Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Janacek: Piano Works - from master to pupil

Janacek: Piano Works
Rudolph Firkusny, piano
Newton Classics

Who better to present a recital of a composer’s music than an artist who studied with him? Rudolf Firkusny began his musical career under the tutalage of Leos Janacek, which gives his intepretation of Janacek’s solo piano works special significance.

All of Janacek’s major works for the instrument are present: Piano Soanta 1.X.1905, On an Overgrown Path, and In the Mists. It’s difficult to say exactly how, but Firkusny’s playing seems imminently suited to these works. Just as Czech orchestra can make Dvorak sparkle in a way that seems elude ensembles from other countries, so to does Janacek’s music benefit from the touch of a sympathetic countryman.

It’s clear that Firkusny understands Janacek’s music and it’s likely he discussed the finer points of interpretation with the composer. The folk-inspired passages sound forthright and simple, while the more complex develop organically. Janacek relied heavily on the cumulative dramatic effect of short phrases and motifs, and Firkusny delivers them with a sure hands. He knows how to draw the connections between the musical thoughts to present a cohesive whole.

With most other performers, Janacek’s music seems to me beautiful, yet static. In these performances Firkusny imbues them with a sense of forward motion that’s leading to an inevitable climax. These recordings were originally released on RCA Red Seal over a decade ago. Newton Classics provides a real service by making them available again. The remastering is flawless, and never gets in the way of the original recordings.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Jurowski proves Honegger more than a one-hit wonder

Honegger: Symphony No. 4, Pastorale d’Ete, Une Cantate de Noel 
London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir 
New London Children’s Choir 
Vladimir Jurowski, conductor 
Christopher Maltman, baritone 

Swiss composer Arthur Honegger is basically known for two things: being a member of “Les Six,” and writing Pacific 2-3-1. This release goes a long way towards changing that shallow impression for the better. Arthur Honegger was a consummate craftsman, writing music that was impressionistic, lyrical, full of rich harmonies, and sounded like no one else.

The album opens with Honegger’s tone poem Pastorale d’ete. Composed on holiday in the Swiss alps, this short work is a wonderful sonic postcard from and makes a great opener for the program.

Symphony No. 4, written just after the end of the Second World War, is an exuberant work. Honegger incorporates two Swiss folk songs into the composition, which provide some of the thematic material Honegger rigorously develops. Although this is a light-hearted work, it’s by no means a light one. While pleasant-sounding on the surface, the structure and depth of the composition reward careful and repeated listening.

Une Cantate de Noel was Honegger’s final completed composition, written while he was terminally ill. Although it features several familiar Christmas carols artfully woven together, this is no treacly songs-of-the-season medley. The opening is somber and restless, reflecting Honegger’s emotional state. As the music progresses, that mood changes, as if the composer is turning from the woes of this world, to the serenity of the next. Une Cantate is a transformative work, moving from darkness to light, returning spiritual depth to well-known (if not shop-warm) carols.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir do an excellent job, turning in remarkably clean and tight live performances. Conductor Vladimir Jurowski exhibits sure command of this material, and clearly has a deep affinity for Honegger’s music.

If you’re not familiar with Honegger, or – worse yet – only know his one hit, this disc can be a revelation.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Review: Magnificent music by Philippe Rogier

Philippe Rogier: Music from the Missae Sex
Magnificat; Philip Cave, director
His Majexty's Sagbutts and Cornetts
Linn SACD

This outstanding recording by Magnificat features a set of masses by Philippe Rogier. Missa Inclita stirps Jesse is a parody mass, one of the higher expressions of a composer’s skill back in the 1500’s.

The idea was to take an opening polyphonic theme from another composer’s work (in this case Jacobus Clemens’ motet Inclita stirps Jesse), and develop the material in a different way. The quoted (or “parodied”) material would begin each part of the mass.

Rogier was from France, but made his fortune in the court of the Spanish king, Philip II. These choral works are very clean, and spare. There’s no mere filling in harmonies here – each vocal line has a purpose. The Missa Inclita stirps Jesse is a fine example of high renaissance counterpoint, with the motifs expanding outward in ever more complex (yet transparent) patterns.

Rogier’s Missa Philippus Secoundus Rex Hispaniae takes its theme from the musical spelling of King Philip’s name. Despite its rather unmusical origin, Rogier makes it the foundation for a mass that’s an amazing compositional tour de force. His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts join Magnificat for this work, doubling the vocal lines and shading them in subtle ways. This is indeed music to pull one’s mind to higher things.

Cudos go to Maginifcat, directed by Philip Cave. This early music vocal ensemble has a wonderful blend. The ensemble can be a seamless blend of sound when it needs to be, and clearly articulating multiple lines of counterpoint at other times.

And added bonus is the release of this recording in SACD format. The album is beautifully recorded, but to get the full effect of the performing space (something never far from any renaissance composer’s mind), one should really hear it through the SACD multi-channel format. Rogier’s counterpoint depends on the special relationships between the voices as well as the harmonic – it’s the difference between a 2D and a 3D image.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Paavo Jarvi at home with Baltic Portraits

Baltic Portraits 
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra 
Paavo Jarvi,, conductor 
CSO Media 

Paavo Jarvi has always been a champion of Eastern European music. In “Baltic Portraits” Jarvi uses that experience to present works of five composers from the region with hearfelt and committed performances.

Erkki-Sven Tuur’s occasional piece Fireflower starts off the program. This exotic-sounding work was written for Jarvi’s tenth anniversary with the CSO, and shows off the orchestra – and its conductor – to good advantage.

Symphony No. 8, “Autumnal Fragments” follows, by Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen. Completed shortly after 9/11, the work’s fragmentary thematic structure reflects somewhat the disruption most of the world felt after the event. This is a powerful composition, and the Cincinnati Symphony is more than equal to the technical challenges presented.

Although best known as a conductor these days, Esa-Pekka Salonen started his musical career as a composer. Gambit is a short work that, although post modern in its harmonies, still retains a certain romantic lushness.

Estonian composer Arvo Part was brought to prominence by his fellow countryman, conductor Neemi Jarvi. One of the works Neemi Jarvi recorded was Part's Cantus in Memorium Benjamin Britten. His son Paavo brings a slightly different interpretation to this now well-known work. The tempos are a little brisker, but this is still a piece that moves at a very slow pace and remains true to Part’s tintinnabulli aesthetic.

Lepo Sumera’s Symphony No. 6 is the second of two major works on the album. The late Sumera admired Mahler, and while one can hear that influence in this symphony, the work seems to owe more to two fellow Estonian composers: Arvo Part and Edvard Tubin. The first movement’s long suspensions echo Part’s tintinnabuli, while the more energetic second movement sounds similar to Tubin’s symphonies.

If you’re familiar with any of these composers, Baltic Portraits will be a treat. If you’re not, Paavo Jarvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra make a compelling case for further exploration of these composers’ works.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Community of Listeners and a Call to Action

Become a phone volunteer and you'll see just how
true this cartoon is! (from Barnacle Press)
This coming Monday we begin the 2011 Classical Music Marathon. For a full week, we'll be playing nothing but classical music 24/7. We'll be having a lot of fun, celebrating classical music in all its diversity (and giving our announcers an opportunity to play things they normally wouldn't get a chance to).

But this is fun with a purpose.

And the purpose is to remind our listeners just how unique WTJU is in its programming, and why it's important for our listeners to support it.

This marathon is also a fund drive for WTJU. We need to raise $40,000 in order to meet our operating budget. Some of our money comes from other sources, but a significant portion always has to be raised directly from our listeners.

And that's where you come in. Contributing money is just one way you can help WTJU. This is a community radio station, and the participation of our listening community is vital. So how can you help?

1) Contribute generously
Whether you listen to WTJU locally, or online, you can help! Either call our pledge line number (434-924-3959), or simply go to wtju.net and make a donation with your credit card. This year we can also do monthly billing (online only), so why not make a pledge for $20 a month?

