Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, Home at Last

Near the Peterson-Berger home in Frösö, Sweden

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday April 1st, 5–6 pm… It almost seemed as if Wilhelm Peterson-Berger was never at home. Born 150 years ago, he grew up in a small northern Swedish town, Umea, nearer to Lapland than to Stockholm. He felt hemmed in and he longed for the wider world. When he discovered Edvard Grieg’s mix of moody lyricism, myth, and folk culture, he was transfixed. He knew that he must become a composer.

He left Umea for Stockholm, studied organ and composition at the Royal College of Music, and played piano. Still, he chafed against the worldview of teachers who wouldn’t hear of the modernist Grieg, let alone his other great musical love, Wagner. So he moved to Germany and studied in Dresden. He traveled to Bayreuth to immerse himself in the excruciatingly romantic operatic world of Wagner. He wrote a symphony. He wrote an Oriental Dance.

But then, of all things, he became homesick. He went back to Sweden, to Umea, and wrote little piano pieces. He didn’t know it, but they would become the most-loved music of his career. These Flowers of Frösö (named for a town on an island in a lake west of Umea) were everything Wagner wasn’t: small, innocent, at peace. He bought a parcel of land on the island.

And then, off to Germany again, to teach. But his students from rich families didn’t care about music, and he again was frustrated. He wrote pieces about a Stockholm carnival and about hiking through the mountains. He wrote the words and the music. Sweden called again, and in three years he was back, in those mountains.

But not for long. After a few years he was in Stockholm, at age 28, and for the next 34 years he served as the powerful music critic for the Daily News of Stockholm. “Criticism must be ruthless,” he would say, and he was unrelenting. For two years he also produced operas at the Royal Stockholm Opera—at the same time that the conductor was suing him for defamation. He liked Beethoven, Wagner, Grieg, and the modern August Söderman, but he decried what he believed to be the lessening of standards in much of what was current. Sibelius came under fire, as did Saint-Saëns, impressionists (just about anything French, for that matter), Nielsen, Stenhammar, Alfvén, and Schoenberg.

And he paid for it. Alfvén ran a festival, and wouldn’t play Peterson-Berger’s music. Others steered clear. Still, he was performed a little, and he did receive honors, including a knighthood and election to the Royal Academy.

His Third Symphony is his most successful large work. The Philadelphia Orchestra with Stokowski performed it in 1927, and it is still played to this day. Lapland had been a part of Sweden, and Peterson-Berger quotes five Lapp songs. The third movement contains some of the most gorgeous Swedish orchestral music written at the time, and it sounds—dare we say it?—almost French.

Peterson-Berger built a house on Frösö and lived there after retirement until his death. A friend noticed him on a train, heading to the land of the lake and the island. The composer and irascible critic was looking at the landscape slipping by, and wept uncontrollably. He was going home.

PROGRAM:
Wilhelm Peterson-Berger (1867–1942). Symphony No. 3, Lapland (1913–15)
Edvard Grieg (1843–1907). Sigurd Jorsalfar, Homage March (1872)

From Pi to Prime on Now Is the Time

Another Pi Day, 3/14, just slipped by, so let’s hear the magic of numbers on Now Is the Time on WRTI this Saturday, March 18th at 9 pm. Reginald Bain based his Pi Day on… well, you’ll hear as much of the 3.1415926… sequence that can fit into four minutes and 50 seconds, read aloud over his inventively pulsing music. You can check here to see if he got it right.

From a number the end of which is unattainable we then go to Unattainable Spaces by David Laganella, abstract music based on an abstract painting. We see a recognizable number in Daniel Schnyder’s The Iron Tetrapod, but have no idea what a Quiptych is, until we enjoy a piece with that title by David Evan Thomas, performed by Zeitgeist.

For pianist Jerome Lowenthal, Ned Rorem wrote 75 Notes for Jerry, and for the Baroque/new music ensemble Mélomanie, composer and lutenist Mark Rimple composed Partita 622. Mark Zuckerman’s Proverbs for Four at Fifty sets Hebrew scriptures to celebrate the jubilee of 50th birthdays. Then our numbers program, which started with pi, closes by circling back to Reginald Bain and his entertaining piece The Music of the Primes.

