Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Pi Spears a Fugue

So what is a fugue, anyway? Bach wrote a boatload of them, and many other composers did as well, or incorporated fugal elements into their compositions. Unless you've had some musical training, it can be a difficult concept to grasp (especially if you don't read music).

Daniel Pi created this humorous video explaining how to write a fugue for fun, but it's also quite a good place for the non-musician to start. In the video, Pi creates a three-part fugue, and at one point has three different versions of himself talking to the camera.

Pay attention to those segments, because he's actually performing a spoken word fugue. The first person starts, then the second chimes in with the same words (motif), then the third. Yes, it's hard to understand all three when they're talking together, but eventually they come together to say the same thing at the same time -- your cue that this is important.

And listening to a fugue is pretty much the same process. You can focus in on any of the voices, as they all are playing a melody, or take a step backwards and admire how they all fit together to make something greater than the whole.

And kudos to Mr. Pi for choice of material. I agree that Brittany Spears' pre-skank material is probably her strongest.

Friday, February 19, 2010

No Bach Cantatas during Lent

There were no cantatas performed in the Lutheran church in Leipzig during Lent in the time of JS Bach.

Don't despair, however, because we will listen to the only surviving cantata from Bach's Weimar years that was likely performed on the Third Sunday in Lent, 24 March 1715: BWV 54, Widerstehe doch der Sunde (Resist sin indeed). So tune in to Classical Sunrise during the 6 am hour on 7 March to hear this performed.

The only other Bach cantata that would have been performed during Lent (depending on when Easter falls) would have been a cantata for the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on 25 March. And, you can expect something special on Classical Sunrise (perhaps the B minor Mass) on Bach's birthday, Sunday 21 March.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

All The Great Operas in 10 Minutes

Yesterday's post was a serious, thoughtful look at one of Wagner's less-known operas. Today's post takes a different tack.

Toronto animator Kim Thompson created a short video that gives a capsule plot summaries of some of the repertoire standards -- including the Ring Cycle! It's fast, fun, and whether you're into opera or not, pretty darned entertaining.

And she's right. The music's pretty good, too.

As we demonstrate at least twice a week with Ann Shaffer's Tuesday evening program "A Time for Singing," and our Sunday Opera Matinee. Now that you know the stories, check out the music!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Rienzi in Berlin

Richard Wagner's third opera, Rienzi, is rarely produced today. It was disowned by the composer and banned forever from Bayreuth. Yet occasionally it is revived, normally in the much-reduced 2½ hour version that was authorized by the composer and had some success during his lifetime.

Wagner enthusiasts have welcomed the new production by director Philipp Stoelzl that is being presented as part of the Wagner Festival at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Rienzi, "The Last of the Tribunes," is an heroic character who comes to a bad end at the hands of the Roman populace when his misplaced compassion leads to political discord and violence. None of that concept survived Stoelzl's "rethinking" of the libretto.

Instead we are transported to the 1930s (again) to a time when dictators ruled much of Europe. Rienzi is now a composite Mussolini/Franco/Hitler dictator who cynically manipulates an adoring public of an unnamed state to satisfy his own lust for power. Inevitably he comes to a bad end in a bunker consciously invoking Hitler's demise in Berlin in 1945.

It is a tale that has been told many times before. Stoelzl's staging is saved from tedium by its brilliant special effects. Particularly effective are the filmed sequences that stylistically evoke Leni Riefenstal's unforgettable propaganda films glorifying Hitler's Reich. We see ostensibly historical clips of Rienzi haranguing the crowd, adoring blonde mädchen, happy workers, resolute soldiers, and the like. Later, as events turn against him, a decrepit Rienzi in his beleaguered bunker plays with models of the kind of monumental structures conceived by Albert Speer for Hitler's "new Berlin," including the dome that would have been the world's largest, had not Hitler's Berlin been reduced to ruins.

Musically, the performance of February 10 was a triumph. The splendid orchestra was conducted with vigor by Sebastian Lang-Lessing. The chorus, directed by William Spaulding and voted by the critics Germany's best, got a huge and deserved ovation. The best singing came from American mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich in the "trousers" role of Adriano, son of the nobility who falls in love with Irene. She poured out impressive volumes of golden sound all night and made one wish her role had not been trimmed. In the punishing title role, German tenor Torsten Kerl provided heldentenor-quality singing, and saved the best for last with a beautifully sung (but stupidly staged) "Allmächt'ger Vater" ("Almighty Father"). Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund coped well with daunting high notes in the thankless role of Irene.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

JS Bach Cantata for Esto mihi Sunday (the Sunday before Lent)

This Sunday, 14 February 2010, on Classical Sunrise during the 6 am hour, I will be playing JS Bach's church cantata, BWV 22, Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwolfe (Jesus took the Twelve to Him). Esto mihi ("Be with me," after Psalm 31) Sunday or Quinquagesima is the Sunday before Lent.

