Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Adolphus Hailstork: An American Port of Call

Adolphus Hailstork: An American Port of Call
Virginia Symphony Orchestra
JoAnn Falletta, conductor

American composer Adolphus Hailstork has been quietly building up an impressive catalog of well-crafted works. This new collection brings some of them to light.

Hailstork's Symphony No. 1 is an expansive work with plenty of energy. Hailstork's melodies are always tuneful and rhythmic, which makes this symphony sparkle. For the most part, the work's thinly orchestrated. In some ways it's more of a symphony of small instrumental groups rather than a big ensemble.

Whtiman's Journey is a large-scale work for orchestra and chorus. Whitman's a quintessentially American poet, and Hailstork's open, Coplanesque composition brings out that aspect of poetry. It's a warm, elegiac work that's a satisfying blend of words and music.

An American Port of Call shares some characteristics of  William Walton's Portsmouith Point. both are short orchestral works depicting a busy seaport. Hailstork's composition has all the energy of a bustling waterfront, with different musical themes moving back and forth in crosscurrents. A splendid curtain-raiser.

Hailstork draws on his African-American heritage for Three Spirituals. Although there's some jazz inflections in this work, Three Spirituals is first and foremost a concert piece for orchestra. The melodies may be familiar, but Hailstork develops them in interesting ways that, while symphonic in nature, remain true to the character of the source material.

Fanfare on Amazing Grace is an imaginative treatment of this well-known (and perhaps over-performed hymn). The tune provides the starting point from which he builds a superstructure of original material, that reveals new insights about this melody.

Adolphus Hailstork lives in eastern Virginia. The Virginia Symphony, is a hometown  ensemble, well familiar with Hailstork's music. Under the direction of JoAnn Falletta, this regional orchestra turns in credible performances. Sometimes the ensemble playing isn't as precise as it needs to be, but that's a minor quibble. It's a joy simply to hear these works played.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Mark-Anthony Turnage Orchestral Works: Great performances by the LSO

Turnage: Orchestral Works
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Various conductors and soloists

Mark-Anthony Turnage was the London Philharmonic Orchestra's composer in residence for five years, and this is the third volume of his works written for the ensemble. The recordings are all take n from live performances, which gives them an added sense of freshness and energy.

On Opened Ground is kind of a disjointed jazz-flavored concerto for viola. The music moves in fits and starts with the viola (Lawrence Power, soloist) popping in and out in surprising ways, while still providing most of the melodic content. Sometimes it seems like the soloist and orchestra are playing two different pieces, then there's a sudden shift, and it turns out all to be part of Turnage's plan.

By contrast, Texan Tenebrae is an emotionally wrought little gem. It grew from Turnage's opera Anna Nicole, and is a work contemplating the death of the Texas Playmate-turned-trophy wife. Turnage effectively uses dissonance to both ratchet up the emotion and suggest that, despite the placid nature of the music, all is not right

Turnage composed the Lullaby for Hans for his mentor Hans Werner Henze. This string orchestra work pays fitting homage to Henze's style. The ensemble drifts about in thick chordal clouds of sound, sounding ethereal, and -- despite the dissonances -- strangely restful

The clarinet concerto Riffs and Refrains would make a great companion piece to Bernstein's "Prelude, Fugue and Riffs." Both works take the sound of the jazz clarinet, and jazz motifs and recast them as building blocks from contemporary classical works. In Turnage's case, the piece is prone to sudden bursts of energy, followed by slow sections that seem to be holding the motion of the music back (but only for a little while). Michael Collins effortlessly switches back and forth from classical to jazz playing, making this an effective work that brings together both worlds.

Christian Tetzlaff fearlessly performs the violin concerto Mambo, Blues and Tarantelly. The opening section sounds like an angular version of the mambo from West Side Story, and the other parts equally traditional and aggressively modern.That's not to say it's not original music -- it is. Tetzlaff is completely invested in this complex music and turns in a highly focused performance.

If you're already purchased the first two volumes in this series, then you need only know the quality hasn't wavered. If you're looking for an introduction to Turnage, this disc can provide a nice overview of his orchestral writing.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Books on Music: Nine top picks

The death of pianist and author Charles Rosen in New York on Dec. 9 represents a loss to the world of classical music. His recordings of the music of Debussy, Beethoven, and John Cage were especially distinguished. His book The Classical Style (1972), which won the National Book Award, is a model of scholarship and insightful commentary on the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. It is among the most enlightening and enjoyable books on music of the last several decades, although the scholarship and musical analysis can be formidable at times for the non-specialist. Fortunately, Rosen's books, of which The Classical Style is the earliest and still perhaps the most distinguished, are not alone in supplying pleasurable reading, not to mention instruction, to every lover of classical music.

The Rest Is Noise (2007) by Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker, is a witty, elegant, and beautifully written survey of music composed in the 20th Century. His analysis is well-considered, and his judgments are measured. The depth of analysis tends understandably to thin out somewhat as the century nears its conclusion. Still, there is no better introduction to the music of the last century for specialist and non-specialist alike.

Winnifred Wagner (Eng. Trans. 2005) by Austrian author Briggitte Hamann is a biography of the wife and early widow of Richard Wagner's son Siegfried who became heir to the family legacy of leadership of the Bayreuth Festival. Even more, it is a history of the Festival and its uncomfortable relationship with "Wolf," Adolf Hitler, Bayreuth's patron and nemesis. Wagner's music has always been bound up with politics, but through Winnifred's leadership the Festival managed to survive its Nazi ties, more or less intact, into the postwar era. The book is beautifully written and elegantly translated from the German by Alan Bance. For the dedicated Wagnerian, it is an uncomfortable tale.

For composer biographies, none come more highly recommended than Verdi (1993) by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz. This book is destined to become the last word on the life of the great Italian Romantic opera composer. Along with Julian Budden's three-volume The Operas of Verdi (1991), little more is to be added to our understanding and appreciation of the works of the greatest Italian opera composer of the last half of the 19th Century.

Although scores of volumes have been written about the life and works of Mozart, there is no finer study of his life and cultural environment than Mozart: A Cultural Biography (1999) by Robert W. Gutman. His Mozart is not only a musical genius, but a cultured, generous, and humane man. Mozart lived during a time when the role of the composer was evolving from a servant of the privileged aristocracy to a public figure who was required to appeal to the general public. The world will be forever indebted to 18th Century Austria for having produced one of music's most profound and enduring creators.

For the lover of opera who appreciates learning about the art form in its social and historical context, The Gilded Stage (2009) by Daniel Snowman is indispensable. He places opera in historical context, explaining how opera's themes, libretti, and performance practice were informed by the historical events that attended its creation and performance.

For pure pleasure, few collections can equal A Season of Opera (1998) by Fr. M. Owen Lee, a collection of his lectures and commentaries from the Saturday afternoon broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. His commentaries are personal and insightful, always expressed clearly and with great understanding of the works and the operatic form in general.

Finally, a topic often neglected is the acoustic environment in which opera, recitals, and concerts are performed. Two books, one primarily for the nonspecialist and one directed at the specialist, aim to remedy that shortcoming. Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls (2012) by Victoria Newhouse is a beautiful book worthy of a coffee table that features wonderful photos of some of the world's newest concert halls and opera houses (many of them in China). But beyond the photos, the commentary reflects a keen appreciation of the acoustic properties of these new halls, many of which, despite the advances of technology, fail to equal the sound quality of our greatest older opera and concert venues.

For the specialist, Concert and Opera Halls: How They Sound (1996) by Leo Beranek is indispensable. The author is a world renowned acoustic consultant, and the book was published under the auspices of the Acoustical Society of America. For the reader who wants to know why some halls sound better than others, Beranek has some of the answers.

