Monthly Archives: September 2015

Walter Piston, Rising above Fashion

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, October 3rd, 5 to 6 pm

Walter Piston (1894-1976): Suite for Orchestra (1929)
Piston: Three New England Sketches (1959)
Piston: Symphony No. 7 (1960)

PistonHe won two Pulitzer Prizes, taught composers as disparate as Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, and Leroy Anderson, and his books on harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration continue to be used by composers today.

A sailor named Pistone came to the United States from Italy, changed his name to Piston, and in 1894 his grandson Walter was born in Rockland, Maine. Piston’s father, Walter Sr., moved the family to Boston when Walter Jr. was 11, and the son showed musical promise from an early age. He played violin for dance bands and for groups led by Georges Longy, one of the most influential musicians in Boston. Longy was principal oboist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conductor of his own groups, advocate of wind ensemble literature, friend to contemporary composers, and founder of the Longy School of Music.

In 1920 Piston enrolled at Harvard University, and upon graduation he went to Paris on a John Knowles Paine Traveling Fellowship, where he studied composition with Nadia Boulanger and Paul Dukas and violin with Georges Enescu. He returned to Harvard in 1926, where he taught for the rest of his career.

Awards and acknowledgements would continue for the rest of his life. He wrote music for CBS Radio. In 1938 Piston composed a ballet, The Incredible Flutist, for the Boston Pops, and the suite he later made from this has become his most famous work. The Symphony No. 2 won the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award, and the Symphony No. 3, in 1948, won the Pulitzer.

As if that weren’t enough, he won that most prestigious of prizes again in 1961, for his Symphony No. 7, commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1960, the year he retired from Harvard.

It was a long way from his Suite for Orchestra, but even that early work from 1929 was composed for the Boston Symphony. Piston wrote Three New England Sketches, a work most concert-goers will know, in 1959 for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and its imaginative conductor Paul Paray.

His music is a study in craft and elegance. It is smart, clear, direct, and seemingly effortless, rising above fashion without display, in the way that everything in art that is good and lasting rises.

Concert di Gaudí on Now Is the Time


Crypt of the unfinished chapel of Antoni Gaudí in the Colònia Güell in Santa Coloma de Cervelló (Catalonia). Creative Commons ShareAlike, Till F. Teenck

We look up and out on Now Is the Time, Saturday, September 26th at 9 pm. In Philadelphia there’s no escaping the influence of the pope’s visit this weekend, so there’s a sacred tinge to this Saturday’s program. Curt Cacioppo gives the solo piano a workout, negotiating the potential of a rock-ribbed hymn in his Ostinato-Fantasia on “All Creatures of Our God and King.”

As an interpolation before the longest piece tonight, a string quartet takes on—and swings—the Chick Corea tune Spain. Christopher Rouse then anoints the Spanish ancestry of the guitar with the transcendence of Antoni Gaudí, called “God’s Architect,” in his guitar concerto for Sharon Isbin, Concert di Gaudí. A work in the form of a Handel coronation anthem closes our program, Carson Cooman’s O Lord, I Will Sing of Your Love Forever.

from Chick Corea: Spain (arr. Cohen): 

Curt Cacioppo: Ostinato-Fantasia on “All Creatures of Our God and King”
Chick Corea: Spain
Christopher Rouse: Concert di Gaudí
Carson Cooman: O Lord, I Will Sing of Your Love Forever

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith hosts Now Is the Time, new American classical music on WRTI’s all-classical stream. At click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! 

The Prayer of Kol Nidre by Max Bruch

MaxBruchA concert piece for cello and orchestra uses sacred music from the center of Jewish tradition. Consider the Kol Nidre of Max Bruch, a work with wide appeal from an unlikely composer.

At the center of the Jewish year are the High Holy Days, culminating in Yom Kippur. Leading to this Day of Atonement is Kol Nidre, which is a service and a prayer. All vows, all words spoken against righteousness, are repented.

Composer Max Bruch was a Protestant in 1880s Berlin, but knew the city’s cantor-in-chief, Abraham Lichtenstein. Bruch learned the Kol Nidre melody and others from the Lichtenstein family. He loved the beauty of these tunes. Complex rhythmic shades were woven into deceptive simplicity—just like Gregorian chant, in fact, just like the folk music of other traditions.

Bruch composed Kol Nidre for cello and orchestra, not for a sacred service. He assembled tunes for a cellist who asked him for a piece. It’s music to be played in a concert hall for people of all faiths and no faith.

