Monthly Archives: April 2015

1915: Richard Strauss, An Alpine Symphony

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, May 2nd, 5-6 pm.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949). An Alpine Symphony (1915)


The Zugspitze, the Alps, near the home of Richard Strauss, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany

It’s a symphony from 100 years ago, from someone not known for writing symphonies. Or is it even a symphony? Richard Strauss calls his own 50-minute work An Alpine Symphony, and the composer ought to have some authority here, but he referred to his earlier Domestic Symphony as a tone poem. In 22 continuous movements, not four separate ones, An Alpine Symphony certainly sounds like a symphonic poem, and not a symphony.

He did write two symphonies, No. 1 when he was 16 and No. 2 when he was 20, but they hardly saw the light of day. When he was in a position to record his own music, he never bothered with them. As he got older and more adept at using larger and larger orchestral forces, Strauss looked for newer means of expression, often referring to “the symphony” as outmoded. The tone poem, with its literary and philosophical underpinnings, each one with a form unique to itself, became his signature. The sunny From Italy led to Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration, then Macbeth and Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, then his monumental grapple with Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra. They all poured out in less than 10 years. Don Quixote followed, then the autobiographical A Hero’s Life and Domestic Symphony.

Strauss created operas and many, many other works during this time, but by 1915 he was able to work on this, the final version of the Alpine Symphony. He had begun sketching it in 1899 and seems to have wanted to make it into an actual symphony, but described the process to a friend as “torturing.” Then he came up with the idea of making it a picture—with philosophical undertones—of a hike up and down a mountain. It depicts an 11-hour excursion, from night through sunrise, forests, meadows, pastures, a wrong turn, a glacier, the summit, a storm, a hurried descent, sunset, and night again.

Major themes work their way through it but what is most arresting about An Alpine Symphony is Strauss’s mastery of the orchestra. He calls for a gigantic ensemble about twice the size needed for even large orchestral works. At one point, an offstage band mimics a hunting party going by—its music has nothing to do with the onstage music and it’s never heard again—but that alone requires an extra 16 brass players. There’s a wind machine, thunder machine, cowbells, and if that were not enough, an organ.

Strauss, recognized by all as the consummate orchestrator among his colleagues past, present, and future, joked that he finally learned how to orchestrate with this piece. He would live to 1949, but this would be the last purely symphonic work he ever composed.

So whether it’s a symphony or not, An Alpine Symphony, from 100 years ago, is in many ways a summit in the career of Richard Strauss.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel published by Concordia

OComeOComeCPHI’m happy to announce the publication of my anthem O Come, O Come, Emmanuel by Concordia Publishing House.

Here’s the link to the publisher’s page, with a PDF excerpt and a recording of it.

My excessively elaborate notes on the piece, written up for the Broad Street Review, are here.

I’ve been handling all my music myself, including anthems, yet have continued to experiment with different ways of getting the music out, including the wonderful MusicSpoke people (five works here), and the first foray in years and years with traditional publishers. I was impressed with Concordia Publishing House and am interested to see how things go with this quite early work of mine, which I polished up just about two years ago. The story behind that, again, is here.

Tango Nuevo on Now Is the Time


from the CD Entangoed, Eliane Lust, piano

The tango spins and snaps to a halt on Now Is the Time, Saturday, April 25th at 9 pm. If there’s a meaning behind Mean Old Pony Tango by Michael Kurth, we’ll let it go by to revel in the string quartet antics, and Adrienne Albert combines rock energy with the smooth ride of L.A. Tango Nuevo. A solo piano is overcome with romance in Robert Elkjer’s En-tango-ed, and James Adler gnarls a Twisted Tango with his own self at the piano, accompanying saxophone.

Ingrid Arauco’s Divertimento for an unusual trio includes a tango among its movements. Kenneth Froelich has no obvious tango in Clockwork Automata, but do we detect its spirit among the spinning and clicking? Finally, a string quartet returns to play Tanguori by Jeremy Cohen, snapping the program to a close.

from Robert Elkjer: En-tango-ed 

Michael Kurth: Mean Old Pony Tango
Adrienne Albert: L.A. Tango Nuevo
Robert Elkjer: En-tango-ed
James Adler: Twisted Tango
Ingrid Arauco: Divertimento
Kenneth Froelich: Clockwork Automata
Jeremy Cohen: Tanguori

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith hosts Now Is the Time, all styles of contemporary concert music by living American composers on WRTI’s all-classical stream. At click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. In the Philadelphia area with an HD radio? Dial us up at 90.1 FM-HD2, or find all the frequencies here, from the Jersey Shore to the Poconos to Harrisburg to Delaware. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! 

May Day


Donald Nally conducting The Crossing and the Jenks choir at the premiere (photo credit: Anthony B. Creamer III).

