Monday, December 15, 2008

Art isn't easy...

Last week Elliott Carter turned 100 (b. Dec 11, 1908), and had a birthday celebration most mortals would metaphorically die for: a premiere of a new major work with world-class musicians. In this case, the conductor (and pianist, and pioneer) James Levine, the pianist (and conductor, and pioneer) Daniel Barenboim, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra convened at Carnegie Hall to premiere "Interventions" the latest work from this composer of autumnal masterworks. I can think of no artist in history--that is, NO ARTIST IN HISTORY-- who has been as fecund as Carter has since his 8th decade. Verdi composed Falstaff as an octogenarian, and is one of many artists who have had late creative bursts. No artist has had the flourish Carter has had, though, and the catalogue of works added to his c.v. in the past two decades (ie: his 80's and 90's!$%@!) is staggering. Among others, my personal library contains the momentous Symphonia ( a 45' minute canvas of Brucknerian proportions, depth, and scope), some half dozen major concerti, several chamber works, and an opera (the witty, piquant, timely "What Next?").

Last week I also attended Sondheim's most recent addition to his extraordinary canon of musicals. "Road Show" is the latest version of a musical previously known as "Bounce" and "Gold" and is his first new work since "Passion" appeared in 1994 (if memory serves me correctly). I enjoyed "Road Show" the way one might enjoy a new Carter score. Both composers have fierce partisan advocates. Both composers are more admired than loved. Both among audiences and critics. Both deserve more attention, more discerning criticism, and more airtime for their modern, timely, ascerbic, "difficult" scores to be appreciated, understood, and absorbed. In response to criticism about the "tunefulness" of his songs, Sondheim has quipped that any tune is hummable if one has heard it enough. I think both composers speak to the present time's need for substance. In a world of sound-bites, slogans, catch-phrases, tags, fads, and the ephemera of fashion and pop "culture" Carter and Sondheim represent pole-stars of substance and significance for their respective fields of symphony and musical. As such, they illuminate the unexamined reaches of the self, as Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo" searingly states: "For there is no place that does not see you/You must change your life."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows...On reading Robert Frost

The title is from Frost's early poem about work & the creative process called "Mowing" and is a great link to my current obsession with this most fascinating of our great American poets (and like many of his works, can be read a la double entendre). See below for more on Frost's multivalent meanings. First a digression on one of his early trips south (thanks to the Parini biography I mentioned in another post). Consider this entry my take on how one reads a poem...

20 year-old Rob Frost sojourned down from New England to Norfolk to visit the Dismal Swamp (an awesome natural wonder in our own backyard here in Tidewater, VA). He trekked on foot towards Deep Creek and blindly explored the swamp. This visit made a lasting impression, and images of solitary wanderers, loners, tramps, and pilgrims would people his poetry for the rest of his long life. As would the existential nature of the elements and, for that matter, nature itself. A survey of some titles of his individual books of poetry confirms this indebtedness: Mountain Interval, West-Running Brook, A Further Range, A Witness Tree, to his final collection, In the Clearing. And as always with Frost, layers of meaning are implicit in titles, phrases, stanzas, poems and entire collections. Multiple readings, like perspectives, can be fetched from line to line, poem to poem. Like a subject under a microscope, they lend themselves to being dissected, examined and re-examined, held up to the light and known in new ways.

Here's a little piece to wrap your head around. Its a modern version of an Elizabethan sonnet (an octave--that is, an 8-line stanza, and a musical one at that!--answered by a sextet, with the requisite iambic pentameter and rhyme scheme). At once an exquisitely crafted scena from the animal planet (a spider with its latest catch, a moth, on a flower, in the morning), it is a lesson in attention to details of the natural world, and a densely packed collection of metaphors (the religious/sacramental tone in line 3 juxtaposed with the Shakespearean evocation of Macbeth's witches in line 6, for starters).

That would be enough to qualify this little ditty as memorable, but Frost goes further, turning the Elizabethan model on its head (the closing sextet is supposed to "answer" or resolve the question or issue posed in the opening octave, with the closing rhyming couplet the climactic cadence to the exercise). Frost composes a sextet which is a series of (unanswerable) questions of existential dimension that anticipate the culture war on evolution v. "Intelligent design" by decades (Frost, in life and death, resists pigeon-holing. He is a bundle of contraries: independent, iconoclastic, progressive, conservative, reader of Darwin & Santayana, Emerson & Thoreau, Homer & the Old Testament; botanist, farmer, anti-establishment professor, and the list goes on...). The title of the poem doesn't appear until the closing couplet, and thus highlights the tightly controlled diction which packs a punch that shows this blazingly intelligent (self-taught-college-drop-out-with-2-dozen-honorary-doctorates) lyric poet in his best form.