But perhaps it is a prayer. Perhaps something happens when we hear the Bruch Kol Nidre. In the midst of our busy comings and goings, among our vows to accomplish this or that, this Kol Nidre stops us and calls us to something deeper.

Perhaps, at the center of every tradition, lies the universal.


[First published in Broad Street Review, 15 Sep 2015.]


(Creative Commons/

We’re now in September, or as the Germans call it, Oktoberfest. No, they don’t, really, but Oktoberfest ends on the first Sunday of October and begins two weeks earlier, so most of the festival named for October resides in September. I’m sure there’s a good reason for that. Germans always have good reasons; they’re serious about dates; they’re serious about parties.

For instance, they never say “Happy Birthday” before the actual day, ever. They also don’t bring a birthday card. If you’re there, and they’re there, what’s the point of a card? I once asked a German friend if he gave a birthday card to his American wife. “Yes, yes,” he sighed, but leaning forward and raising his index finger he said, “but my heart is not in it.”

Being back from Germany last month reminds me of this and reminds me that there are three types of traveler, which, I’ve discovered, matches exactly three types of composer.

The first traveler doesn’t like anything anywhere else. You wonder why they travel, because whether it’s beds or restaurants, it’s just not right. Food is weird, service is slow, castles are smaller than the pictures, bathrooms are different.

Composers of the first type don’t like any other music but what is already comfortable. Other music is too intellectual or not intellectual enough. Exoticism is show, populism is vulgar, fast is lightweight, slow is morbid. Such composers write music of medium speed and medium volume. It doesn’t fall apart, and it doesn’t explode.

It’s better over there

The second kind of traveler doesn’t like anything here. Mountains, cathedrals, rivers, and roads are all better over there, so you wonder why they don’t just stay there. Foreigners solved problems Americans never figured out (like how to keep roads clean) and they’re more relaxed.

The second composer type is never happier but when discovering a musical technique no one else (or no one close by) has. It usually involves numbers or systems or a new way of performing, but it has to be faster or slower or wilder. It is usually unexplainable. Such composers then insist on explaining it.

I know these types because I have been both types. I’ve been trying for some time, however, to be the third type of composer, which is also the third type of traveler, which is None of the Above.

The meaning of potato salad

With traveling, look at it this way. Germany invented Oktoberfest and knows when to celebrate it, but America is festooned with Oktoberfests from Labor Day to November. Oktoberfest here means parades and events and dignitaries, every one of which is stuffed (the Oktoberfest, that is) with beer and sausages and sauerkraut and German potato salad.

German potato salad reveals the wisdom of None of the Above. You may not like German potato salad (but if there’s bacon in it, you really can’t be serious), but there’s a deeper truth, which is that Germans don’t like it, either. Well, Germans do like German potato salad, but only their German potato salad. They don’t like anyone else’s German potato salad. It’s the barbecue ribs of Germany: Everybody knows how to make it, and everybody else is wrong.

And the Autobahn

Then there’s the Autobahn. It’s not true that it has no speed limit. There are speed limits all over: 50 and 70 and 130 kmh and To Infinity and Beyond. It’s confusing, since the speeds are not mph, and also because of relentless signage such as Strasse Schämen, which means, as best as I can tell, “We are ashamed of the road you are about to see,” but it’s just as immaculate as every other square inch of road in Germany.

In any case I’ve worked out the kilometer math for you. Keep in mind that a kilometer is five-eighths of a mile. In no-speed-limit zones, you should go at least 150 kmh, so that means 100 times 5 = 500, and 50 times 5 = 250. That’s 750. Then subtract the 8, which makes it 742 miles per hour.

So, including the requisite stop for coffee and cake, Germans can get from the North Sea to Switzerland in about 23 minutes. Which is why Switzerland built a big wall called the Alps. So you see, the Autobahn is better but not better at the same time, because for one thing you can’t see the country at that speed, and for another, nobody likes crashing into the Alps. So it’s better just to let me drive.

And yoga

At home, at Oktoberfests at the Canstatter in Northeast Philly or the Vereinigung Erzgebirge in Warminster or the Steuben Day Parade in Fox Chase or New York, you’ll see women in Pauli-Girl dresses and 17- and 77-year-old men in little hats with feathers. Men in leather pants stomp and slap their feet and thighs and spin women around in the traditional Schuhplattler, which is German for “yoga.”