MayDayPage1My choral work for SATB and 2-part children’s choir, May Day, premiered Saturday April 18th, 2015 by The Crossing and a choir of 4th- and 5th-graders from the John Story Jenks School in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia. It’s a 10-minute setting of a beautiful poem by Ryan Eckes.

They performed this in a special concert put together by the school, the Friends of Jenks, the Chestnut Hill Community Fund, and the Presser Foundation. Donald Nally conducted.

My thanks to them, managing director Steven Gearhart, Renee Warnick and Haviva Goldman of the Friends of Jenks, music teacher Steve Kell, and principal Mary Lynskey, who made this all happen.

Four singers from The Crossing—Steven Bradshaw, Maren Brehm, Veronica Chapman-Smith, and Daniel Spratlan—worked with the students throughout the year; we could not have dome this without their hard work! Ryan and I met with the students at the end of last year a few times to open them up to our creative processes.

I had the children repeat the phrase “what will i eat,” with the SATB choir haltingly doling out the images. The highpoint of the piece comes at the phrase that struck me the first time I read the poem: “i will eat from your hands.”

I’ll be arranging this for a divided SATB choir, also. Let me know if you’d like to see the entire score, or if you’d like to hear it.

may day
Ryan Eckes

what is may day
          bail paid in limes
behind wal-mart
the cat colony
jukes broken tracks
                    rolling in mud
small wolves
in chernobyl
woven awake
in marsh
     lush green
their crib an old 
potato cellar
their mother looks out 
of your house
          what is change
          what is change
without erasing yourself
          what will i eat
i will eat from your hands
where villages once stood
i will eat from the ground
your bison’s last breath
i will trace the cold earth
i will trace the cold earth

May Day Preview in Chestnut Hill Local


Children’s Park at Jenks School

Looking forward to Saturday’s performance with The Crossing and the Jenks School in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia, my setting of May Day a poem by Ryan Eckes. The Crossing and a choir of 4th- and 5th-graders from Jenks will perform this 10-minute work.

My notes on the piece are here.

The Chestnut Hill Local just wrote up a preview of the concert here.

The Friends of Jenks, the Chestnut Hill Community Fund, the Presser Foundation, and of course The Crossing’s conductor Donald Nally and managing director Steven Gearhart made this all happen. Thanks to them, to Ryan Eckes, to the teachers and principal, and to Renee Warnick of the Friends of Jenks for making this all possible.

Available Forms on Now Is the Time

LarkQ4ComposingAmericaForms traditional, and those not so, arise on Now Is the Time, Saturday, April 18th at 9 pm. Composers often wrestle over titles, hoping to trumpet putative musical originality with a never-seen-before moniker. Paul Moravec, however, writes a piece for string quartet plus piano and calls it what it is: Piano Quintet. With the Lark Quartet, with pianist Jeremy Denk, and with his keen ear for profound energy, Moravec has that ease to call things what they are, and we are rewarded.

John Hodian’s six-part MMU-14 is mysteriously-titled but engagingly entertaining. Written way back in the 1980s, it’s a work of surface repetition, but listen closely, as it’s rare that any two measures are exactly like the next two. For overdubbed acoustic instruments, MMU-14 uses just a soupçon of electronics to produce an attractive yet propulsive drive.

from John Hodian: MMU-14 

Paul Moravec: Piano Quintet
John Hodian: MMU-14

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith hosts Now Is the Time, all styles of contemporary concert music by living American composers on WRTI’s all-classical stream. At click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. In the Philadelphia area with an HD radio? Dial us up at 90.1 FM-HD2, or find all the frequencies here, from the Jersey Shore to the Poconos to Harrisburg to Delaware. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! 

The Philip Glass Interview


Credit: Andy Kahan

Philip Glass is charming. I thoroughly enjoyed interviewing him April 7th at the Free Library of Philadelphia as part of their Author Events, the successful series curated by Andy Kahan. Words Without Music is the just-published book by Philip Glass, who is on a short book tour speaking about this autobiography.

He was arriving by Amtrak right before the interview, so I’d have no time with him before our onstage show unless, Andy hinted, I picked him up at the train. I thought, What am I going to do, just pace backstage? No, I conveniently answered myself. So I drove to 30th Street Station and picked him up.


Credit: Anthony B. Creamer III

As is often the case with interviews, some of the best stuff happened before the interview started. So after an exhilarating 10-minute drive from the train to the library, where I heard about book publishers and tours and trains, we segued onstage and continued the conversation.

Philip Glass loves to talk, and his stories about Ravi Shankar, Martin Scorsese, composing, the dreaded word (to him) “minimalism,” and at least one punch thrown onstage (not on the Free Library stage; another stage) are entertaining. You should read the book if the life of one of our most influential composers, and how he became that way, interests you.

Here’s the video of the interview. The audio podcast is here.


Credit: Andy Kahan