Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Running the Gamut 5 - A Thousand and One Thanks

Since July 11, 1991, I've been hosting a classical music morning program on WTJU, 91.1fm in Charlottesville Virginia.. The three-hour program had a simple programming tenant -- never repeat a work. (read more at Running the Gamut - A Thousand and One Wednesdays)

Wednesday, May 22, 2013 from 6-9am we marked the 1000th program with a mini-fundrive (donate here), special guests, and a few surprises.

This morning I hosted program number 1001, starting off the countdown to number 2000. It's unlikely I'll hit that mark -- at the rate of one program a week, I'll get there in another 20 years. That far in the future, it's difficult to say if radio as a medium will even exist (much less if I will).

That's fine. I'll just keep showing up week after week, doing what I love until someone tells me to stop.

Just another Wednesday morning -- sharing the music and
having fun.
But I had to take a moment and thank all the folks who made last Wednesday such a special event.

First, thanks to my colleagues at WTJU. General Manager Nathan Moore put forward the idea of making it a major event for the station, and I'm glad he did. The station staff got behind the effort, which resulted in (among other things) a great writeup in the local paper, donated breakfast goodies for the assembled masses, and all the publicity leading up to the event.

Second, I thank my fellow volunteers at WTJU. Deborah Murray and John Delehanty, the co-directors of the Classical Department were on hand not only to lend support, but also to answer the phones (more on that later). Other classical announcers showed up, as well as some announcers from the other music departments. That's WTJU -- one station with many facets, not many stations with one set of call letters.

And a special thanks to John Mitchell, who was kind enough to return for an  all-too-brief stint on the airwaves with me. What fun we had!

John Mitchell (l) and Ralph Graves (r).

Classical Department co-director
Deborah Murray, in a rare
moment when the phones
weren't ringing.
Third, many thanks to all the folks who called in to make a pledge to WTJU. The response was truly overwhelming (just ask Deborah and Jon, who were far busier than they thought they'd be!). We were looking to raise $1,000 for the station -- a grand for a grand. Instead, listeners called or went online to pledge $2,590 in celebration. And for that, we're all grateful.

Finally, I'd like to thank you, the listener. Whether you just discovered WTJU last week, or have been with "Gamut" since program 1, it doesn't matter. All of us here at WTJU are passionate about the music we share, and it's gratifying to know there are kindred spirits out their to appreciate it.

Classical Department co-director
John Delehanty was also on
hand for the festivities.

Last week's celebration wasn't so much about reaching a personal milestone as it was a reason to take a step back and look at this extraordinary service the University of Virginia offers through WTJU. Every day volunteers from your community show up to educate, entertain, and enlighten. Thanks for your continued support. Many, many, many thanks.

Part 1: A Thousand and One Wednesdays
Part 2: A Thousand and One Milestones
Part 3: A Thousand and One Lessons
Part 4: A Thousand and One Questions 

Leon Kirchner: Revelations - An intimate portrait

Leon Kirchner: Revelations
Joel Fan, piano
Diana Hoagland, soprano
Beverly Hoch, soprano
Scott Dunn, conductor
Leon Kirchner, piano
Verdant World Records

Revelations is an interesting overview of Kirchner's music. It ranges from some of his earliest work as a student in 1943, up through 2006, three years before his death. It's also an intimate overview,  comprising of works for solo piano and piano plus voice compositions.

The opening and closing piano works -- Little Suite (1949) and The Forbidden (2006) frame the collection nicely. The Little Suite is charming in its simplicity and straight-forward themes. The Forbidden, though more complex, flows with the same easy motion as the Suite.

Dawn, while tonally based, avoids all the cliches of choral writing. This brief work has a sense of urgency to it that effectively conveys the meaning of the text. Words from Wordsworth, written 20 years after in  1966 is much more strident and edgy in tone. This isn't an academic exercise in dissonance. Kirchner illuminates the text with his carefully constructed harmonies.

Three Songs (1946) and The Twilight Stood (1982) are the most angular and atonal of the selections. Once again, the music is there to serve the text. Kirchner brings the emotions of the words vividly to life.

