Wednesday, March 31, 2010

One Thing Leads to Another

I host "Gamut." And at least once every show, I'll say the following:

This is Gamut, the program that each weeks runs the gamut of music from the Middle Ages all the way up to the present. And over the course of X number of shows, we have yet to repeat a work (at least on purpose) and we've yet to run out of great music to share with you.

How is that possible? Simple. Just dig a little beneath the surface.

For example: I'm airing selections from a new recording this morning, "Soviet Russian Viola Music." It's not only providing me with some great music, but also some leads I can explore to find even more.

On this disc are five composers seldom heard these days -- not because of they wrote poor quality music, but rather because Western musicians haven't dug deeply enough into the Russian repertoire.

Vadim Borisovsky
was the founder of the Russian viola school, and many of the works on this new recording are dedicated to him. One of them is by Vladimir Nikolayevich Kryukov, who studied under Myaskovsky and wrote the score for the "Battleship Potemkin. Another is a work by Sergey Nikiforovich Vasilenko, who would later teach Aram Khachaturian (Comedian's Gallop, Spartacus).

Then there's Grigory Samuilvoich Frid, an amazingly prolific composer who broke free from the yoke of Soviet Realism in the 1950's. And Yulian Grigor'yevich Krein and Vlerian Mikhaylovich Bogdanov-Berezovksy, who was a member of the St. Petersburg Union of Composers along with Shostakovich.

All of these men have unique compositional voices, and all produced a significant amount of music that was regularly performed.

It would take years for me to air a significant portion of it. And this is just one small example. Almost every country in Europe and the Americas (as well as quite a few in Asia) have an equally dense and diverse repertoire of native classical music.

So I'm not worried about running out of material. There's plenty still left to discover, and most of it just as good -- if not better -- than what's already been unearthed.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Does Commentary Enhance Enjoyment of Classical Music?

How useful to listeners of classical music are program notes. Do they enhance or inhibit the enjoyment and appreciation of the music? Most live performances of classical music offer program notes, with brief commentary about the artists, composers, and the works to be performed, sometimes with historical context. Some radio announcers who present classical music offer almost no commentary, while others offer commentary of varying lengths and informative quality. Does this commentary enhance the listening experience or merely get in the way?

A recent article in the journal Psychology of Music by Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis of the University of Arkansas, suggests that commentary about the music to be performed may interfere with the directness and intimacy with which listeners are able to experience a work. It is as though the listener were experiencing the work through someone else's ears. Her research suggests that listeners enjoy the music more without descriptive commentary that with the commentary. Perhaps non-professional listeners try too hard to identify the elements that they are told are present than simply enjoying the experience as a purely sensory, non-verbal experience. It seems that listeners appreciate learning about the circumstances of a work's composition more than information about the work's structure or content.

Obviously, at a live performance the concertgoer can choose to read or not read the program notes, but the listener is captive to a radio performance. Certain kinds of commentary are virtually indispensable in presenting a radio performance. The plot synopsis of an opera, particularly one in a foreign language, is particularly useful to listeners. But most commentary that precedes radio performances of classical music could be eliminated with little or no loss of enjoyment for listeners. Very few listeners care in the least about the harmonic scheme of the Eroica Symphony, but many would find it interesting that legend has it that Beethoven furiously struck out his dedication to Napoleon when Bonaparte assumed the imperial crown. That kind of comment places the work in historical context, tells us something about Beethoven's political views, and gives some insight into the frequently used caption for the Third Symphony.

Especially when a radio announcer is obliged to attend to other kinds of business on the air, probably the less commentary about the programmed piece, the better. As in so many aspects of life, less is usually more.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Picturing Music

Renaud Hallee is a talented video animator and composer based in Montreal. He combines both those skills in this video. And while there have been many wedding of animated images with music, the abstract nature of Bar's graphics illustrates the work at a deeper level than a more literal approach could.

As you watch the video, pay close attention to the details. Like most classical music, each element serves more than one function. Everyone pictures music differently, but in this video Hallee manages to share his vision of his sound.

Friday, March 19, 2010

JS Bach's 325th Birthday on Sunday, 21 March 2010

This Sunday, 21 March 2010 marks the 325th anniversary of the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach, who, in my opinion, is the greatest composer of all time. We will be celebrating this anniversary on Classical Sunrise on Sunday from 6 to 9 am with an all-Bach program.