The foregoing is by no means an exhaustive list of distinguished books about music, but it will provide a starting point for the avid music lover and listener.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

In harmony with 12 12 12

Today is December 12, 2012. For some, that makes it National Aircheck Day (1-2, 1-2, 1-2). For others, 12/12/12 means its the perfect time to celebrate dodecaphonic, or 12-tone music.

And that's all the excuse we need to post this ad from conductor Matthias Bamert. Enjoy! (testing, testing, 1-2, 1-2)

Bach's Evenings at Zimmerman's Coffeehouse

Bach Sonatas for Flute & Obbligato Harpsichord
Evenings at Zimmermann's Coffeehouse
Robert Stallman, flute, Edwin Swanborn, harpsichord
Bogner's Cafe

The subtitle of this release aptly describes the disc. In 1730's J.S. Bach spend a significant amount of time at Zimmermann's Coffeehouse in Leipzig. It was one of the regular performing venues for the Collegium Musicum, which he directed (and wrote music for). Most of his instrumental music of this period were written for this group, including the four flute sonatas in this release. By no means are these major works. Of course, it is Bach, so the sonatas are well-crafted, but the music is intentionally light and simple. This is more the Bach of "Air on G String" than the Bach of the Cello Sonatas.

Robert Stallman performs on a modern flute, but that just gives the works additional charm. The music mostly stays in the lower part of the flute's register, and Stallman produces a very warm sound on his instrument. The result is some attractive playing and a pleasant listening experience overall. Edwin Swanborn provides tasteful accompaniment on the harpsichord. The keyboard obbligato helps move the music along without sounding overly busy or fussy. An attractive program of music played with just the right tone to keep the proceedings light and entertaining -- as perhaps they were in Zimmermann's over three centuries before.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Enlightened Self-Interest

Next week we begin the WTJU Classical Marathon, "A Musical Offering." We'll be celebrating classical music in all its diversity, but more importantly, we'll be asking our listeners to pledge their financial support to WTJU.

A public radio station fund-raising is nothing new -- and neither is the challenge. After all, we're trying to persuade someone to pay for something they get for free. It's difficult, but in a way, it shouldn't be. Because what it all comes down to is enlightened self-interest.

Here's what I mean:

Q: Should you pledge to WTJU because it's a wonderful, unique station?

A: No.

Q: Should you pledge to WTJU because you love its wonderful, unique programming?

A: You bet!

Q: Should you pledge to WTJU so that others can enjoy its remarkably wide range of music and public affairs programming?

A: No. 

Q: Should you pledge to WTJU because you enjoy its remarkably wide range of music and public affairs programming?

A: You'd better, if you want it to continue.

See, our fund drive (or any public radio/TV fund drive for that matter), is really all about you, the listener. Unfortunately, public broadcasting isn't fully funded from government or business resources. So every broadcaster -- WTJU included -- has to rely on direct financial support from its listeners.

Over half of our operating budget has to be raised directly from our listeners. So your decision to pledge -- or not to pledge -- is critical. Especially if you consider that only about 10% of a public broadcaster's audience actually pledge (according to some studies). 

If every single person who listened to WTJU pledged $50, we would be fully funded for the entire year. And then the Classical Marathon could just be about the music. But with only 10% participation, the reality is quite different.

Your pledge counts. And because (statistically) you'll be in the minority, your pledge counts even more.

But don't feel obliged to pledge just to make up for the 90% who won't. Your pledge benefits the station, but it also benefits you.

Your pledge ensures that the transmitter will stay in good repair, that we'll be able to continue to offer the services you expect, and even expand on those services. 

And why is that important? Because it makes a better listening experience for you.

We might talk a lot about the radio station this next week as we try to persuade some of that 90% to come on over. But really, this fund drive is all about you.

So please do the right thing -- for yourself. Consider your pledge a form of enlightened self-interest.

(And you don't even have to do it during the marathon. You can pledge online anytime 24/7)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

David Del Tredici: Gotham Glory has Glorious Counterpoint

Del Tredici: Gotham Glory - Complete Piano Works, Vol. 1
Marc Peloquin, piano

David Del Tredici has an affinity for counterpoint -- and the talent to compose it, too. That impression really comes through in this new collection from Naxos. The release is mostly made up of what Del Tredici terms "Ballades," although they're actually paired toccatas and fugues.

The Aeolean Ballade is the most tonal of the bunch, using primarily the white keys on the piano. The Ballade in Lavender and the Ballade in Yellow are more adventurous, with pianistically challenging free sections (the toccata parts) moving to highly structured fugues of breathtaking complexity.

The S/M Ballade mixes tonal and atonal elements in an interesting fashion. The title suggests something edgy, and the music delivers. This is a deliciously dark thrill ride that give the pianist plenty to work with (and the listener plenty to absorb).

Pianist Marc Peloquin is more than up to the challenge of these works. No matter how difficult the material, he never seems to break a sweat. And his interpretation -- especially in the fugal sections -- keeps the music from sounding dry and academic. In Peloquin's hands, complex counterpoint seems to just grow naturally out of what comes before, like a flower blooming.

The title track, Gotham Glory, is Del Tredici's love letter to his native New York City. The work has some Gershwin-like jazz inflections, that provide a NYC flavor to the music, but the composition is Del Tredici's own. The first movement serves as a prelude, and the second is a fugue,and the third a perpetual canon, (which makes the work fit in with the rest of the program).

The fourth movement "Wollman Rink" is subtitled a "Grand Fantasy on the Skaters' Waltz" and is as long as the preceding three movements combined. It harkens back to the grand fantasies of the late romantic composers (with distinctively modern harmonies, however), and is a real showpiece for the pianist. And Peloquin doesn't disappoint.

A excellent recording of music by a modern American master. I look forward to volume 2.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Haydenseque Fantasies of Sigismund Neukomm

Sigismund von Neukomm: Grande Sinfoie Heroique & 3 Fantasies
Die Kolner Akademie
Michael Alexander Willens, conductor

Sigismund von Neukomm was a student of both Michael and Franz Joseph Haydn. He helped with the production of some of Mozart's late compositions, and worked with Haydn on the editing and arranging of Haydn's music. At one point, he even taught Mozart's son composition. As one might expect, his musical style shares many similarities to those of his famous colleagues.

The earliest fantasy on this disc dates from 1806, the second 1808, and the latest from 1823 -- but there's little difference in style between them. All have a light, transparent sound of Mozart and Haydn. Neukomm's music is very clean and precise, with everything laid out and organized in a sensible fashion. Neukomm's melodies aren't quite as memorable as Mozart's but they do have the same natural flow and charming simplicity to them.

By contrast, the Grande Sinfomie heroique has a bigger feel than the fantasies on this disc. The orchestration is more varied, and the drama's heightened. If the other three works were comparable to middle period Haydn, then this would be more early Beethoven and late Mozart. The work never loses its sense of balance and proportion (so think of a very polite Beethoven), but it has greater energy than the orchestral fantasies.

Michael Willens directs with a light touch, and you can hear subtle inflections in the phrasing bring this music even closer to the Mozartian ideal. Highly recommended for any fan of the classcical era.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Fuchs: Atlantic Riband - Rousing American Music

Fuchs: Atlantic Riband; American Rhapsody; Divinum Mysterium
Michael Ludwig, violin
Paul Silverthorne, viola
Carmine Lauri and David Alberman, violin; Paul Silverthorne, viola; Timothy Hugh, cello
London Symphony Orchestra
JoAnn Falletta, conductor

Kenneth Fuchs is a composer who's star is on the rise, and no wonder. His music is fresh, exciting, original -- and accessible. This latest release in Naxos' ongoing series of Fuchs recordings. The disc opens with  Atlantic Riband, a short, festive work that has some of the big, open feel of Copland.

The American Rhapsody for violin and orchestra is a more substantial work. It's elegiac, unabashedly beautiful music. The solo violin part's not that difficult technically, but it requires real musicianship to pull it off. Michael Ludwig plays with a great deal of sensitivity and authentic expression, really bringing across the lyrical nature of the work to come across.

