Monthly Archives: December 2013

Christmas Daybreak on Now Is the Time

NowEnsemble500It’s faith of all kinds in the midst of Christmas on Now Is the Time, Saturday, December 28th at 9 pm—our new time, every Saturday night at 9 on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at wrti.org. Daron Hagen uses choir and cello lovingly to explore traditional carols in new ways, with Once in Royal David’s City and the Sussex Carol. Then, the sparkling Now Ensemble brings transformations to life in David Crowell’s Waiting in the Rain for Snow.

Having faith in each other is the subject of Faith by Neil Rolnick, where the written-out and improvised piano part is modified in real time by a second player—on computer. Robert Convery wrote Christmas Daybreak for The Bridge Ensemble, the forerunner of the choir who closes our program with it, The Crossing.

If you’re new to Now Is the Time, just go to wrti.org and click on the Listen: Classical button at the top. Day or night, that brings you the all-classical stream, and at 9 pm every Saturday, you’ll hear Now Is the Time. In the Philadelphia area with an HD radio? Dial us up at 90.1 FM, HD2, or find all the frequencies here, depending on where you are, from the Shore to the Poconos to Harrisburg to Dover. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI!

from David Crowell: Waiting in the Rain for Snow 

PROGRAM:
Daron Hagen: Once in Royal David’s City
David Crowell: Waiting in the Rain for Snow
Neil Rolnick: Faith
Daron Hagen: Sussex Carol
Robert Convery: Christmas Daybreak

Every Saturday night at 9, 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.

Winter Spirits on Now Is the Time

Christmas Daybreak500We are on the cusp of winter on Now Is the Time, Saturday, December 21st at 9 pm—our new time, every Saturday night at 9 on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at wrti.org.

The Philadelphia new-music choir The Crossing has just released Christmas Daybreak, from which we hear Benjamin C. S. Boyle’s Three Carols for Wintertide, holding up for our consideration a rose, holly and ivy, and rosemary. For Nothing is Fred Frith’s music considering the Buddha nature; it’s for contralto with the unusual string quartet of two violins, cello, and viola da gamba. Katherine Hoover paints the image of a Native American flutist in Winter Spirits, and Adrienne Albert offers the soft Winter Solace for saxophone and piano.

The start of a solstice reminds us of beginnings of all kinds, and the Symphony No. 1 of Steven R. Gerber makes a powerful statement with warmth and lyricism.

If you’re new to Now Is the Time, just go to wrti.org and click on the Listen: Classical button at the top. Day or night, that brings you the all-classical stream, and at 9 pm every Saturday, you’ll hear Now Is the Time. In the Philadelphia area with an HD radio? Dial us up at 90.1 FM, HD2, or find all the frequencies here, depending on where you are, from the Shore to the Poconos to Harrisburg to Dover. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI!

from Benjamin C. S. Boyle: Three Carols for Wintertide 

PROGRAM:
Benjamin C. S. Boyle: Three Carols for Wintertide
Fred Frith: For Nothing
Katherine Hoover: Winter Spirits
Steven R. Gerber: Symphony No. 1
Adrienne Albert: Winter Solace

Every Saturday night at 9, 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 First Three Things I Learn from Bach

[First published in the Broad Street Review, 14 Dec 2013, as “The power of embarrassment (and other lessons from J.S. Bach).”]

Bach480It’s not the “What’re you lookin’ at?” look, no, no. See, he’s smiling. He’s the guy leaning, arms crossed, into that doorway, the second or third down from the storefront on the corner, so confident in his thereness, in his perpetual-motion head-barely-bobbing stillness, that when you drive through his line of sight and his eyes take you in, you feel that he knows you, knows everything about you, sitting in the dark in your car.

You nod to him and a corner of your mouth turns up. It feels good to be known.

This is my picture of Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach lives large, which means—which only ever means—he’s got the goods and he knows it. Living large is not living rich. Having things can make you smile, of course, but living large means something more, something better.