Pianist Joel Fan, who performs on all but one of selections, is an admirable interpreter of this music. His sympathetic readings bring its emotional content to the fore.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Martin Perry scores big with American composers

Martin Perry Performs Binkerd & Ives
Gordon Binkerd: Essays for the Piano
Charles Ives: "Concord" Sonata
Martin Perry, piano
Bridge Records

Both works on this new release are first recordings, but for different reasons. Gordon Binkerd isn't a composer who's often performed, which is why his Essays get a recording premier here. Charles Ives' "Concord" Sonata has enjoyed several recordings, but this oft-revised work exists in many different versions -- this is the premier recording of one of them.

Gordon Binkerd was a Midwesterner who was active in the mid-Twentieth century. His music has a deliberately homespun roughness to it, which Binkerd used to express the inherent Americaness of his work. Whether the stance was authentic or not, Binkerd never received the attention of Copland and Barber, and his work has been sadly neglected.

I say sadly, because the three Essays for the Piano played here are well-crafted works that deserve a hearing. These works sound "American" without any affectation, and have real expressive power. The Essays are in a somewhat dissonant style, but still full of interesting and engaging melodies and harmonies.

Ives continually revised his Second Piano Sonata even after he had it published. So there are a lot of different -- and sometimes conflicting -- versions of the work in existence. Pianist John Kirkpatrick (who would in time become the curator of the Charles Ives Archive at Yale) pulled together all of these variant versions and created a definitive, final edition of the work. That's the version Perry plays in this release.

As played by Perry, the sonata is very expressive, with some of the quieter sections sounding almost sweetly sentimental. Even during the roaring climaxes, Perry plays with taste and musicality. The music gets loud, but it's always under control -- not a mean feat with the maelstrom of notes and tune snippets Ives throws at the player. Perry delivers a very distinctive -- and faithful, I think -- interpretation of this complex work. And one that provides additional insights when compared to other performances.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Running the Gamut 4- A Thousand and One Questions

Since July 11, 1991, I've been hosting a classical music morning program on WTJU, 91.1fm in Charlottesville Virginia.. The three-hour program had a simple programming tenant -- never repeat a work. (read more at Running the Gamut - A Thousand and One Wednesdays)

Wednesday, May 22, 2013 from 6-9am we'll mark the 1000th program with a mini-fundrive (donate here), special guests, and a few surprises.

As May 22 drew close, interest started to grow about the program. The Daily Progress (the local paper) ran a feature on the show. And then the questions started to roll in. Some of the information I've already shared in the three previous posts about this (see the links at the bottom of the page), but there are a few that I might not get to on the air.

How do you select your music?
I strive for variety. So I try to represent at least three of the major style periods of classical music.
  • Middle Ages - 1100 - 1300 (that's not the full range of the historic time period, but 1100 AD is about the time of the earliest music manuscripts that have survived and can be deciphered)
  • Renaissance - 1300 - 1600
  • Baroque - 1600 - 1750
  • Classical - 1750 - 1827
  • Romantic - 1827 - 1890
  • Post-Romantic - 1890 - 1920
  • Modern/Contemporary 1920 - Present (I know, that covers a lot of ground, but it works for my purposes) 
 I also select work with a variety of musical forces.
  • Orchestra- can also include concertos (solo instrument plus orchestra
  • String orchestra - without the brass, woodwinds and percussion, this ensemble has a similar but different sound than a full orchestra
  • Chamber group - can be anything from a string quartet, to a clarinet sonata (clarinet plus piano), a brass trio or even a mixed group of instruments (usually one player per instrument type)
  • Solo instrument - solo piano, solo guitar, etc.
  • Early instruments - a lute sounds quite different than a guitar, just as a harpsichord differs from a piano. I also include larger ensembles -- such as a group of 30 musicians playing Bach on instruments of this period -- into this designation
  • Solo vocal music - the human voice, like the human form, is a beautiful thing, and we should not be scared of it
  • Choral music - choruses either a capella or with instrumental accompaniment
Between those two parameters, it's easy for me to establish a flow. So I might start with a renaissance choral work, then a post-romantic piano work, then a baroque concerto grosso, then a contemporary chamber piece, and so on.

