Monthly Archives: July 2013

1935: Ginastera, Berg, Prokofiev on Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection

Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection broadcasts Saturday, August 3rd, 2013, 5-6 pm on WRTI and

Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983). Concierto Argentino (1935). Barbara Nissman, piano, University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra, Kenneth Kiesler. Pierian 0048, Tr 1-3. 18:57

Alban Berg (1885-1935). Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1935). Leonid Kogan, violin, Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy. PhilOrch 7 Disk 3, Tr 4-5. 25:08

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). Violin Concerto No. 2, III: Allegro (1935). Nathan Milstein, violin, New Philharmonia Orchestra, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. Angel 76862, Tr 6. 6:21

AlbanBerg480The year 1935 was a critical one for three composers at different stages of their careers. Sergei Prokofiev was just about to move back to the Soviet Union. Alban Berg (pictured) stopped work on his opera Lulu when the daughter of a friend died; he composed his astounding Violin Concerto in her memory, but would not live out the year.

Alberto Ginastera, however, was just at the beginning of a great life in music, and his youthful Concierto Argentino for piano brims with energy. He was still a conservatory student when he wrote this, and he later wished to revise it, but it caught the attention of conductor/composer/writer Nicolas Slonimsky. He was on his 1941 journey through Latin America, funded by Edwin A. Fleisher, founder of the Fleisher Collection. This was one of hundreds of works gathered by Slonimsky for the Collection.

Ginastera never did get around to reconsidering the Concierto Argentino, but the pianist Barbara Nissman found it at the Fleisher Collection about two decades after his death. Nissman was already devoted to the composer’s music and had become a friend of Ginastera. His estate was happy to encourage this premiere recording of a work foreshadowing the national pride and harmonic variety that would shine throughout his career.

Alban Berg had been commissioned for a violin concerto, but had done nothing on it while writing Lulu. Then, Manon Gropius, the 18-year-old daughter of Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler (Gustav Mahler’s ex-wife), died of polio. Berg stopped working on the opera, composed the concerto, and dedicated it “To the memory of an angel.”

It is an intricate, warm, feathery, and sad work, calling for the utmost control and expression from the soloist. The last movement is built on the notes of the chorale “Es ist genug” (It is enough), a centuries-old tune so chromatic that it employs all twelve notes. Berg deftly layers in the Johann Sebastian Bach harmonization, bringing the work to a profoundly moving close. It was the last piece of music he’d complete. He never finished Lulu, dying of blood poisoning on Christmas Eve 1935. He was 50.

As we saw on a previous Discoveries, Sergei Prokofiev was hemming and hawing over whether to move back to the Soviet Union. He had lived abroad for many years, but while he was enjoying the fame of a busy career, the very busyness from constant travel was catching up to him. He was homesick for the land of his birth, and although the regime had cracked down on artists, there seemed to be a fresh wind blowing. Different people—important people—wanted him back, and were willing to make it worth his while.

His second violin concerto premiered in December 1935, in Madrid, the finale tipping its hat with castanets, thanking Spain for the honor. The next year he was residing, for good, in the Soviet Union—which again began suppressing artists. 1935 was indeed a critical year.

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra at the 2007 Lucerne Music Festival in the infectious Malambo by Alberto Ginastera:

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.

Neither Anvil nor Pulley on Now Is the Time

DanTruemanFiddle480Out of machinery, music on Now Is the Time, Sunday, July 28th at 10 pm. Dan Trueman combines hi- and lo-tech into gear that audibly shines in neither Anvil nor Pulley. He founded and directs the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, but fell in love with the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle (left). That sound, and its rustic, dust-raising energy infuses this work. nAnP features that fiddle, Trueman’s computing expertise, a turntable, and his brilliant collaborators So Percussion.

A computer is a tool “that hides its purpose,” Trueman says, but a piano is a machine we think we know well. One of the more difficult tasks in composing is to write a work for two pianos that make both pianos sound necessary. Riffing in Tandem succeeds by joining the lyricism of Rodney Rogers with virtuosity that is always musical. How can music come from machines, even machines we know well?

from Dan Trueman: neither Anvil nor Pulley 

Dan Trueman: neither Anvil nor Pulley
Rodney Rogers: Riffing in Tandem

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.

Crossing myself

[Published in the Broad Street Review, 21 Jul 2013, under the title On crossing myself.]