Also included is the Divinum Mysterium, an excellent showcase for the viola. Fuchs takes advantage of the lower register of the viola (as compared to the violin) and supports it with very warm harmonies. It's based on a hymn tune, and while Divinum Mysterium is a deeply spiritual work, it's not always serious. There's a mild hoedown section in the middle that give the work an American flavor.

The Concerto Grosso for string quartet and string orchestra has an intersting dynamic to it. The music goes back and forth between the string quartet, and it's larger counterpart, the string orchestra. Discover the Wild wraps up the program. It's a short travelogue style overture full of good-natured energy.

Strong performances by the London Symphony Orchestra and JoAnne Falletta. This isn't the first time Fuch and Falletta have collaborated, and the depth of understanding Falletta brings to this music benefits both he composer, and the listener. Thoroughly enjoyable for first note to last.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Wolf-Ferrari Wind Concertinos: Light and Delightful

Wolf-Ferarri: Wind Concertos for Oboe, Cor Anglais, Bassoon
Andrea Tenaglia, oboe
William Moriconi, cor angalis
Giuseppe Ciabocchi, bassoon
Orcestra Sinfonic di Roman Franchesco La Vecchia, conductor

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari is best known for his operas, particularly his comic operas. The same vein of light-hearted music with appealing, lyrical melodies run through this collection of his wind concertinos. The three works -- Idillio-concertino in A for oboe; Concertino in A-flat for Cor angles and Suite-concertino in F for bassoon -- feature a solo wind instrument backed by a small string orchestra. And all three share have the feeling of airiness and transparency.

Wolf-Ferrari composed these works between 1932 and 1947, but there's no trace of German dodecophonic ideology here! Instead, Wolf-Ferrari music firmly rooted in neo-classical tradition without a whiff of 20th century angst or atonality.

The melodies given to the solo instruments are quite vocal in nature; not surprising, perhaps coming from an opera composer. The oboe, cor anglais, and bassoon are instruments that can use breath to articulate phrasing just like a singer. Like an opera singer, each instrument lingers lovingly over long notes, letting the sheer beauty of the sound carry the music. And for the particularly warm sound of the cor anglais and bassoon, those are welcome pauses, indeed.

Great music? Perhaps not. Great listening experience? Absolutely. This is accessible, good-natured music that can easily brighten one's day. I know it brightened mine.

Nielsen Symphonies Shine in New SACD

Nielsen: Symphony No. 2, The Four Temperaments; Symphony No. 3,  Sinfonia Espansiva
New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert, conductor

Carl Nielsen was one of the great symphonists of the 20th century, as this live recording readily demonstrates. His second symphony, "The Four Temperaments" features four movements, each depicting a different mood. Four different modes of expression. Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic take full advantage of the score, and offer up an exciting reading that not only shows the contrasts between the movements, but highlights the overarching continuity between them.

Nielsen's Symphony No. 3 is subtitled the "Sinfonia Espansiva" for good reason. Gilbert and the Philharmonic deliver on the bigness of the work, without making it sound bloated. Rather, Nielsen's music seems to just open up and build in a natural and unhurried manner.

Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic perform these symphonies in an organic fashion. Conductor and orchestra work together as one to create a unified artistic vision (not surprising, given Gilbert's strong ties to the ensemble). The lyrical passages sing, and the climaxes arrive with power and authority. These are dramatic readings, but not overly dramatic. The music is dynamic and flowing, but never overwrought.

Although you can play this on a regular CD player, I highly recommend listening to it on an SACD player. The expanded detail and presence makes the performances even more engaging. I gained new appreciation for the precision for the Philharmonic's bass section, particularly during the third symphony. And for a live recording, the sound is amazingly clean and free of audience noise.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Music Animation Machine: seeing the structure of music

I ran across this amazing music program the other day. The Music Animation Machine does exactly what the name says -- it takes music and converts it to animated graphics. But it does more than that. Those graphics show pitch, duration and convergence.

You don't have to read music to see what the Music Animation Machine illustrating. And that's great. Because it's now possible for someone to see what musicians hear -- the organization and structure of music.

It's particularly effective for contrapuntal music, where independent lines weave in and out of each other to create the harmony. Watch this example of a Gabrieli Canzon. Converted to animated graphics, the structure of the music retains its beauty.

Technology in the arts? Sometimes its a great thing.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

cdza and the Human Jukebox

cdza is a collection of extremely talented musicians that put out a series of videos. But not just ordinary music videos. Rather, cdza creates videos that zoom in on different aspects of music, forcing the audience to re-examine their assumptions about the art.

These fast-paced videos work because everyone involved is a top-flight musician (or videographer). After you've viewed a cdza video once for the message, go back and view it again with an eye to the performances. You'll see some amazing technique and musicians in full command of their instruments.

It's no wonder cdza gives each of their videos an opus number. These are indeed major works!

In this video, cdza asks the musical question, "Which would you rather hear? Classical, pop, or something else?" And people voted with their dollars.

Here at WTJU we have a fund-drive coming up in a few weeks.I wonder how a human jukebox would fare in our listening area?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Mirian Conti shines in Nostalgias Argentinas

Nostalgias Argentinas
Mirian Conti, piano
Steinway & Sons

Argentine-American pianist Mirian Conti has long championed the music of South America, recording a cycle of Villa-Lobos piano concertos, a collection of Spanish composers and one ofArgentine composers. Her new release, Nostalgias Argentines focuses on Argentine composers of the 1920's, many of whom are little-known to American listeners.

Conti may well change that with this recording. The piano works all have the flavor of South America, mixed with a European post-romantic aesthetic. The result is an attractive blend of lush harmonies and strong rhythmic pulses. Several of the works are based on traditional Argentine music, such as the Danzas tradicionales of Remo Pignoni.

Carlos Guastavino also uses folk melodies as the basis for a set of imaginative piano minatures in his Caontos populares.

Mirian Conti does an excellent job with this material. Technically challenging works are performed with seeming ease. The balance between classical and folk elements never waivers -- at no time does the music sound like a pastiche of Argentine folk music. Conti makes the music bounce, without being a slave to the beat. Rather, she relaxes the tempos when the piece needs to breathe. The end result is a thoroughly delightful piano recital that -- while full of unfamiliar music -- should appeal to just about anyone.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Dussek Symphonies: Comfort Music

Dussek: Four Symphonies 
Helsinki Baroque Orchestra
Aapo Hakkinen, conductor

Naxos' new release presents four smphonies of Franz Xaver Dussek, who was a close friend of Mozart. After hearing the works, that fact didn't surprise me. There's a distinct similarity in sound.

Dussek was one of several talented composers living and working in Bohemia in the 1760s-1770s,, and his music is very much of its time and place. Just like the early and middle symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, Dussek's are all in clearly delineated forms. And Dussek's melodies similarly drive steadily towards their cadence points, pause briefly, and start the process over again.

That's not to say these symphonies sound trite -- far from it. Dussek captures that same spirit of excitement one hears in Mozart's works of 1770's (when the symphonies on this release were written). Orchestration is light, and the music zips along, more concerned about elegant turns of phrase than expressing deep emotion. While Dussek follows the forms of the day, he does so with imagination. There's nothing cliche about these works, just a feeling of familiarity.

Three of the symphonies follow the three-movement fast-slow-fast structure of the early classical period. They're short, to the point, and entertaining. The last work on the disc, the Sinfonia in B-flat major (altner Bb3), is more substantial. It has four movements, and sounds more like Haydn than Mozart. The themes are a little more substantial, and more fully developed.

Aapo Hakkinen and the Helsinki Baroque Orchestra find just the right balance with this music. The ensemble is crisp, and plays with a lightness that keeps these works buoyant.