Just think: if 166 listeners did just that, the fund drive would be over before it even started! (Don't worry -- we'd still do the special programming). I don't know what the other 165 listeners are thinking, but your decision to pledge makes that scenario more likely to happen.

2) Volunteer to answer the phones
We have a very simple system for our phone volunteers. If you're reading this blog, you probably have enough computer skills to handle the job! And it's fun to hang out with the announcers and get to see how radio works on the other end of the microphone. Plus, you get to talk with all the nice folks (like yourself) calling in to pledge.

3) Give us a testimonial
What do you like best about WTJU? What makes it worthy of your support? This year we have a testimonial hotline set up where you can call in and have your thoughts recorded. We'll be using these on the air, so your heartfelt comments about WTJU might be the key to get other listeners to pledge -- perhaps even for the first time. Call us at 434-207-2120

4) Share your love of WTJU with others
Actually, this can happen any time of year. WTJU is perhaps the best-kept secret in Charlottesville, and there's no reason why it should be. If you're passionate about music, then this is the station for you. If your friends are as serious about music as you are, you should do them a favor and let them know about WTJU. Remember, even if they don't live in the immediate area, they can always listen online. And if they -- or you -- miss a show that you really wanted to hear, we keep our broadcasts archived for two weeks. So they (or you) can listen or relisten to any program any time on demand -- for free.

So enjoy this upcoming week of classical programming, and help us continue to serve you by contributing in any or all of the four ways listed above (especially the first).

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Calling all listeners (to take the call)

The WTJU Classical Music Fund-Raising Marathon is almost upon us, and we need your help. In order for our announcers to really do their best on the air, we need one or more volunteers to staff our phone banks and take those pledges.

It's actually a pretty simple process. Most of the entry-taking is done for you on the computer. If your reading this blog post, you probably have all the technical skill you need to staff our phones.

And sign-up is easy, too. Just follow this link to go to the WTJU website and start the process.

There are many ways you can help your favorite radio station. A generous financial contribution is one way, but it's not the only way. Telling everyone you know about WTJU is a great way to help us build our audience and our pool of supporters. And remember: they don't have to live nearby -- online listeners from around the world can also contribute.

And a donation of your time by volunteering for our phone banks is another great way to support WTJU.

WTJU is your community radio station. Why not take a more active role in it?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Riisager Symphonic Music: An Unsung Composer Gets a Hearing

Knudage Riisager 
The Symphonic Edition, Vol. 1 
Aarhus Symphony Orchestra
Bo Holten, conductor 
Dacapo 

I have to admit I had never heard of Knudage Riisager before I received this CD (let alone any of his music). But after listening to this outstanding recording, I want to hear more.

Riisager is now recognized as one of Denmark’s greatest composers, although during his lifetime his music was received indifferently, forcing him to support himself in other ways. Riisager studied in Paris in the early 1920’s and was deeply influenced by the cadre of composers there. In this first volume of Riisager’s symphonic works, it’s easy to hear those influences.

Riisager’s orchestral music is written in a lush, post-romantic style, but no matter how many instruments are playing, it always sounds clean and transparent. That Ravel-like elegance is often offset by wry, humorous gestures that one might find in early Stravinsky or Prokofiev. The end result is a music that shows its influences, but remains absolutely unique.

This first volume presents Riisager’s first symphony and four symphonic tone poems. The tone poems, “Danish Pictures 1-4” reference various aspects of Danish life and culture. Structurally, they remind me a little of Richard Strauss’ tone poems. Collectively, the four Danish Pictures show a lot of imagination, both in terms of melodic invention and orchestration.

 Riisager’s first symphony is pleasant work of somewhat modest ambitions, but it succeeds completely in its intent. The structure is well-defined, and the music just sort of ambles along from one major theme to another. And what themes! They’re all very attractive, practically inviting the listener to hum along. The Aarhus Symphony Orchestra plays these works with confidence and precision. Conductor Bo Holten is a composer as well, which may be why the works on this album coalesce so beautifully. The performers believe in this music, and that attitude is infectious.

I'll be revisiting this recording often.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Stephen Mackey: Lonely Motel worth checking into

Stephen Mackey: Lonely Motel: Music from Slide 
eighth blackbird
Rinde Eckert, vocalist
Cedille Records

If you're a fan of eighth blackbird, you wont' be disappointed with this new release. If you're not familiar with this outstanding contemporary music ensemble, Lonely Motel can serve as a good introduction to the group

Stephen Mackey based his work on a series of slides used for psychological testing. Subjects are shown various images and are asked to react to them. Mackey does the same thing musically, and just as with the test subjects, the answers are often deeply significant and often confused.

Sonically the work lands somewhere between modern Broadway (think: Rent) and contemporary classical music. Perhaps it’s the addition of the composer on the electric guitar. Vocalist Rinde Eckert (who's also the librettist for the work) delivers his performance with more a Broadway belt than belle canto.

But that’s fine, because in this composition, it all works. Lonely Motel is a series of 11 short vignettes, sometimes connected, sometimes not. They range from the sparse and mordant musical accents of “Slide of Dog” to the amazingly beautiful falsetto of “She Walks.” My favorite movement is “Addiction” which effortlessly slides from a pointallistic arrhythmic opening to a wild renaissance dance.

This is the kind of composition that can appeal to both adventurous classical and rock music fans. If you like music with an edge, check into the “Lonely Motel.” I think you’ll enjoy your stay.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Saariaho: D'Om le Vrai Sens - Sensuous music for serious listeners

Kaija Saariaho: D’Om le Vrai Sens 
Kari Kriiku, clarinet
Anu Komsi, soprano
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo, conductor
Ondine

This is an album of challenging music. But if you’re up to that challenge, you’ll find your listening experience deeply rewarding. Kaija Saariaho is concerned with the nature of sound, and the major work on this release, her clarinet concerto, shows it.

The work was written in consultation with clarinetist Kari Krikku, and really pushes the limits of the instrument. Krikku plays in the extreme high and low ranges of the clarinet, and even uses multiphonics in a sections. But it’s not just to show off his extraordinary skill -– there’s an artistic reason behind it all.

The concerto is a journey through the senses, as depicted in a series of medieval tapestries. with a movement each devoted to hearing, sight, smell, touch, taste, and finally, the “sixth sense” titled “to my only desire.” That final movement pulls the disparate parts of the work together in a transfiguring fashion that (as you can tell) is very difficult to describe.

Also included in this album is the short work Laterna Magica. It draws inspiration from the early form of slide projector, called the magic lantern. Vague clouds of sound emulate soft-focus images cast on walls, moving, combining –- and sometimes interacting in a work that’s both ethereal and deeply moving.

Leino Songs is a set of orchestral songs, based on the writings of Eino Leino, one of Finland’s greatest poets. Saariaho looks to the inherent drama of the text to shape the musical structure, as instruments clash and withdraw. Tying the composition together is the soprano voice. Solosit Anu Komsi worked with Saariaho on this composition, so the music lays very well for her.

Saariaho doesn’t write pretty music – but she does write vital music. You might not be able to whistle the themes, but the raw emotion Saariaho lays down on manuscript paper is powerful indeed. This is the music of contemplation and thought, and reaps additional insights with repeated listening.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tristan Perich 1-Bit Symphony -- more than 2-bit music

Visual artist and composer Tristan Perich has combined two separate musical concepts: the original performance, and the physical recording. When one purchases a CD (remember those?), it's a copy of a performance recorded weeks, months, often years before.

Not so with Perich's latest release. His 1-Bit Symphony comes in a standard CD case. But inside are some very simple electronics that perform the composition when activated. So every time you listen to the work, you're hearing -- not a recording -- but a live performance.

The symphony gets its name from the electronically generated square waveform. Its such a simple waveform that it can be represented by a single bit of digital information (and remember: a bit is a bit of a byte). Yet Perich does quite a lot with this primal audio building block, creating complex sound structures that are indeed symphonic.

The following video gives you a brief overview of the work, as the presenter hits the fast-forward button to skip through the various movements. When you hear the work as intended, though, you'll hear the themes slowly develop as they would in a Philip Glass or Steve Reich composition.