I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth--
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth--
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?--
If design govern a thing so small.

(Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays.
The Library of America)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

...A momentary stay against confusion: a few thoughts by and about Robert Frost

I have been reading and re-reading Robert Frost recently, from Jay Parini's excellent biography to the chestnut lyrics upon which his reputation rests to the dramatic poems that reveal penetrating insight into human nature, relationships, and existence. I have also been enjoying his idiosyncratic prose--letters and essays and lectures--all of which display the independence of thought and the fierce intelligence, the droll wit, and an uncanny gift for diction & metaphor. Below are a few examples from that prose, as found in the highly recommended Library of America edition of the Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays.

(On the poetry of Amy Lowell):

...permanence in poetry as in love is perceived instantly...
the proof of a poem is not that we have never forgotten it,
but that we know at sight that we could never forget it.

(Advice to writers & readers,
also worthy of the attention of actors, singers, performers, et al):

It is all right to repeat, if there is something for the voice to do.
The vital the ACTION of the voice...
Get the stuff of life into the technique of your writing [singing/playing/acting]

(More advice, to the same audience(s)...):

A poem begins with a a lump in the throat...
It is a reaching-out toward expression;
an effort to find fulfillment...A complete poem is one where
an emotion has found its thought
and the thought has found the words.

(Ostensibly on belief in/about the creative process,
but also an illustration of the distinction
between "true" art and "mere" entertainment...)

Every time a poem is written...
it is written not by cunning, but by belief...
The beauty, the more felt than known...
No one who has ever come close to the arts
has failed to see the difference between things written
that way with cunning and device,
and the kind that are believed into existence.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Virginia Chorale Holiday Program notes

Since the Virginia Chorale's Holiday concerts are right around the corner, I thought I'd share my notes on the program. A couple of out-of-print selections have been replaced, thus the notes below are more up-to-date than those printed in the program when we went to press earlier this fall.

Holiday Festival of Light and Sound: Notes on the Program

In A Holiday Festival of Light and Sound we pay direct tribute to our founder, Donald McCullough. In so doing, we offer a program of music that reflects both the Chorale’s rich traditions and the wealth of exciting new music for the beloved medium of the a capella chorus.

Each of the sets of a capella works on the program link the old and the new directly, in music that spans 7 centuries, from 1420 to 2006. That newest work is the program opener, by the exciting young composer Ola Gjeilo. Born in Norway, he studied there, in London and New York, and now lives in Los Angeles. Prelude is framed by an exuberant, chant-inspired tune that sounds like music written 700 years earlier. Another living composer who evokes the sound-world of Medieval music is the composer and conductor, Paul Hillier. Founder of the acclaimed group, the Hilliard Ensemble, Hilliard is praised equally for his work in early and contemporary music. I sing of a maiden takes the anonymous 15th c. “Olde English” poem and sets it accordingly with a simple series of duets, culminating in an intimate chorale. One of the giants of 20th century choral and vocal music, Benjamin Britten is widely regarded as the greatest British composer after Purcell. Written at the start of Britten’s prolific career—he was just 17—A Hymn to the Virgin exhibits this composer’s gifts for setting poetic texts and creating colorful choral textures. In this Marian hymn, Britten assigns the anonymous 14th century carol to the main chorus, and intersperses those with words from a Latin poem, sung here by a solo quartet. Britten juxtaposes the poems brilliantly, heightening the word play of Ave and Eva, thus making palpable the connection between Eve and Mary, as composers have done for centuries.

Another gifted British composer, if less known and accomplished than his younger contemporary Britten, is Gerald Finzi. A complicated figure who lost both his brothers and his teacher in World War I, Finzi composed in a style indebted to the British romantics from Elgar to Vaughan Williams. Like his friend and mentor Vaughan Williams, Finzi was an agnostic who composed inspired and affective church music.

A gift both for lyrical melody and dramatic declamation infuse the Magnificat, one of the greatest settings of this beloved canticle. Written for the choirs of Smith and Amherst colleges in Massachusetts in 1952, this ten-minute musical canvas juxtaposes pastoral, folksong-like themes with music of grandeur and drama, exploiting the range of colors available to both the choir and the impressive organ part.

The first half of our program closes with a set of motets inspired by themes of light from which this concert takes its name. Beginning with a sublime hymn from the great Tudor composer, Thomas Tallis, we jump ahead to recent works by the popular US composers, Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen. O Nata Lux is another seasonal text that has long been a favorite of composers. In between Tallis’ classic Renaissance setting and Lauridsen’s neo-romantic, chant-inspired one is a luminous new classic, Lux Aurumque by another one of the most exciting young voices in contemporary music.