I found these symphonies thorough enjoyable. Comfort food isn't gourmet dining, but it makes you feel good when you eat it. Dussek isn't Mozart, but his music made me feel good when I heard it. So let's just call these symphonies comfort music -- and call this a positive review.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Report for Verona

The Festival at the Arena di Verona is one of the great operatic spectacles. Staged in the vast Roman arena in Verona, the stage is probably the world's largest. The program for 2012 was unique in the Festival's long history, since it featured the first Mozart opera to be staged there, Don Giovanni, in a production by Franco Zeffirelli.

For once the venue was worthy of Zeffirelli's tendency to monumentalism. The Don of Erwin Schrott fairly dominated the stage, capably aided and abetted by his somewhat loyal retainer Leporello, sung and acted with verve by Marco Vinco. Rarely does Don Ottavio threaten to steal the show, but the creamy lyricism of Mozart's music as sung by Saimir Pirgu almost managed to accomplish the feat. The ladies were sung capably but with no particular distinction, and Daniel Oren's conducting was nothing if not lively, almost to a fault. The performance of July 12 was interrupted briefly by some sprinkles of rain in Act II, but it failed to dampen the enthusiasm of the artists or of the public's reception of a fine performance.

Aida is a fixture at Verona, and this season was no exception. Gianfranco di Bosio's staging was appropriately grand, but the singing was only adequate. Unfortunately, Dolora Zajick, the eagerly awaited Amneris, cancelled the July 15 performance due to illness. Jorge de Léon sang Celeste Aida with distinction, however. Lucrecia Garcia, who sang Aida, demonstrated an appalling moment of amateurism by stepping out of character and waiving to the audience after only an adequate rendition of Ritorna vincitor!.

Audiences love Carmen, and Franco Zeffirelli's new production at Verona was no exception. The staging was appropriately spectacular, with lighting design effects that cannot be equaled elsewhere, given the vast venue of the Arena. Anita Rachvelishvili, who sang Carmen, has a vast voice and knows how to use it. She is originally from Tbilisi, Georgia, and she has not yet reached her 30th birthday. Although not exactly a refined singer at this stage in her career, she has the dusky good looks and rich mezzos-oprano voice to make her a convincing Carmen. Marco Berti sang Don José's music with his customary suavity. Julian Kovatchev's choices of tempo ran from the brisk to the frantic. For color, spectacle, and sheer fun this Carmen will be difficult to equal.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Holmboe Chamber Symphonies -- Miniature Gems

Vagn Holmboe: Chamber Symphonies
Lapland Chamber Orchestra 
John Storgards, conductor 
Dacapo SACD 

I wasn’t that familiar with Vagn Holmboe’s music before I received this collection of his chamber symphonies. But after listening to them for a while, I would definitely like to explore the repertoire of this Danish composer further.

Written in 1951, the first of Holmboe’s three chamber symphonies shows a composer in full command of his material. 1 somewhat spare and lean at the beginning, building inexorably as it moves towards its big climax at near the end of the work, before finishing quietly with a reappearance of material from the opening movement.

The second chamber symphony is subtitled “Elegy.” Overall it’s a quiet, atmospheric work. Holmboe makes effective use of mallet percussion instruments, especially the vibraphone, which brings a hint of unearthliness to the mix. Holmboe was a conservative composer, using a primarily tonal language, but the somber harmonies and downward-turning chromatic melodic motifs almost sound atonal.

Holbmoe’s third chamber symphony, “Frise” is actually an orchestration of a choral work of the same name. Both were written to commemorate the unveiling a new frieze at a school. Although technically an occasional work, it’s much more substantial than just a “grand opening” fanfare. Holmboe digs deep into the ensemble, bringing instruments to the fore in groups of two and three to spotlight a melody. It’s a kaleidoscope of instrumental timbres changing in slow motion. The work has six movements, which, with a playing time of about 20 minutes, gives it a somewhat episodic quality and sounding very different in character than the first two works on the disc.

John Storgards leads the Lapland Chamber Orchestra in a compelling reading of these works. The performances sound fresh and engaging – even more so when played on an SACD player.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Here the Cliffs: the Orchestral Music of Hilary Tann

Here the Cliffs: Orchestral Music of Hilary Tann
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra
Kirk Trevor, conductor
North South

Very lyrical, yet highly individual music -- that's my impression of the compositions on this new recording. Hilary Tann’s works remind me somewhat of Alan Hovhaness’. Not in terms of melody or harmony, but rather in organization. The pieces move along from point to point driven by their own internal logic. Sometimes the underlying form isn’t readily apparent, but that doesn’t matter –- somehow it all works.

From Afar has some large gestures in it, and the orchestral sound ebbs and flows like the sea. The Cliffs is a work for violin and orchestra, that's really a concerto, but more of a rhapsody. The solo violin remains in the forefront throughout most of the work, playing angular melodies that the orchestra then comments on.

A short and attractive work. The Feather to the Mountain sounds the most to my ears like Hovhaness. The wide-open theme (the feather, I suppose) is supported by long, static chords and big chordal clusters, both suggesting the massiveness of the mountain. It makes for an interesting study in contrasts.

 Integrating an alto saxophone into an orchestra can be a challenge. In The First Spinning Place, for alto sax and orchestra, Hann partially solves the problem by making the alto a solo instrument. But she also effectively brings it into the orchestra by coupling it with unusual instruments – such as a marimba. That provides a surprisingly effective blend. The fluidity of the solo line is perfectly suited to the alto sax, and I suspect this may soon enter the solo saxophonists’ repertoire (if it doesn’t, it should).

Max Lifchitz has done an amazing job with his North/South Recordings label. For years it has championed contemporary music that’s not quite avant-garde, but still innovative enough to deserve a hearing. This new recording of Hillary Tann’s orchestral music is another outstanding addition to the North/South catalog.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 - A new cycle with Marin Alsop

Prokofiev: Symphony No.5; The Year 1941
Sao Paulo symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop, conductor

One of Prokofiev's most popular symphonies kicks off this first installment of a new symphonic cycle. The Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra and their new principal conductor Marin Alsop provide an interesting program by coupling the work with the symphonic suite "The Year 1941."

"The Year 1941" was written during World War II, and articulates Prokofiev's first-hand impressions of the struggle. The first movement, "In the Struggle," sounded a little too subdued to me. The orchestra hit all the marks, but there didn't seem to be a sense of urgency -- just a bustling of rapid motifs being tossed back and forth. The second movement, "In the Night," and the third, "For the Brotherhood of Man," fared better. Alsop and the orchestra seemed to have a greater affinity for their lyrical (and in the case of the third hymn-like) nature. In fact, the finale sounded rapturous, and almost worth the price of admission alone.

Perhaps its the nature of the music, but to my ears the Symphony No. 5 was a much more successful performance. It's a decidedly more lyrical work, and the smoothness of the slower sections showed off the ensemble to good effect. Alsop's vision of the symphony is a valid one, and she makes the case for it by the way she has the orchestra articulate the various sections and shifting moods. There's a clear sense of direction here, and while my overall impression is that this is a (relatively) mellow reading, it's certainly one that makes musical sense.

The Sao Paulo Symphony has a very warm ensemble sound, yet they can be strident and spiky when they need to be. I'm looking forward to the other volumes in this series.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Gorecki: Concerto-Cantata - A welcome addition to the catalog

Gorecki: Concerto-Cantata 
Anna Gorecka, piano 
Carol Wincenc, flute 
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra; Antoni Wit, conductor 

For many, Henryk Gorecki is a one-hit wonder. The Polish composer’s 3rd Symphony, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs became an international sensation. But as well-crafted as the work is, it’s not fully representative of the composer’s style. Gorecki continually developed and grew as a composer over the course of his fifty-year career, and the 3rd Symphony was just a milepost along the way. This current collection from Naxos helps fill in some of the gaps, and does so quite effectively.

The earliest work on the album, Three Dances, sounds something like a very conservative Stravinsky. And as they were written in 1973, that makes them practically mainstream. Simple scales and repeated patterns drive these dances forward.

