Friday, February 28, 2014

De Morales: O Magnum Mysterium -- Christmas motets for all seasons

Crisobal de Morales
O Magum Mysterium
Christmas Motets
Manfred Cordes, director

Cristobal de Morales was called "the light of Spain in music" and with good reason, as this new release demonstrates. Morales' counterpoint is transparent, and his settings easy to follow and understand. His music is both deeply expressive and ethereal in its beauty.

This release presents fourteen of Morales' Christmas motets, but they're works that can be enjoyed for their on intrinsic merits any time of year. The Weser-Renaissance ensemble, directed by Manfred Cordes,  performs in an almost self-effacing manner, with clean, unwavering tones. This clarity gives these works an almost other-worldly purity that I think captures the essence of Morales' intent.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

A nice warm drink and some nice warm music ...

This Friday on Vivace, we will have a peaceful first hour with music of Martinu and Carulli.

At 7 o'clock we will celebrate Finnish Culture Day .....

.... so pour yourself a nice cup of Glögg, and enjoy a stirring version of the Karelia Suite by Sibelius.  We'll round out that hour with music of Vorisek, a piano trio by Haydn and a symphony by Leopold Mozart.

At 8 o'clock, we will have a celebration for the birthday of Gioachino Rossini, which is actually February 29, but as he doesn't have a birthday this year, we'll give him a celebration anyway.

And we'll end with some beautiful flute music by Bach.  I look forward to the pleasure of your company, as ever, on Vivace, Friday 6-9 am right here on WTJU-Charlottesville.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Alexander Fiterstein dances through Weber clarinet concertos

Carl Maria von Weber
Clarinet Concertos Nos. 1 & 2
Concertino for Clarinet, Op. 26

Alexander Fiterstein, clarinet
San Francisco Ballet Orchestra
Martin West, conductor
Bridge Records

Mozart was the first major composer to compose a clarinet concerto, but Weber runs a close second. Written a generation after Mozart, Weber's two clarinet conceri hold a similar place in the repertoire.

Clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein brings out those similarities in this new recordings. His liquid tone and precise intonation bring a classical elegance to these works -- a touch Mozart might appreciate.

Yet Fiterstein nimbly leaps about, almost dancing with the music. Perhaps its appropriate then, that he should be accompanied by a ballet orchestra, then. The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, directed by Martin West provide a light and transparent ensemble sound that further strengthen the similarities between Mozart and Weber.

That's not to say these are pretty performances. Fiterstein and company provide plenty of drama and weight when required to -- especially in the second concerto. On the whole, appealing and inviting performances of these familiar works.

Monday, February 24, 2014

New collection of Hugo Wolf's lieder yields insights

Hugo Wolf
Spanisches Liederbuch
Italianisches Liederbuch

Birgid Steinberger, soprano
Michaele Selinger, mezzo-soprano
Wolfgang Holzmair, baritone
Russell Ryan, Georg Beckman, piano

3 CD set
Bridge Records

Most of Hugo Wolf's slender catalog of works is lieder, and the bulk of his reputation as a composer rests with two massive collections: the Spanisches Liderbuch (Spanish Songbook), and the Italianisches Liederbuch (Italian Songbook). This new 3-CD set from Bridge presents both of these massive works with texts in both German and English.

Both books are complete song cycles, although most of the lied are finely-crafted miniatures that can be (and are often) performed separately. Bridge presents these works in their entirety. The three singers involved provide variety, and in the case of the Italian songbook, an almost give-and-take dialogue between the mezzo-soprano and baritone as they alternate songs.

Birgid Steinberger's clean, pure soprano has an ethereal quality to it that's  exceptionally effective with the sacred songs of the Spanish Songbook. Mezzo-soprano Michaele Selinger's voice has a slight edge to it, especially in the upper register. But that's actually a plus. Contrasted to Wolfgang Holzmair's rich, honeyed baritone, it helps throw both voices into sharper relief. And in the Italian Songbook, Selinger and Holzmair seem to have certain chemistry that adds an additional emotional layer to these sensual lieder.

This is a very attractive collection. One can listen to any of the lied individually and hear a fine performance. But it's also structured so that you can listen to the song cycles in their entirety. And that experience yields significant insights into these masterworks. Well done!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Philip Glass Series (Part 2 of 8): The Early Years

In conjunction with the Philip Glass residency at the University of Virginia from March 31st to April 2nd, I have created this series to highlight the music, history, and impact of this American composer.