What about that no-repeat thing? How do you keep it all straight?
I have a master playlist that I update during every program. It's nothing fancy -- just a Word document. But using keyword search I can quickly find if I've aired a work before or not. And if I look at the list of works by a composer (especially the ones with catalog numbers), I can usually see where the gaps are.

"Gamut" Master Playlist doc

Why do you sometimes play music by the same composer several weeks running?
Two reasons. First, it helps build up familiarity with a composer. You, like me, may not have heard of Ferdinand Ries before I started airing his piano concertos. But by playing one Ries concerto every week until we had completed the cycle, it was possible to gain some familiarity with his style. By the third week, one could make an informed evaluation about Ries' music.

The second reason goes to the previous question. In addition to keeping a master list, I also have two other systems. For CDs from my personal collection, I put a sticky note on it with all track numbers. As I air them, I cross them off, and when all the tracks are crossed off, I'm done with that recording.

The CDs in WTJU's classical library are assigned a number when they arrive. I keep sheets of papers with those numbers on them. Next to each CD number are the track numbers. As they're aired, I cross them off. If the release only has duplicates of works I've already aired, I cross it off the list. I do some skipping back and forth to satisfy my programming requirements (see the question above). The library is approaching 5,000 CDs. I've aired pretty much everything in the first 1,600.

What's up with that theme music?
The opening theme music is Alfred Schnittke's "March from an Imaginary Play." It's a rollicking little march with a wordless tune belted out by the conductor. What better way to wake people up at 6AM?

The closing theme music is a faux-classical selection by Ken Thorne. It's the end credit music from the 1968 movie "Head" starring the Monkees. Its exaggerated ending seems a perfect way to bring the show to a close.

So now that you've reached Program 1000, are you going to do a regular show?
Hardly. The same day I wrote this post, a colleague suggested I air Arnold Sartorio's Op. 1000 for the big show. I had never heard of this Italian-German composer before -- let alone any of his music!
 And while Sartorio might not be the greatest post-romantic composer around (I auditioned what little of his music has been recorded), it just shows that there is still a lot of music left to explore.

So we'll keep pressing forward.
Part 1: A Thousand and One Wednesdays Part 2: A Thousand and One Milestones
Part 3: A Thousand and One Lessons
Part 4: A Thousand and One Questions
Part 5: A Thousand and One Thanks

Monday, May 20, 2013

Martin Perry plays Carter, Bartók, Rózsa

Martin Perry plays Carter, Bartók, Rózsa
Martin Perry, piano
Bridge Records

Martin Perry presents works by three composers that aren't often grouped together: Bela Bartok, Mikos Rózsa, and Elliot Carter. And yet the three works on this disc form a cohesive and intriguing program.

Bartok used folk songs as the basis for his Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, Op. 20. But as the title suggests, he didn't simply present the folk songs intact. He works with his material, often taking it in unexpected directions. The overall effect is that we're hearing both something old and something new -- which we are.

Miklos Rózsa is best remembered for his film scores, but he started his career as a classical composer, and remained so throughout his life. His Piano Sonata, Op. 20  has the some of the post-romantic gestures of his movie music, but there's more to it than that. Rózsa's composition is densely textured and complex in structure. Perry rises to the challenge, articulating the intricate lines that weave in and out of each other.

The 1945 piano sonata of Elliot Carter is something of a transitional work. Carter was still writing in a neoclasical style in the 1940's, but one can hear the move towards what would become his highly personal form of serialism. Martin Perry plays with clarity, and illuminates the overarching organization of the work. His phrasing makes connections between the various motivic elements, so that the music builds logically rather than sound like a series of isolated incidents. Despite being devilishly difficult, Perry makes the piece flow, and even plays with elan.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

"Through the Reeds" is thoroughly enjoyable

Walter Ross: Through the Reeds
Woodwind Concerti
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra
Kirk Trevor, conductor
Ravello Records

On Walter Ross' website, it says "he likes to write music that musicians enjoy performing and audiences enjoy hearing." That claim is ably supported by the works on this new release from Ravello.

Ross' primary instrument was the french horn, an instrument common to both brass and wind quintets. The concertos on this release might not push the technical boundaries of the solo instruments, but each one plays music that is uniquely suited to it.