Will 1-bit music become its own school of composition? Perhaps not.

But Perich has created a valid form of musical expression that's uniquely his own. And that's a remarkable feat, indeed.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Original and rare recordings of Kurt Weill, 1928-1944

Kurt Weill 
Die Dreigroschenoper 
Historic Original Recordings 1928-1944 
Capriccio 

The first disc of this 2-CD collection is mostly music from the Threepenny Opera, including the original cast (1928-31) and select foreign song recordings from 1930-31. While this music by Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht has received many performances, there has been a subtle shift in interpretation over time.

These recordings document how these songs were first performed, with the brashness and exuberance of early jazz. Listening to the original cast of Die Dreigoschenoper (Harald Paulsen, Carola, Neher, Kurt Garron, and Lotte Lenya) is a revelation. There’s a subversive undercurrent in these singers’ delivery that’s missing in modern performances.

The collection includes not only the original cast, but also the first Dutch recordings of Weill’s music, along with some dance band covers of the day. Also included are 1929 recordings by the Berlin State Opera Orchestra with Otto Klemperer of the Threepenny Opera concert suite.

Disc 2 features a variety of historic and exceedingly rare recordings from 1928-1944. It includes music from Happy End, a unsuccessful comedy. The songs by Brecht and Weill from that ill-fated production were recorded in 1929, but seldom heard since.

“Six Songs” is a transcription of a box set released in 1943. These American releases feature Lotte Lenya (her voice already starting to darken) with Weill’s piano arrangements made specifically for the recordings. The collection ends with two anti-Nazi political songs Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht wrote for the Office of War during the Second World War. These were broadcast into Germany via shortwave in 1942 and 1944 sung (of course) by Lotte Lenya.

For the most part, the transfers are very good. Surface noise is minimal, and the sound isn’t over-processed. These are mono recordings, and there’s some compression, but not more than what one would expect from shellac discs almost a century old. I found this a fascinating collection of music, and one that provides historical context to Kurt Weill’s compositions.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Schnittke String Quartets: Modern Classics

Alfred Schnittke
String Quartets 104
Quatuor Molinari
Atma Classics

This two-CD set presents all four of Alferd Schnittke’s string quartets. The first was composed in 1966, and the remaining three over a relatively brief span in the 1980’s.

The first quartet is very tonal and contrapuntal. There’s a lyricism I find very appealing in the music, perhaps even a neo-romantic undercurrent.

It would be fourteen years later that Schnittke would return to the genre, and the second quartet attests to the changes in the composer’s style. This is a more aggressively modernist work, and I heard traces of minimalist drive coupled with the angularity of Stravinsky mixed together in an exciting fashion. (Speaking of which, also included the Canon in Memoriam Igor Stranvinsky, a short work that shows Schnittke’s deep respect and understanding of Stravinsky’s music.)

The third quartet, written just three years after the second, sounds radically different. It opens with lush modal harmonies that set the stage. As the work develops, it becomes increasingly dissonant, but never very much so. Of the four quartets, this is Schnittke’s most neo-classical work, which makes it the most accessible as well. No wonder the Quartuor Molinari chose to start the program with it!

By contrast, Schnittke’s final quartet is a much sparser work. It seems very pointilistic – often only one instrument is playing at a time. This elegiac quartet gradually building in intensity, leading to a powerful finish that seems sum up not just the composition itself, but Schnittke’s thoughts on the genre as a whole.

The Quator Molinari specializes in contemporary repertoire, and is perfectly at home with these works. As with all good chamber music, there are conversations going on between the instruments that help bring cohesion to Schnittke’s music. These were recordings I found myself returning to several times. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Listen.Listen.Listen

Shuffle.Play.Listen
Christopher O'Riley, piano ; Matt Haimovitz, cello
Oxingale OX2019

This is an album of arrangements and transcriptions. I know that might sound sort of "dirty" to some in the classical music world, but consider that even the "purest" and most un-tampered-with works on this album, the Pohádka (Fairy Tale) by Czech composer Leoš Janáček and the Suite italienne by Igor Stravinsky are themselves excerpted from larger works by their composers, and in the case of Stravinsky, sanctioned for arrangement by the much-praised cellist Gregor Piatigorsky.

This album is subtitled "a collaboration that blurs the boundaries between classical and pop." I'm not sure it does that in the way it portends. We're not suddenly whisked to Le Poisson Rouge or the Knitting Factory. Cellist Matt Haimovitz has spent the last decade bringing classical music to unlikely venues. Pianist Christopher O'Riley has broken the fourth wall of radio through his arts education/variety show, From the Top, and his arrangements of Radiohead songs for piano earned him four out of five stars from Rolling Stone magazine. This type of hybrid program fits into the vision of the classical future by music writers Alex Ross and Greg Sandow.

This is, in some ways, a very traditional live chamber music album; in fact, it succeeds better than most live albums of any genre. It captures all of the individualistic quirks of chamber music performance -- the burnished weight of the bow on the cello strings, the staccato (and even lighter) touches of the pianist's fingers, and most importantly, the blend of the instruments in a hall with just the right amount of ring. It does not seem to be recorded before a live audience -- which is not a bad thing. The album was recorded in the cavernous Multimedia Room of the Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Montreal.

The twentieth century is well-represented on the first disc, with works by Leoš Janáček (Pohádka [Fairy Tale]), Bohuslav Martinù (Variations on a Slovak Folksong), Igor Stravinsky (Suite italienne (after Pulcinella)), and O'Riley's own arrangement of Bernard Hermann's music cues from the 1958 film Vertigo. The five movements of this last suite are spread out between the other pieces of the disc, giving a shuffle feeling to the disc, even if one were not consciously shuffling their digital music player to the next selection.

The Janáček is given a upbeat and bright reading which brings out the love and anguish expressed in the original incidental music he wrote for Julius Zeyer's dramatic tale, Raduzand Mahulena, in 1899. Haimovitz's use of line and touch are also evident in the Martinù and the Stravinsky (which is alternately playful and detached as required--this is Stravinsky's neoclassic period, after all).

It is the Hermann where both have a great deal of fun in outlining the characters and the action--and it is all in the touch of Haimovitz's bow whether it is burnishing the strings or singing in a wisp-like fashion on the upper strings. (His use of harmonics are also outstanding). Once again, I can't think of a disc I've heard in recent memory where the the recording location has helped the performers sound so good. (Please don't let this be some tomfoolery of the post-production process!)

If you're familiar with some of the songs on the second disc, you are going to know that they have left their native environment. They lose the drum beats, the electric guitars, and the voices of their original incarnations. Arcade Fire's Empty Room keeps the frenetic strings (provided by Haimovitz at the outset), but he soon becomes the lead singer, crooning over O'Riley's fast fingers--in a style akin to Philip Glass's music, but also very close to the accompaniment of Stravinsky's Suite italienne.

Compare Haimovitz/O'Riley's version of Empty Room...



with the original by Arcade Fire:



Haimovitz twangs and colors each of the songs on this disc in a distinct way which sometimes mirror the original, and at other times is completely different. O'Riley shines more in the Radiohead arrangements, such as Pyramid Song and Weird Fishes/Arpeggi. If not all of these pieces capture the spirit of the originals, then it should be noted that there are some very pretty melodies that are being re-worked effectively for a classical audience.

Transposing the Mahavishnu Project's Dance of Maya by John McLaughlin on cello, though, eliminates the weirdness of the electric version, and we are left with music which sounds like Martinù. It swings later when O'Riley enters, and Haimovitz's energy amps up when he's using his portamento (sliding between notes) to create a distorting haze over the proceedings. I don't know if this is effective, but it certainly is well-played and thought-provoking.

McLaughlin's Lotus on Irish Streams in this form, alternates between Debussy and George Winston for me. Other treatments of Blonde Redhead (Misery is a Butterfly), the Cocteau Twins (Heaven or Las Vegas) and Radiohead alternate between intense, laid-back, and melodic. The selections on this second disc (arranged for the most part by O'Riley) have been well-chosen to blend with the first one.