The second half explores our Silver Jubilee theme of tradition and innovation in offering the old and new side-by-side, or in this case, intertwined in the same piece. Jan Sandström takes Praetorius’ famous carol-hymn “Lo how a Rose e’er blooming” and juxtaposes the traditional four-part chorale with a modern harmonization evocative of the rich tapestry of metaphors in the poem—blooming rose, breaking dawn, and human birth.

An exact contemporary of Sandström is the New York City composer, Robert Convery. A graduate of both the Curtis Institute and the Julliard School, Bob has built a career writing exquisite music for the voice and has dozens of award-winning works in his catalog. We are honored to have Robert Convery compose a 25th Anniversary Commission, to be premiered here on our Silver Jubilee Season finale in April. Tonight we share a simple, carol-like lullaby, Christmas Daybreak, representative of its composer’s gifts of lyricism and immediacy.

We have one last set of beautiful a capella choruses—imaging themes of light, hope, and birth while cloaked in nocturnal shadows, thus illustrating the movement from night to morn, darkness to light. If Hillier’s I sing of a Maiden evokes the medieval carol, then the 1420 version of There is no rose is the real deal. It is followed by another contemporary setting of an ancient seasonal text. O Magnum Mysterium, by Indiana composer Lee Dengler, is a compelling example of the renewed interest among choral composers in writing accessible music with chant-like melodies and plush, neo-romantic harmonies.
With this, they honor composers like Britten and Poulenc, who assimilated a variety of influences in forging an original and immediate voice that communicates effectively. Yet the music of Francis Poulenc is simply like no other. Mozart, Fauré, Debussy, and Stravinsky, for starters, are all present in his music. Hodie Christus Est is the ebullient closing movement to his 4 Motets for Christmas.

Before we conclude our Holiday program with carols in which we would greatly appreciate your participation, we offer a couple of Holiday favorites—arrangements of seasonal folk carols by my graduate school mentor and friend, the eminent conductor and arranger, Joseph Flummerfelt. Whether conducting folk-song arrangements by Vaughan Williams or leading his own, Dr Flummerfelt's ear for color and line shaped both his memorable interpretations and arrangements like the 3 folk carols presented here. We conclude our Holiday concerts with the perennial favorite Ukrainian "Carol of the Bells" before inviting the audience to join us in singing the beloved carols, Silent Night, and Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Rhetoric, Bach, & cultural miscellany

rhetoric: the art or science of using words effectively
in speaking or writing (Webster’s New World Dictionary).

“Rhetoric formed the basis of all his work…Bach exhausted all possibilities in music as it existed up until his time in terms of formal aspects, harmony, expression and melody” proclaimed the period performance pioneer, Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

“Just as form links the elements of a work into a greater whole, with no damage to their particularity, so Culture signifies a link between a specific civilization and universal humanity” writes the literary critic-cum-philosopher, Terry Eagleton.

“The equilibrium of any particular aspect of nature rests on the equivalence of its opposites” saith Piet Mondrian, the painter.

“What do I think? I think that when you’ve made up your mind about what it really means to you, it won’t matter what I or anyone else thinks. You’ll just know” (Leonard Bernstein, when asked by Michael Tilson Thomas what he “thought” of Mahler’s Adagietto).

“This is a stoic concept: to stay in the middle, which permits you to be free from the ambitions of the high, and permits you, through your liberty, to deliver something to those who don’t have anything” said the artist-architect Santiago Calatrava, self-referentially.

Culture…as a form of universal subjecthood, signified those values we shared by virtue of our common humanity. If culture-as-the-arts was important, it was because it distilled these values in conveniently portable form…

Culture is itself the spirit of humanity individuating itself in specific works…

What else is the artistic canon, a collection of irreducibly individual works which testify in their very uniqueness to the common spirit of humanity? Or think of the ethics of liberal humanism, for which I am most peculiarly myself when I rise above my prosaic particularity, perhaps through the transfigurative power of art, to become the bearer of universal humanity. Art recreates individual things in the form of their universal essences, and in doing so makes them inimitably themselves. (Terry Eagleton, from the excellent book, The Idea of Culture).

For what grievous estrangement is such transcendence a poor compensation? (Eagleton quoting one of Marx’s aphorisms on religion)

That most revered of composers, Bach, has always transcended expectations,
rhetorically speaking…

Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Glorious Baroque Program Notes

Below are the unabridged program notes for the Virginia Chorale's 25th Anniversary Season Opener, October 18 & 19.