Also presented are two concertos. The Cantata-Concerto for flute was commissioned by flutist Carol Wincenc, who performs the work on this recording. As the name implies, the work isn’t so much a showcase for the flute, as a lyrical work that often uses the flute as a solo singer. The second is Gorecki’s harpsichord concerto from 1980. In this recording, the composer’s daughter performs the solo part on the piano, and keeps the energy level high on this short-but-sweet concerto.

Included is the Little Requiem for a Certain Polka (1993). It’s a work for a chamber ensemble, that moves between slow, meandering melodies and large, static blocks of sound.

Antoni Wit leads the Warsaw Philharmonic with authority, and provides sympathetic readings for these works. For anyone wanting to know more about Gorecki and his music, I highly recommend this recording.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Reclaiming the 4th of July (musically)

In the last post I outlined my thoughts about programming music for the 4th of July. Unfortunately, we had serious problems with our on-air signal (still recovering from last week's storm). The program aired in its entirety online, but only some of it was heard over the air.

Not to worry. It's saved in our online archive, and you can replay it anytime during the next two weeks. The 4th of July special is listed under "Gamut" at the WTJU tape vault. (

So what did I air? Here's the complete program, with some background as to why I chose each selection.

- Ralph

Liberty Fanfare - John Williams
     Cincinnati Pops Orchestra; Eric Kunzel conductor

John Williams gets played a lot on the 4th -- but it's usually his film scores. I decided to open with a work he specifically wrote for the holiday.

Bunker Hill, a Sapphick Ode - Andrew Laws
Heroism - Supply Belcher
Liberty Tree - Anon. 18th C.
The Sons of Liberty - Anon. 18th C.
  Waverly Consort

This set of tunes all date from around 1780. They're excellent examples of patriotic songs that would have been sung by veterans of the Revolution.

Bold Island Suite - Howard Hanson
   Cincinnati Pops Orchestra; Eric Kunzel, conductor

Howard Hanson was an outstanding American composer, and as a teacher and a conductor was a champion of American music. This evocative work is a good introduction to Hanson's style.

O come, come away - Anon. 19th C.
School hymn - Anon. 19th C.
Gospel Feast - Anon. 19th C.
   Boston Camerata; Joel Cohen, director

These hymn tunes were created during the Second Great Awakening of the 1790's-1830's. The melodic shapes and harmonies of these hymns were distinctively American. Designed to be sung by amateurs with limited vocal range, they're nevertheless powerful and attractive works.

Freedom Fanfare - Tim Rumsey
   Kiev Philharmonic; Robert Ian Winstin, conductor

Not all American composers are dead. Many aren't even middle-aged. This work was written just a few years ago, and is a great occasional piece.

When Johnny Comes Marching Home - Roy Harris
  Louisville Symphony; Jorge Mester, conductor 

In the 1960's, this work was regularly programmed for patriotic events. Many of Roy Harris' works have American themes, or are based on American subjects. It's always been a puzzle to me why he's not performed more frequently in this country.

Overture and Opening Credits to "How the West Was Won" - Alfred Newman
   MGM Orchestra & Chorus; Alfred Newman, conductor 

Many 4th of July programs include movie soundtracks -- and they're almost exclusively John Williams scores. "How the West Was Won" was a sprawling epic chronicling three generations of a family as they move west from Ohio through to California (and being a part of every major historical event between 1840-1890). In addition to the rousing original music Alfred Newman wrote for the film, which has more of an American rather than Western character, he also researched music of the period. The overture features a medley of folk songs and ballads spanning the mid-1800's -- perfect for a day which celebrates all things American.

Two Sketches Based on Indian Themes - Charles Tomlinson Griffes
   Kohen Quartet

Charles Tomlinson Griffes achieved international success in the early 1900's with his tone poems. And while his music does have a cosmopolitan sound to it, he was also looking to American music for inspiration. This string quartet is an interesting experiment, and while today we might not consider the treatment of these themes very authentic, they certainly evoke the romanticized ideal of Native American life.

Battle of San Juan Hill - Albert C. Sweet
   New Columbian Brass Band

In the late 1800's community bands were an important part of many cities and towns. They often played throughout the warmer months, and most definitely on important events like the 4th of July. This tone poem is somewhat literal, with its bugle calls and cannon fire. But if folks like gunshots with their music, why not give them something relating to American history -- instead of the 1812 Overture (which celebrates Russia's victory over Napoleon)?

Singing School - Anon. 19th C.
Thomas-Town - William Billings
Amazing Grace - Anon. 19th C.
   Boston Camerata; Joel Cohen, director

Shape note singing is a distinctively American art form. Developed in the 1790's, this music was written with symbols non-musicians could easily understand. And the rudimentary counterpoint in these tunes -- called fuguing -- is absolutely unique to America. What better music for an absolutely unique American holiday?

Fanfare and Allegro - Clifton Williams
   Eastman Wind Ensemble; Frederick Fennell, conductor

Concert marches are a staple for 4th of July programs. But most concerts seldom venture beyond Sousa. In the latter part of the 20th Century, Clifton Williams was the master of the concert march, many of which entered the band and orchestral repertoire.

American Hymn - Nancy Bloomer Deussen
   Kiev Philharmonic; Robert Ian Winstin, conductor

Another short work written within the past few years. Deussen demonstrates that accessible, well-crafted and tuneful music is still being written in this country.

Dance in Three-Time - Quincy Porter
   Albany Symphony Orchestra; Julius Hegyi, director 

Although seldom played today, Quincy Porter is a quite important American composer. He had a successful career both in America and Europe, and even won the Pulitzer Prize for his second piano concerto. This short orchestral work at least gives the listener a taste of his compositional style.

Hymn, Chorale, and Fuguing Tune No. 8 - Henry Cowell
   Northwest Chamber Orchestra; Alun Francis, director

Henry Cowell was an American composer with a distinctively American voice. I thought it appropriate after playing some original fuguing tunes to air one of Cowell's 1947 interpretations of this American genre. 

Fanfare for the Signal Corps - Howard Hanson
   Cincinnati Pops Orchestra; Erich Kunzel, conductor

During the Second World War, many composers were commissioned to write patriotic pieces. Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" might be the best known, but it's not the only example. This short fanfare is another -- and it happened to fit nicely in the two-minute window I had at the end of the show.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Retiring the 1812 for the Fourth

I originally posted this on my own blog, Off Topic'd on 7/1/07. I think it still applies. I'll be hosting a program this coming July 4, and while I might not play the selections listed below, I'll be airing other music by American composers that deserve a hearing.

 - Ralph

I'll be doing my WTJU radio program "Gamut" on the 4th of July. This past Sunday in the Washington Post Tim Page offered up some thoughts about music for the Fourth of July. Personally, I like his idea of playing Hans Pfizner, Elliott Carter and Anton Bruckner instead of the usual fare, but both he and I concede that won't work for everyone.

Still, there's plenty of great American classical music that would be appropriate for the Fourth, and I'm not just talking about Sousa either.

Personally, I think it's past time to give the "1812 Overture" a rest. OK, it's got canons, but has anyone listened to this work? Tchaikovsky wrote it to commemorate the Battle of Borodino, where Russian forces turned back Napoleon. The work contains the Russian and the French national anthems, and uses those two tunes to represent the ebb and flow of the two armies.

Is blasting out the "God Save the Tsar" really the best way to celebrate Independence Day? And what about "La Marseillaise"? Perhaps an apologist could construe it as an acknowledgement of Lafayette's contributions, but it wasn't that long ago we insisted those potato strings be called "freedom fries."

So let's forget the Russian overture written by a Russian honoring the victory of a Russian monarch over a French military dictator and trot out some red-blooded American classical music written by real Americans.

In past years I've played some of these works on "Gamut" for the Fourth of July, and I might air some of this for this upcoming program.