Listening to these discs in the car on shuffle mode, they transitioned quite well, but they could also be programmed in a more conscious fashion. One could enjoy Shuffle.Play.Listen as a well-curated (and superbly executed) recital of different genres of music being incorporated into a concert hall experience. Or you could just sit back and shuffle through a bunch of good tunes. I recommend lowering the lights and taking it all in on the best audio equipment you own.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

2011 Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival

I was quite excited to be able to attend 3 out of the 6 concerts for the 2011 Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival. The first two of those were at UVA's Old Cabell Hall, and the last at The Paramount Theater.

There was much pleasure to be had with the first group of performers, which included Matthew Hunt and Alasdair Beatson. The piece by Peteris Vasks, Episodi e Canto perpetuo was quite athletic, for both performers and audience. In his opening remarks Mr. Beatson seemed to want to "caution" the audience as to its intensity, but it left me breathless and intrigued, and in a good way. The piece, in eight movements performed attacca (that is, without pause), was not difficult for difficulty's sake, as some modern music can seem to be. Certainly the performers were challenged, but the music held it's arc, and appealed with portions of beautiful legato to balance the more stark moments.

Mr. Hunt featured prominently in Weber's Duo Concertant and Brahms' Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115. A technically exciting performer, there were times his breathy lead-ins to pianissimo were distracting, but they diminished as the concert moved along. At times unashamedly flamboyant visually, Mr. Hunt shone brightly in the Weber, but could hold a languid line in the more moody Brahms.

The next concert, also at Old Cabell Hall, began with Mozart's delicate Duo for Violin and Viola in G major, K. 423. Steven Copes and Timothy Summers were careful not to over-dramatize the piece, lest it become sentimental. Instead, each proved the simple task of listening to the other player is a critical component in mature performance of art. The music stood on its own.

Aki Sauliere, Alasdair Beatson, and Raphael Bell joined the performers in the Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G minor. One of the chamber pieces from Shostakovich's middle, less turbulent years, it has moments of pure acidity, but also humor, which the performers conveyed beautifully.

The last piece, Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 2, written during the composer's travel to England, was, at once, poignant and crystalline.

The final concert I was to attend was on September 22 at The Paramount Theater. Joan Tower's Island Prelude was a fitting start to the performance, but I felt strangely disconnected from the performers, but it wasn't until later in the evening that I realized why.

Soprano Roberta Alexander set out on an American Song expedition, bringing out some charmers (Samuel Barber, Alec Wilder, Charles Ives), along with the tried and true of Copland and Gershwin. The pieces were of medium difficulty, but there were quite a few moments of vocal instability, particularly in the middle register. Andre Previn'sVocalise was marked by some rather unfortunate sounds from Ms. Alexander, and compared to Mr. Bell's sensual performance, they bordered on ugly.

The intermission was moved around so that the American pieces were concluded in the first half, and the French in the second, beginning with two of Satie's Gymnopedies (as per the composer's request), haltingly lovely in their string form. Chausson's carefully woven Chanson perpetuelle followed, and again, I felt a distinct separation from the performers. Several times I could not hear the cellist, and the pianist's notes were lost. It only became clear to me during the Faure that it was the venue itself that was the difference.

While The Paramount Theater is a lovely hall, it did not do service to the chamber music. Old Cabell Hall provided a much more intimate setting, cordial to the music itself. The Paramount sucked the intimacy away, and I missed it very much.

Please do not mistake my meaning: The Paramount has had some lovely performances for which I have been in attendance, but it cannot match Old Cabell Hall for warmth and nurturing of small ensembles.

I do hope that the Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival continues on a long and prosperous life here in Central Virginia. Hearing chamber music, well-played, from modern composers, along with the more traditional pieces, is a great boon to Charlottesville.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Letter From Salzburg

The 2011 Salzburg Festival, July 27-Aug. 30, was the usual combination of outstanding musical performances and high society. This writer attended performances from Aug. 20-28. The project to reroof the Felsenreitschule has been concluded, and the hall is an acoustic and visual wonder. Few performance halls in the world have such an impressive entrance area. Verdi's Macbeth was the featured event in an attractive, if conventional production conducted by Riccardo Muti.

Among the highlights from performances of about a week were Janacek's The Makropoulos Case, starring Angela Denoke, who just about owns the role of Emilia Marty. Anna Netrebko has become a Salzburg favorite, and she did not disappoint in a concert performance of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta, which was paired with Stravinsky's Le Rossignol. Netrebko and Polish star tenor Pyotr Beczala had the Grosses Festspielhaus audience in a frenzy after their passionate performance of the love duet that is the highlight of Iolanta.

One of the guest orchestras this year was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by its recently designated music director, Riccardo Muti. In two concerts the highlights were Parts I and II of Prokofiev's suite from Romeo et Juliette and Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. It is always interesting to compare and contrast the guest orchestras to the plush, warm string sound of the Vienna Philharmonic, which summers at the Salzburg Festival as the pit orchestra for most operas.

Muti's performances with Chicago were razor-sharp, every detail in place, and no nuance left unexplored. The legendary Chicago brass has lost none of the brilliance for which it has been justly renowned since Fritz Reiner's time. Muti's Shostakovich was in the triumphant mode, as contrasted with Valery Gergiev's angry, bitter, bleak rendition of the work heard three years ago in Salzburg with his Mariinsky Orchestra.

No praise is too high for the stupendous playing of the Vienna Philharmonic and inspired conducting of Christian Thielemann in Richard Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten, which overcame even the odd staging by Christof Loy. Anne Schwanewilms was not a particularly inspired Empress, but the stage was dominated by the heroic voice of Evelyn Herlitzius as the Dyer's Wife. Michaela Schuster as the Nurse, Wolfgang Koch as a sympathetic Barak, and Stephen Gould as the Emperor all sang capably. Surely the score could not be better played or conducted.

Another Salzburg favorite is Maurizio Pollini, who is programming and recording the Beethoven sonatas. In the Grosses Festspielhaus he played the sonatas Op. 54, 53, 78, and 57. His playing still has the pristine clarity, dignified phrasing, and immaculate musicianship that make his performances legendary. The passage work was flawless, the pedaling was subtle, and his conception of the works was logical and inspired. The performance of the Appassionata in particular bore comparison to any other heard by this writer.

Overall, it was a great Festival. I can hardly wait until 2012.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Contemporary classics from Cincinnati


American Portraits
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra  
Paavo Jarvi, conductor  
CSO Media

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra used to be one of the crown jewels of the Telarc label -- back in the day. Now they join an increasing number of orchestras who are self-releasing their material. And like their former label mates the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, they're starting off with a strong release of interesting and compelling repertoire.

American Portraits showcases works by living (and relatively young) American composers. Several of these pieces received their premier with the CSO. All are well-crafted compositions that bear up to repeated listening.

Charles Coleman has two works on the album. "Streetscape" opens the program. It's reminiscent of Bernstein's "West Side Story" overture, but with a higher level of energy. "Deep Woods" is a very different piece. It opens in a frantic and disjointed manner that, ( to me anyway) conveys a feeling of unease and disorientation of being lost in the woods.

Jennifer Higdon's "Fanfare Ritmico" wasn't premiered by the CSO, but they turn in a rousing performance nevertheless. This is short, festive occasional work that, as the tile suggest, has a good beat. The fun continues with "Slalom" by Carter Pann. It starts out with a quick quote from Beethoven, then makes a light-hearted run through the orchestra at break-neck speed. Slalom, indeed!

"Halcyon Sun" is an amazing example of orchestral mastery. Jonathan Bailey Holland creates a work that shimmers as light through a prism. The last work, "Network," by Kevin Puts is a short, good-natured composition that ends the program on a high note. American Portraits is impeccably recorded. Even though these are live performances the sound has a good amount of detail, and the audience (with one exception) unusually quiet.

Paavo Jarvi conducts with authority and conviction, making the case for all of these works by leading the orchestra in lively and energetic performances.American Portraits makes the case that music in this country is not just alive, but full of life as well. Highly recommended.