The oboe d'amore is a somewhat obscure instrument, falling into disuse after the Baroque period and revived in the 20th Century. Ross' concerto is a welcome addition to the repertoire. His modal harmonies give the worka neo-renaissance flavor, through which the oboe d'amore hops and skips and sings. Michal Sintal is an able soloist, and Ross' music shows off the capabilities of his instrument to best advantage.

The Concerto for Bassoon and String Orchestra has an almost Coplanesque feel to it in places. Humor and good spirits are common elements in Ross' music, and this jovial concerto  fits right in. The middle movement is especially beautiful, and soloist Ramon Masina makes the most of the lyrical nature of the music.

The Concerto for Flute and Guitar is light and airy, perfectly suited to these two instruments. The middle movement has a Latin flavor to it, but only just -- this is Ross, not Rodrigo.

The final work on the album, the Concerto for Oboe, Harp and String orchestra rounds out the program nicely. Ross' straight-forward style is consistent throughout the album. The strings chug along in seemingly simple yet ever-changing patterns. The oboe and the harp dance around each other in a jovial fashion. Underneath this attractive surface Ross has constructed a solid work woven together by motivic development.

To paraphrase the composer, these were concerti that musicians enjoyed performing, and I enjoyed hearing.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

High End Audiophile in the Automobile

Surveys indicate that most radio listening occurs in the car, which is unfortunate for listeners who value high-end audio performance. Most audio systems installed in passenger vehicles produce inferior sound, and a car's interior, with all its hard angular surfaces, is usually a hopeless environment for high-quality audio. Still, manufacturers of luxury vehicles (Lexus, Porsche, BMW) are teaming up with high-end audio manufacturers (Mark Levinson, B &W, Burmester) to design and install systems that produce a much improved audio experience, especially for music.

Acura has raised the bar with its new flagship model, the 2014 RLX. Acura has teamed up with Krell Industries, manufacturers of $50,000 amplifiers and other home audio components, to create the best original equipment audio system yet. Krell's engineers worked for four years to design, build, and tune a car audio system for Acura that was worthy of the Krell name.

The new system, included in the top-of-the-line version of the RLX, incorporates six main speakers, each comprising a 6.5-inch Zylon midwoofer and a 1-inch magnesium dome tweeter. There are two in the front positions, two in the rear doors, and two on the back deck. A 3-inch Kevlar midrange works as the center speaker, and an 8-inch carbon-fiber subwoofer on the back deck provides the bass. Each has a metal grille, which allowed Krell to use larger perforations and reduce the internal reflections than can make plastic-grilled speakers sound so brittle.

The system includes a CD/DVD-Audio player, satellite radio compatibility, an iPod/iPhone/iPad interface, a hard drive, Bluetooth, and Pandora. A tiny volume wheel on the steering wheel provides quick control. Tracks may be skipped by pressing the wheel to the left or right, and pushing down on the wheel pauses or restarts the music.

Even music generated from highly compressed sources, like satellite radio, sounds spectacular. Music broadcast by WTJU, which employs very little dynamic compression of its signal, sounds even better. Acura's standard sound system is better than most other manufacturers' OEM systems, regardless of price, but the Krell system must be heard to be believed.

Acura has enhanced the experience by creating the quietest interior I have ever experienced. The sound stage is wide and deep, bass is robust, and the hall ambiance, especially for opera, is extraordinarily realistic. For the audiophile, giving a listen to the Krell system in the new Acura is a must.

Running the Gamut 3 - A Thousand and One Lessons

Since July 11, 1991, I've been hosting a classical music morning program on WTJU, 91.1fm in Charlottesville Virginia.. The three-hour program had a simple programming tenant -- never repeat a work.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013 from 6-9am we'll mark the 1000th program with a live webcast, mini-fundrive (donate here), and air messages from our listeners (call 434.207.2120 to leave your message).

To some, broadcasting 3,000 hours of unique works may seem like a silly stunt -- or at the very least bad programming. One of my colleagues who's a program director at a major public radio station told me it was the worst idea ever.

I disagee.

If it was a policy for all of WTJU's classical department to obsessively march through the repertoire and never look back, then I would agree -- that's bad programming. Great classical music (like great rock, great folk, or great jazz recordings) just seem to get better with repeated listening. And there's always someone who's hearing that piece for the first time.