For those who missed it: Part 1 - Introduction

Philip Glass began his life on the 31st of January, 1937 in Baltimore, Maryland.  The son of Jewish immigrants, he grew up as "a very active, precocious, athletic boy," according to his sister, often driving his mother "mad."

His father owned a radio repair shop on Howard Street that also sold records, and every Saturday, Philip and his brother would work and get to hear whatever was playing through the speakers.  Oftentimes, it was classical music, and it was from this that Philip began his lifelong love with the genre.  He started taking violin lessons at the age of six, and at age eight, he became the youngest person to enroll at the Peabody Conservatory.  He took a fancy to the flute, and in a few years time started composing music.  His brother once joked about how Philip received a "C-" on a composition assignment: "somebody must've been grading it that really didn't foresee his ultimate talent..."

At age fifteen, he earned a scholarship to attend the University of Chicago, and majored in mathematics and philosophy.  It was during this time that he began admiring the music of other American composers, such as Aaron Copland and Charles Ives.  After he graduated, he made the major decision to pursue composition and enrolled at the Juilliard School in New York.  While there, he studied with Vincent Persichetti and William Bergsma.  One of his fellow composition students was none other than Steve Reich, who would also play a major role in the minimalist movement.

However, instead of writing in the repetitive and tonal style he would be known for, Glass was busy composing serial twelve-tone pieces, often for "three or four hours" at a time, completely uninterrupted.  In the past, Glass has spoken about the music he composed during this time as if "they were written by somebody else;" he would later withdrew all of these pieces from performance and publication.

After graduating from Juilliard, Glass moved to Paris.  There, he studied with Nadia Boulanger, the same teacher of Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Elliot Carter.  Lessons with her were "frightening" according to Glass:
You did not want to make mistakes in her presence; she could have a tantrum.  The lesson would stop, and I would be in for a personal assault on my qualities as a human being... I would crawl out of the room.  You just didn't want to go through that twice.  After that, I never brought any mistakes.
Through this rigorous training, Boulanger gave Glass "a complete confidence in what [he] could do."

And when he wasn't busy practicing, Glass was encountering a wide array of musical styles that were completely foreign to him.  In particular, he had a life-changing experience with the sitarist Ravi Shankar and his colleague Alla Rakha.  Glass was hired to transcribe Shankar's music...
I was writing down the music, and I would play it back, and he said "no, no, no... the accents are wrong, the accents are wrong... all the beats are the same."  I didn't know what he meant.
Through trial and error, Glass eventually removed the bar lines, thus eliminating the Western division of the beats.  He played it back, and finally understood what was meant by "all the beats are the same."

Nadia Boulanger and Ravi Shankar provided the means for Glass to move forward with his composition...
It's almost like I spent my days with Boulanger, and my evenings with Ravi Shankar, and I became the child of them both... she taught through terror, and he taught through love... the collision of their intellects happened inside of me.
For Glass, this collision proved to be fruitful.  The Western harmonies fused with the steady, unbiased rhythms of India and created the musical style he would be known for.

After making this discovery, he decided to put it to work, and flew back to New York...

Part 3 - The Move Back to New York, and Minimalism

Friday, February 21, 2014

Schreker's "Die Gezeichneten" Seduces the Ear

Die Gezeichnete (The Stignatized)
Franz Schreker
LA Opera; James Conlon, conductor
Anja Kampe, Robert Brubaker, Martin Gantner, James Johnson, Wolfgang Schöne
3 CD Set
Bridge Records

Franz Schreker's 1914 opera "Die Gezeichneten" is a study of opposites. Alviano Salviago is ugly and physically deformed, but has a pure spirit. The beautiful island paradise he creates has been taken over by young nobles for their orgies. The artist Carlotta is first attracted to Alviano's inner beauty, but then gives herself to lustful attentions of outwardly handsome Count Tamare.

Schreker's shimmering, richly orchestrated score is indeed beautiful, while simultaneously conveying a sense of unease and overripe decadence. This live recording of "Die Gezeichneten" by the LA Opera captures the spirit of Schrecker's troubling work and delivers its emotional content in full.
Maestro James Conlon has a clear affinity with this music, and it shows. Schreker scored the work for an expanded orchestra. The LA Opera had to reduce the size of the ensemble to fit in the venue, but no matter. Under Conlon's direction, the music sounds rich and full. If anything, the paring down of the orchestra adds a limpid translucence to the score.