Charles Ives: Variations on "America"
- No composer sums up the American spirit of independence of thought than Ives. His variations on this distinctively American tune are original and inspired, and makes more traditional arrangements just sound tired.

Alan Hovhaness: Symphony No. 66, "Hymn to Glacier Peak"
- Hovhaness was another American original, placidly making his own music without getting sucked into the academic fashions of the day. Hovhaness drew inspiration from mountains, and his symphony to Glacier Park captures the grandeur and spaciousness of this national treasure.

Howard Hanson:
"Merry Mount" Suite
- Harris had a distinctly American voice, and his opera "Merry Mount" is a distinctively American story. Based on the short story "The May-Pole of Merry Mount" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, it dramatizes the conflict between the fun-loving colonists of Mount Wollaston, Massachusetts and their more serious Puritan neighbors.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk: Union Paraphrase en Concert
- Gottschalk was an internationally renowned piano virtuoso. In many ways, he was the American Franz Liszt, performing and composing. The "Union Paraphrase" is an excellent example of Gottschalk's technique and a rousing piece of musical Americana.

Many celebrations will features some Aaron Copland (usually "Fanfare for the Common Man"), or some Leonard Bernstein -- good choices, but there are so many more. We have a rich classical music tradition stretching back over 200 years -- music written by Americans that have a distinctively American voice that speaks to us today.

This Fourth of July, I'm declaring independence from unimaginative programming. Who's with me?

- Ralph

Monday, June 25, 2012

Krenek Complete Symphonies: Outstanding Overview

Krenek: Complete Symphonies
NDR Radiophilharmonie
Takao Ukgaya, Alun Francis, conductors

It took a while but CPO finally issued the last installment of their cycle Ernst Krenek symphonies. Krenek is best known for his Weill-like opera Johnny Spielt Auf, a product of the Weimar years. It’s not really a fair representation of Krenek’s style.

He was much more interested in the atonal compositions of Schoenberg and Webern, and that interest is reflected in his orchestral compositions. The first symphony (1921) is neo-romantic, reflecting the influence of his teacher, Franz Schreker. But even in this work, the harmonies have a slight edge to them, and it’s easy to hear where Krenek wants to go.

The second symphony (1922) is more aggressively atonal, but there are still lyrical post-romantic elements there that keep the work sounding a little more conservative than Weber. The third symphony (also written in 1922) has Krenek coming into his own as a composer, and even though it could be classified as atonal, there’s a compelling logic behind the work that makes it more than just an academic exercise. The harmonies, though dissonant, are expressive, and the symphony’s charged with energy.

The fourth and fifth symphonies have no elements of the early Krenek’s style. And yet, while they encompass the most modern aesthetic of the day, they have a surface organization and coherence that isn’t as readily apparent in other atonal composers of the 1950’s.

All in all, these five symphonies are an exciting body of work. Each composition has its own character. Although Krenek kept pace with the avant garde, each work is unmistakably in Krenek’s compositional voice, providing a continuity across the set.

An additional treat are the fillers – the Concerto Grosso No. 2 and Potpourri show a more relaxed and more lyrical side to the composer. Krenek chose to write atonal music, but these works show he had the skill to be melodic when he wanted to. A fine set that should do much to raise Krenek’s profile.

Friday, June 15, 2012

"Fathers and Sons of the Bach Family"

Father’s Day is this Sunday, 17 June. To mark the occasion, on Classical Sunrise that morning (6 to 9 AM), I’ll be doing a show titled “Fathers and Sons of the Bach Family.” 

Of course you can expect to hear music of Johann Sebastian Bach and his sons, but I will also be featuring works from other lesser-known members of this extraordinary family. The Bach line of professional musicians spans over six generations. 

According to the family chronicles, Veit Bach, a baker by trade (d. ca. 1576), was the forefather of this dynasty and the first to show musical proclivities. His son Hans (d. 1626) was the first known professional musician, and his three sons in turn established different branches of the Bach family of musicians. 

Among other samplings, we’ll hear music of Heinrich Bach (1615-1692), son of Hans and founder of the Arnstadt line, and that of his son Johann Michael Bach (1648-1694). We’ll explore the music of Johann Bach (1604-1673), also the son of Hans, and the founder of the Erfurt line of the family, and listen to music of Johann’s great grandson, Johann Ernst Bach (1722-1777). 

In my mind, no day is complete without the music of JS Bach, and with 20 children to his name (10 of which survived to adulthood), JS Bach is perhaps the musical epitome of Fathers and Sons. 

So tune in to Classical Sunrise this Sunday, 17 June 2012, on WTJU Charlottesville, 91.1 FM, and streaming live on, to celebrate the music of the most important family in the history of Western music.

And if you missed the program, you can hear it again on-demand anytime over the next two weeks at our Virtual Tape Vault.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Met's Ring Production

For those who missed this season's Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera, take heart. You didn't miss much. Wagner's titanic four-part saga of the downfall of the gods in the Met's new production by Robert Lepage was a mostly depressing and vapid affair. It illustrates what can be accomplished when a virtually limitless budget is applied to realize a production that has no original ideas.

Wagner's great creation, of course, is mythical in conception and monumental in execution. Because it is mythical there is no reason for the Ring to be staged in the German woods and forests, even though the Rhine plays a central role in the tetralogy. The Rhine could be any river, and it is nonspecific to Germany. The Ring has been staged with great success in the forests of the American Northwest by the Seattle Opera, and less successfully by Francesca Zambello in the American West for the joint Washington/San Francisco production, among others.

Still, there must be some thought behind a production of the Ring other than "what can I do next with this absurd stage machinery that I have created?" Lepage's stage contraption, known to the Met's General Director Peter Gelb as "the Machine," is a collection of large panels that rotates and revolves on the same axis. The singers in the cast, whose primary job after all is to sing Wagner's stupendously difficult music, spend much of their time trying to avoid being flattened by the Machine.

Occasionally there are impressive moments, as when the gods cross the rainbow bridge to enter Valhalla at the conclusion of Das Rheingold or when Wotan and Loge descend into Nibelheim to confront Alberich and seize the ring of power. One of the great challenges in all opera is staging the end of the world that concludes Die Götterdämmerung. Lepage's realization of that cataclysmic event is so tepid, even foolish that the Met audience was left tittering at the absurdity of it.

The singing in the principal roles was adequate, which is accomplishment enough in this era so lacking in great Wagnerian voices. Still, the singers deserve great credit in making something musical out of the antics they were often asked to perform. Meriting special distinction were Stephanie Blythe's Fricka and Eric Owens' menacing, hate-filled Alberich. Bryn Terfel as Wotan and Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde, although both are among our most distinguished singers, were simply miscast. Jonas Kaufmann may yet be one of our great Siegmunds, at least for those who remember Placido Domingo's peerless portrayal of that doomed character. The Met Orchestra played with distinction for Fabio Luisi, although the special fire that is lit in Wagner by James Levine was absent.

Some say this Ring was conceived by the Met with HD broadcast in mind. The New York critics seem generally to agree that this Ring was even less compelling in the theater than on the big screen. The Met's HD broadcasts present great promise for the company, but they also may put the in-house theatrical experience at risk.

This reviewer finds the Met in HD broadcasts generally unsatisfying, although for an out-of-towner, they are better than not being able to see the Met's productions at all. Next year is the Wagner bicentennial, and one can only hope that other companies with the resources to stage the Ring will do better than did the Met, even if they have fewer financial resources at their disposal. Come to think of it, maybe throwing fewer dollars at Lepage's Ring would have made it less undisciplined and ultimately more successful.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Kraus Viola Concertos are No Joke

Kraus: Viola Concertos
David Aaron Carpenter, viola
Tapiola Sinfonietta

David Aaron Carpenter presents three standout viola concertos on his new Ondine release. These concertos by Joseph Martin Kraus, dating from the 1790s, were thought to be lost until fairly recently. Kraus, who spent most of his professional life in the Swedish court, was well-regarded by many musicians of his day, including Haydn (for whom Kraus wrote a symphony).