You can hear selections from this CD on WTJU -- we'll be airing them over the next month or so. Keep listening!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Review: Cello concertos that show what might have been

Martinu, Hindemith, Honegger
Cello Concertos
Johannes Moser, cello
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie
Christoph Poppen, conductor
Hanssler Classic, 93.276

What if classical music had taken a different turn in the mid-Twentieth century. Cellist Johannes Moser gives us a hint with his latest release of concertos. He presents three works by composers who all wrote in a somewhat tonal style.

Paul Hindemith wrote music that he believed to be the logical extension of the works of the great masters. His 1940 cello concerto is a brawny, intense work, meticulously constructed to work out its musical arguments. And yet there's nothing stiff or academic about the piece. The concerto present its musical arguments in a forthright and natural manner.

Swiss composer Arthur Honegger was more concerned about melody. From the sweeping lyricism of the opening movements to the crashing chords of the finale, the cello sings its song accompanied by the orchestra. This 1930 work occasionally betrays a hint of jazz, but it never degenerates to cliche.

Boheslav Martinu's music sounds like no one else's. His chords shimmer, his harmonies slide about, always consonant, yet never quite settling on a particular key. The music is often propelled forward with engaging folk-based rhythms that help keep things slightly off-balance. Martinu's first cello concerto, finished in 1930 isn't a landmark composition, but it provides a solid introduction to the composer's style. 

Johannes Moser moves effortlessly through all three works, adapting his playing to the composer's styles. Regardless of the technical challenges, his playing never sounds forced, and at times his cello seems to positively sing. The Deutsche Radio Philharmonie led by Christoph Poppen gives these works a spirited reading, nicely complementing Moser's playing.

This is a new addition to the WTJU library, so listen for it on air.

Recommended to anyone interested in unusual repertoire. And if you *hate* 20th Century music, you really should get a copy of this disc!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Robert Moran's Trinity Requiem for 9/11

Trinity Requiem: 
The Choral Music of Robert Moran
Trinity Youth Chorus; The Esoterics; 
Musica Sacra
Innova 224

To mark the tenth anniversary of 11 September 2001, the Trinity Church Wall Street (Ground Zero) commissioned Philadelphia-based composer Robert Moran to compose a requiem for the Trinity youth choir. The Trinity Requiem is a marvelous and moving work; the piece is scored for harps, cellos, and organ, and the youth chorus is joined by only a few adult members of the Trinity Choir.

The "Introit" begins the piece with two long chords that, to me, appear as a summons or calling forth to witness the tragic events of our time. The youth chorus then begins with the Kyrie, reminding me very much of the purity of one of my favorite choral pieces, the Faure Requiem, but with something more modern added, an other-worldly sense that I hear in the music of Arvo Part. The offertory in the middle of the Requiem consists of a beautiful, yet somewhat melancholy, interlude that allows more space for reflection than does the music set to text.

On the recording, a siren is heard passing the church at the beginning of the offertory. This was not planned, of course, and Mr. Moran explains in the liner notes that they decided that the "alarm" was worth preserving as a reminder that the World Trade Center had been just behind Trinity Church ten years ago. The simplicity of the "In Paradisium" section, which closes the piece, while tinged with melancholy, also leaves one with a sense of serenity and peace.

I'll be playing the Trinity Requiem some time during my show, Classical Sunrise (6 AM to 9 AM) on WTJU 91.1 FM, Sunday, 11 September, as part of my own effort to commemorate this tenth anniversary of 9/11. Please tune in. I think that you'll be moved by what you hear.

NOTE: This program is available in the WTJU Tape Vault through September 25, 2011 if you miss the live broadcast.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525 - 1594)

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina -- quite a mouthful. Actually, the composer was born in the town of Palestrina (not far from Rome); hence, "da" or from Palestrina. In his home town, he would have been known as Giovanni Pierluigi, but to the rest of the world, he was simply Palestrina.

He was arguably the most outstanding composer of his time and the leading musician of the Counter-Reformation. He composed about 104 masses, more than anyone else in the history of music, and almost half of which were published in his lifetime.

He also composed more than 300 motets, as well as numerous hymns and several settings of the Magnificat and the Lamentations of Jeremiah. His first book of masses was published in 1554 and was dedicated to Pope Julius III, who rewarded Palestrina by appointing him to the Sistine Chapel, the Pope's personal chapel. Famously, Palestrina composed the Missa Papae Marcelli to commemorate the reign of another pope, Pope Marcellus II, who, however, reigned for only 3 weeks in April 1555.

I played the Missa Papae Marcelli performed by the Tallis Scholars on my regular show on Sunday morning, Classical Sunrise (6 to 9 AM).

Today, I'll be hosting "Portrait of the Artist" from 5 to 7 PM, with Palestrina as the featured artist.

To whet your appetite, here's the Gloria from that work, performed by the Oxford Camerata, directed by Jeremy Summerly.

Contemporary Classical - worth contemplating

Anne Midgette wrote an excellent article recently in the Washington Post providing an introduction to new music for the novice. Contemporary Classical: A Primer explores some of the major trends, such as minimalism, neo-traditional, and alt-classical. As she explains:
If you’re a longtime orchestra subscriber, you may be passionate about Brahms but leery of the unfamiliar names and sounds that occasionally emerge onto concert programs. And chances are, whatever you like, you are equally passionate about what you don’t like. This is not a “best of” guide, but rather an aide to orientation: Whatever your individual taste, these are pieces worth exploring.

In addition to outlining the three trends, she also includes a list of suggested works at the end of the article that I found quite good (and even had some surprises for me).

Not all the composers are dead. They're not all European, and they're not even all male. And the music they're writing is far removed from the prickly dissonances of mid-Twentieth Century avant-gardists that everyone seems to assume is still the norm for new music.

So here's the question: what would you like to hear more of on WTJU? Minimalist composers like Steve Reich and John Adams? Neo-traditionalists like John Corigliano and Jennifer Higdon? Alt-classical composers such as Nico Muhly and Mason Bates?

Of course, if you listen to my program, "Gamut" you'll probably hear all of the above and then some. But there's a lot to like in new music, and someday, some of those work will be considered standards of the repertoire.

Anne Midgette provides a great place to start your musical exploration, and we promise to help you along your journey!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Gaga about the Fugue

A new video based on a very old tradition has been making the rounds. Italian composer Giovanni Dettori has composed a fugue based on a motif found in Lady Gaga's song, "Bad Romance." Composers have been using popular music for contrapuntal fodder for centuries -- sometimes to the disapproval of their audiences (or patrons).

The French folk song "L'Homme Armé" was extremely popular in the 1400's. And the shape of the melody lent itself very well to contrapuntal treatment. As a result, quite a few composers of the time used the song as a basis for their mass settings. So when you see a sacred work titled "Missa L'Homme Armé," then you know this highest form of religious music was based on a pop song.

Which takes us back to Dettori's fugue. As you can see (and hear) from the following video, it's a thorough treatment of Gaga's motif. This is counterpoint as championed by Bach, and if you pay close attention, you'll hear the thematic material transformed as it's played against itself, stretched, condensed, and even reversed.


And while the composition's a lot of fun, it also stands on its own merit. If you've never heard Lady Gaga, or knew of the origin of the theme, it's still an enjoyable fugue.

But just for reference, here's the music in its original context.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Review: River of Light: American Short Works for Violin and Piano

River of Light: American Short Works for Violin and Piano
Tim Fain, violin;
Pei Yao Wang, piano
Naxos American Classics 8.559662

Usually a recital disc of short violin compositions, known as “miniatures,” will include works by 19th and early 20th century composer-performers such as Fritz Kreisler, Niccolò Paganini, Pablo de Sarasate, and Henryk Wieniawski. With this album, violinist Tim Fain aims to “bring the tradition of the ‘short piece’ into the present.”