Robert Brubaker performs well as Salviago, also his upper register is a little thin at times. Anja Kampe, as Carlotta,  sings with a soft, rounded tone that sounds especially beautiful in the lower register. Their voices have a wonderful blend, making the duets between Salviago and Carlotta the high points of the recording (at least for me).

This three-CD set includes a booklet with the complete libretto in German, Italian, French, and English. Bridge's release captures the excitement and energy of the live performance with pristine sound (and virtually no distracting audience noise). Recommended.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Joyful punctuation: birthdays galore!

We all love to celebrate happy occasions. They are the joyful punctuation of life. And this week, on Vivace, we have plenty to celebrate.

Several distinguished composers have birthdays this Friday and we will hear their music. They include Carl Czerny at 7 am, and at 7:30 am, we'll hear a selection of music from another birthday composer, Leo Delibes. Here's a little something to whet your appetite!

Have you heard about world-famous piece of music that was accidentally composed during a golf game in Scotland, 100 years ago? I didn't think so, but you will on Friday.

After 8 o'clock, we have another wealth of treasures to share with you, including music by Piacentino, Carulli and Ziehrer, as well as Charles-Marie Widor's most famous composition -- played by the composer himself in celebration of his birthday.

At the end of the program, Dame Kiri te Kanawa will spare a few minutes from her Downton Abbey commitments to give us a short "listener request" encore from last week, and we'll invite you to dance along to another favorite love song.

There are plenty of great reasons to join me for Vivace this Friday, 6-9 am EST. I hope you will.

You can also replay the program anytime from the WTJU archives. This program will be available for replay through 3/4/14.  

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Paul Lansky: Notes to Self a notable release

Paul Lansky: Notes to Self
Real Quiet
Mihae Lee, piano
David Starobin, guitar
Mari Yoshinaga, percussion
Odense Symphony Orchestra; Justin Brown, conductor

Paul Lanksy established his reputation in the field of electronic and computer music composition. Recently, though, he's turned his attention to acoustic instruments. "Notes to Self" presents an overview of this new phase in Lansky's career.

"Arches" and "Line and Shadow" are short but engaging orchestral works. LS lyrical with rich, yet unusual harmonies Arches - builds from a simple scale. While somewhat austere, it achieve a  elegant beauty all its own as the work unfolds.

"Partita" was written for guitarist David Starobin, and is performed by him here. The work is for guitar and percussion. Each movement features a different set of percussion instruments, dramatically changing the sound of the ensemble and the emotional weight. There's a hint of jazz that runs through this work that I find quite appealing.

The title track, "Notes to Self" is a four-movement work for solo piano that pays tribute to several composers Lansky was inspired by -- including Babbitt, Bartok, Perle, Hindemith, and Messiaen. The work is performed by Mihae Lee, to whom the work was dedicated.

"Horizons" for piano, cello, and percussion is an interesting chamber work. It's an unusual combination of instruments, and Lansky effectively exploits the possibilities. Lansky is never at a loss for melodic ideas, and that, plus the ever-changing instrumental combinations make for a thoroughly rewarding listening experience.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Karis plays Webern, Wolpe & Feldman: connection and context

Webern, Wolpe & Feldman
Aleck Karis, piano
Bridge Records

Atonal music -- just like tonal music -- is all about the relationships between notes. This new recording by Aleck Karis is also about relationships.

In this case, the one between three composers. Anton Webern, who distilled the essence of Schoenberg's dodecaphonic theories, taught Stephen Wolpe. Wolpe, in turn, taught Morton Feldman.

While the works presented on this album by these three men have the same overall sound, placed side-by-side one can hear the subtle differences between their compositional voices.

Webern's "variations, Op. 27" is almost epigrammatic; a concise and precise working out of 12-tone motifs. Wolpe's "Form" and "Form IV: Broken Sequences" are also short, but of a totally different character. There is an underlying lyricism in these works, which make them sound somehow warmer and less purely intellectual than Webern's work.

Morton Feldman's works are the longest in the program. "Piano" and "Palais de Mari" each run over 20 minutes. Feldman slowly and carefully builds his soundscapes. In context, one can hear how Felman's music grows out of the same theoretical basis as Webern's and Wolpe's. And one can hear how Feldman further shaped those theories to conform to his unique musical vision.

Aleck Karis performs admirably, bringing out the expressive qualities of each work. This album isn't for everyone. But if you're a fan of 20th Century music, I highly recommend this release.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Hearts, flowers, champagne ... and music!