Cross“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen,” I began.

Half the people at dinner—the Protestants—stole glances side to side. The other half made the sign of the cross. These were the Catholics. They couldn’t help themselves.

My wife kicked me under the table and I continued to say grace.

This once happened at Easter dinner at my sister’s, who married a Catholic. Both sides of her family were there, and she had asked me to say the prayer before dinner.

Our Protestant side is Lutheran, and individual Lutherans (hereabouts, at least) are normally allergic to praying in public. But I had surprised everyone—even myself, I suppose—by going to Bible college, and people expect that if you go to all that trouble you might as well be useful and say a prayer when one’s needed.

I was happy to, and thought I’d reach out to the non-Protestants. Not really: I thought I’d have some fun.

Sin of pride

Liturgical Protestants—Episcopalians and Lutherans—start their services, as Catholics begin Mass, with this invocation of the Holy Trinity. But outside of that, you hardly ever hear a prayer started that way.

There’s no rule against lay people using it, but I’d wager that Catholics never hear it (either in church or at a wedding reception) from anyone but a priest. And when they do hear it—boom, forehead, solar plexus, left shoulder, right shoulder, solar plexus. As I said, they can’t help themselves.

It worked. I spoke, they crossed, my liturgically aware wife kicked, my sister rolled her eyes, my brother-in-law smiled and shook his head, and I was immensely pleased with myself.

But since being pleased with oneself is not a Lutheran virtue, I knew immediately that this wasn’t my finest moment. No one was harmed, and those words are very good words, but it was pretty weasely to utter them just to get a reaction.

When ballplayers do it

Years later, the Catholics have been getting back at me. Now cross myself.

I never had. Growing up, we Lutherans lumped the sign of the cross, incense, and ashes on Ash Wednesday into “going Catholic.” Moving your hands around in church would be like, I don’t know, wearing feathers or hopping. Kneeling was about as aerobic as we got.

I remember watching Saturday baseball on TV and how exotic it looked when an Alou brother or another Latin American player crossed himself upon entering the batter’s box. There was no pointing to the sky after a hit—not then—but here was this, the sign of the cross, before any hit could happen. For good luck, I thought? What else could it be?

Lutheran clergy make the sign of the cross, sure. But it’s a big, pastoral gesture blessing the bread and wine, perhaps covering us with it at the Benediction. That’s different: Pastors do that; we don’t.

Then a few years ago, one of those pastors explained to me that the sign of the cross is simply a reminder. Luther himself encouraged its use, because we forget. We forget who we are, we forget what Jesus did. We have words to remind us, but a sign, a physical sign, a real act, hammers it (if you will) home.

Dan Rottenberg’s question

“So why are Christians so preoccupied with the manner of your founder’s death?”

Dan Rottenberg, editor of the Broad Street Review, leaned back and asked me this question. Dan has a way of being forward while leaning back, à la Bill Buckley, and a way of smiling while jabbing, like Ali. But lunch was good—Kung Pao chicken is about my favorite thing to eat; even bad Kung Pao chicken is good—and so I didn’t mind.

“I suppose it’s because without Christ’s death and resurrection there’d be no point to Christianity,” I offered.

“Yes, of course,” he said, “I understand the doctrine, but why such a big deal about the cross? What if he had been sent to the electric chair?”

“The Lenny Bruce joke, right. Sure, why not, little chair jewelry around our necks, then. Why is that a joke, by the way? It seems so obvious.”

“Well,” Dan replied, “it’s awfully gruesome.”

Shocking the system

That pastor was right: I had forgotten. Of course it’s gruesome. The Catholics—through Lutheran pastors, Latin American baseball players, and a Jewish editor—were getting back at me. Man, they’re good.

The cross is so much a part of my lingua franca that I can step into the batter’s box as if it didn’t matter, as if it didn’t signify, well, what it is.

Actually making the sign of the cross, though, shocks the system. I love the resurrection, but I don’t love this. I’d forget it if I could. But actually making a sign about death—this kind of death—forces me to remember. The price paid pokes me in the forehead, boom, my chest, boom, slams my shoulders back. Ba-boom.

A good friend makes the sign every time he drives past a Catholic church. The body and the blood are in there, and he doesn’t forget it.

Now, when I hear, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” I do it, too. That’s my way of making a big deal about the manner of my founder’s death. At that instant my entire religion, my whole confidence in what I think I believe, zooms onto a Ground Zero cross—that gruesome thing, hanging in the air in front of me.

