the dress rehearsal and everyone laughed. By concert time the next day, the leaves had wilted and the flower had drooped, but no matter. Walking to the microphone to introduce Löwenzahn, I carried it with me. The biggest laugh of the night swept across the audience.

Sinatra in Vienna

They also laughed before Wagner’s Flying Dutchman chorus, “Steuermann, komm und singt mit uns.” The sailors tell the ship’s steersman to leave his post and sing with them. I’ve forgotten so much German but somehow I’d remembered that Steuer means “tax.” I began, “Now, this next song is not about the I.R.S.,” and the Germans laughed. Not bad.

They want to sing well but these are not Künstler, artists. These are amateurs, Liebhaber, literally, they have love. My wife understands this, and while she pushes them past what they think they can accomplish, she doesn’t push much further. They love the music and singing but also the laughter, the eating and drinking, the stories, the gemütlichkeit.

One man told me he met Frank Sinatra in 1948 when Sinatra had come to his church in Vienna. “I didn’t know who he wass, sahm little guy singing Christmas songs. But he wass good, you know. After the concert he handed out karten, oh what are those, fliers, with hiss picture. Then I came here later—he wass a big shtar then you know—and nobody could believe I met Frank Sinatra. But it’s true. I have that picture sahmwhere, I should find it.”

Flipped by Wagner

This is the first time I’ve sung Wagner’s chorus, “Freudig begrüssen” (“Joyfully we hail the noble hall”) from Tannhäuser. The bass lines are trickier than I thought. Quirky somehow, lighter for all the boldness. And then I noticed why. Wagner inverts chords.

The chorus is in B major and the B major triad is B, D-sharp, F-sharp. Composers invert chords all the time of course, but on strong cadences, chords will just about always have the root of the triad—in this case, B—on the bottom. It’s strongest that way. There were plenty of those, but at very important spots, instead of the B, Wagner gives the basses the D-sharp or F-sharp above. It’s the same chord, just inverted or tumbled a bit.

It’s thrilling yet unsettling to land on that chord, like entering your house through a window. Then Wagner flips you again. He often goes from B major to E major, a common progression. Classically, you’d take the smallest steps possible for each voice to change chords, so, the D-sharp in the first chord normally ratcheting one half-step up to E in the second chord.

Wagner, however, vaults the basses from the already unsettled D-sharp, over the E and up to the equally unsettled G-sharp, the third of the E major chord. You keep thinking you’re landing, but he keeps putting it off. It’s so simple, yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen this voice-leading before, in this kind of music. Nor would I have, if they hadn’t let me sing “Freudig begrüssen” with them.

After the war

Playing violin is a man who was a boy in Leipzig after the war. He paid for lessons by bringing, instead of money, a piece of coal to heat the furnace.

A man sitting at a table by the windows grew up on a farm near Dresden. He was 13 when he saw the bombers flying over his fields in 1945. Then he heard the thunder, the sound of a city exploding.

Someone else, the man who first asked me about being the Ansager, comes from a German-Hungarian area. Soldiers came, after they thought they were safe. They put people into two lines. He was a little boy, and was separated from his older brother. In line, he turned to see where his brother was, and saw a soldier put a pistol to his brother’s head and fire.

I stand in a line with him. We sing to the Steuermann and to the noble hall. Would I be their Ansager? Would I speak for them at the spring concert?

Yes, I will speak for you. Yes, I will be your Ansager.

Mythology on Now Is the Time

Tantalus480It’s three views of mythology on Now Is the Time, Sunday, May 26th at 10 pm. Robert Lombardo brings the sound of the mandolin to the string orchestra with a fascinating result in Orpheus and the Maenads, and Richard Stoltzman brings his clarinet to the music of Jonathan Sacks, whose Portals re-imagines Bacchus and ancient rituals.

Maurice Wright’s Mythology is a cycle of songs considering the myths of Orpheus, Lethe, Tantalus (detail from the Bernard Picart engraving, left), and Medusa, the music swimming in poignant lyricism.

from Robert Lombardo: Orpheus and the Maenads 

PROGRAM:
Jonathan Sacks: Portals
Maurice Wright: Mythology
Robert Lombardo: Orpheus and the Maenads

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 wrti.org. Here are the recording details and complete schedule.

The Red Book of Montserrat premieres at Kimmel

KimmelI could hardly have been happier at the premiere of The Red Book of Montserrat last night at the Perelman Theater in the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia. This newest string orchestra work is a 20-minute suite commissioned by the Philadelphia Sinfonia, Gary White, music director. There’s more information here about the work and how I went about composing it.

One of the things I wanted to make sure to mention in my remarks from the stage before the performance was how fortunate I felt in having these young people play my music. I said that I was looking over my shoulder a bit, because The Red Book was sandwiched between Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov, and Scheherazade, composed by Rimsky-Korsakov.

I hold R-K in the highest reverence as a composer and most especially, as an orchestrator (you can’t really separate the two, but that’s another article), and so, as I felt Tchaikovsky’s presence last week with Three Dances, I was certainly aware of Rimsky last night. He can spring an orchestra’s sound off the stage like nobody else. I was laughing and shaking my head at all the brilliant instrumental chess moves he was making all evening.

But, as I said before my piece, I had an ace in the hole: the players of Sinfonia and their conductor. They were marvelous. Red Book made its impact with their impassioned performance. The many small (and not so small) first-chair solos were lovely, the overlapping washes of sound in the fourth movement were delicious, the dance rhythms were crisp, the sound was big and juicy.

As I also said, I’m honored and humbled by being allowed to compose, and to compose for the Philadelphia Sinfonia. A thrilling performance, a thrilling concert!

Warmth on Now Is the Time

Melomanie 480The cold snap is behind us and we’re feeling the warmth of spring on Now Is the Time, Sunday, May 19th at 10 pm. Ingrid Arauco’s Florescence buzzes and hums for the flute and harpsichord of Mélomanie (pictured, left), and Derek Bermel brings Thracian Sketches in all its Bulgarian-inspired rhythms to viola and percussion.

George Tsontakis takes us to the Mediterranean with orchestral Gymnopedies that are more Greek than French, but France infuses the sound of Avner Dorman’s Moments Musicaux for piano.

Things heat up with the computerized kicks of Thrum by John Gibson, and finally, with the two electric guitars that rock David Lang’s Warmth.

from Derek Bermel: Thracian Sketches 

PROGRAM:
Ingrid Arauco: Florescence
Derek Bermel: Thracian Sketches
George Tsontakis: Gymnopedies
Avner Dorman: Moments Musicaux
John Gibson: Thrum
David Lang: Warmth

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 wrti.org. Here are the recording details and complete schedule.