Order the flowers! Unwrap the chocolates! Uncork the champagne!  It's Valentine's Day this Friday, and we're going all out to offer you the perfect music for a romantic atmosphere on Vivace.

I'll play some of the most beautiful classical melodies ever written, drawing from, among other places, the rich repertoire of love songs in the world of opera.  I promise there will be no soprano voices until you've had your first cup of coffee - or glass of champagne! And remember, it wouldn't be Vivace without a few surprises! 

I'd suggest some red roses, a few heart-shaped chocolates, a nice cup of tea or coffee, and whatever else helps you feel romantic. I'll provide the music. Dancing is encouraged. Listening is essential! 

So I look forward to the pleasure of your company as ever, for a special Valentine's Day Vivace, this Friday, 6-9 am, right here on WTJU-Charlottesville.

You can also replay the program anytime from the WTJU archives. This program will be available for replay through 2/28/14. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

A Gamut of Olympic Music

Most classical music lovers aren't aware that Joseph Suk took the Silver Medal at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, or that Polish composer Zbigniew Turski brought home the Gold from the 1948 Olympics in London. Were these musicians extraordinary athletes? Not especially -- the truth is even more remarkable.

When the modern Olympics were established in 1912, the goal was to emulate the ancient Greek games and have both athletic and artistic competition. And so, from 1912 through 1948, there were Olympic competition in the fields of literature, sculpture, painting, and music composition.

After 1948 it was decided that since almost all the competitors for the arts events were professionals, the Olympics would shift to just having an art exhibition celebrating the contributions of the participating nations, and leave the amateur competition to the athletic events.

As is common with composition contests (but exceedingly rare in sports), not every medal was awarded in every event. If the judges thought there was no work worthy of an Olympic gold medal, then none was awarded, and the "best" composition received a silver -- or a bronze.

Below is a complete list of the winners for the Olympic Games Music Competition. Although most of these composers are obscure, some of the prize-winning works have been recorded. And so this coming Wednesday morning, from 8am to 9am, I'll be sharing Olympic Gold (and a lot of Silver and Bronze) on the air. Tune in to hear the top finisher from the 1928 Antwerp games, the Gold Medal composition from 1936, Canada's champion from the 1948 games, Joseph Suk's Silver composition.

Even if you're tired of luge and double axels, this show will give you a different take on the Olympic Spirit!

Listen live Wednesday, 2/12/14, 6-9am EST. This edition of "Gamut" will also be available from the WTJU archives through 2/26/14.

Olympic Music Competition Winners 

Stockholm 1912 
  • Gold: Riccardo Barthelemy (Ita): Olympic Triumphal March 
  • Silver: none awarded 
  • Bronze: none awarded 
Antwerp 1920 
  • Gold: Georges Monier (Bel): Olympique Silver: 
  • Oreste Riva (Ita): Marcia trionfale 
  • Bronze: none awarded 
Paris 1924
  • None awarded 
Antwerp 1928
   Song category: none awarded

   One instrument category: none awarded

   Orchestral music category
  • Gold: none awarded 
  • Silver: none awarded 
  • Bronze: Rudolph Simonsen (Den): Symphony No. 2 “Hellas” 
Los Angeles 1932 
  • Gold: none awarded 
  • Silver: Joseph Suk (Tch) “Into a New Life” symphonic march 
  • Bronze: none awarded 
Berlin 1936 
   Solo and chorus
  • Gold: Paul Hoffer (Ger): Olympic Vow 
  • Silver: Kurt Thomas (Ger): Olympic Cantata 1936 
  • Bronze: Harald Genzmer (Ger): The Runner 
   Instrumental: none awarded

  • Gold: Werner Egk (Ger): Olympic Festive Music 
  • Silver: Lino Liviabella (Ita): The Victor 
  • Bronze: Jaroslav Kricka (Tch): Mountain Suite 

London 1948 
  • Gold: none awarded 
  • Silver: none awarded 
  • Bronze: Gabriele Bianchi (Ita): Inno Olimpionico 
   Instrumental and Chamber
  • Gold: none awarded 
  • Silver: John Weinzweig (Can): Divertimenti for Solo Flute and Strings 
  • Bronze: Sergio Lauricella (Ita): Toccata per pianoforte 
   Choral and orchestral:
  • Gold: Zbigniew Turksi (Pol): Olympic Symphony 
  • Silver: Kalervo Tuukkanen (Fin) Karhunpyynti 
  • Bronze: Erling Brene (Den): Viguer

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring -- an amazing video

Why are we posting a Japanese commercial for a smartphone on WTJU Classical Comments?