PROGRAM:
Reginald Bain: Pi Day
David Laganella: Unattainable Spaces
Daniel Schnyder: The Iron Tetrapod
David Evan Thomas: Quiptych
Ned Rorem: 75 Notes for Jerry
Mark Rimple: Partita 622
Mark Zuckerman: Proverbs for Four at Fifty
Reginald Bain: The Music of the Primes

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith plays new American classical music on WRTI’s Now Is the Time, at wrti.org and on HD-2. At wrti.org click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! 

Mackenzie, Holbrooke, and British Music Coming into Its Own

On the next Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, March 4th, 5–6 pm on WRTI-FM:

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Sir Alexander Mackenzie

Two British composers populate this month’s Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday at 5:00 p.m. on WRTI. Josef Holbrooke and Alexander Mackenzie were well known and enjoyed success, but they often struggled to gain more than a foothold in performance circles. The reasons, however, were different.

Holbrooke was also a critic and writer. His opinions about music, especially music from outside of England, both rankled and were seen as self-serving. Mackenzie for almost four decades was busy running the Royal Academy of Music, which left him little time to compose. Nevertheless, he helped begin the renaissance of 20th-century British music, of which Holbrooke was a beneficiary.

Mackenzie’s musical family included a violinist father and grandfather. Young Alexander played in his father’s orchestra from the age of 8, and two years later he was studying in Germany. At 14 he was an employed violinist in a German orchestra. He later lived in Italy, and along with becoming fluent in German and Italian, he would become good friends with Liszt, von Bülow, Sarasate, Joseph Joachim, Clara Schumann, Gounod, and Dvořák.

He led the Royal Academy of Music from 1888 to 1924, bringing it to international stature. He conducted British premieres of European works, helped English composers, and among many official honors received the adulation of a 24-year-old Elgar, who said that meeting Mackenzie was “the event” of his life. But for all his national and international success, Sir Alexander Mackenzie was moved by the music of his beloved Scotland. His “Scottish Concerto” is a lively dissertation on folk tunes, a pleasant introduction to this affable composer.

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Josef Holbrooke

“Affable” is the last adjective many people would be inclined to apply to Josef Holbrooke. Like William Henry Fry in America, Holbrooke complained often and loudly about the adulation of foreign composers at the expense, he thought, of homegrown ones. He pulled two of his works from a concert (something his career could ill afford), because the typeface of the foreign soloist’s name was larger than his on the posters.

And yet Hans Richter, Thomas Beecham, and Henry Wood conducted his music; Granville Bantock and others were his friends. He could be humorous and ebullient, but rarely did an opinion form in his brain but that he did not give it out.

His music is filled with sweep, color, and intricacy. Ironically, for all his bemoaning of foreign influence, his work is largely Wagnerian and Straussian. But there is an English warmth and—might we say—an affability to it that is endearing. Mackenzie at the beginning of a new English music, and Holbrooke in the next generation, are two composers who should fascinate us today.

PROGRAM:
Josef Holbrooke (1878–1958). Pantomime Suite (Ballet from Pierrot and Pierrette) (1908)
Alexander Mackenzie (1847–1935). Scottish Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1897)
Holbrooke. The Girl I Left Behind Me, Symphonic Variations (1908)

Overtures, Fanfares, and Brass on Now Is the Time

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Eric Whitacre

On Saturday, February 18th at 9 pm, Now Is the Time presents a taste of the upcoming Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia “Sounds of America” concert. We hope you can join us for a different look at some of the composers who will be represented on those February 26th and 27th concerts.

On Silver Wings for band is by Kenneth Fuchs; so is the overture for orchestra Discover the Wild. Eric Whitacre’s Her Sacred Spirit Soars finds a place here, as do three short works by John Corigliano for brass quintet, Antiphon, Fanfares to Music, and the Overture from his Gazebo Dances. All these come from a brand-new CD by the Gaudete Brass, celebrating Corigliano’s 75th birthday a few years ago.

Daron Hagen’s Concerto for Brass Quintet centers the program, and is a tour de force. In five movements for brass quintet alone—Sennets, Melodia, Invention, Romance, Tuckets—it’s a brilliant, strong work.