And by the present, he means roughly the last 60 years, for only one of the pieces performed is by a composer who is deceased (Ruth Shaw Wylie’s Wistful Piece, composed in 1953). Fain premiered many of the works (or arrangements) performed on River of Light, so you get the sense he is deeply committed to this repertoire.

The disc begins with a lyrically understated aria for violin and piano by Kevin Puts (whose body of work has been growing nicely, and whose fanfare, Network, was featured on a high-energy sampler of American compositions on the inaugural release by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s record label, CSO Media.

Then Fain makes use of his excellent technique with Knee Play 2, an excerpt from Philip Glass’s 1976 opera, Einstein on the Beach. His performance in this arrangement is simply electric, both capturing the hypnotizing and change-prone qualities of the composer’s music.

Aaron Jay Kernis’s Air for Violin and Piano is no mere trifle. The adjectives to which one could attribute to it are well-deserved: melodic, tender, and expressive, and heart-wrenching. The long lines which the violin has to sustain are thrilling to hear. Fain and Wang interpret this material well. Richard Danielpour’s River of Light would not be out of place in a movie score: that is, a score which is deeply foreboding and evocative of dark beauty in its character.

It is nice to hear William Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost Rag transformed into a bon-bon for violinists to enjoy—why should pianists have all the fun? Jennifer Higdon even manages to write a melody worthy of some of the great composers of the repertoire, with her Legacy.

The longest work on the disc, The Light Guitar, is by New York-based composer Patrick Zimmerli. For a work for solo violin in three movements, it does everything a good solo work should do: highlight a soloist’s musical abilities, require expressive playing, and display high-energy virtuosity in the outer sections. Indeed, the fast third movement mirrors what is so infectious of bluegrass music, which moves back and forth between agile melodic figures, and is punctuated throughout by double and triple stops, open strings, and movement by parallel intervals. Maybe he should look up mandolinist Chris Thile and put together a show.

Fain and his trusty colleague, pianist Pei Yao Wang are worthy partners for this material. Fain has crafted an album of violin and piano music which deserves to be further explored by more violinists. One can hardly wait to hear what their next project will be. The disc will be released on the Naxos American Classics label on August 30, 2011.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Review: Farinelli the composer

Farinelli: The Composer  
Jorg Washchinski, male soprano
Salburger Hofmusik; Wolfgang Brunner, conductor 
New Classical Adventure

“Farinelli the composer” is a fascinating release. Carlo Broschi (AKA Farinelli) was – by all accounts – the greatest castrato opera singer of his day, and perhaps of all time. But because Farinelli conquered the stage 200 hears before sound recording technology, we only have contemporary descriptions of his voice to judge the extent of his talent.

Fortunately, in addition to being a singer, Farinelli was also a composer. Like many virtuosos of his day, he wrote music exclusively for his own  performances -- primarily arias. Baroque opera singers were expected to improvise around the written score, and Farinelli was no exception. Of course, such improvisations are ephemeral. But just as a Miles Davis composition can provide insight into his improvisational style, so too does Farinelli’s arias give us a better idea of what his voice was capable of, and how he was likely to improvise in performance.

The arias on this release are of great historical interest, which is not to say they’re without compositional merit. Even though the orchestrations are run-of-the-mill, Farinelli was a better than average composer with a real gift for melody (not surprisingly). The vocal lines he wrote for himself are full of unusual twists, turns, and leaps that could trip up a lesser singer.

Sopranist Jorg Waschinski is more than equal to the task, and does an outstanding job with this material. No matter how talented the countertenor, the range is always a little more constrained than that of a true castrato. Nevertheless, Waschinski soars through the upper register seemingly without effort, delivering a clear, full-voiced sound.

If you’ve seen the movie “Farinelli” then you know of the man’s reputation. But the voice you heard was a digital blend of different singers. In this release you hear an actual singer delivering Farinelli’s music to the best of his formidable ability. And the humanity of  Waschinski's voice makes all the difference.

Although we can never really know what Farinelli sounded like, this recording of his music brings us a little bit closer.

Highly recommended for anyone interested in Baroque or Classical era opera.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Ah, Bach!

Why do our volunteers give up their time to present programs of carefully-selected music for you? Well, here's a partial answer.

Rob Nowicki was hosting "The Early Music Show" on August 8, 2011, and aired a particularly strong lineup of music from Telemann, Graun, Purcell.... and Bach. 

Ah, Bach! 

Rob aired Bach's Cantata # 169 “Gott soll allein mein Herze haben” BWV 169,  from a Harmonia Mundi release featuring Bernada Fink, mezzosoprano; Frieburger Barockorchester; and Petra Mullejan, director.

After the program, he found the following voicemail from an anonymous caller, whose voice trembled with emotion.
“I am so happy to have heard this wonderful-not wonderful-magnificent!-ecstatic! divine! music…….The Bach has been beyond description-I am enchanted by it!  I wish to send to the man who has been taking care of it all blessings-blessings on him and many, many thanks.  Good bye.”
We know we air great music that can stir the soul. It's wonderful when we receive an occasional acknowledgement.

If you'd like to hear this soul-stirring program, it's available for on-demand listening from our online tape vault. But you need to act soon -- our archive only holds programs aired in the past two weeks, and after that, this show will be lost to the ages.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Review: Comfort music from Franco Ferrara

Franco Ferrara
Fantasia tragica
Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma; Francesco La Vecchia, conductor
Naxos

Franco Ferrara was many things: a brilliant pianist and violinist, a teacher, a conductor -- and a composer. Ill health forced him to give up public performance at age 47, so the bulk of his reputation these days rests on those who studied conducting with him, such as Roberto Abbado, Andrew Davis, Riccardo Muti, among many others.

This new release from Naxos, Fantasia tragica, features four world premiere recordings by this master musician. Ferrara certainly isn't the first 20th Century conductor who wrote music. There's George Szell, Jose Serebrier, Wilhelm Furtwangler, and (of course) Gustav Mahler. Ferrar isn't quite on the level of Mahler, but his works are more tightly constructed than Furtwangler's.

Francesco La Vecchia and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma present four world premier recordings of Ferrara's music. They provide an excellent reading of this material, giving the listener a great introduction to these unknown works.

This is accessible and appealing music, indeed! While sitting clearly in the 20th Century, Ferrara's compositions stay safely with the bounds of tonality. To my ears, the compositions sounded somewhat like mid-career Shostakovitch, without the Russian accent.

That's not to say this a a bad recording -- far from it! Ferrara has some original music ideas, and his intimate knowledge of how an orchestra works allows him to come up with some very effective and moving tonal colors. In a way, it's sort of like comfort food. Ferrara doesn't challenge, but rather reassures with his music.

I found the Fantasia tragica particularly appealing. Like Ravel's "Bolero," the work gradually builds in volume as more instruments enter the mix. But there's no driving percussion here -- just a long, beautifully-crafted melody that moves inexorably upward, winding its way through the orchestra.

This would be a great disc to give to someone who's ready to move beyond the basic repertoire. There's still plenty of touchstones with the familiar, but the spark of originality Ferrara brings to his music makes the exploration worthwhile.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

WTJU Needs You!

Have you ever listening to a program on WTJU, like "Gamut" for example, and thought to yourself I could do better than that guy.

Well, you're probably right. And, if you live within a reasonable commuting distance, you have a chance to prove it. WTJU is looking for new volunteers for our classical department.

Every announcer you here on WTJU is a volunteer. We're all different ages, and come from widely different backgrounds, but we all have one thing in common: we're all passionate about the music we play. If you're the type of person who's always urging your friends to check out this recording or that performance, then you're probably good announcer material.

Don't worry about the technical stuff -- we'll train you on that (it's actually pretty easy, and it gets easier with practice). All we need are folks who love classical music and want to share that love with the community.

Sure, some of our announcers have some music degrees (and a few even work in the field), but that's not important. Any classical musical enthusiast is welcome -- and many times our "amateurs" have provided the most insightful and engaging programming aired on WTJU.

Not quite sure how to pronounce Szymanowski? No problem -- we have pronunciation guides (and sometimes I even use them).