Because there's a strong connection. This ad, running a remarkable 3:30 in length, uses a specially constructed instrument to play Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." It's a beautiful concept, beautifully executed, and the sound is, well, natural. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Philip Glass Series (Part 1 of 8): Introduction

In conjunction with the Philip Glass residency at the University of Virginia from March 31st to April 2nd, I have created this series to highlight the music, history, and impact of this American composer.

"I don't remember breathing.  I do, though, remember weeping."

Let's provide some context: the above quotation comes from Robert T. Jones describing his experience during a performance of Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach.  He states:
Suffice it to say that by the end of the first Train scene, my own ideas of the possibilities of music had been turned upside down and inside out.  As Robert Wilson's intricate and beautiful stage images came and went, as Philip Glass' music seemed to breathe the bounds of the possible, I watched and listened in a state of awe.
For those of us familiar with the past hundred years of Western art music, the reasons behind this reaction are understandable.  The tale goes that, at the beginning of the 20th century, classical music was becoming increasingly atonal and complex, starting with Schoenberg and Webern, and evolving into total serialism with composers like Pierre Boulez and other members of the Darmstadt School.

However in the 1960s, the pendulum of history began to swing in the other direction, and a new sound took shape on the East and West Coasts of the United States, a sound we now call minimalism.  This music, characterized by repetition and an embrace of tonality, was radically different from the total serialism spreading from Europe.  Among the main founders (La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and others), perhaps no one has reached such a superstar level as Philip Glass has.  Finding fame well outside the classical music realm, he has been parodied on shows such as South Park and The Colbert Report, made a guest appearance on Saturday Night Live where they replaced the opening music with his piece "Facades," and has even written material for Sesame Street.

It wasn't always this way.  Kurt Munkacsi describes an early public performance of Glass' music where an angry observer walked up to the ensemble and furiously banged his fist on the piano, berating the performers for not being able to play music, let alone scales.  And despite the above quote by Robert Jones, one of his first reviews of a Glass concert said:
The music and the films were artistically limited enough to be merely trivial, lacking even the sophistication to raise them into the class of the primitive.  And this despite the electronics involved.
Or how about Donald Henahan, who in a review of Glass' opera, Ahknaten, wrote:
[Glass' operas] stand to music as the sentence "See Spot Run" stands to literature. 
Ouch!  But in spite of the many critics that derided the music, there was a growing faction of society that was moved by the hypnotic and mesmerizing sounds Glass had to offer.  Most were introduced to this new music during performances of Einstein on the Beach.  In an interview, the composer John Adams recollected an early concert he attended featuring excerpts from the opera:
That disturbed me... I remember driving home alone in the car, feeling very violent emotions about it.  On one level I didn't like it because I found some of it just mindlessly repetitive—the structures were so obvious.  Yet I think that the reason I was upset was that there must have been something else about it that I found extremely appealing, and I couldn't quite rectify the two conflicting emotions in my head.
Ransom Wilson, a conductor and flautist, remembers seeing the opera during one of its two sold-out performances at the Metropolitan Opera in 1976:
There were no intermissions.  The work continued relentlessly in its grip on all of us in that packed house.  Suddenly, at a point some four hours into the opera there occurred a completely unexpected harmonic and rhythmic modulation, coupled with a huge jump in the decibel level.  People in the audience began to scream with delight and I remember well that my body was covered in goose bumps.
Others were introduced through Glass' work with film directors; Koyaanisqatsi, The Truman Show, The Hours, Kundun, and The Thin Blue Line are among the many movies Glass has written music for.  Collaborations with musicians such as Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Ravi Shankar, and Aphex Twin have also been widely successful.  Glass has even written music inspired by David Bowie and Brian Eno.

Although I have described Philip Glass in a number of ways, I have only scratched the surface of his vast repertoire and profound impact.  It is my goal that this series will be helpful to those who read it, and provide context for his arrival in a few weeks.  We'll journey together and uncover Glass' upbringing, the difficult early years, and the subsequent fame and fortune.  We'll discuss his most important works, and listen to the music that brought him notoriety.  Throughout it all, I hope you will discover a new favorite work, or revisit a piece that had previously escaped your memory.  Maybe you will find that one of your favorite films has music by Philip Glass, or one of your favorite artists has worked with him.  In the end, I hope you'll have a greater appreciation for this influential American composer.

Part 2 - The Early Years