The smile is always there in Bach’s music. It’s always there because Bach knows that he’s blessed. Bach doesn’t grasp, rant, or bemoan, because he has it already, and knows that he won’t lose it. He lives so large that he shares it with you. But if it’s not your thing, he won’t storm the heavens or renounce the earth or curse you for your philistinism: He’s not going to change, just to find out what your thing is. Bach is living; your living is on you.

Take any of Bach, but since it’s Advent, take Cantata No. 140, “Sleepers Awake.” I’ve tried to learn plenty of things from Bach, but these are the first three:

1. If your groove is working, let it work

Chunk, a-chunk, a-chunk, a-chunk140 opens with a dotted rhythm, and it stays with a dotted rhythm. It never, ever changes. The harmony changes and wonderful things start to happen above it, but that chunk, a-chunk, a-chunk, a-chunk just never stops.

We always want to change stuff. Whether it’s because we don’t trust an idea to breathe or because we’re showing off, sometimes we composers change stuff just to change. The idea may not be that good to begin with, or maybe we don’t know what to do next, but it’s almost as if we’re expecting to be bored.

That’s sad enough, but the trouble with changing stuff is that it won’t fix boredom. Boredom’s in your soul, not in your stuff. As Gus McCrae tells Lorena, who thinks moving far away from Lonesome Dove to San Francisco will lift her desperation, “Lorie darlin’, life in San Francisco, you see, is still just life.”

Don’t get me wrong: Cantata 140’s opening isn’t great because it doesn’t change. It’s great already, so Bach just gets out of the way. The chunk, a-chunk doesn’t grind us into boredom; rather, it lifts us out of it and pierces us with awe. The groove works, and Bach lets it work.

2. Use something embarrassing

Scholars tell us about the pietism in Bach’s cantatas, and by pietism they mean the I-love-you-Jesus stuff. Watchmen and mercy and angels around thrones are fine, thanks, but a Soul/Jesus duet—“When will You come, my Savior?” “I come, Your portion.” “I wait with burning oil” “My friend is mine” “and I am yours”—is a bit over the top. There are not one but two such duets in 140, plus solos with kissing and flowers and leaping stags. These aren’t exceptions; the majority of the cantata is this squishy.

The bedchamber entendres embarrass Christians, the come-to-Jesus entreaties embarrass non-Christians, and the romance-novel language embarrasses everybody. God love those pietists; anyone who can make the whole world fidget must be doing something right.

And Bach? He adores it, jumping in with both feet and, in a 1730s Leipzig sort of way, composes roseate, velvety, beaded-lampshade salon music. Sure, it’s Baroque music, but make no mistake—this cantata is shamelessly dreamy.

The music matches the words. Bach has no interest in hedging or in toughening them up, and doesn’t care about not looking cool. If you want eyelash fluttering, listen to the melody of that second duet, “Mein Freund ist mein.” It’s that skippy.

We spend our whole lives trying to avoid being embarrassed, but maybe embarrassment hits us somewhere we need to be hit.

3. Make everything—everything—drop-dead gorgeous

The tune beginning the fourth movement chorale is about the loveliest collection of pitches ever strung together. No matter where you are or where you’re from, you melt a little whenever you hear it. It’s one of the most recognized melodies in the world, and that would be enough for any piece, for any career. But here’s the kicker: It’s not even the main event of that movement.

It’s the background—the background!—to the real tune sung by the tenors: “Zion hört die Wächter singen” (Zion hears the watchmen singing). That’s the melody. Any composer could’ve laid any carpet under it and it would’ve been just fine.

But “just fine” is, so often, not good enough for Bach. He invents a counter-melody so luscious, so complete, so musically full that it fairly bursts into sunrise all by itself. Think about it and a mad cackle begins to rumble in the back of your skull. Only Mozart approaches this utter disregard for melodic extravagance. There are just too many gifts. The care, the love, the overwhelming beauty that Bach expends on a secondary asset simply numbs us into incoherence.

And then.

And then he introduces the Philipp Nicolai melody, and it grows, gloriously, supremely, out of the “accompaniment,” and you, sitting there in the dark, begin to see stars, and those stars are taking you in; they’re looking at you, you see, and they’re smiling, because they’ve got the goods, and they know it, and they’ve got you. They know.

Smile back, if you like. It feels good to be known.