Glorious Baroque: Notes on the program

This feast consisted principally of Music, which was both vocal and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so superexcellent, that it did ravish and stupefy all those strangers that never heard the like. But how others were affected with it I know not; for mine own part I can say this, that I was for the time even rapt up with Saint Paul into the third heaven.
(from Coryats Crudities, 1611, by Thomas Coryat)

Thomas Coryat’s colorful description of music for a feast at Venice’s San Rocco in 1608 could well describe much of the music on our Glorious Baroque program. Venice was the center of the (European) musical universe in the 17th century. We should not let our love of the “high” Baroque masters, Bach & Handel, in any way diminish our appreciation of the Venetian school that shaped every composer from Monteverdi to Vivaldi. Indeed, Bach and Handel are indebted to the influence of Venice, with its penchant for opulent sonorities, dramatic effects & emotional affects, innovative harmonies, and an ever-attentive ear to beautiful melodies.

Loosely modeled on a Venetian Vespers feast-day program like the one Coryat attended in 1608, this concert uses that format as a point of departure to include a range of Italian and German masterpieces, along with works from England’s greatest baroque composers. We begin, however, with the oldest extant choral work from South America, from a 1631 collection of liturgical works in Lima, whose cathedral was one of the largest and most vibrant in the Southern Hemisphere. With a poem in the Quechuan dialect attributed to the priest, Juan Perez Bocanegra, Hanacpachap Cussicuinin was one of the most widely recognized pieces of its day. The text “blends” Christian imagery with Aztec symbols and contains an astonishing variety of metaphor. We offer but two of the near two-dozen poetic verses, which would have been alternated according to occasion, and used for processionals and recessionals alike.

Though we rightly revere Bach as THE German baroque master—of counterpoint (harmony) and form (musical architecture)—Heinrich Schütz was a giant of the early baroque, and as much a product of Venice as Dresden. Schütz took the poly-choral style (that is, multiple choirs—ranging from 2 choirs to as many as 13!) of Venice and applied particular attention to setting the Lutheran Psalms in his native German. The Psalmen Davids (Psalms of David) are the product of this composer’s fertile imagination. One of the most common devices employed in the polychoral style is that of antiphony— one choir literally echoing another. Psalm 100 (Jauchzet dem Herrn) is a classic example of antiphonal choral writing. Also prevalent is the Baroque penchant for musical rhetoric. The ends of many phrases contain poetic cadential gestures that underscore the harmonic and textual rhythm—not unlike the rhyming couplet that closes a Shakespeare sonnet. These gestures thus serve a dual function of summarizing the preceding and punctuating the close of the sentence’s idea with a period.

Another composer of the German baroque often lost in the long shadow of Bach is Dietrich Buxtehude. While his reputation among musicians rests mainly on his body of organ music (which did influence Bach), his vocal music has not garnered the place it deserves. Membra Jesu Nostri is a stunning work of pathos and affective beauty. Revered among the cognoscenti of 17th century music, it deserves a wider berth in the repertoire. We will share excerpts from two of the seven cantatas which comprise this concert-length work. A Passiontide piece (that is, one which meditates on the events from Jesus’ arrest through the crucifixion, stopping before the resurrection) each of the 7 sections focuses on a different part of Jesus’ body. The first cantata, Ad pedes (At the feet), begins with the declamatory statement, “Ecce” (Behold) but instead of the expected “Ecce uomo” (Behold the man) we are given an expressive, affective canon on “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace.” The counterpoint, or polyphony—several voices moving independently, as in a round—heightens the expressive atmosphere by creating a fluid texture where the different voices each have moments of rhetorical import. The second movement, “Salve,” begins with a sighing melodic motive in the tenor. This gesture, a typical Baroque affekt, has never gone out of fashion, and can be heard in music as disparate as pop ballads and middle-eastern chant. Where the flowing opening chorus was merely punctuated by a homophonic chord, this second movement is dominated by the block-chord texture, as the voices declaim the text in a recitative (speech-like) style. Omitting Buxtehude’s intermittent solo movements, we move directly to a reprise of the opening chorus.

While the description of the Vespers feast at the start of these notes most likely referred to music of Gabrieli, it is Claudio Monteverdi’s monumental Vespers of 1610 that represent the zenith of Venetian Baroque music. As Bach would do more than one hundred years later with his Mass in B minor, Monteverdi does here, and has thus left us with the first great, large-scale choral-orchestral masterwork. Monteverdi draws upon the vast field of musical resources available at the time—the “old school” styles of Renaissance polyphony and madrigals, the polychoral style of Gabrieli, and the “new school” dramatic innovations of early Baroque opera, with its florid, virtuosic vocal writing, paralleled in the colorful and vivid use of the expanding Baroque orchestra.
Both Bach and Monteverdi intended their masterworks to be the feather in the cap towards a coveted job promotion. Bach hoped his Mass would land him the enviable job of Kapellmeister in Dresden, as Monteverdi hoped for upward mobility from Mantua to Venice. The hymn, Ave Maris Stella, is the most tranquil and sublime movement in the 90 minute sequence of Psalms, motets, and other forms intended to show off their composer’s mastery of all styles. The lush double chorus scoring frames this Marian hymn, with the intermediate 5 verses shared by both choirs and 3 solo voices. In between
these verses an orchestral ritornello would repeat, varied from verse to verse, further highlighting the range of Monteverdi’s creativity. The poem uses the rhetorical device of wordplay on AVE=EVA. The annunciation of praise addressed to Mary, (Ave Maris stella), “gives Eve (Eva) a new name.” According to Christian theology, Christ redeems humankind from the “original sin” of Adam— here Mary plays a parallel role in relationship to Eve.