Starting at 6 am (EDT), I will be playing the great Mass in B minor, which was completed in his last years, around 1748-1749. His plans regarding the mass started much earlier with the layout of the Kyrie-Gloria Mass of 1733, when he thought of composing a complete setting of the mass.

Many parts of the Mass in B minor are drawn from earlier works, including the Sanctus, which was orginally written for Christmas 1724; the Osanna, which was derived from a secular cantata movement from 1732; and the Agnus Dei, derived from a cantata movement from 1725. The B minor mass represents the pinnacle and summation of Bach's vocal works.

Among other works of Bach that we will hear on Sunday, I will also play the Cantata BWV 69, Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele (Praise the Lord, O my Soul), written for the election of a new Town Council in Leipzig. This work also borrowed in part from another cantata.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Classical Music from the Emerald Isle

If you think Irish music is just "Danny Boy" and/or Celtic Women, read on. Ireland has a rich classical music tradition, and a wealth of composers who have made great contributions to the classical repertoire.

Here's a quick run-down of a few -- some familiar, some perhaps not. But this is rundown of the some of the music I'll be featuring on my St. Patrick's Day special edition of "Gamut."

Irish Liber Hymnorium - Just as Irish monasteries became the repository for books during the Middle Ages, they were also the repository of music. The Liber Hymnorium is an 11th Century collection of Irish hymns preserved for posterity.

John Dowland -This master lutenist and Elizabethan composer not only set the standard for playing and writing for the lute, but may have also been a secret agent as well!

Turlough Carolan - Carolan (sometimes O'Carolan) was a blind itinerant harpist who wandered throughout Ireland in the early 1700's. In his journeys, he collected a great many folk songs that he recrafted for his own compositions. Carolan is said to have been influenced by the Concerto Grossi of Francesco Geminiani, an Italian composer who eventually settled in Dublin, and wrote in the style of Corelli (how's that for a classical connection?). Carolan's works form the core repertoire for traditional Irish music, as well as providing a rich source of inspiration for later generations of classical composers.

John Field - Virtuoso pianist and composer John Field was one of the many "Wild Geese" who left Ireland to seek his fortune. He spent most of his professional life touring Eastern Europe, especially Russia. He was friends with Carl Czerny and Franz Liszt. Field created the piano nocturne. Field's nocturnes inspired Chopin to write some as well.

Charles Villiers Stanford - Stanford used Irish melodies often as the basis for his works. His clarinet concerto is still often performed. This early 20th Century composer taught at the Royal College of Music, and counted Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Ireland, Frank Bridge, and Herbert Howells among his pupils.

Hamilton Harty - This Irish composer and conductor wrote many works either directly quoting Irish melodies, or inspired by Irish subjects. He was well-regarded in the between-war years, and his music is well represented on recordings.

Howard Ferguson - Ferguson studied with Ralph Vaughan Williams, and although he wrote relatively few compositions, they're all uniformly finely-crafted works in the second English renaissance style.

Arthur Sullivan - Although considered a quintessentially English composer, is of Irish descent. And if everyone's Irish on St. Patrick's Day, then surely Sullivan would qualify...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Reflections on the Mariinsky

The Mariinsky Opera of St. Petersburg (sometimes referred to by its Soviet-era name, the Kirov Opera) recently completely its nearly annual residency at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The featured presentation was the company's joint production with the Metropolitan Opera of Sergei Prokofiev's War and Peace, inspired by Tolstoy's novel of the same title.

Like the novel, the opera is a vast, sprawling work. Unlike the novel, however, the opera was composed during World War II when the Soviet Union was fighting for its life. Consequently, during Act II of the two-act opera there is explicit invocation of Great Russian nationalism and a more veiled reference to the inspired leadership of Comrade Stalin. As artists working in the oppressive atmosphere of Stalinism learned at the risk of their lives, politics was never far removed from art.

Although the production and performances both in Washington and earlier in New York were rightly praised generally by the critics, more than one critic made reference to "provincialism" in connection with the Mariinsky's performance. The conducting of the Mariinsky's general director, Valery Gergiev, is acclaimed worldwide (he is also associate music director of the Metropolitan Opera), and the Mariinsky has nurtured a number of artists who have gone on to international careers (Anna Netrebko and Dmitri Hvorostovsky come immediately to mind), but the label still rankles. The same claim of "provincialism" was leveled at Sviatoslav Richter, one of the 20th Century's greatest pianists, when he made his first appearances in the West in the early 1960s.