So why should you volunteer? The biggest reason I think is this -- you get to program your own show. Most radio stations (public and commercial) use playlists. The DJ comes in, plays what's on the list when it's scheduled to run, and that's that. That's OK if you're paid to babysit an automated system, but it's not very rewarding as a voluntary activity.

AT WTJU, it's much more hands-on. It's up to you to pick the music and decide what goes on the air when. There are some simple guidelines to follow, but within them, you're free to do as you will. Imagine having your friends come over to your home for a classical listening party, with you as host. That's about what being on WTJU is like.

And because each announcer is only on for one show once a week (except when we fill in for others), the time commitment isn't too demanding.

If you like what you hear on WTJU and want to help it continue, please consider volunteering. And if you listen to "Gamut" and roll your eyes every time I start nattering on about something, you should really volunteer. WTJU needs you desperately!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Review: Joseph Schwantner, Chaser of Light

Joseph Schwantner
Chasing Light; Morning's Embrace; Percussion Concerto
Christopher Lamb, percussion
Nashville Symphony; Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor
Naxos

Two of these things belong together (but the third one's fine, too). That's a capsule summary of my reaction to this new recording of Joseph Schwanter's music from Naxos, "Chasing Light." This Pulitzer Prize-winning composer has been fascinated by light, and two of the works on this CD were directly inspired by it.

Morning's Embrace, according to the composer, "draws its spirit and energy from... intensely vibrant early morning sunrises." Schwantner's wide-open melodies and spare orchestration seem almost Coplandesque at time, which is not a bad thing at all. It's a warm, inviting work, fulfilling the promise of the title.

Chasing Light is another dawn-inspired work. In this case, Schwantner creates a tone poem describing the play of morning sunlight through a stand of trees. But the hammering tympani that start the piece let you know this won't be a quiet contemplation of nature. This sun's coming up like thunder. Schwantner's music simultaneously shimmers and pushes forward, as inexorably as the rising sun. The dramatic nature of this composition makes it seem almost like a soundtrack for an epic film.

While the Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra has nothing to do with light, it has everything to do with Schwantner's affinity for percussion. Commissioned by Christopher Lamb (who performs in this recording), this a brawny, full-blooded work that celebrates the musicality in all things struck. The first part sets the tone with various drums sounding out the melody that the orchestra picks up. The lyrical middle section is primarily for vibraphone and various tuned percussive instruments that create a haunting, and contemplative elegiac mood. The finale is as rhythmic and percussive as the first part -- only more so. It's great fun to listen to, and I suspect even more fun to watch in live performance.

Giancarlo Guerrero masterfully leads a Nashville Symphony that's on top of its game. The ensemble plays with conviction and authority, as if they had been performing these works for years. Christopher Lamb is an incredible percussionist, playing music that's an integral part of him.

Top-flight in every way.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

2011 "Proms" on WTJU

The BBC “Proms,” the well-beloved and preeminent British summer musical festival, started the 2011 season on 15 July and will run through 10 September. This season features 85 concerts, covering a wide variety of works, from the longest symphony ever written (Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony) to masterpieces of Renaissance composer Tomas Luis de Victoria.

The Proms, more formally known as the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, began in 1895 and were initially held in the Queen’s Hall in London. The festival quickly became a venerated British institution. Henry Wood (knighted in 1911) conducted the concerts from the inception of the festival in 1895 until his death in 1944 (only three weeks earlier he had conducted Beethoven's Seventh Symphony at the Proms). After the Queen’s Hall was destroyed in 1941, the Proms were moved to its present location at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Throughout the festival, I will be featuring selected works performed at the 2011 Proms during my regular show on WTJU, Classical Sunrise. So tune in Sunday mornings, from 6 am to 9 am, to WTJU 91.1 FM, or on the web at wtju.net.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Review: Hummel at the Opera - Piano Arrangements by a Classical Master

Hummel At the Opera
Madoka Inui, piano
Naxos

Like many virtuoso composer/performers of the day, Johann Nepomuk Hummel wrote arrangements and variations on popular melodies. And in that day (the early 1800’s), the best-known melodies were to be found in operas.

This collection features a number of Hummel’s operatic arrangements for solo piano. All show a wealth of musical imagination. Some of the source material is familiar to us today, such Mozart’s Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail and Gluck’s Armide. Others are a little more obscure. In a few cases,  such as Hummel’s own fairy opera Eselshaut, his piano arrangements are the only surviving versions of the work.

As may one might expect, these variations and grand fantasias are full of attractive melodies. Compared to Liszt’s operatic transcriptions – or Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations,” these works can seem a little tame. But Hummel’s inventiveness runs closer to  that of Mozart and Haydn. So while they’re  excessively showy, they’re all solidly constructed pieces of music.

Especially attractive is his variations of “Vivat Bacchus” from Mozart’s Die Entfuhrung. Hummel takes the aria through several permutations that vary in tone from humorous to serious.  I also found his simple counterpoint in the Grand Fantasi on Oberons Zauberhorn particularly charming.

Pianist Madoka Inui plays these works with precision and sensitivity. Her phrasing is impeccable, giving the music a sense of forward motion while maintaining a little of the emotional reserve characteristic of Hummel’s late-classical style.

Pleasant – and in some cases – thought-provoking arrangements that make for an enjoyable listening experience.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Review: ASO Moves from Strength to Strength

Theofanidis: Symphony No. 1 and Lieberson: Neruda Songs
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Robert Spano, conductor
Kelley O'Connor, mezzo-soprano

If they continue on the trend established by their first two releases, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's ASO Media label may become one of my favorite labels. For their second release, the orchestra pairs two compositions by a rising and an established composer. Christopher Theofanidis is the (relative) newcomer, and the work is his first symphony. Peter Lieberson is the established composer, with his "Neruda Songs."

The Symphony was premiered by the Robert Spano and the ASO in 2009, and it's clear that they know this music intimately. Theofanidis's symphony is a study in contrasts. It starts out with a unison wind line that contains all the motifs for the rest of first movement. When the rest of the orchestra enters, its with a lush sound well-suited to the orchestra.

Some parts reminds me of Carl Vine's orchestral music, which is not a bad thing. Like Vine, Theofanidis writes melodically, in clearly defined structures that are easy to follow. This four-movement work is symphonic in every sense; dramatic, expansive, full of rich timbres and imaginative orchestration. For those who still think that modern music is only cacophony gone wild, Theofanidis' First Symphony provides ample proof to the contrary.

The second work on the release, is Peter Lieberson's "Neruda Songs." It's a good match for the Theofanidis Symphony. It also is richly orchestrated, with some distinctively Latino musical turns, in keeping with the Chilean poetry of Pablo Neruda. Lieberson originally wrote this orchestral song cycle for his wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. This recording features mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor, who brings her own interpretation to the work (that's her picture on the album art, BTW).

O'Connor's warm delivery and sensitive phrasing give this work new life. The "Neruda Songs" are personal love letters Lieberson composed for his wife. This performance turns them into something more universal, yet still deeply moving.

Two substantial 21st Century works performed with authority and conviction -- the Atlanta Symphony's self-released CDs just keep moving from strength to strength.


Friday, July 8, 2011

Review: Piazzolla - Tangos for Violin, Brass and Percussion - Steely Passion

Piazzolla: Tangos for Violin, Brass & Percussion
Quintetto di Ottoni e Percussion Della Toscana

Andrea Tacchi, violin
Naxos

Astor Piazzolla was an amazingly prolific composer who technically only wrote one type of music – the tango. I say technically, because this student of Ginastera and Nadia Boulanger took the form farther than anyone else before or since, developing it into a pliable frame for his complex musical ideas.

This new recording from Naxos features some of Piazzolla’s better-known works, arranged for brass quintet, percussion, and (for some pieces) violin. Reimagining Piazolla’s compositions with this decidedly classical contemporary mix of instruments offers new insights into the music.

I wouldn’t recommend this disc as someone’s introduction to Piazzolla’s music, but for those already familiar with his output, it should be a welcome addition to their collection.