But my three-hour show represents a small part of the broadcast day, so I don't think there's any harm done. I've learned quite a lot about classical music over the past 1,000 programs, and I hope my listeners have, too.

I've come to appreciate the depth and breadth of classical music

Medieval chant sounds nothing Steve Reich. So which is better? Depends on what you're listening for. Over the years, I've learned to listen to each style period on its own terms. Mozart used the orchestra in a different way than Richard Strauss. Both wrote great music -- and best of all, I don't have to choose between them, either.

I've come to appreciate the cultural heritage of many nations

Everybody knows that classical music is European. Well, it was for a while -- but not as long as you might think. By the late 1600's there were composers writing sacred music in the New World (mostly in the Spanish colonies). American composers were writing works of substance in the mid-1700's, and Canadian composers soon after. Composers in Australia, South Africa, China, Japan, and other non-European countries have all contributed to the genre. And everyone brings something different to classical music.

Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos blended Bach with native folk music. Carlos Chavez injected a subtle Mexican flavor into his works. Tan Dun uses oriental aesthetics to shape his classical compositions. And so on. Every culture adds something to the mix -- and it's a mixture I savor.

I've come to appreciate the music of our time

In school, I was never a big fan of what I considered academic atonality. It all sounded like noise. And if that was what contemporary music, then I was going to stick with the great works of the past, thank you. Doesn't anyone know how to write a melody anymore?

Well, it turns out they do -- and they've been quietly doing so continually throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st Century. In fact, seeking out those tonal composers has become something of a project with me. My Consonant Classical Challenge has profiled over seventy living composers who still use tonality in some fashion.

But I've also come to better appreciate those works I didn't like before. A good definition of noise is unorganized sound. Music is organizes sound. But if you can't hear the organization, music can sound like noise. As my familiarity with classical music has grown over the past 1,000 programs, I can better hear the organization that was always there in those atonal works.

Some I quite like now. Others, I hear as music rather than noise, but its uninspired music. So I still don't care for those works. Only I now have a more valid reason not to (I think).

I've learned that sometimes the best composers aren't the most famous

Let me qualify that. What I really mean is that some of the composers whose works speak most directly to me aren't the most famous. Franz Joseph Haydn; Alan Hovhaness; Ralph Vaughan Williams; Charles Villiers Stanford; Michael Praetorius, and many more. I'm not going to say they're the greatest composers of all time, just that their music consistently moves me deeply.

So there you are. If you've been a long-time listener (or listened to classical music for any significant length of time), what have you learned?

Part 1: A Thousand and One Wednesdays Part 2: A Thousand and One Milestones
Part 3: A Thousand and One Lessons
Part 4: A Thousand and One Questions 
Part 5: A Thousand and One Thanks

Monday, May 13, 2013

Andsnes' Personal Beethoven Journey

The Beethoven Journey
Beethoven: Piano Concertos No 1 & 3
Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
Mahler Chamber Orchestra

It's taken a while for Leif Ove Andsnes to get around to Beethoven. And judging by the first installment of his traversal of the piano concertos, it was worth the wait.

This first volume of "The Beethoven Journey" includes the first and third piano concertos. According to Andsnes, they were chosen to provide a study in contrasts. The first is in C major, and has a lot of the lightness and clarity of Haydn and Mozart. The third is in the darker key of C minor, and brings more of Beethoven's stormy personality to the fore.

Andsnes performs with clarity and authority. He's given this music a lot of thought, and it shows in his playing. The lines are beautifully shaped, and there's real emotion present. Scalar passages skip along pleasantly, ornaments provide mordant commentary, and the cadenzas aren't just excuses to show off. It's hard to describe, but to me the cadenzas seem like places where Andsnes takes over, but doesn't break character. He's not giving us pyrotechnics, he's performing a part of the work that just happens to be written for solo piano. A part that has clear connections to what's gone on before, and what's to follow.