PROGRAM:
Kenneth Fuchs: On Silver Wings
John Corigliano: Gazebo Dances, Overture
Daron Hagen: Concerto for Brass Quintet
John Corigliano: Antiphon
Eric Whitacre: Her Sacred Spirit Soars
Kenneth Fuchs: Discover the Wild
John Corigliano: Fanfares to Music

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith plays new American classical music on WRTI’s Now Is the Time, at wrti.org and on HD-2. At wrti.org click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! 

Charles Koechlin and the Law of the Jungle

koechlinOn Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection this Saturday, February 4th, 5 to 6 pm on WRTI…the music of Charles Koechlin is not performed much; that much is certain. We may even call it, in this, the 150th anniversary of his birth, neglected. While there are logical reasons his legacy may have suffered, we also can’t fully understand why.

The French composer worked at a time when the composers of every European nation were creating, in one way or another, music particular to their countries. There have always been regional colors in music—the Spanish Renaissance is tinted differently from the Italian—but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries nationalism was bubbling up all over Europe. It was fueled by political realities, by the re-discovery of folk cultures, and by Romanticism, which reigned in art, literature, and philosophy.

In France, the standard-bearers of a new French sound were Debussy, Ravel, and then the new generation who followed the modernism of Satie. Where did that leave Koechlin? His music is not the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel. It has been called impressionistic, and while it is lovely, it is darker and cooler. Sometimes it is Bach-like in the inner workings of its voices. It is also modernist, but it isn’t the French modern of his time. A German piquancy of atonality runs, like allspice, through Koechlin’s music.

Its being hard to place may explain why it isn’t performed so much. But here’s where we may not understand the neglect of the music of Charles Koechlin: It is downright gorgeous.

Rudyard Kipling wrote his series of The Jungle Book stories in the 1890s, and it grabbed the attention of Koechlin. Today we’ll hear three of his stand-alone Jungle Book works, in reverse order of their completion, although he worked on them over decades. The Law of the Jungle is not the me-first nihilism it has come to mean now. For Kipling and Koechlin, it is Baloo the Bear laying down the governing precepts of civilization to Mowgli the man-cub. It is Confucius rather than Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” A holy man’s mysticism and sacrifice informs The Meditation of Purun Bhagat. Spring Running, the longest, is in four sections: Spring in the Forest, Mowgli, The Running, and (when Mowgli leaves the jungle) Night.

Throughout these Jungle Book works and all of Koechlin’s music runs the aspiration to color (with exquisite orchestration) and concision that is, yes, very French. There is much else, also, leaving us still pondering his neglect.

PROGRAM:
Charles Koechlin (1867-1950). The Law of the Jungle (1939)
Koechlin. The Meditation of Purun Bhagat (1936)
Koechlin. The Spring Running (1908-25)

Susquehanna

Susquehanna, An Overture for Orchestra. 2 Flutes, Piccolo, 2 Oboes, English Horn, 2 Clarinets, Bass Clarinet, 2 Bassoons, 4 Horns, 3 Trumpets, 3 Trombones, Tuba, Timpani, 3 Percussion, Strings. 8 minutes. Commissioned for the 40th Anniversary of the Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra, Sheldon Bair, Founder and Music Director. Premiered 4 March 2017, Bel Air, Maryland.

Thanks to Paul DeLuca for putting this together!

Susquehanna was the first and last title I chose for this piece. Well, every title is the last choice, I suppose, but while Susquehanna was commissioned to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra, I rejected the title as soon as it had occurred to me.

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Click on the page to view and download the score.

We’re used to Native American place names in this part of the country, but I wasn’t sure if Susquehanna would hold any attraction to anyone outside of Pennsylvania and Maryland. I cast about for other ideas. The 40th is the ruby anniversary, but Ruby reminded me of the Kenny Rogers song. It also sounded like I was trying to steal a title from Michael Torke, he of the many excellent color titles for his brilliant pieces, so I let it go. Generic, celebratory titles also did not appeal to me.

Going back to the Susquehanna River for which the orchestra is named (it empties into the Chesapeake very near the orchestra’s home in Bel Air, Maryland—I also toyed with Bel Air and Havre de Grace, come to think of it), I found that the Lenape words making up the name mean “oyster river.” I love oysters, especially raw, but I had hoped for something more appropriate to the occasion. My research brought me to the realization that I knew next to nothing about the Susquehanna. I knew it came from somewhere in New York State, went through Harrisburg, Pa., to the Chesapeake. That’s true, but an oversimplification. The closer I looked, the more fascinated with the Susquehanna I became.