How She Danced, on Now Is the Time

BandannaMischievous, menacing, or minuetting, it’s dancing on Now Is the Time, Saturday, December 7th at 9 pm—our new time, every Saturday night at 9 on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at wrti.org.

From her CD How She Danced comes Elena Ruehr’s String Quartet No. 4. It includes, as do her other quartets, a dance—in this case, a minuet—among the four movements. There is always much going on beneath the surface of her music, but whether it’s mathematics or literature, what we always hear is a focus on beautiful sound. Saxophone and clarinet comprise the sounding beauties of Perry Goldstein’s Mischief. It pirouettes, dips, and delights on its way, and is over before we know it. We want to hear more.

Wanting more, desiring the other, and death are elements of opera; Daron Hagen brings them all together, to violent effect, in Bandanna, set on the U.S./Mexico border in the 1960s. Immigrants, law corrupted, and jealousy combine in this finely wrought yet roiling tragedy. We’ll hear much of Act Two, where misunderstandings and machinations during a wedding dance propel the drama toward its conclusion.

Next week: Now Is the Time Show #200!

If you’re new to Now Is the Time, just go to wrti.org and click on the Listen: Classical button at the top. Day or night, that brings you the classical stream, and at 9 pm every Saturday, you’ll hear Now Is the Time. In the Philadelphia area with an HD radio? Dial us up at 90.1 FM, HD2, or find all the frequencies here, depending on where you are, from the Shore to the Poconos to Harrisburg to Dover. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI!

from Daron Hagen: Bandanna 

PROGRAM:
Elena Ruehr: String Quartet No. 4
Perry Goldstein: Mischief
Daron Hagen: Bandanna. Act Two Prelude, Wedding Chorus, Toasts, Wedding Dances, Chorus

Every Saturday night at 9, 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.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel recording

OComeOComeEmmanuelp1The choir at the Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square, where I’m Composer in Residence, sang O Come, O Come, Emmanuel this past Sunday, the First of Advent. John French directed from the organ.

Details about the anthem are here, and my slightly tongue-in-cheek description of the revision process, which I wrote up for the Broad Street Review, is here.

I couldn’t be at the Church of the Holy Trinity, unfortunately—duties at my own Holy Trinity church keeping me away—but I feel as if I had been, now that they kindly sent me the recording of it, made as they sang during the offering. They sound lovely, as always.

I’m so delighted to be working with John and the choir! Here’s the recording: 

 

Fleisher Discoveries: Shakespeare via Verdi, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Edward German

Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection broadcasts Saturday, December 7th, 2013, 5-6 pm on WRTI and wrti.org.

Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901). Macbeth, Prelude (1847). Orchestra of La Scala, Claudio Abbado. Deutsche Grammophon 4784936, CD 10, Tr 1. 3:17

Richard Strauss (1864–1949). Macbeth (1888). Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati. London 410146, Tr 10. 19:34

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893). Hamlet, Fantasy-Overture, Op. 67a (1888). Philadelphia Orchestra, Riccardo Muti. EMI 49859, Tr 6. 18:46

Edward German (1862–1936). Three Dances from the Music to Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (1892). Northern Sinfonia of England, Richard Hickox. EMI 49933, Tr 14-16. 8:09

ShakespeareMemorial480

Shakespeare Memorial, Free Library of Philadelphia

Shakespeare continues to live, and if you were to name an orchestral work based on one of his plays, we wouldn’t blame you for coming up with one of the most popular works in the repertoire, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. But it wouldn’t be Discoveries without a curve ball or three, so this month we offer another Fantasy-Overture of his, Hamlet. As in Romeo and Juliet and his other Shakespeare tone poem The Tempest, Hamlet isn’t the retelling of a drama. Instead, Tchaikovsky composes a psychological study.

He had been asked to write music for the play. The production was cancelled, but Tchaikovsky went on to finish the piece as a separate work. A few years later he did cobble together incidental music (Op. 67b) when the staging finally happened. In it he used music from this Fantasy-Overture and some other works, but he was never happy with the result. This one, however, fascinates in its tragic drive.