The Mahler Chamber orchestra is conducted by Andsnes from the keyboard. The use of a chamber -- rather than a full -- orchestra gives these works a more intimate character. There's drama, sure, but it's not the thundering of the heavens. In his dual role of soloist and conductor, Andsnes tightly integrates the artistic direction of both piano and orchestra. Instead of a consensus arrived at through the collaboration between conductor and soloist, we get a singular vision of these works

Does this recording contain the ultimate versions of Beethoven's 1st and 3rd piano concertos? No. But it does present thoughtful and original performances that serve both the composer and the artist well. I look forward to the next phase in Andsnes' Beethoven Journey.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Running the Gamut 2 -- A Thousand and One Milestones

Since July 11, 1991, I've been hosting a classical music morning program on WTJU, 91.1fm in Charlottesville Virginia.. The three-hour program had a simple programming tenant -- never repeat a work. (read more at Running the Gamut - A Thousand and One Wednesdays)

Wednesday, May 22, 2013 from 6-9am we'll mark the 1000th program with a live webcast, mini-fundrive (donate here), and air messages from our listeners (call 434.207.2120 to leave your message).

Looking over the master playlist for "Gamut," I'm amazed at both how much music by how many composers I've been able to air, and how much there is still left to do. Nevertheless, if you (like me), have listened to every single episode of "Gamut," you would have been exposed to a lot of great music. I freely program from all style periods of classical music, from the middle ages (beginning ca. 900) all the way up through the present.

And I mean present. In 2010 composer Robert Ian Winstin undertook the task to composer, perform, record and produce a new classical work every single day during the month of February. (28 in twenty-eight) I obtained permission to air the works, and so during that month "Gamut" featured works that were less than six hours old. Now that's about as contemporary as you can get!

Complete Series

Along the way, I've been able to do some interesting cycles that, taken in total, help the listener more fully understand the composer. Some cycles are easy -- like Brahms symphonies (he only wrote four), and Grieg piano concertos (he wrote just one). But then there were cycles that could only be programmed and aired with a longer view -- like these:

Franz Joseph Haydn - 104 symphonies
Ludwig van Beethoven - 9 symphonies. 16 string quartets, 32 piano sonatas, 10 violin sonatas
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - 18 piano sonatas, 23 string quartets, 41 symphonies
Felix Mendelssohn - Complete Songs without Words (8 volumes, 48 pieces), 5 symphonies, 12 string symphonies

 - to name a few

Underrepresented Composers

I also featured a lot of works by composers that haven't made the Top 10, but either perhaps should have, or at least deserve to be in the Top 40. Since they're not as widely recorded, I usually can't do a complete cycle of works, also often I can do a complete cycle of recordings! Here are a few examples:

Alan Hovhaness: 51 compositions out of  434 published works
Gerald Finzi: 37 out of 40 published works
Heitor Villa-Lobos:  60 (including all 17 string quartets)  out of 592 known compositions

Non-European Composers

The stereotype is that classical music is irrelevant because it's all written by dead, white, European men. Well, not quite. Here's a very short list of the non-European (and some non-white) composers I've featured:

Carlos Chavez (Mexico)
Healy Willan (Canada)
Bechara El-Khoury (Lebanon)
Zhou Long (China)
Peter Schulthorpe (Australia)
William Grant Still (America)

Women  Composers

Addressing the second part of the stereotype, I've aired more than a few women composers -- and not just contemporary ones, either. Here's a small sampling:

Hildegard von Bingen (medieval)
Fanny Mendelsohn-Hensel (romantic)
Clara Schumann (romantic)
Amy Beach (20th century)
Barbara Strozzi (baroque)
Joan Tower (contemporary)
Jennifer Higdon (contemporary)

Living Composers

And finally, I also air a lot of music by living composers. Because to me, classical music isn't a musty old artifact in a museum, but a vital part of contemporary life -- as evidenced by the composers who create it today. A very small list of living composers would include:

John Taverner
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich
Lawrence Ball
Judith Shatin
Kenneth Fuchs
Philip Glass

.... and a work or two by yours truly.

And more!

Then there's all the other oddities I've aired, like Richard Wagner's symphonies(!), overtures from Haydn operas, PDQ Bach, Benjamin Franklin's string quartet, piano concertos by Beethoven's personal assistant, Ferdinand Reis, violin concertos by Saint-Georges, the greatest swordsman in 18th century France, and many, many more.