The next section of our program juxtaposes different Psalms in counterpoint with one another. Schütz’s Psalm 121 (“I will lift up mine eyes”) has been a favorite poem of composers for centuries. Scored for a solo quartet, two choirs, and a continuo group, this polychoral setting shows its composer deftly displaying the Baroque style traits mentioned above. Each verse is introduced by a solo voice, declaiming the poetry in virtuosic, operatic style (yet adhering to stylized Baroque notions of rhetoric and affect). The opening soprano solo is a classic example of this technique: each subsequent repetition of the eponymous line, “I hebe meine Augen auf” ascends via a coloratura melodic sequence, climbs an octave, and heralds the two choirs’ entrance. This pattern of “call and response” continues and culminates in a final verse where the solo quartet sings together, and both choirs respond in kind to bring this Psalm to a marvelous tutti finish.

Juxtaposed between the two Schütz Psalm settings is one of the great shorter works of the early Baroque master from England, Henry Purcell. Influenced by the highly expressive style of the Tudor school (best represented by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd), Purcell’s chromatic harmonic language sounds modern over 300 years later! Purcell simply exploits the possibilities of the chromatic inflection of ascending and descending melodies (e.g.: the first sopranos sing b-flat, and two notes later, sing b-natural—a jarring juxtaposition, which is a defining difference between the major and minor modes & scales). In addition to this melodic expressivity, Purcell divides the chorus into 8 independent parts, heightening the density of the texture. The three-minute motet never ventures beyond the opening verse of the Psalm, “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry come unto thee.”

In addition to the Psalms of David, Schütz compiled a series of motets late in his prolific career called simply, Geistliche Chormusik (Sacred Choir Music). The unassuming title belies the richness of its contents, and Die mit Tränen säen werden mit Freuden ernten is a sublime example. Another Biblical poem whose appeal would continue (Brahms wrote the most beloved setting of this text in his German Requiem), Schütz seizes on the expressive potential of the imagery: “He who sows tears” is set with a sighing affekt while “will reap joy” follows immediately as a jubilant dance. These two contrasting rhythmic sections jostle for position until a compromise is reached between the plaintive, duple-meter opening and the triple-time dance, and the organic process imaged in the text (tears turning to joy=seeds harvested as sheaves) is manifest in the music.

We close the first half of our program with one of the most popular vocal works from the period, Viadana’s ebullient evocation of Psalm 33, Exultate justi in Domino. As Schütz did in the previous piece, Viadana alternates verses between duplum and triplum meters with an adroit sense of proportion—a quintessential hallmark of the Italian Baroque.

The most popular Italian composer of the 18th century, Antonio Vivaldi’s vast output is more wide-ranging than either his critics or his fans avow. The fact that two works—
Gloria and The Four Seasons—crowd out the competition, shades the variety & vitality of Vivaldi’s music. In exitu Israel is a small-scale Psalm setting notable for the rhythmic drive that propels the piece. While there is an occasional antiphonal response between the sopranos and lower voices, the two-dozen plus verses of the poem are declaimed in a syllabic, homophonic style. The closing Amen is memorable for the striking unison arpeggios that literally cascade down like the Red Sea referenced in the Psalm, and its harmonic fluidity a hallmark both of this work and its composer.

Johann Pachelbel is another composer underappreciated because of the over-popularity of a particular work. At least Vivaldi is famous for two works, whereas Johann is remembered for the simple, elegant Canon in D. While not as prolific a composer as Vivaldi or Bach, Pachelbel produced an admirable corpus of vocal and choral music for the church. Nun danket alle Gott is typical in being a direct, chorale-based motet(the hymn-tune many may recognize as “Now thank we all our God”). A double-chorus antiphonal verse—reminiscent of Schütz—is followed by a chorus whose texture varies between counterpoint, chorale and antiphonal exchange. The third and final section of the work is a classic chorale-based chorus, where the lower voices accompany in playful secondary themes while the soprano intones the chorale melody that gives this motet its name.