In our second program in a row with works inspired by Shakespeare in the Fleisher Collection, we pair one fateful figure, Hamlet, with another, and open the show with two works on Macbeth. Composed the same year as Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet, the Macbeth of Richard Strauss shows a young composer wrestling with similar issues of form. Macbeth isn’t performed nearly as often as the later tone poems Eulenspiegel, Zarathustra, and others, but the Strauss voice is strong and enveloping.

We’re happy to find room for Verdi’s 200th anniversary celebration before the year runs out. With the brief Prelude to his opera Macbeth, Verdi sets his own psychological stage in the most efficient terms. Macbeth’s indecision, the machinations set in motion with his wife, the threat of doom, and even the witches in the woods are meticulously etched, as the curtain rises.

An English composer thoroughly versed in the theater is Edward German, music director of one of the venues called the “Globe Theatre,” this one, from 1868 to 1902, on Newcastle Street in London. He composed concert music but made his career in comic operas and other light incidental music, even finishing a work of Sullivan’s after Sir Arthur’s death in 1900. His Three Dances from the Music to Shakespeare’s Henry VIII recall forms and styles from The Bard’s own time but nevertheless yielded a very modern result. Within the first year of publication, sheet music sales of the dances topped 30,000.

Not bad for music surrounding a king who, if not precisely acquainted with tragedy himself, certainly was the author of it for others.

Even before Edward German’s time there were doubts that Shakespeare had written all of Henry VIII; scholars are still uncertain but believe that he wrote at least half of it. In any case, Shakespeare inspires on stage and in music down to this day. The many works in the Fleisher Collection owing their existence to his genius is proof enough (ask for a list!). No matter where the composer is from—Italy, Russia, Germany, or yes, even England—Shakespeare continues to live.

Riccardo Muti conducts the Orchestra of La Scala in Verdi’s Prelude to Macbeth:

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

Two Meditations on Freu dich sehr

TwoMeditationsFreuP2TwoMeditationsFreuP5The doorbell rang Sunday afternoon and I hit the Send button. That was that; no more fussing. I sent off the new piece and went to a concert with friends.

Actually, I had finished the new solo organ work, Two Meditations on Freu dich sehr, on Friday, two days before the December 1st deadline, and spent the rest of the weekend tweaking it. It’s for Alan Morrison, and is part of the celebration of the Organ Restoration Campaign of Abington Presbyterian Church in Abington, Pa. Their 1969 Möller is undergoing a complete rebuilding under the supervision of Music Director John Sall, and Alan premieres Two Meditations on the dedication recital, February 16th, 2014 at 4 pm.

“Freu dich sehr” is the name of a hymn written to a tune from the Genevan Psalter (the 1551 edition). We know it by the hymn name of “Comfort, Comfort, Ye My People,” and that’s the name of the first movement, which may serve as an organ prelude. “That His Word Is Never Broken” is the second, postlude-like movement; those words are the final phrase of the hymn known to us.

The Genevan Psalter, by the time it was finished in the 1570s, was so popular that it quickly spread to other countries and translations. (The most well-known tune, the “Doxology” or “Old Hundredth” or “All People that on Earth Do Dwell” comes from this psalter.) So, “Freu dich sehr” is often thought of as a German or Lutheran tune, but it comes from Calvinist Switzerland, making it appropriate for a Presbyterian celebration, I thought. In the psalter, it serves as the (French) rhymed version of Psalm 42.

I’m thrilled to be working with Alan Morrison, one of America’s foremost concert organists, and a champion of contemporary music. (And there is work yet to do: as the organ isn’t finished yet, there are still registrations to be figured out.) Alan is Head of the Organ Department at The Curtis Institute of Music, Associate Professor of Organ at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, and College Organist at Ursinus College. He regularly performs throughout the United States and internationally. One of the challenges was to make music worthy of Alan’s artistry, yet would serve—after the recital—as a work for church organists everywhere.

The concert I was going to? Well, not a “concert” at all. It was Advent Lessons & Carols at St. Mark’s Church, where among much other music Matt Glandorf and the choir were to present my Magnificat. The first lesson we heard read aloud was from Isaiah 40: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.”

Then we sang “Freu dich sehr.”