The disc features “Las 4 Estaciones Portenas,” Piazzolla’s take on Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” The solo violin serves up most of the Vivaldi quotes, while the brass ensemble primarily play Piazzolla’s additions. The contrasting timbres make this well-known work sound fresh.

Also included are Piazzolla’s most popular work, “Oblivion” and the three tangos he wrote for Amelita Boltar.
The Quintetto di Ottoni e Percussion della Toscana plays with tightly-wound precision. Percussionist Roberto Bichi nicely balances his performance between a popular music style (suitable for the tango’s origins), and a controlled, yet expressive playing of a classically-trained musician.

I’ve heard some Piazzolla recordings that make pleasant background music. This isn’t one of them. The brass bring an immediacy to the music that cannot be ignored.  And that’s a good thing. Piazzolla imbued his compositions with the passion and fire that was always part of the tango. This recording brings a new perspective to the music while remaining true to that vision.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Review: Remembering JFK - Two Views of History

Remembering JFK - 50th Anniversary Concert
National Symphony Orchestra; Christoph Eschenbach, conductor
Ondine

This new release from Ondine is actually two historical musical documents in one. The first CD is a recording of the 50th Anniversary Concert held at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra lead by Christoph Eschenbach. This January, 2011 event took place 50 years after the January 19, 1961 Inaugural Concert for the president-elect, John F. Kennedy. The second disc has some excerpts from that historic concert.

The centerpiece of the 2011 concert is a newly-commissioned work by Peter Lieberson, "Remembering JFK, an American Elegy." Modeled along the lines of Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," the music blends quotations from JFK's speeches along with orchestral accompaniment that sets the tone for the words. It's an interesting work that sounds distinctively American, without being either crassly patriotic nor excessively maudlin. Richard Dreyfuss narrates with gravity and conviction. I'm used to hearing Kennedy's New England delivery, so I found Dreyfuss sounding a little too nasal for my taste. But that's just me.

The concert includes Leonard Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances from 'West Side Story," and his "Fanfare for the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy." The orchestra delivers effective performances of both these works.

The concluding work is Gershwin's "Concerto in F" with pianist Tzimon Barto. Barto plays with fire and conviction, but leans more towards a classical rather than a jazz-inflected performance. The Concerto has never enjoyed the popularity of the "Rhapsody in Blue," and the serious-minded interpretation it receives here may be part of the reason why. That's not to say Eschenbach and the NSO don't do the work justice, it's just that this is a very good -- rather than great -- performance.

The second disc features some commentary and performances from the 1961 Inaugural Concert held in Constitution Hall. Washington was paralyzed by a blizzard, and many of the guests (and performers) had difficulty making it to the concert. Even the President-Elect and First Lady had to walk to the event!

Color commentary from the Mutual Radio Network broadcast is included, and for me, that alone is worth the price of admission! Tony Martin, Bill Evanson, and Dorice Bell were professionals trained in a style of announcing that's now long out of fashion. Despite the chaotic nature of the concert that was somewhat improvised due to the weather, they remain unflappable, brilliantly describing the scene in clear, well-articulated sentences with every syllable rolling effortlessly and beautifully off their tongues.

And the music's a treat, too. Included is John La Montaine's work "From Sea to Shining Sea," commissioned for the event. Maestro Howard Mitchell and members of the National Symphony Orchestra (I don't think all the performers ever made it to the event)do a fine job with this pleasant occasional work.

Also included is part of Randall Thompson's "Testament of Freedom" a choral setting of Thomas Jefferson's writings, played with the composer in the audience! The work was to have been performed by the combined male choirs of the predominantly white Georgetown University Glee Club and the black Howard University Choir. A heavily symbolic performance that would have presaged an important stance of the new administration.

Unfortunately, the Howard choir was stuck in the snow, and so the work was only performed with the Georgetown U. Glee Club. The Glee Club sounds a little anemic -- those Howard voices were sorely missed. With the two choirs, I think the music would have had a greater impact. Still, the work's inclusion makes a nice compliment to disc one's "Remembering JFK."

The CD concludes with Earl Wild performing Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." It's an interesting contrast to disc one's "Concerto in F." I don't know if Earl Wild is a necessarily a better technician than Tzimon Barto, but the music just seems to flow from his fingers. Wild captures the improvisatory nature of Gershwin's music, and manages to make this well-know work sound as if he's making it up on the spot. And the enthusiastic response by the audience confirms that this was indeed, a great performance.

Overall, "Remembering JFK" is a treasure. The commissioned works are welcome additions to the repertoire, the 2011 concert is immensely enjoyable, and the 1961 concert recording is a wonderful historical document to a truly exciting musical event.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Naming Game, Part 3 - Tilted Titles

"Wachut Auf" by Bach. At least
that's what we call it.
The nomenclature of classical music is seen by some as a barrier to entry into the field. Some believe (both inside and out of the field) that  if you're not quite sure what "Concerto for flatiron in H-flat, Op. 999a" means, then, perhaps you're not smart enough to listen to it.

Well, yes you are. In parts one and two I explained the basics behind the naming of instrumental works. Since they usually just have a generic name, some type of numbering is necessary to tell them apart.

But what about vocal music? After all, songs in popular music all have unique titles. That's true. And those titles usually come from one of two places: either a key word or phrase from the chorus of the song, or an evocative title assigned by the composer(s).

Begin at the beginning, so none may sleep
Classical music works a little differently. Like instrumental music, most vocal and choral works originally didn't have assigned titles. So the practice evolved of referring to them by the first line or phrase of the text.

That's why Puccini's popular aria from "Turandot" is called Nessun Dorma. The phrase ("None May Sleep") is a repeat of the decree Princess Turandot has issued, that none may sleep until the name of the Prince has been discovered. The Prince echoes the call, which then leads into his aria of love. But since the first words he sings are "Nessun dorma," that's what the aria's called.

The same holds true with arias from oratorios and cantatas. "Are We Like Sheep" is a famous chorus from Handel's "Messiah." Ditto the "Hallelujah" Chorus -- so called because that's the first word sung.

And the pattern holds for unnamed larger vocal and choral works as well. Bach's cantatas all take their titles from the first line of text. "Wachet Auf" is the first line of his Cantata No. 140. Want to sing the second aria from that work? Then you're talking about Mein Freund ist mein!.

A Sense of Entitlement
Works can have titles assigned, of course. Most operas take their titles from the lead character, or the plot. And if a poem is set to music, the title of the poem usually becomes the title of the musical work as well. Schubert's lieder mostly follow this pattern, as do Schumann's.


Missa No Understand, Obi-Wan
Reciting titles for medieval and renaissance masses can make one sound like Jar-Jar Binks, but there's a reason for that nomenclature as well. The Roman Catholic worship service is known as a mass, or missa in Latin.

From about 1100 to 1600, it was very important to have liturgical music tied to tradition. So much so that composers usually uses an existing Gregorian chant as the basis for their composition. As time went on, other types of music were incorporated, including some secular (and in some cases pretty dirty) songs.

Titles for these masses always referred to the root melody the composition was based on. So the Missa L'Homme Armee is a mass based on the popular song "The Armed Man." Actually, several renaissance composers have a Missa L'Homme Armee in their catalog.



It's like the French have a different word for everything! - Steve Martin
The important thing to remember is that classical music has been composed for over a millenia in virtually every country in Europe, as well as most of the Americas, (and a few other places besides). Titles almost always come from the language of the text. So that's why you have German, Italian, French, and even Latin titles for works.

So the titles of these works isn't meant to obscure, but to provide additional clarity. You might not know what Christ Lag in Todesbanden (Bach's Cantata No. 4) means, but you at least you know it's a German work.

What next?
There are many other ways classical works are named. If any are puzzling you, just leave me a note in the comments field. I'll be happy to research your question and supply an answer. Classical names shouldn't be a barrier to the enjoyment of the music. It doesn't really matter what a work is called, just how it calls to you.

The Naming Game, Part 1, Opus 1! 

The Naming Game, Part 2: Cataloging Chaos