At the heart of our program we return to another Buxtehude cantata from Membra Jesu Nostri, to be followed by one Bach’s great motets. From the cantata, Ad manus (To the hands) comes the opening movement Quid sunt plagae istae. The rhetorical interrogation (“What are these wounds in Thy hands?) is aptly coupled with expressive and affective music. Indeed this particular affekt, the piquant 1/2 step dissonance, has remained a similar expressive gesture today. It certainly influenced later Baroque composers like Antonio Lotti. Lotti composed several versions of these verses from the Credo of the Mass liturgy. In this 8-voice Crucifixus, the pain of Christ’s wounds is expressed in a series of plangent dissonances as each successive voice part enters the texture. Quid sunt plagae istae is thus reprised to conclude this sequence of passion music where sensual expressivity serves the rhetorical depth of theology and spirituality.

The six Motets of Johann Sebastian Bach are among the most revered works by this greatest of Western composers. Given the number of large-scale works—the cantatas, Passions, the Concerti, the Suites—the Motets display a remarkable concision and therefore contain a concentrated dose of Bachian content and energy. Fürchte dich nicht is among the shortest and, curiously, least performed of the six. Unfolding in one movement, the opening antiphonal double-chorus exchanges verses from Isaiah. The double chorus melds into one for the closing chorale-fantasia where the Sopranos intone the hymn “Lord, my shepherd, fount of all joys” over the rhythmic and harmonic motion of the lower voices.

As noted above, Monteverdi’s Vesper settings are the 17th century epitome of the form.
In addition to those in the 1610 collection, Monteverdi composed multiple versions of many of these Psalms, so popular as artistic subjects for the color and poetic variety of their imagery. We offer a version of Lauda Jerusalem composed near the end of Monteverdi’s storied life, and appearing only posthumously, in 1650. Similar to textures we have seen in the German chorale-motets, the lower four voices form a foundation of interacting, antiphonal exchanges over which the soprano intones the chant signifying Psalm 147.

George Frederic Handel may be sui generis among Western composers for never having gone out of fashion. Ever since its premiere, the Messiah has been a mainstay of the repertoire, and it is speculated that somewhere in the world, at any given moment, a performance of Messiah is occurring! Its popularity and staying power is with good reason, as its author was one of the most accomplished vocal composers in history. What would the present-day equivalent of Handel’s four splendid Coronation Anthems resemble? Can you imagine a modern-day Handel writing a set of magnificent “Inauguration Anthems?” Imagine still the premiere of new “classical” music more important than the political ceremony for which it was written. Zadok, the Priest, the most direct and concise of the quartet written for the occasion, is rightly one of Handel’s most popular choruses. Accounts generations after the 1727 Coronation of George II and Caroline attest to the majesty of the musical component. According to the composer William Boyce, it was the “first Grand Musical Performance,” and thus a fitting close to the first concert of our celebratory 25th Anniversary season.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Musician Quotes: A poem for David Markson

I have been a fan of the unconventional fiction of David Markson, since I randomly picked up one of his "novels" called, interestingly enough, 'This is not a novel.' Like all of his recent work, it is a collection of pithy observations, biographical trivia on the lives of artists, interspersed with an occasional self-referential nod to the idea of readers and writers having identities within the work.

So, I collected some quotes on Puccini earlier this summer for a seminar Amy and I did for the Washinton and Lee Alumni College. This practice caused me to begin peppering my journal with interesting quotes by and about other artists. The quotes by the great Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius, are from the elegant documentary on the composer by Christopher Nupen.

This is the first in what I imagine will be an ongoing series of entries, and is humbly dedicated to the artist who inspired it.

Quotes (for David Markson)

I. Puccini & co.

“He wrote marvelous operas,
but dreadful music” Shostakovich said of Puccini.

“A sin against art” is how one critic
decribed Puccini’s second opera, Edgar.

“After the piano, my favorite instrument
is the rifle” said the same composer.

“The simpler the surface of the music is,
the more difficult it is to find the inner truth in it”
Bernstein shrewdly observed.

“You have to have maturity to understand beauty”
commented Bruno Walter, on the late arrival in his career conducting Mozart.

Fritz Reiner challenged his students, Bernstein among them, saying
“You have to have the right to conduct.”

“Like a beautiful painting without a frame” is how Daniel Barenboim described Martha Argerich.

II. Sibelius

“The mysticism of nature and the agony of life” is how the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius described the shrill call of the swan.

“I do not know how many times I have considered giving up music completely and becoming an idiot,” said Sibelius, quite early in his career.

“A role for which I have always had the greatest inclination” concluded the same composer, whose last work appeared in 1925.

Sibelius lived over 30 years longer, dying in 1957 at age 91.

