Friday, January 29, 2010

Bach Cantatas on "Classical Sunrise"

This Sunday, 31 January, on "Classical Sunrise," I'll be featuring two JS Bach cantatas: Cantata for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, BWV 111, Was Mein Gott will, das gscheh allzeit, and Cantata for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, BWV 81, Jesus schlaft, was soll ich hoffen.

BWV 111 was composed for 21 January 1725. The four-verse hymn on which it is based incorporates verses by Duke Albrecht of Prussia (1547, 1554). The anonymous librettist for BWV 81 takes the text from the Gospel of Matthew, 8:23-27 (Jesus, sleeping in the boat, is awakened and calms the storm). This cantata dates from Bach's first Leipzig cycle of cantatas, and was composed for 30 January 1724.

I'll be airing a recording featuring the Holland Boys Choir and the Netherlands Bach Collegium, conducted by Pieter Jan Leusink. The soloists for BWV 111 are Ruth Holton, soprano, Sytse Buwalda, alto, Nico van der Meel, tenor, and Bas Ramselaar, bass.

For BVW 81, the featured soloists are Sytse Buwalda, Knut Schoch, tenor, and Bas Ramselaar. This is a complete set of Bach sacred cantatas, on the Brilliant Classics label. This is the second year in which I am featuring Bach cantatas for the entire liturgical calendar on "Classical Sunrise."

 - Deborah Murray

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Power of Music

So what good is classical music, anyway?

It's a question many ask, and the answer, "classical music sustains the spirit," never seems to satisfy the naysayers. But consider the remarkable story of violinst Romel Joseph.

Joseph is no stranger to extraordinary challenges. This blind Haitian musician, born in poverty, won a Fulbright, and graduated from Julliard with a degree in violin performance. After training with the Boston Symphony, Joseph turned his back on a promising concert career to return to Haiti and open up a music school.

The recent earthquake collapsed his school, pinning the violinist under the rubble. So how did he survive, buried by debris, waiting for rescue that may never come?

Romel Joseph prayed, and pictured himself performing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. And after that, another concerto.

"I know I picked the Brahms, the Franz, the Sibelius. I picked several," Joseph said later. "I know a lot of concertos for violins. And I picked the longer ones. I pictured walking on stage and playing to a full hall. And you start playing up to the end"

Eighteen hours later, rescue workers pulled him from the debris.

Romel Joseph has dedicated his life to music. In addition to his New Victorian School in Haiti, he also established the Miami-based Walenstein Music Organization to nurture young classical music performers. He's already working on rebuilding his school.

What good is classical music? Ask Romel Joseph. In the darkest hours of his life -- as it always has -- classical music sustained his spirit.

Monday, January 25, 2010

In Memoriam: Earl Wild

The American pianist Earl Wild died Jan. 23 at the age of 94 at his home in Palm Springs, California. His career began in his native Pittsburgh, where he began giving radio recitals at the age of 12, and he had his debut with the Pittsburgh Symphony two years later. He was long associated with NBC, at a time when networks actually broadcast classical music. He gave the first televised recital in 1939, and he was associated as a soloist with Arturo Toscanini's NBC Orchestra. He also served as a rehearsal pianist with the Metropolitan Opera, where his ability to reduce operatic scores at sight was legendary. He served as staff pianist, composer, and conductor for ABC until 1968. His preferred career probably would have been as a conductor, but when advised that the leading American orchestras rarely hired American conductors, he concentrated on the piano.

Wild was a stupendous technician, for whom the term "super virtuoso" was not misplaced. His repertoire was vast, and fortunately he leaves us an extensive recorded legacy. His style was in the Romantic tradition of Liszt, Busoni, and Petri, and he excelled in the music of Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and Chopin. He was also known for his performance of his own and other composers' transcriptions. His performances were criticized by some because his virtuosity was said to be too much in the forefront, but more sensitive listeners appreciated the poetry of his playing. Wild the artist was served by his astonishing fingers, not the other way around. Until near the end of his life, Wild's artistry was undiminished. This writer attended his 85th birthday recital at Carnegie Hall, and he was, if anything, a more poetic artist than when Wild was first heard many years previously as a soloist with the Pittsburgh Symphony. His singing tone and immaculate phrasing were matched by few other pianists and exceeded by none.

Where to begin appreciating his recorded legacy? Much of it has been issued or reissued on his own Ivory Classics label in superior audio fidelity. His recording of the Paderewski and Scharwenka concertos with Arthur Fiedler is a model of Romantic sensibility. His recording of Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata, op. 106, is unique in its magisterial phrasing and astonishing passage work. His own transcriptions of Rachmaninoff's songs make us appreciate these lesser-known works even more. The technical facility, not to mention pure fun of Wild's Virtuoso Piano Transcriptions must be heard to be believed. His long association with the music of Gershwin finds its ultimate expression in Wild's own transcriptions of Gershwin's popular songs. His recording of the complete Chopin Nocturnes is indispensable for any lover of the artistry of a great pianist. Although any of Wild's Liszt is the equal if not superior to anyone else's, a particular favorite is The Demonic Liszt. To hear Earl Wild–Living History at 90 is to be amazed at his enduring technical facility, not to mention his undiminished artistry.

The newer generation of pianists are all well schooled, and the technical flaws that are evident in the playing of some earlier artists have pretty much disappeared. Recording technology has advanced to the point where we have become accustomed to performances that are note-perfect, albeit bland. There are few pianists before the public today who bring anything new to the standard piano repertoire, and the big, outgoing, Romantic style that Wild typified has become obsolete. We are ever so fortunate that Earl Wild's recorded legacy is so vast and so accomplished. When the role of great pianists of the 20th Century is assembled, Earl Wild will be in the forefront of the finest among them.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Croatian prime minister, Croatian composer

Croatia has elected a remarkable man for their prime minister. Ivo Josipovic is an accomplished lawyer (a favored occupation for politicians) who represented Croatia before the International Court of Justice. But he's something else. Ivo Josipovic is a respected musician and composer.

He's written over fifty works, including music for chamber groups and orchestras. His most famous work, "Samba di Camera" has won prizes in Croatia and Europe.

Of course, Josipovic isn't the first head of state to write or perform music. Famed pianist and composer Ignacy Jan Paderewski served as Poland's prime minister in 1919. And Frederic the Great was dabbled in the art as well, as did Queen Elizabeth I, and her father, Henry VIII, to name a few.

Still, there's something heartening about having a political leader who understands the value of classical music firsthand -- and to have one that's good at it is just an added bonus.

In an interview Josipovic said, “My musical philosophy is based on the idea that art is something nice, something the author, performer and listener should enjoy. I am happiest when I see that the musicians play with enthusiasm, with a smile on their face, and when someone in the audience taps their feet or sways to the rhythm of the music.”

So will any of these compositional tendencies spill over into Josipovic's administration? One can hope.

Plato said "“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.”

And who wouldn't want a leader who had experienced that first-hand?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Silenced Voices

During December on the WTJU classical program Dawn's Early Light, we celebrated Hanukkah with Hebraic themes and music of Jewish composers. Among the pieces was the String Quartet #1 of Ervin Schulhoff.

If Schulhoff is not familiar, perhaps it is because he died young and tragically in a Nazi concentration camp in 1942. Schulhoff was interned for a time at the Terezin (Theresienstadt in German) concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Terezin was constructed to serve Nazi propaganda as a model of culture and ethical treatment of detainees. A large number of artists and musicians were sent to Terezin including Pavel Haas, Gideon Klein, Hans Krasa, and Victor Ullmann. Almost all perished in one of the Nazi camps.

Unbelievably and as a testament to the human spirit, these musicians composed a considerable number of pieces during their imprisonment (see, "Music of the Ghettos and Camps"). Many works survived such as those of Haas: Study for Strings, Four Songs on Chinese Poetry; Klein: Fugue for String Quartet, String Trio; Krasa: the opera Brundibar; and Ullmann: String Quartet #3, Piano Sonatas 5-7, and the protest opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis.

The Terezin Chamber Music Foundation is dedicated "to preserving and advancing the resilience of the human spirit as expressed and inspired by the music and art created in the Terezin concentration camp." In addition, the Czech musician Joza Karas devoted himself to researching and preserving the music of the camps. His book, Music in Terezin 1941-1945, was published shortly before his death in 2008.

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WTJU wants to know what you like (love?) best about the station.

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So what keeps you tuning in, either over the air or online day after day? What would you miss the most if it went away. What value do you see in WTJU?

The better the seach committee understands the value of WTJU, the more likely it is to finding the right person for the job.

Leave feedback either here in our comments field, or go to our Facebook fan page and share your thoughts there. Either way, we'll make sure your feedback gets to the committee.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Changing Face of Classical Music

Among some, there's a mispreception that classical music is immutable and unchangeable. The pantheon of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms has always been in place. The great works were always considered great works, and will be forever.

But tastes do change over time -- even in the world of classical music.

Case in point: "Stories of Symphonic Music," a book written by Lawrence Gilman in 1907. I picked up a copy at a used book sale several years ago. As the forward says,
The design of this book is to offer in compact and accessible form such information as will enable the intending concert-goer to prepare himself, in advance, to listen comprehendingly to those symphonic works of a suggestive or illustrative nature, from Beethoven to the present day, which are part of the standard orchestral repertoire, and such others as seem likely to become so—to serve, in effect, as a guide to modern orchestral programme-music.

An exhaustive cataloguing of modern programme-music has not been attempted. It has been thought worth while to include only such works of importance as the American concert-goer is likely to find upon the programmes of symphony concerts in this country.
So what would the American concert-goer of 1907 be likely to hear? If you believe classical music is immutable, then you'd expect the book to be about the same pieces played by symphony orchestras here in the 21st Century (save for those written after 1907, of course).

And to a certain extent, you'd be right. Gilman discusses manyworks we recognize as being part of the core repertoire: Beethoven's Third Symphony, Bizet's Suite from "L'Aresienne," Dukas' "Sorcerer's Apprentice," as well as compositions from Liszt, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, and (at that time) newcomers like Debussy, Smetana, and Elgar.

But the book is also full of descriptions of works that haven't been heard in concert halls in some time. When was the last time your favorite orchestra performed a symphony by Joachim Raff? In the late 19th Century, his popularity rivaled Brahms -- not so today.

Or George Chadwick, considered one of America's most promising composers in the early 1900's? His music is still highly regarded -- just not frequently played.

Louis Spohr was a respected colleague and friend of Beethoven's. And at the turn of the 20th Century their music shared the concert stage with regularity. But no longer.

Or what about Swiss composer Hans Huber, whose Second Symphony enjoyed enough popularity at the time "Stories" was published that Gilman considered it "standard repertoire."

Fashions change, and works get reevaluated. "Stories of Symphonic Music" is a fun read -- and an illustrative one. Audiences of the late 21st Century may still be listening to some of what we consider the classics -- but some will go unheard, replaced by other works more to contemporary taste.

Reading "Stories of Symphonic Music" has made me seek out some of those forgotten works. Some -- but not all -- were worth the effort. But for me the takeaway from the book is this: as much as folks want to keep classical music frozen in time, it continues to evolve. Just ask Joachim Raff.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The "High End" and Live Performance

In the context of music reproduction, the "high end" refers to the equipment used for optimum resolution of recorded music and sometimes also to those listeners who use that equipment for listening to music.

With the arrival of digitally recorded music on CD in the early 1980s, the promise was made that we would have "perfect recordings of music forever." That claim later proved to be wildly inflated. The quality of early digital recordings on CD, particularly of classical music, to most ears was demonstrably inferior to the quality of the best recordings on traditional vinyl LP records.

The auditory gap between digital recordings and analogue recordings on vinyl has narrowed considerably, particularly with respect to recordings in new formats such as SACD and DVD-Audio, although CD still wins for convenience hands down. None of these new digital "high-rez" formats shows any sign of replacing traditional CDs, at least not any time soon.

Conversely, there is a resurgence of interest in high-quality vinyl recordings, mostly reissues of classic recordings. Download formats such as MP3 remain inferior in quality to CDs for most discriminating listeners of classical music.

Sometimes lost in the competition among formats for recorded music is precisely the objective sought to be achieved. It is assumed that the goal of recorded music is to reproduce as nearly as possible the experience of live performance (except, of course, for rock and pop, where virtually all recordings are made in the studio).

But how realistic is that goal? To achieve any semblance of the experience of live performance presupposes first, a superior recording by producers and engineers made with technical skill and musical sensitivity. Second, the listener must have a home reproduction system that can extract all the musical content from the recording and then reproduce it in a way that mimics the original performance but in a vastly different acoustic environment. To put it another way, can any recording played at home, no matter how skillfully recorded, ever convincingly correspond to the experience of hearing the performance live at Carnegie Hall?

Even to approach the live experience requires expensive, sometimes prohibitively expensive equipment. Afficionados of the high end think nothing of owning amplifiers, turntables, and speakers costing tens of thousands of dollars. A well-designed and properly configured sound reproduction system can produce a very satisfying experience for any music lover.

But even if the acoustical properties of the listening environment are optimized, does the experience truly mimic the experience of attending a concert performance live? The listener, after all, is at home, not at the Met or at La scala, two venues that differ radically from each other in almost every respect. Does a great recording of Joshua Bell played through a superior stereo system in a professionally prepared listening room really bring Joshua Bell into the room?

Some systems do an astoundingly good job of recreating the sound of Joshua Bell's performance–the quality of the sound of his violin, his phrasing, the nuances of his musical interpretation. But still, it is not like hearing him live, nor can it ever be, since the live performance is bound up so intimately with the occasion and the venue in which he performs.

Moreover, virtually every professionally made recording enables the performer to "touch up" the performance to his and the producer's satisfaction. An element of artificiality is inherently present in a recording. Still, many listeners prefer the convenience of having a recording always available for pleasure or study.

While I enjoy recordings, I still miss the sense of occasion, that frisson of tension and excitement that always precedes the curtain going up at the opera. So even though I am a devotee of the high end, it will never be equivalent to the experience of live performance. A live performance is always a bit of a hire-wire act. Hearing a performance live almost always means hearing wrong notes, but as one astute listener commented on hearing Arthur Rubinstein live, "But what wrong notes!"