This cantata dates from 1723, and along with Cantata 23, was composed for Bach's audition on 7 February 1723 for the post of Thomaskirche Cantor in Leipzig. A score of the cantata includes the inscription "Dies ist das Probestuck in Leipzig." (This is the Leipzig trial-piece.) Cantata 22 is tied to the Sunday Gospel, Luke 18, dealing with Jesus's journey with the twelve disciples to Jerusalem. Cantata 22 ends with a four-part chorale. And, as we know, Bach passed the audition.

During his years at Leipzig, and particularly in the first few years, Bach had to compose a new cantata each week (and then have it copied into parts, rehearsed, and ready to perform). The first Leipzig cycle of Bach church cantatas officially began with his installation as Cantor of St Thomas church on the first Sunday after Trinity 1723. The church cantata was sung after the Gospel and before the Lutheran creed. If the cantata were in two parts, the second part was performed after the sermon or during Communion.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Classical Controversy

Is classical music alive or dead? Growing or dying?

Those are the questions hotly debated right now through blogs and Twitter. A spate of recent articles and blog posts spurred the debate.

First came Anne Midgette's article in the Washington Post, "Classical Artists Chart Big on Billboard with Little Sales" In it, she outlines how classical albums can chart with sales of less than 1,000 units, suggesting that no one's buying classical music (so how much longer can it last?).

Then Alex Ross wrote a disquieting piece for the New Yorker. "The Fatal X" (with a now-famous graph) shows the audience for classical music is dying off, and it's not being replaced by aging Gen Xers.

As all of that was being discussed, up cropped a different view. The last word seems to be with the anonymous author of the Proper Discord blog. The author lists "Ten Cliches in Classical Music Journalism" and proceeds to take them apart. It's a fresh way of looking at information we've heard over and over, and that's what prompted the discussion.

What do you think?

Do you agree with Anne Midgette?
"The dirty secret of the Billboard classical charts is that album sales figures are so low, the charts are almost meaningless."

Or do you have the Proper Discord's point of view?
"Mercedes Benz has a 3% share of the US car market. They aren’t worried about extinction. Why should we be scared?"

Read the articles and discuss. Believe me, everyone else is!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

JS Bach cantatas for Sunday, 7 February 2010

This Sunday, 7 February, on "Classical Sunrise" (6 am to 9 am EST), I'll be featuring two JS Bach church cantatas: BWV 144, Nimm was dein ist, und gehe hin (Take what is yours and go your way), and BWV 18, Gleichure der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fallt (Just as the rain and snow fall from Heaven)(probably fairly apt given the predictions of snow for this weekend). The first is for Septuagesima, that is the Third Sunday before Lent, and was first performed on 6 February 1724, during Bach's first year in Leipzig. The latter dates most likely from 19 February 1713 during Bach's Weimar years. The text is by Erdmann Neumeister.

According to "The Cantatas of J.S. Bach," by Alfred Durr (translated by Richard DP Jones), Bach composed 5 cycles of cantatas for the liturgical calendar, but only 3 cycles survive almost intact, with a few other sacred cantatas. The earliest Bach cantata that is known dates from his Mulhausen period (roughly 1707). The year 1713, the year BWV 18 likely was composed, also coincides with the first secular cantata of JS Bach (as far as we know).

I hope you are enjoying this presentation of JS Bach sacred cantatas matched to the liturgical calendar. Deborah

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

New Music -- Really New

Composer, conductor and concert pianist Robert Ian Winstin has launched a bold project. For the month of February, he has vowed to compose, record and post a new work every single day. And he'll document his progress in his blog 28 in twenty-eight.

It's an exciting concept. Each day Winstin tells a story of how the piece came about, shares some of the adventures in producing the composition, and has an audio track on the blog so you can hear the final result.

Think all the composers are dead? Not by a long shot.

Folks used to look at me strangely when I insisted that not were new compositions being created in this day and age, but even at this very moment.

The blog "28 in twenty-eight" merely proves my point, while providing some delightful little musical treats as well.

I'll be following Winstin's progress closely, and sharing the results with my listeners. ERM Media, Maestro Winstin's recording label, has graciously allowed me to air the posted compositions, which I'll do so around 8:45 each program. So today on "Gamut" you'll hear the first three works, next week nos. 4 through 11, the following week 12 - 19, and so on.

Fresh music, just three hours before "Gamut" signed on this morning. Now that's really fresh!

But this isn't a new concept. It's the way Count Esterhazy preferred Haydn's music, hot off the quill. Each new work was eagerly anticipated.

I look forward to each new post on 28 in twenty-eight. How about you?