It's been quite a musical journey -- and I'm not done yet.
Part 1: A Thousand and One Wednesdays Part 2: A Thousand and One Milestones
Part 3: A Thousand and One Lessons
Part 4: A Thousand and One Questions 
Part 5: A Thousand and One Thanks

Beata Moon: Saros

Beata Moon
BiBimBop Music

If you think modern music is just academic cacophony, then Beata Moon's compositions should quickly change your mind. Moon writes in an accessible style that combines post-romantic sensibilities with contemporary (if not necessarily classical) rhythmic and melodic gestures. As the works on Saros show, it's a powerful combination. Moon's compositions brim with energy and vitality. The musical language in this collection of solo and chamber music is familiar enough to draw listeners in even on first hearing, and reward their attention with insightful emotion.

Dinner is West for violin, cello and piano starts the program. This ballet score is comprised of several small vignettes, each interesting and appealing in their own fashion.  Wood Water and Land is my personal favorite. It's a solo composition for marimba. The rich timbre of the instrument, especially as played by Wai-Chi Tang, is well-suited to Moon's music.

Moon isn't afraid of savoring beautiful tones. And her composition Tenancy for cello and piano shows. The cello is allowed to sing, especially in the first and third movements. Poignant turns of phrase and long, flowing lines make this a showcase that should be part of every cellist's repertoire (in my opinion). Dragonfly for clarinet, viola and piano flits about like its namesake, a light interlude that just sounds fun to play.

Dickinson Songs for soprano and guitar is one of the more aggressively "modern" works on this disc. Moon makes some interesting choices in her setting of the text -- choices that bring new insight into these familiar poems. A Collage of Memories for violin, piano follows, another piece that has modernist leanings. But it, too, wins listeners over with its emotional authenticity.

Rhapsody is a beautiful work for solo piano, performed by the composer. Moon is an accomplished pianist, and this gorgeous piece shows both her performing and writing skills to best advantage. A fitting end to this intimate portrait of a composer and her music.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Ferdinand Ries: Piano Concertos, Vol. 5 - A fitting finale

Ferdinand Ries: Piano Concertos Vol. 5
Christopher Hinterhuber, piano
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Uwe Grodd, conductor

Naxos concludes their survey of Ferdinand Ries' works for piano and orchestra with this release. Ries was an interesting character. A talented pianist and composer, he moved to Vienna to study with Beethoven, and became his secretary. In time, Ries set out on his own to become a highly successful performer and composer.

This installment presents Ries' first and last piano concertos. It also features one of the large-scale single-movement works he wrote to showcase his talents in concert.

Piano Concerto No. 2 in E-flat, Op. 42 starts the program. Despite its number, this 1806 concerto was actually the first of the eight Ries composed. It has the bravura of Beethoven but tempered somewhat by simple triadic melodies that seem more akin to Mozart. This late Mozart/early Beethoven character is reinforced in the Larghetto and Rondo movements, which sound light, and lighthearted.

The Introduction et Rondeau brilliant, Op. 144  is a big, sprawling work full of grand gestures. Finished in 1825, the music sounds more like Schubert than Beethoven. Especially in the slow and elegiac introduction, the piano part seems to presage to Chopin in its expressiveness and fluidity.

Final work on the album is Ries' Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 177. Finished 24 years after his first concerto, Ries displays an expected growth in his style. Ries' melodies sound more like Brahms than Mozart. The burliness of Beethoven is still there in the solo passages, but Mozartean elan has been replaced by more sophisticated harmonies and increased drama. The orchestration has also developed, with instruments being exploited more for their colors than just providing accompaniment.

Judging by the piano part, Ries must have been a ferocious player. Although there are some real technical challenges here, Hinterhuber makes them sound simple, and even fun to play. And that just adds to the listener's enjoyment. This release brings a satisfying close to this traversal of Ferdinand Ries' most important compositions.

(I've also reviewed Volume 4 in this series)

Friday, May 3, 2013

Steffani Cantatas -- Handel's inspiration?

Steffani: Cantate Da Camera 
Quadro Asolano

Agostino Steffani (1650-1723) was a master of Baroque vocal chamber music. This Italian composer spent most of his professional career in Germany, first in Munich then at the court of Hanover. He composed exclusively for the voice; sacred works, secular cantatas and operas. This recording features two of the solo cantatas and four of the vocal dues he wrote.