It begins exactly in Cooperstown, exiting from Lake Otsego (also called Glimmerglass), not all that far from where my wife grew up. (Jackie was east of there, at the headwaters of the Delaware, and I grew up near the Delaware in South Jersey, but those are other stories.) The Susquehanna then slants southwest and drops, indeed, into Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania seemed to be so happy to welcome it, that it built a town right there and called it Susquehanna. But the river changes its mind and jumps right back into New York. This is what I never got before. It goes back up, to Binghamton, and then meanders around in South Central New York for a while, before swinging back, southeast, finally into Pennsylvania and coal country.

Between Scranton and Wilkes Barre it tacks southwest again, and is soon joined by the Susquehanna West Branch, having risen up well over in west central Pennsylvania, almost as far as DuBois and Punxsutawney. Up and down it winds, and just above Selinsgrove and Sunbury is where it decides to join the main branch. By now this is one seriously large waterway, barreling past Harrisburg, where Sheldon Bair grew up, and past Elizabethtown, where he went to college. Under Rt. 81 and under the Pennsylvania Turnpike is where most people will see the grand expanse of this river, as it heads in a fairly straight and wide southeastern shot, on into Maryland and the Chesapeake.

It is the longest East Coast river in the U.S. that empties into the Atlantic. It is also (I have no idea how they calculate this) one of the oldest rivers in the world. The river is older than the mountains it snakes through; how do they know that. Susquehanna, I now thought, was an excellent title.

The music follows an emotional traversal of the river’s course, but the main tune at letter H, introduced by the solo horn, has another source. Last year I wrote a hymn tune for the dedication of a new division of pipes in our church. I was in the early stages of thinking about the orchestra commission, and a few days after I finished the hymn, I knew that the tune was exactly the type of thing I needed for that spot in (what would be called) Susquehanna. There are some meter changes in the hymn because of how I handled the text, which I thought I would even out for Susquehanna, but it resisted every attempt at smoothing. So the meters stayed.

The music at the beginning of the piece I composed on top of, as it were, the hymn tune, with the idea that they could be played together near the end. The beginning is in D, the hymn is in G. Getting back to D should be an easy task, but my first attempts were unsatisfactory. I solved it with an unusual modulation. At letter K, at the full restatement of the beginning D major music, I underlay it with a strong pedal point of G, not D, which continues until the G major chord already in the theme arrives, nine bars later. Then it proceeds as normal, feeling, I do believe, as if it carries everything along with it, into Havre de Grace and the bay.

Ironworks on Now Is the Time

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Joseph Bertolozzi making music in Paris (Franc Palaia, c2013)

It’s heavy metal on Now Is the Time, Saturday, January 14th at 9 pm on WRTI.org and WRTI-HD2. Techno DJ Steve Bowman starts us off with Pinches of piano and electronica. That’s followed by David Dzubay’s Brass Quintet No. 1 from way, way back in 1988. The Prism Saxophone Quartet becomes a sextet for Dear Lord, a Coltrane arrangement by Dave Liebman (joining in on soprano).

If you want to look for something blessedly difficult to categorize, look no further than Paul Epstein and his serial/post-minimal/relentlessly attractive piano piece, 72:7/11/13, as rigidly constructed and as seemingly spontaneous a bit of music that you are likely to find. Bora Yoon sings, plays, and delights in Weights & Balances, and if you think a brass quintet was metallic, how about Frank Lynn Payne’s Quartet of Tubas?

Joseph Bertolozzi takes mallets of all sizes, including a hunk of tree trunk, to Paris, whacks the Eiffel Tower everywhere he can (he had permission, we think), records thousands of sounds, then goes back to the studio and makes music. Ironworks is one of the arresting pieces from his recent CD, Tower Music.

PROGRAM:
Steve Bowman: Pinches
David Dzubay: Brass Quintet No. 1
John Coltrane, arr. Dave Liebman: Dear Lord
Paul A. Epstein: 72: 7/11/13
Bora Yoon: Weights & Balances
Frank Lynn Payne: Quartet for Tubas
Joseph Bertolozzi: Ironworks

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith plays new American classical music on WRTI’s Now Is the Time, at wrti.org and on HD-2. At wrti.org click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI!