Category Archives: Radio

1917 in Review: Andreae, Villa-Lobos, Prokofiev

Volkmar Andreae (1879–1962). Kleine Suite (1917)
Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959). Uirapurú (1917)
Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953). Symphony No. 1 “Classical” (1917)

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, December 2nd, 5–6 pm… We celebrated anniversaries throughout 2017: the 100th of the births of Robert Ward and Richard Yardumian, the 150th of Charles Koechlin and Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, the 200th of Niels Gade, and the 300th of Johann Stamitz. Last month we observed the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which inspired Bach and Mendelssohn. But we thought we’d hear music anniversaries, too, so today we look at the 100th birthdays of three quite different orchestral works.

The United States would enter World War I in 1917, but the war had already raged in Europe for three years. Neutral Switzerland was armed to the teeth along its borders. It was a center of intrigue and refuge (Lenin lived there before returning to Russia), but it saw no military action, so cultural life continued. In October, Volkmar Andreae left Zurich to conduct his Little Suite in Basel.

He was director of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, and so respected that the New York Philharmonic had asked him to lead them after Mahler’s death in 1911. He turned them down, and spent most of his life conducting and composing in Switzerland. Volkmar Andreae is little-known today, but his music is unfailingly charming. More than that, every piece is a gem, has real personality, and owes its sound to no one else. The recording on our program is conducted by Marc Andreae, Volkmar’s grandson.

Heitor Villa-Lobos, the leading classical composer of Brazil, if not all of Latin America, may be the most prolific composer of the 20th century. Larger than life, he composed as easily, it was said, as others breathed. All styles and forms of music flowed out of his pen, and an early interest in Brazilian folklore stayed with him. He tried unsuccessfully to interest Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Uirapurú, which is the name of a Brazilian wren, seldom heard and even less seen.

The ballet is the story of Brazilian Indians who, hearing the bird in the forest (click here for the sound), try to catch it. Headstrong young men drive off an old man playing a flute. A maiden sees and shoots the uirapurú with an arrow; the bird changes into a young man; the old man returns, shoots him with an arrow, and the youth turns back into the bird and flies away.

Along with a soprano saxophone in the sumptuous score, Villa-Lobos depicts the old man’s music with something rarer on the orchestral stage than the sight of the uirapurú in the forest, the violinophone. Sporting a gramophone-like horn, this odd-looking hybrid sounds surprisingly lovely, and it replaced actual violins in the earliest days of recording because of its projection. (See it playing on Uirapurú below.) Uirapurú seems to be heard as infrequently as its namesake, so we’re glad to bring it to you now.

At the other end of the popularity scale is surely the most-played classical work of 1917—in fact, the “Classical” Symphony of Sergei Prokofiev. Not too long out of conservatory, he was already establishing himself as a leading composer, with muscular solo piano works and his riveting graduation piece, the First Piano Concerto. He also already had the ear of Diaghilev and would soon have ballet success.

He composed his first symphony, he said, to be what Haydn might write were he alive. Propulsive and graceful by turns, it bristles with melody, audacity, ingenuity, and good humor, just like Papa Haydn. Prokofiev helped kick-start neoclassicism in 1917, and jumping back to Discoveries today, we’ll look forward to what 2018 has in store!

The Symphony’s Declaration of Independence

The palace at Mannheim

Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, Oct. 7th, 5 to 6 pm… Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) is the “Father of the Symphony” in the same way that George Washington (born the same year) is the “Father of our Country.” Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and he and others generated the Constitution and other central documents, but Washington’s leadership was the foundation on which the country was built. Similarly, the symphony owes its early growth to Haydn.

But was there a Thomas Jefferson? Of those who composed symphonies before Haydn, the most innovative was Johann Stamitz (1717–1757), born 300 years ago and a generation before Haydn. The Czech (Bohemian) Jan Václav Antonín Stamic dropped out of the University of Prague after only a year to be a violin soloist. Six years later he was in the German court of Mannheim as a first violinist. In two years he was concertmaster, and a few years after that he was appointed director of all instrumental music, his name now Johann Wenzel Anton Stamitz.

The year was 1750, and how neatly this fits into music history. Stamitz, a transitional figure between the Baroque and Classical periods, becomes leader of the most influential orchestra of the time the very year the curtain drops on the Baroque period with the death of Johann Sebastian Bach. But what does a transition sound like?

Baroque is all curlicue lines, as in architecture and painting; Classical is balanced phrasing among similarly voiced instruments. Think string quartet, which the early symphony was a glorified version of. Baroque juxtaposes soft and loud; Classical blends dynamics and other elements and whips them into larger and larger forms.

Stamitz did things with an orchestra nobody had ever done before. People named his innovations after the place he worked. The Mannheim Rocket is a quick crescendo by all the instruments playing triads up and up. Everybody getting louder without triads is called a Mannheim Crescendo (simple, but nobody had thought of it before). The Mannheim Sigh is two lamenting notes, the second one falling—which is as old as music—but Stamitz dropped the second note farther for more emotion. The Mannheim Roller (not Steamroller) is an orchestral tremolo, a shaking, rattling, and rolling no one had ever heard, outside of opera.

And that’s another clue.

Italian opera influenced Stamitz’s symphonies by these and other devices. To the strings he added horns and oboes, instruments not fit for gentility but that expanded the dramatic palette. He added a fourth movement. His ensemble crescendos and fireball orchestrations worked because his employers hired the best players in Europe. Royal listeners approved, and as those players—many of whom were also composers—moved to other orchestras, the effects spread. His sons Carl and Anton continued it. Haydn heard it. Mozart and Beethoven picked up on it.

The symphony declared its independence and was off and running.

PROGRAM:
Johann Stamitz (1717-1757). Symphony in B-flat for Strings
Stamitz. Concerto for Flute (Oboe) and Orchestra in C
Stamitz. Symphony in A for Strings
Stamitz. Symphony in D for 11 voices, Op. 3. No. 2

The Connections of Niels Gade

Coming up on Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, September 2nd, 5 to 6 pm: Part of the joy of producing Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection is in the finding of connections. We’ve seen, for instance, how the German-English Frederick Delius became a real composer in 1884 by living in Florida, and we idly notice that this is the same year Niels Gade wrote Holbergiana, his tribute to the great writer Ludvig Holberg. This of course reminds us of the famous Holberg Suite of Edvard Grieg. We see that it, too, was written in 1884, and we wonder why.

Grieg would soon become a friend of and a musical influence on Delius when they met in Leipzig. But what is the Holberg 1884 connection, and why would the Danish Gade and the Norwegian Grieg both write Holberg pieces that year? Well, it turns out that Holberg was born in 1684, and the 200th anniversary of the man who has been called the inventor of Danish and Norwegian literature was well celebrated. Holberg was born in Bergen, Norway, but worked in Copenhagen, Denmark, and this was during the time when the two countries were united as one kingdom.

The Denmark-Norway union existed, with Sweden entering and leaving occasionally, until 1814, just three years before Gade was born, which reminds us of another connection: This year, 2017, is the 200th anniversary of Gade’s birth.

Niels Wilhelm Gade was the greatest Danish composer until Carl Nielsen. Nielsen, in fact, studied with Gade in Denmark’s capital of Copenhagen, as did Grieg for a time. Gade took the long way around, however, to end up back in the city of his birth. When he was 24 and playing in the Royal Danish Orchestra’s violin section, they performed his opus 1, Echoes of Ossian. Gade started to be noticed. But they demurred the next year, choosing not to play his opus 5, his first symphony.

One thing was clear: the Danish Niels Gade had better leave Germany, and fast.
Undaunted, he sent the score to Felix Mendelssohn, dedicating it to him. We know him today as one of the finest composers of the 19th century, but Mendelssohn was also the intrepid director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. He liked what he saw in the young man’s music, and so the premiere of the Gade Symphony No. 1 took place in Leipzig in 1842. Gade impressed Mendelssohn personally, too. He became assistant conductor at Leipzig, and upon Mendelssohn’s too-young death in 1847, Gade was appointed the new director of the Gewandhaus.

Unfortunately, 1848 was a roiling year politically. Revolutions against the old order broke out all around the confederacy of states we now know as Germany. Wagner was caught up in it; many fled; many, in fact, came to the U.S. in 1848. The revolutions wouldn’t necessarily have affected Gade, but something else happened that year: Germany and Denmark went to war. It was over who owned the border area of Schleswig-Holstein, and while Denmark won out in the short term and Germany in the long, in this complicated business one thing was clear: the Danish Niels Gade had better leave Germany, and fast.

He went back to Copenhagen and began to construct a prominent career of composing and teaching. He influenced the next generations of Scandinavian musicians, including the next great Danish composer, Nielsen, and that greatest of Norwegian composers, Grieg, who knew Delius when they were in Leipzig, which was where… well, we just love all the connections we find through Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection.

PROGRAM:

Niels Gade (1817–1890). Holbergiana (1884)

Gade. Symphony No. 1 (1842)

Charles Ives and Independence

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection July 1, 5–6 pm:
Charles Ives (1874–1954). Variations on “America” (1891), arr. William Schumann
Ives. Symphony No. 2 (1901)

Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection starts the Independence Day weekend with that most independent of American composers, Charles Ives. His music is wild, grand, humorous, poignant, and, at times, ornery. Most of all, though, it is shot through with that very American streak of independence. It isn’t a non-musical independence, like a personal or a political statement would be, but goes deep into the grain of music. The independence of Charles Ives is that stubborn willfulness to grab a moment—any moment, no matter how exuberant or plain—and shake it until all artifice drops off and all that’s left of the moment is, well, its momentousness.

His Second Symphony is a perfect example. Composed when Ives was in his 20s, it’s his breakout symphony. The First is well done, but even with sharp corners here and there, it’s a little too schooled, too European.

With the Second, you hear “Turkey in the Straw,” “Camptown Races,” “America the Beautiful,” “Long, Long Ago,” and “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.” They rub shoulders with, almost riot with, strains of Beethoven’s Fifth, Brahms’s First, Bach, and Wagner. And then Ives tosses in hymns, spirituals, reels, and more: enough to expand it into a five-movement symphony.

Like many Ives pieces, the Symphony No. 2 wasn’t premiered until years after its creation; 50 years, to be exact. Leonard Bernstein conducted the premiere with the New York Philharmonic in 1951. Ives, in ill health for much of his life, listened to the broadcast at home with his wife Harmony, on their cook’s radio. He was surprised by how much the audience clapped at the end.

Some of Ives’s earlier organ music made its way into this work. He was an accomplished organist, playing in churches from age 14, and one such work came to light because the organist E. Power Biggs asked him, in 1949, if he had anything Biggs might play. They uncovered Variations on “America.” Biggs then edited, published, and performed it. The composer William Schuman orchestrated it in 1963, and again the New York Philharmonic stepped up for the premiere, in 1964, with André Kostelanetz conducting.

It is a mistake to think of these Variations as satire. Ives never satirizes. It’s closer to the mark to listen to these as a young boy might, a boy who grew up with fervent bands of amateurs playing music as if their honor—or the honor of their country—depended on it. Ives’s father directed such bands. Young Charlie played in them. He is in love with this tune, and that is one secret to the strange pull and influence of Ives on American music.

The other thing to remember, and which gives context to these Variations, is that when Ives wrote it, as organist in a Brewster, N.Y., Methodist church, and played it at the July 4th celebration (after trying it out first in February—can you imagine what the congregation thought of that?), he wasn’t that far removed from the boy at the parade. Charles Ives composed Variations on “America” when he was 16.

How Do You Compose?

[First published in the Broad Street Review 8 May 2017 as How to Write a Theme Song]

Illustration for Broad Street Review by Hannah Kaplan

By throwing everything out, that’s how. Anyway, that’s the answer I don’t give when I’m asked how I compose. Though it’s true, it sounds facetious, so here’s a recent example, if only to defend myself against the charge of flippancy.

First attempt

I’d never written a theme song, but was kicking around an idea for a new top-of-the-hour 30-second station I.D. at WRTI, the radio station where I work. It had previously been the spoken text alone, the wonderful voice of Dave Conant. We were thinking of bringing in different voices—women’s, other men’s, non-prime-time announcers—and rotating them with the existing one.

When we started Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection (scroll to movement 3 at the link) 15 years ago, I took music from my one symphony and made it the theme. Nine years ago, I did the same with a four-guitar piece when Now Is the Time hit the air. But I’d never composed a theme song from scratch.

Since we’re a dual-format station of classical music and jazz, I thought I’d meld the two into one theme. A piano would serve both, as it’s natural in both. But something else made me choose piano as the foundation for this. I couldn’t ask the station to pay for my experiment by hiring an orchestra, so I’d generate all the music from my computer. The sounds are pretty good, sampled from live instruments, but not as good as the real thing. And of all the samples, the piano, to my ears, sounds more natural than most.

So, I could have a pianistic flourish, peppy to get your attention, but not jarring. Over jazz chords I’d bring in a saxophone—no, a clarinet, also at home in both worlds—for a languorous denouement. A soft background string orchestra would be the combining agent. A little offbeat, with plucked strings for rhythmic punch, a little sweet, and in 30 seconds wrapped up. Here’s what it sounds like.

Second attempt

Not bad, I thought, but after a day or two I hated it. It sounded like a ’70s sitcom, one where the kids fight over who threw the football into the tree, and the car blows a tire on the way to the campground, but everything ends up just fine. It was cute and nothing more. I got to the point where nothing I tried worked. I never got to any interesting chords, the punctuating piano was jarring, and the clarinet never did do anything. It was a boring mess.

So, I threw everything out. Taking out the garbage is one of composing’s most important tactics, although it never feels like a tactic when you’re doing it. It feels awful. Much of the time, awful is what writing music feels like.

Our production manager, a radio guy from way back, got me on track. I played it for him, he listened, and shook his head. “Don’t do a theme. Do a signature.”

“Like N–B–C?” I sang it.

“Yep. A theme gets in the way. We have to play it 24 times a day, remember.”

He was right. I went back and the only thing I kept was the key of D. I made a halo of strings: a D-major chord. My first thought for this signature was to spell out the chord from top to bottom: A-F#-D, but I figured the triad was merely a placeholder. I had that high string halo and the piano picking out the chord. As soon as that ended I landed on a G-major chord, that old standby, the subdominant of D. Now I had drama. I intensified it by keeping the strings resolutely on D major and repeating the signature triad.

From there, I just nudged the bass line along. Following my ear, I moved the G to B. Each bass move was preceded by a ta-dum (I added a soft bass drum and plucked double bass notes). B went to C#, grinding low against the D major, every bass move coupled with corresponding notes thrown into the halo.

The tension increased. The bass C# hopped over the D to E, then hopped again up to G, an octave above where it started. I didn’t think about chords, let alone jazz chords, at all. I just increased the pressure. After 21 seconds, it was time to resolve, so the bass finally settled from G to D, under a slow repeat of the signature.

Funny thing is, I never did change the triad, never made it “more interesting.” I ended with a soft bloom of brass: three trombones and a tuba. The piano rolled out a final D major, and I snuck a lone B into the violins. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s an add-6 chord.

Third time’s the charm

There was one more addition, which you may have heard. When I overlaid it with the voice, I felt it needed more sparkle, so I picked out details with a harp. I also had it click the beat softly throughout, and had the piano hit the offbeat kicks a little harder. I adjusted volumes for inner voices. The final, with Dave’s fantastic voice, sounds like this.

It’s mixed differently for airtime and for different voices, and we deleted the “also available in HD,” which is old news. It was a fairly ridiculous idea to meld (whatever that means) classical (whatever that means) and jazz (ditto). Get people’s attention, don’t annoy them, work the music, don’t get in the way of the voice, create tension and release, and work, work, work the music. That’s how I compose.

And when I don’t, every once in a while, I throw everything out.

Bubbling Up on Now Is the Time

from the CD cover, Juri Seo: Mostly Piano

It’s the spirit of jazz on Now Is the Time, Saturday, May 6th at 9 pm on WRTI.org and WRTI-HD2. We wanted to call #three “Pound Three” but our (increasingly numerous, as the years go by) younger colleagues said, “Hashtag. Duh.” Unperturbed, we contacted the composer Juri Seo (younger than some of our young colleagues), who assured us that saying “Three” was just fine. So there, colleagues. Tune in to see if we pronounced it correctly, but in any case, #three is a rollicking bit of jazz-lick-inspired fun, with riffs tumbling awry among the piano, bass, and percussion.

Allen Shawn performs his own Four Jazz Preludes, which are at the same time lyrical, entertaining, and dearly felt. Philip Thompson brings a big-band feel to a small ensemble in the propulsive yet haunting Separate Self, inspired by fabric sculptures. “Ragtime is in my blood,” says Judith Zaimont, and her Bubble-Up Rag—here, arranged for flute and piano—is a juicy example of her concert rag repertoire. All fun, thoughtful, and brilliant pieces on Now Is the Time!

PROGRAM:
Juri Seo: #three
Allen Shawn: Four Jazz Preludes
Philip Thompson: Separate Self
Judith Lang Zaimont: Bubble-Up Rag

Well, what would you call a piece for wah-wah tubes? Wah by Juri Seo:

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! 

Poulenc Couldn’t Believe What Ravel Said about Saint-Saëns

Camille Saint-Saëns

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday 5–6 pm on WRTI-FM… One hundred years ago, 18-year-old Francis Poulenc was looking for a composition teacher, and being recommended by the pianist Ricardo Viñes to Maurice Ravel, went to meet him, scores in hand. Ravel was already well-known, having composed much of the music for which he is famous today.

He was also part of the new breezes blowing through French music at the time of the First World War. Generations were traveling in new directions with Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, Ravel, and others, away from the German symphonic tradition and away from the 19th century. Viñes and Ravel were part of a group, in fact, that met regularly to play for each other and to discuss these very issues. “The Apaches” they called themselves, the name not only of the Native American nation, but also a French word meaning “The Hooligans.” How apt for the young Poulenc, just starting, to learn from Ravel, a master in this new world.

The young man played some of Ravel’s music at the piano, but Ravel quickly stopped him to look at Poulenc’s own music. Criticizing it, he suggested he ought to consider the music of someone who was a genius: Camille Saint-Saëns.

Saint-Saëns?! That old man, was he even still alive? Yes, he lived to 86, dying in 1921. Saint-Saëns, that curmudgeon who detested everything new, who called Debussy’s music noise, who after The Rite of Spring called Stravinsky insane? Saint-Saëns, who churned out music without effort and without depth and without soul by the truckload? And worst of all, in 1917: Saint-Saëns, that most German of French composers? Ravel recommended Saint-Saëns?

What is it about Saint-Saëns? We hardly know what to make of him. Some of the best-loved music is his: the “Organ” Symphony, Danse macabre, Introduction and Rondo capriccioso, Carnival of the Animals, and piano, violin, and cello concertos. But there are hundreds of works, and he may be the composer who never had an off day (Dvořák is another). His music has an ease that can be mistaken for lack of angst, a refusal to meet emotion head-on. Hector Berlioz (while recognizing his talent) famously said about Saint-Saëns, “He knows everything, but lacks inexperience.”

But go past the famous Saint-Saëns and appreciate what might be his real genius. His First Cello Concerto is ubiquitous, but some consider the Second to be even grander. The Organ Symphony, his Third, is justly revered, but the early Second is a deft handling of contrasts and balances. Symphonies and concertos were forms as German as any, and they kept many French composers at arms-length from Saint-Saëns, but we can appreciate the elegance, the clarity, the control of forces. He isn’t baring his soul as much as he is letting us cultivate ours.

We can do that, if we allow ourselves to hear his voice, to open our hearts to Saint-Saëns. “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” is the gorgeous mezzo-soprano aria from the opera Samson and Delilah, and it can remind us that while Poulenc left Ravel disappointed, we might do well to take his advice.

PROGRAM:
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921). Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix, from Samson and Delilah (1877)
Saint-Saëns. Cello Concerto No. 2, Op. 119 (1902)
Saint-Saëns. Symphony No. 2 (1859)