Kraus was also an outstanding violist, which makes these works doubly appealing. First, they’re in the clear, classical style of Mozart and Haydn. Second, they really test the limits of the instrument. Kraus knew what a viola was capable of, and he wrote his solo parts accordingly.

Kraus has been called the “Swedish Mozart,” and with good reason. He had the same ability to spin out perfectly balanced melodic phrases that sound simultaneously simple and original. Like Mozart and Haydn, Kraus kept with the standard orchestra of the time – a large string ensemble with flutes and clarinets for coloration.

Violist David Carpenter keeps things moving along, which is good. This is music that benefits for a lightness of touch, and the sprightly playing of the Tapiola Sinfonietta hits just the right emotional tone.

The most interesting work is the Concerto in G major for Viola, Cello, and Orchestra. Although it seems to be a double concerto, the soloists aren’t quite equal partners. The orchestra supports the cello which in turn supports the viola. Still, it’s an engaging work and definitely one worth hearing.

Joseph Martin Kraus is lamentably under-represented in classical recordings. This release should go a long way towards redressing that situation. Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Airing Britten's War Requiem

Wednesday, 30 May 2012, marks the 50th anniversary of the first performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem at the newly built Coventry Cathedral. The cathedral was built adjacent to the ruins of the Gothic cathedral, which was devastated during the bombing of the City of Coventry by the Luftwaffe the night of 14 November 1940. The decision was immediately announced the next morning to rebuild the cathedral. The new cathedral was consecrated on 25 May 1962, and the War Requiem, commissioned for the occasion, was premiered there on 30 May 1962.
The War Requiem combines the Latin text of the Requiem mass with the searing poetry of Wilfred Owen, who was killed in the trenches in WWI only days before the cease fire. This monumental work has not lost any of its power or intensity today.

Britten was a pacifist, and his world view of peace and reconciliation was reflected in his selection of the soloists for the performance from among three of the major nations in conflict in both world wars: Peter Pears (English), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (German), and Galina Vishnevskaya (Russian). The Soviets, however, refused permission for Vishnevskaya to appear. With less than two weeks before the premier, Britten was without a soprano (despite having the programs printed up with Vishnevskaya’s name in it). Britten turned to Heather Harper, who, with perfect pitch, was known for her ability to learn a part very quickly. 

Benjamin Britten made a recording of the War Requiem in 1963, featuring Pears, Fischer-Dieskau, and Vishnevskaya, the soloist originally intended for the part. This Decca recording is now legendary, and it sold 200,000 copies in the first 12 months. Not surprisingly, it remains the definitive interpretation of this powerful work.

Heather Harper, however, made the War Requiem her own, singing it hundreds of times in performances. (According to the BBC Music Magazine, her last performance of it was in 1995.) She is featured on a superb 1991 Chandos recording of the War Requiem conducted by Richard Hickox, and her performance is impeccable. (The recording was a 1992 Gramophone award winner.)

To mark this occasion (and the recent death of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), I will be playing a complete recording of the War Requiem on Classical Sunrise on WTJU Charlottesville, 91.1 FM, or, on Sunday 27 May 2012, between 6 and 9 AM EDT.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Mogensen: Accordion Concertos - fresh sounds for an old instrment

Accordion Concertos
Bjarke Mogensen, accordion
Danish National Chamber Orchestra
Rolf Gupta, conductor
Dacapo SACD

Mention the accordion, and most people think of Weird Al Yankovic, or a polka band. What they won’t think of is an instrument capable of serious artistic expression. And certainly not one that belongs in the classical world.

Bjarke Mogensen is out to change that perception with this new recording, Accordion Concertos. In it, he performs four concertos. All have been written within the last half century, and two specifically for Mogensen.

Ole Schmidt's Symphonic Fantasy and Allegro starts off the program. It's a fairly traditional-sounding work, with the soloist and ensemble having clearly defined roles. Rich harmonies support the fluid melodies, which make this work an appealing one to listen to. Although most of the solo work on this recording is single line, Schmidt writes some interesting counterpoint into the cadenzas.

Anders Koppel composed the Concerto Piccolo for Mogensen, and the concerto shows the artist’s ability to best advantage. The work is an angular neo-classical composition  that’s well suited to the tonal qualities of the accordion. In my opinion, it's the strongest work on the album. 

In Liquid, another commission by Mogensen, is radically different. Martin Lohse's work is almost a study in slow motion. Lohse draws out every single note both from the ensemble and the soloist. The sensation is similar to trying to run underwater. And the enforced slowness of the composition makes the listener pay closer attention to the music as it passes by. An effective work, and one that completely removes the accordion from its popular roots.

As its name suggests, Recall by Per Norgard, harkens back to the roots of the instrument. While at times it threatens to devolve into sea chanty, at heart it’s a carefully composed showpiece full of energy and good spirits.

These are fresh, exciting works that succeed both presenting the accordion in a new way and being an enjoyable listening experience. Whether you’re after fresh sounds, virtuoso performances, or just plain good music-making, this recording fills the bill.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Fuchs Serenades: Attractive works by a major influence

Fuchs: Serenade Nos. 3 & 4 & 5 For String Orchestra 
Cologne Chamber Orchestra
Christian Ludwig, conductor

Naxos completes its survey of Fuchs' Serenades with this release (the first two were released last year with the same performers). It's a collection well worth owning.

Robert Fuchs is perhaps best remembered as a composition teacher. His impressive list of pupils include Gustav Mahler, Hugo Wolf, Erich Korngold, Jean Sibelius and other major composer who defined the post-romantic scene of the early 20th Century. During his lifetime, though, he was also highly regarded as a composer. These works attest to his skill.

By definition, a serenade is a fairly light work, and all three of these compositions have that spirit. They're short, amiable compositions that present their attractive melodies in a straight-forward manner. That's not to say they're simple works. Fuchs uses a rich harmonic language that provides subtle emotional inflections. Chromatic relationships help the music glide smoothly from one idea to the other, all the while sounding like an organic whole.

To my ears, the serenades reminded me somewhat of Elgar's Serenade for Strings, which was written around the same time. The Cologne Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Christian Ludwig plays with a light touch, which brings these serenades to life. Brahms liked Fuchs' music very much. I did, too.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Weinberg: Symphony No. 6 - A Russian composer is given his due

Weinberg: Symphony No. 6 - Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes   
St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra
Vladimir Lande, conductor
Glinka Choral College Boys' Choir

Mieczyslaw Weinberg was a close personal friend as well as a colleague of Shostakovitch, and that relationship shows in his music. His Sixth Symphony opens in a manner that sounds (to my ears) very much like Shostakovitch. But while there are some stylistic similarities, there are also plenty of differences.

Weinberg was an imaginative orchestrator, particularly with his use of brass instruments. This programmatic work has a powerful message. The symphony begins with a celebration of the care-free days of youth, and moves through the horrors of war (and the death of childhood) to a tentative hope for the future. Weinberg's sparing use of a boys' choir makes the message all the more effective.

The second work on the disc is a shorter Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes. The rich melodic content of this composition makes it instantly attractive. Weinberg sounds less like Shostakovitch here (perhaps its the choice of subject matter). The music flows along in a relentless fashion, with plenty of energy and high-spirited dance motifs that almost beg to be choreographed.

Vladimir Lande leads the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra in the performance of these works. The playing is first-rate, which really helps further the cause for these relatively unknown compositions. If you aren't familiar with Mieczyslaw Weinberg, this release is a good place to start.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Demise and Resurgence(?) of a Great Orchestra

When the governing board of the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of this country's great cultural institutions, voted to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on April 16, 2011, the shock waves were felt far beyond Philadelphia. The city could hardly imagine that the Orchestra, ranking with the Art Institute, City Hall, and the Phillies, as defining Philadelphia, had fallen on such hard times. While other orchestras of lesser acclaim have endured financial woes and, in some cases, become defunct, that fate could hardly be imagined for one of the great orchestras of the world. With its legendary music director Eugene Ormandy at the helm, the Philadelphia Orchestra has a recorded legacy that is unsurpassed by any other American orchestra.