Certainly during the Soviet period and even more recently, Russian artists tended to receive their training exclusively or at least primarily in Russia. Political considerations made it difficult for Soviet artists to tour in the West, so they tended to evolve performance practices and techniques not commonly heard outside Russia. Artists such as Richter, Gilels, Vishnevskaya, Reizen, and Oistrakh had a uniquely "Russian" sound, especially in the music of Russian composers. The Mariinsky Opera Orchestra, while one of the world's finest, still has a craggy, even rough-hewn quality that contrasts with the smooth sophistication of such orchestras as the Met's, the Berlin Philharmonic, or the London Symphony Orchestra (where Gergiev frequently conducts).

One of the down sides of today's international travel and universal availability of recordings is that many performers exhibit a bland perfection that leaches out individuality from their performances. It is this colorless internationalism that the critics contrast with the "provincialism" of some non-Western performers, such as Richter or the Mariinsky under Gergiev.

Performing artists today, especially of the younger generation, are exceptionally well-trained and often blessed with flawless technique. Yet in the process of attaining that technical prowess we have lost the individuality, be it provincial or otherwise, that still informs the recorded performances of great artists like Oistrakh, Gilels, or Rostropovich. Perhaps that is one reason some listeners are attracted to the astringent, disembodied, often lifeless performances on "original instruments." I say, "Bring back the provincials."

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Sound of No Hands Clapping?

Writing in the Guardian, Alex Ross cites an awkward moment for President Obama:

Last autumn, Barack Obama hosted an evening of classical music at the White House. Beforehand, he said, "Now, if any of you in the audience are newcomers to classical music, and aren't sure when to applaud, don't be nervous. Apparently, President Kennedy had the same problem. He and Jackie held several classical music events here, and more than once he started applauding when he wasn't supposed to. So the social secretary worked out a system where she'd signal him through a crack in the door. Now, fortunately, I have Michelle to tell me when to applaud. The rest of you are on your own."

Those of us steeped in the classical concert-going tradition know not to applaud between movements. It's simply not done!

But as Alex Ross points out, it wasn't always that way. Audiences applauded after each movement to show their appreciation, and sometimes even demanded the movement be repeated.

While the latter might not happen nowadays, the former is a quite natural reaction to anyone who attends concerts for any other musical genre. There the tradition is to clap after each song (or piece). And if there's a particularly good solo in the middle, it's appropriate to clap during the music as well.

This counter-intuitive convention of the concert hall is one of the perceived barriers to those that otherwise might be interested in classical music. So what's the solution?

Well, what if we went back to the earlier tradition (and the current tradition for every other genre of music) and applauded after each movement? I'm not sure, but I think it could be a good thing for at least three reasons.

1) If you had a strong positive reaction to the music, you could release it through applause, further enhancing the experience.
2) For those unfamiliar with classical music in general, the applause could provide clues as to where the ensemble was in the work, and with the help of the program newcomers could better follow the work.
3) It would lower the anxiety level of not only newcomers but seasoned concert-goers as well. Because here's a little secret: when the work's unfamiliar, it's not always evident when the work's finished, or just a section of it is.

It's a great idea, but the question always is -- who's going to do it first?

In the meantime, here's a tip for classical newcomers: when in doubt, wait for the conductor to face the audience. Or if it's a chamber music concert, watch for the players to put down their instruments and look at the audience. Better yet, just don't be the first to clap.

- Ralph

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

WTJU - Going off the charts

One of the things we wrestle with here at WTJU is how to strike the balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Part of the challenge is that we could simply stick to the top 100 classical works, and few would be the wiser. That's the attitude of, a site that embraces the concept of Top 40 for classical music and celebrates the most familiar works (and only the most familiar works). They've even produced a fun video running down the top 10 classical works.

There's nothing wrong with that approach. Classical music as a genre isn't a familiar one to most people, so even reiterating the basics can help raise awareness of music.

We want to go farther. Classics 101 is fine, but at some point there has to be a Classics 102, and a Classics 201, 301, etc. That's what we hope to provide here at WTJU. You'll hear all of the major composers, of course, and a healthy dose of the standard repertoire. You'll also here a greater sampling of those composers' repertoires, and many composers that most people haven't heard of.

But there's a point to this. There's a piece of music that will speak directly to you. And that piece might not be in the Top 100. So by varying our playlists, you have a greater chance of hearing that one work that will go straight to your heart.

It's happened to all of the announcers here at one time or the other. We hope to share that experience with you.