Hanging in the air is my salvation. I’d rather have confidence—I’d rather help myself—but I’m at, yes, cross-purposes. The cross says: Get a hit, strike out, live, die, doesn’t matter. Over and over, up, down, and sideways, it reminds my brain, my heart, my strength: There’s nothing I can do—it’s already been done—that’s the big deal.

I make the sign of the cross because I can’t help myself.

Smoke and Mirrors on Now Is the Time

SmokeMirrors480Heat isn’t all there is to summer on Now Is the Time, Sunday, July 21st at 10 pm. Gao Hong not only composed Guangxi Impressions, but also plays the pipa, or Chinese lute, on her work, along with the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet. It includes Summer Cicada and Celebrating the Harvest. Ronald Perera follows with Five Summer Songs of Emily Dickinson, looking at changing gardens, jostling winds, and reveries.

Two composer/guitarists round out the program. Van Stiefel always wondered why there weren’t more violin/guitar duos in the literature, so he wrote one, Smoke and Mirrors, using violin with electric guitar. John King’s Lightning Slide imagines blues for the string quartet Ethel. Its movements are Swing, Sweet, and Sweat: if heat isn’t all there is to summer, sometimes it just seems that way.

from Van Stiefel: Smoke and Mirrors 

Gao Hong: Guangxi Impression
Ronald Perera: Five Summer Songs on Poems of Emily Dickinson
Van Stiefel: Smoke and Mirrors
John King: Lightning Slide

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.

Clint Eastwood and Lutherans

GranTorinoJust saw Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood’s movie about a Korean vet / retired auto-worker / extremely lapsed Catholic / bigot who grudgingly comes to care for his Asian neighbors. Funniest line. The wise-cracking girl next door answers one of his sneers, as to why the Hmong ended up in the Midwest, in his town.

She says a bit about their persecution from Communists settling scores after Vietnam, but seeing his lack of interest, quickly sums up. “Blame the Lutherans,” she says, “they brought us here.”

Clint looks sideways and speaks in a tired voice. “Everybody blames the Lutherans.”

The $100 Guitar Project on Now Is the Time

GuitarProject480Two guys buy a cheap guitar and get all their friends to write for it on Now Is the Time, Sunday, July 14th at 10 pm. Nick Didkovsky and Chuck O’Meara set some ground rules: keep the guitar for a week, don’t alter it, and pay to send it to the next person. Other than that, just have fun. Out of two CDs’ worth of short pieces on the album they call The $100 Guitar Project, we’ll hear a dozen, ranging from metal to metaphysical, from downtown to out there.

Keeping to the guitar motif is George Crumb’s paean to the dogs in his family over the years, Mundus Canis for solo guitar and percussion. There’s also lots of guitar and percussion in a live excerpt from Annie Gosfield’s written-and-improvised Daughters of the Industrial Revolution. David Leisner’s trio for flute, guitar, and cello sounded vaguely Italian to him, so he gave it an Italian title, Trittico. Finally, Steve Bowman assembles his keyboard/computer electronica from live performances; Gutterball sounds all the world like electric guitar to us; other than that, it’s just fun.

from The $100 Guitar Project. Joe Berger: D & B Eurotunnel 

Amy Denio: Demi-zen Koan
Josh Lopes: Hundo
Nick Didkovsky: A Fire in God’s Path
Biota: Watch and Watch
Caroline Feldmeier: A Fond Lover
Ron Anderson: Chainring Compatibility
Joe Berger: D & B Eurotunnel
Mike Lerner: Requiem
Mike Keneally: Hi Ma
Mark Solomon: Stethoscope
Barry Cleveland: Arab Spring
Raymond T. Kallas: Malchiro (when blossoms fall they look like they’re dancing)
George Crumb: Mundus Canis
Annie Gosfield: Daughters of the Industrial Revolution, excerpt
David Leisner: Trittico
Steve Bowman: Gutterball

Watch Barry Cleveland assembling Arab Spring on the $100 guitar:

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.

String phrasings

stringsMe: Just spent the last two hours putting in string phrasings.

She: [rolls eyes] How boring.

Me: Really the only reason you could never be a composer. It’s too boring.

She: Well, I could never think up any music.

Me: Pff, happens all the time…. Just spent the last two hours putting in string phrasings.