PS: “Culture is for living, and art should be about taking part.”
said director Lee Hall.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Mostly Mozart Festival

As I await my flight from NY to VA, I thought I'd share a bit about the closing concert of the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center. I was in the tenor section of the Concert Chorale of New York, one of the city's premiere professional choruses, prepared by my friend and colleague, James Bagwell, who is one of the best choral conductors in the country. We met on Tuesday for 5 hours to learn the work, rehearsed with the inspiring conductor and Music Director of the Festival, Louis Langrée Wednesday, then rehearsed twice with the orchestra, Thursday and Friday, in advance of Friday and Saturday evening performances. This gig is typical of the NY pro choral scene, where 40 or so singers show up, read and rehearse a piece in a couple of days, and perform it that weekend.

Mozart's C Minor Mass was the centerpiece of this final concert of this year's Festival, whose theme was "Loss and Transfiguration." The Mozart was paired with Stauss' autumnal masterpiece, Metamorphosen, a haunting, rhapsodic elegy for 23 solo strings. First, a digression on Richard Strauss (1864-1949):

Written at the end of WWII--and the octogenarian composer's career--the work reflects an artist's despair at the devastations of the war--in particular the bombings of theaters in Munich, Dresden, and Vienna (for Americans to empathize, cultural institutions like the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall would have to be destroyed in bombings, as the program annotator, David Wright wrote). Yet this work exists in the matrix of its composers complicated life. The conductor, Louis Langrée, opined in the final dress rehearsal that Strauss here expressed his remorse for his naive complicity with the regime (he was the chair of the Reich's music division for a short period). That is a topic for a dissertation on cultural politics. Langrée also shared an appropriate poetic link from T.S. Eliot, the last of his Four Quartets, Little Gidding: "We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time." (he did not cite the source, but this famous quatrain has long been a personal favorite). It is an appropriate connection, even if the title, Metamorphosen, refers to Goethe's work as both a poet and scientist. Wright quoted Goethe's poem "Niemand wird sich selber kennen" (No one will ever know one's self) as "A dark and prophetic meditation on civilized people's capacity for evil."
Metapmorphosen is a Wagnerian adagio that unfolds in a continuous web of melody for 25 minutes, quoting the funeral march from Beethoven's Eroica symphony and referencing the composers own works. It is a fitting testament to a great and complex composer.

Mozart's C Minor Mass reminds me of Rilke's great sonnet, "On the archaic torso of Apollo"--a poem which describes a broken, headless, trunk of a statue of the Greek Sun god that still manages to reflect the brilliance and power of its subject. It ends with another famously memorable couplet: "For there is no place that does not see you:/You must change your life." That quote has a double meaning for me--Mozart's Mass, like his Requiem, remained unfinished, a "trunk" if you will; great art, like the works on this program, move and inspire one to reflection, consideration, and that can literally be life-changing.

Anyway, the C Minor Mass is a great work. And unlike the Requiem, it really does not need to be finished. It is in the 18th century style of a "cantata" mass, which means the central movements, the Gloria and Credo, are separated into individual movements by subdivisions in the text. Whereas a Missa Brevis would have a single movement Gloria, Mozart gives us a 7 movement tour de force of dramatic vocal writing and scoring. Haydn's 6 great masses and Beethoven's Mass in C and Missa Solemnis both follow this model.

Coming in the middle of his brief career in 1782 (Mozart lived from 1756-1791), it contains some of the best music for soprano he wrote (fittingly, as his wife, Constanze, was the soloist in the 1783 premiere in Salzburg). And not just for one soprano, but two (the second soprano part is often sung by a mezzo-soprano). The soprano deut, "Domine Deus" contains vocal fireworks and gymastics where the pair trade off sequential melismas and acrobatic upward leaps. Listening to that duet would be like watching two Olympic gymnasts--Nastia Liukin and He Kexin, say--on the uneven bars doing virtually the same routine AT THE SAME TIME ("Yeah, I got your triple-twirly-tucky-twist right here!"). Good stuff.