Steffani's lyrical counterpoint was closely studied by a young Georg Frederick Handel. And that influence is easy to hear in these examples. Steffani's melodies have the same, straight-forward simplicity of Handel's. And the polyphonic passages are also a model of clarity. There's nothing fussy about Steffani's counterpoint, rather, it's all elegantly constructed.

Based on the quality of Steffani's music, it's surprising he isn't more frequently performed or recorded. So Newton's release does a real service with these world premier recordings. The performances by the Quadro Asolano are generally good, although sometimes the soprano voices are a little weak.

My only complaint is that Newton's program notes don't provide the libretti for the works. Steffani's music often illustrates or takes its character from the text its supporting. Without the libretti (or a fluency in Italian), Steffani's subtle gestures are lost on the listener.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Running the Gamut --- A Thousand and One Wednesdays

Since July 11, 1991, I've been hosting a classical music morning program on WTJU, 91.1fm in Charlottesville Virginia.. That statement in itself isn't that remarkable. Despite the turmoil in commercial and NPR-affiliate non-commercial stations, it's still possible to have some longevity as a volunteer announcer.

But I chose to do something different with "Gamut," my three-hour program. Within some structured guidelines each host can select their own music. For a classical music program, the works have to be in the classical genre, they can't be works aired within the past six weeks on other classical shows, one must air the complete work, unless an artsong, or opera air/overture (in other words, if you're going to air a symphony, air the whole thing -- not a single movement).

To all of those, I added an additional requirement for my program -- only air a work once. So once I aired Beethoven's 5th Symphony, that was it -- you wouldn't hear it again on Wednesday morning. Yes, I know that Karajan's performances of the work are different than Furtwangler's, or Klempler's, or Bernstein's, or many other orchestras and conductors, and that each interpretation offers some variety in the listening experience.


I wanted to do a true survey of classical music, and the only way to do so was to keep myself moving forward. With all the classical music from the early Middle Ages through today to choose from, I didn't think I'd run out of works to air. And twelve years later, there's still plenty to share.

Because each program was unique, I assigned it a number. And coming up on May 22, 2013, I'll be airing program #1,000. It's something of a milestone, and we'll be marking the occasion with some special features and a few surprises.

If you already listen to the show, stay tuned! If not, you can listen to the last two programs from the WTJU online tape vault.

And if you'd like to phone in a message to be aired during the 1000th show, just call WTJU at 434.207.2120
  Part 1: A Thousand and One Wednesdays
Part 2: A Thousand and One Milestones
Part 3: A Thousand and One Lessons
Part 4: A Thousand and One Questions 
Part 5: A Thousand and One Thanks

Ginastera: The Piano Concertos -- A Legacy Restored

Nissman Plays Ginastera
The Three Piano Concertos
Barbara Nissman, piano
University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra
Keith Kiesler, conductor

This release is a case of matching the right performer with the right music. Barbara Nissman enjoyed a close professional relationship with Alberto Ginastera -- his third piano sonata is dedicated to her. Not only is Nissman well-versed in Ginastera's style, but she also gives them the tender-loving care they need.

The Concierto Argentino ia a good example. Ginastera wrote this early in his career. It's a youthful work, bustling with energy. Ginastera wasn't quite happy with it, and made changes to the score. Nissman plays the original version, which provides valuable insight into the composer's development and an enjoyable listening experience.
Barbara Nissman performed Ginastera's first numbered piano concerto under the direction of the composer. Her authoritative command of this elegantly crafted material is impressive, and her deep knowledge of the composition reveals lines and connections I've not heard in other recordings.

Ginastera's second piano concerto is the more adventuresome of the three stylistically. The agressive harmonies and abstract melodic lines have little of the folk elements so prominent in the other concertos. Ginastera originally composed the scherzo to be played with the right hand only. The premiering soloist wanted a left hand movement, so she transcribed it, changing some of the music in the process. Nissman restores the scherzo to the original music (and hand) for this recording.

The University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra proves a first-rate ensemble under the baton of Kenneth Keisler. Don't be fooled by the lackluster DIY cover -- these are well-recorded performances and important additions to Ginastera's legacy.