Bankruptcy has set the Orchestra's management and its musicians against each other. While the orchestra has pared its annual operating expenses by about $6 million, most of those savings have come from reducing pay and pension benefits from the musicians union's contract. Meanwhile, the administrative and litigation expenses of the bankruptcy proceeding have soared well beyond the projected $2.9 million, in part because of litigation that is the result of the Orchestra's withdrawal from the American Federation of Musicians Pension Fund, which administers the musicians' pension benefit fund. Meanwhile, there have been some notable defections among principal chair and other players from the Orchestra to other orchestras, collateral moves that would have been unthinkable in years past. While music schools and conservatories turn out excellent instrumentalists every year, the fund of experience represented by the Orchestra's key players cannot be easily replaced.

Like other orchestras, the Philadelphia Orchestra's subscriber base has declined by more than 40% in recent years. Revenues are down; costs are up. A new lease has been negotiated with the Kimmel Center, the Orchestra's home, and ticket sales are up this season over last season, but the Orchestra is still far from closing its budget deficit. American orchestras, unlike their European counterparts, cannot look to state support, and the present political climate, which is hostile to public subsidies of "elitist" arts institutions, is unlikely to change anytime soon. The Orchestra should be energized by the arrival this fall of its new music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, but it remains to be seen whether the Orchestra can return to its rightful place at the center of Philadelphia's cultural life.

Classical music in general, and orchestral performance in particular, has never played the central role in the life of a community that is typical of most European cities. Certainly the repertoire needs to be energized with exciting new works, but orchestras are faced with whether the cost of commissioning new works is justified, when subscribers stay away in droves from concerts featuring new works. Orchestra management has sometimes failed to keep a sharp eye on the bottom line, continuing touring, for example, when all the costs cannot be underwritten. Almost no orchestras have recording contracts so there never again will be the legacy of the Philadelphia with Ormandy, or Chicago with Reiner, or Cleveland with Szell. Some orchestras (including Philadelphia) have started their own labels, but they lack the promotional muscle that the major classical labels possessed in past years. None of the American orchestras have had anything remotely like the success that the London Symphony Orchestra has enjoyed with its label.

It remains to be seen if the Philadelphia Orchestra (or any other American orchestra, for that matter) can survive and even thrive as in years past. While radio stations have the benefit of a vast recorded legacy to enrich their programming, the great orchestras must struggle to renew themselves. For the sake of our cultural life, let's hope they succeed.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Helvacioglu: Eleven Short Stories - Prepared Piano Goes to the Movies

Eleven Short Stories 
Erdem Helvacioglu 

Turkish composer Erdem Helvacioglu embarks on a fascinating project with this recording. He writes in the liner notes, “Eleven Short Stories is inspired by the works of film directors Kim Ki-Duk, David Lynch, Krzystof Kielowski, Theodoros Angelopoulos, Jan Campion, Anthony Minthella, Ang Lee, Atom Egoyan, Darren Aronofsky, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu and Steven Soderbergh.”

Using a prepared piano, Helvacioglu conjures up sonic impressions of various types of movies – as they might be interpreted by these directors. That’s not to say that Helvacioglu’s arranging soundtrack themes. Rather, he creates soundscapes that convey the emotions he’s after.

And there’s not a one-to-one correspondence between a certain director and an individual track. Part of the listener’s task is to listen to make sense of the sounds not only in terms of the stories they’re telling, but also what director’s style (or styles) it might be told in.

Helvacioglu’s tonal palette is wide-open, and imaginative. Some of the sound are distinctively pianistic, while others seem otherworldly. Throughout it all, though, there’s a clear underlying structure that gives each story its own internal logic.

Eleven Short Stories is an engaging release for anyone interested in the sound of the new – and the more you’re familiar with the directors that inspired these works, the deeper your appreciation of Helvacioglu’s accomplishment.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Ethereal orchestral works by Saariaho

Saariaho: Works for Orchestra
Various Artists

The nice thing about listening to a bunch of works by the same composer in quick succession is that I get a glimpse of the broader picture.

This new four-disc set of Kaija Saariaho presents the Finnish composer's orchestral works spanning the past  25 years. The pieces are arranged in chronological order, and Ondine's assigned a theme to each disc, which helps the listener make sense of Saariaho's development.

Disc One: From  outer space to crystal and smoke
Saariaho's earliest orchestral works show her slowly breaking away from the rigidity of atonal composition and into a more emotional world of sound clouds and atmospheric orchestration. Lichtbogen (Northern Lights) points the way to the works to follow in the set.

Disc Two: The enchantment of the human voice
Some composers treat the human voice as something unique -- others as just another instrument. Saariaho seems to use it as a way to more fully articulate the emotional content of her music. The works on this disc don't have any melodies you can whistle along to, but they still command attention. The expressiveness of the vocal lines leave no doubt as to the emotions driving the music.

Disc Three: Organic unity and new versions
It's not unusual for composers to revisit earlier material. The works on this disc all started out as something different. Cinq reflets de "L'Amour de loin,"  for example, is a song cycle based on material from the opera of the same name. But only based on -- Saariaho changed the voices around and composed new material that takes the original material in an entirely new direction.

Disc Four: New sounds of the 2000s
These works, all written after 2001 show a composer in full command of her talent. Saariaho's latest works have more of tonal feel to them, but only up to a point. Saariaho is still primarily concerned with communicating emotion, and if the most effective way to do it is with a more traditional sound (at least temporarily), then so be it.

As I listened to this compilation, the words I kept jotting down were "mysterious," "atmospheric," and "ethereal." Those terms, I think, apply to the entire collection. Saariaho: Works for Orchestra is a great way to become acquainted with a major voice of contemporary music.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Non-dogmatic American music from do.gma

American Stringbook
do.gma Chamber Orchestra
Berthold Records

For their sophomore album, the do.gma chamber orchestra stretches their repertory wings a bit, and come up with an interesting and artistically strong release. American Stringbook features 20th Century chamber orchestra works that, if not quite standard repertoire, certainly should be.

It's one thing for Americans to try to persuade the classical world to pay attention to American composers -- for a European ensemble to take up the cause is refreshing, indeed.

In the liner notes, concertmaster and artistic director Mikhail Gurewitsch writes;

We  dedicate our new production to the rise and development of the American Classical movement. We focus not just on famous composers such as Samuel Barber, but also on the composition of less well-known master,s whom we wish to introduce to a wider audience.
Those lesser-know composers include Arthur Foote, David Diamond, and William Schuman.

The do.gma chamber orchestra performs these works with authority and conviction. Arthur Foote's late-romantic Suite in E is particularly effective -- perhaps because the ensemble seems to have an affinity for the style (their first release was all-Tchaikovsky).

The mid-century works of William Schuman (Symphony No. 5) and David Diamond (Rounds for String Orchestra) also fare well. Diamond's work is, as the name suggests, a series of rounds, and the ensemble brings out every nuance of the independent lines as they interweave.

Samuel Barber's Serenade for String Orchestra is beautifully performed. The orchestra lingers lovingly over the rich  harmonies and evocative melodic turns of the piece.

The least successful work on the album is, surprisingly, the most famous. Barber's Adagio for Strings gets a sedate reading here. For some reason, the upper registers of the strings sounded a little harsh, and the emotive qualities of the rising melodic lines seems to have been dialed back a bit too much.

Still, all in all, American Stringbook is an impressive release. The quality of the music chosen and the overall performance of the do.gma chamber orchestra make a powerful combination. American Stringbook is an excellent introduction to American classical music.