Here or abroad, at the Munich Hofbräuhaus or in Northeast Philadelphia, be None of the Above. You’ll sit at long tables and talk to people you never knew before, even if you see them all the time. You’ll meet a white-haired saxophonist with a thick German accent who learned to play jazz in Trenton in 1943 — yes (after a double-take) in 1943 — when he was a prisoner of war, playing for U.S.O. dances. You’ll learn a better way to make potato salad or a better way to plant potatoes; you’ll figure out, after five minutes with five Germans, the word for “groundhog”; you’ll meet someone who built the Walt Whitman Bridge. Somebody’s cousin turns out to be hilarious. You’ll do that yell they do during German yoga.

You’ll sing songs you never heard before.

And that, for composers, is the point. As a None of the Above, your eyes and ears are always open; both the different and the same will surprise you.

Four hours or four days later you’ll come home from a park or another country and say it was the best time you ever had.

Catching Light on Now Is the Time


Koeln-Hohe Domkirche St Peter und Maria-Zentrum des Chorobergadens mit Koenigsfenstern, by Mylius. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

As the seasons change we look for light on Now Is the Time, Saturday, September 19th at 9 pm. In deep woods in a disappearing afternoon, a stream falls onto a rock and inspires Michael Colquhoun’s percussion trio Talking Rocks. Honoring the visit of Pope Francis to Philadelphia, we’ll hear the Gloria from Roberto Sierra’s Missa Latina “Pro Pace.” Andreas Delfs, the new director of the Temple University Orchestra, conducts on this recording.

“September” is one of the Hermann Hesse poems in the Four German Songs of Ursula Mamlok, and Jan Krzywicki conducts Network for New Music in his recent work Catching Light. It’s from last season’s live performance at Haverford College, and is exquisite.

from Jan Krzywicki: Catching Light 

Michael Colquhoun: Talking Rocks
Roberto Sierra: Gloria, from Missa Latina “Pro Pace”
Ursula Mamlok: Four German Songs
Jan Krzywicki: Catching Light

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith hosts Now Is the Time, new American classical music on WRTI’s all-classical stream. At click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! 

The 2015-2016 Season, At a Glance

My fall email just went out, listing everything going on this year that I know about; click on the partial image below for the whole thing. I’m astonished by the kindness of so many people, and a little frightened by how much I have yet to do.

About the picture, some comments already received:

“You look a bit worried”
“You look like your dog just died”
“…looking like you just strangled a bear, or built a log cabin or something…”

These are from my friends…


Virgil Thomson: Creating the Sound of American Music

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, September 5th, 5 to 6 pm

Virgil Thomson (1896-1989): The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936)
Thomson: Filling Station (1937)
Thomson: Symphony on a Hymn Tune (1928)

VirgilThomsonIf you’re looking for one composer who can be said to have created the sound of American music, you might look no further than Virgil Thomson. It’s true that Charles Ives was the pioneer who invented a crazy-quilt of music that was distinctively American. And there were, of course, American concert music composers before Ives, such as the European-educated or -influenced George Chadwick, Horatio Parker (Ives’s teacher at Yale), Amy Beach, Edward MacDowell, George Bristow.

The 18th-century church composer William Billings, among others, and the 19th-century tunesmiths of the Sacred Harp tradition invented a piety in music that was all the more unworldly for its hominess. Stephen Foster wove a unique drawing-room style that was part Schubert and part circus.

Ives opened the wide territory of concert music to all of that, and gave America permission to discover this continent lying beyond its European ancestry. The mid-career Aaron Copland bore the fruit of this with his ballet and film scores from the late 1930s onward.

But it may very well be said that Virgil Thomson was the plow that broke the plains.

With his music for the 1936 documentary produced by the U.S. Farm Security Administration, Thomson cracked open the country and found its music. In The Plow That Broke the Plains and in the following year’s The River, he produced music that was engrossing, articulate, emotional, and—something composers noted—popular. Copland saw it immediately. He called The Plow “fresher, more simple, and more personal” than Hollywood, and The River “a lesson in how to treat Americana.” He also caught the political and artistic relevance, in FDR’s 1930s, in reaching a large, public audience.

Virgil Thomson created a wide-open, rough-hewn, quirky music for these films and for his ballet Filling Station. The subject matter alone—with truck drivers, gangsters, and state troopers—blasted it out of the Greek-myth-inspired works of his composer forebears. What may be more remarkable is that Thomson wrote Symphony on a Hymn Tune in 1928, while he was still Nadia Boulanger’s student in Paris (it didn’t premiere until 1945). It includes “Jesus Loves Me,” but Thomson threw in “How Firm a Foundation” and even “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”

Virgil Thomson defined the sound of American classical music for generations. With a film score, a ballet, and a symphony, we can hear the land split open, giving us a music that could be called, with pride and without doubt, “American.”