This Mass is also central for its use of Baroque-inspired counterpoint. We know Mozart studied the works of Bach and Handel, in particular the former's motets and the latter's oratorios. Both the Cum Sancto Spiritu which closes the Gloria, and the Osanna sections of the Sanctus and Benedictus contain fugues inspired by the Baroque masters. But it is not just the counterpoint which reflects a Baroque influence. The grandeur of the French Baroque is present in the double-dotted rhythms of the Qui tollis--an intense, double-chorus plea, which Langrée conducted with remarkable passion and intensity. Mozart exploited the tensions in the musical language of his forefathers, while presaging the harmonic innovations of the Romantic period. The Gratias movement opens with a sustained c # dimished chord--not just one tritone, but two (the "devil in music" as the dimished fifth interval was called, and therefore prohibited, in earlier music) This opening packs an added punch when the basses enter in the next bar with a dissonant d pedal. If that is too theoretical for any non-musicians with time enough on their hands to read blogs (LOL!), suffice it to say it is a bold and striking opening, all the more surprising given the text ("We give thank to Thee")

The truncated aspect of the work appears in the Credo, where only two movements of the text exist (Bach's B Minor Mass divides the Credo into 9 sections). Following an exuberant chorus, Mozart wrote one of the most sublime arias in all of music. "Et incarnatus est" is a pastoral nativity scene and chamber quartet for the soprano, flute, oboe, and bassoon. The four soloists share the melodic material in an interwoven fabric of felicitous beauty. The cadenza Mozart wrote for this colorful quartet is an extraordinary coda to one of his greatest individual movements.

The Sanctus--double chorus with an exuberant fugue for the "Osanna"--is scored for the colorful timbre of the wind-band (which includes woodwinds and brass instruments). The Benedictus is for the solo vocal quartet, and concludes with a reprise of the Osanna fugue, and as it stands, is a fitting close. The brooding Kyrie which opens the piece and establishes the sombre key of c minor metamorphoses through the 45 minutes of music Mozart composed to end in the sunlit key of C major.

The Mass has not been as popular as the Requiem for several reasons. Not least of which is the cult of mystery surrounding the composer's "swan-song" exploited in the play and film "Amadeus." That Mozart's pupil and assistant, Süssmayr, completed the work far below the standards of his master has not had an adverse effect on its popularity--testimony to the Requiem's staying power. Arguably a more difficult work to execute, and in my humble opinion a superior one, the C Minor Mass deserves at least an equal place.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Mostly Mozart & Prokofiev

So. This is the first of what is intended to be a series of blogs between me, your (ie: the Virginia Chorale's) Music Director, and whomever may have enough time on their hands to actually read such blogs. Since I happen to be in the middle of a very eventful month of concerts, I thought I'd start by sharing what I've been up to. I just finished a weekend of concerts at the Bard Music Festival in the Hudson Valley of New York. The Bard Festival is unique among summer arts festivals for devoting its attention to one composer "and his world." This year the composer was Sergey Prokofiev, best known for his educational, fairy-tale orchestral suite, Peter and the Wolf, the "Classical" Symphony, and his ballet, Romeo and Juliet. The Festival features the world's leading scholars in residence, giving lectures, writing articles (published in a Princeton University paperbook that bears the year's festival name, "Sergey Prokofiev and His World") and participating in discussion panels. If that sounds too dry and academic, the festival also boasts a 19th century-style carousel or circus tent, called the Spiegeltent, which is open nightly for dining and entertainment that ranges from topical cabaret and recital music to DJ's and dance music. A film series accompanies the concerts, in additon to operas, plays, and musicals that precede the Festival's two weekends worth of concerts. Should you have so chosen, you could have seen the film actor Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent) star in a new production of Checkhov's play, Uncle Vanya, attended a rare production of Gershwin's political satire of a musical, Of Thee I Sing, or a double bill of the polish composer Karol Szymanoski's operas. That is all to say that Bard offers a veritable wealth of cultural opportunities under the seemingly narrow umbrella of one composer and his world. I was brought in to sing on two different programs during the Festival's second weekend. The first was a recital devoted to the music Prokofiev and his contemporaries wrote as citizens in the Soviet Union. Like his older colleague, Stravinsky, Prokofiev (1891-1953) achieved early success as an enfant terrible (literally "terrible child" --a term with which any parent can identify, but in artistic terms here refers to the manifestation of prodigious talent at an early age accompanied by equally prodigious ego/issues/etc...). Prokofiev left Russia as a young adult to win fame and acclaim abroad in the US and Paris (as did Stravinsky), was disillusioned by his emigration, and seems to have returned to the USSR a faithful party member. While the first weekend of concerts was devoted to his early successes and the works composed abroad, the second weekend focused on the works of his Soviet years, and as such, represent a more ambiguous, complex, and uneven body of work. Since this is already turning into too long-winded an entry, I would direct the curious reader to the BMF website, or any number of books, articles, and sources on music and culture under the Iron Curtain & Stalin in particular. Composers in the USSR were called on to write music which uplifted the Soviet people, towed the party line, was uncorrupted by Western, "bourgois" influence, and fit within the difficult-to-define category of "Socialist realism." Prokofiev's opera 'Semyon Kotko' attempted to be such a work, and I had the interesting task of singing the title character's first aria "A soldier home from the front" (but in Russian, of course), depicting the peasant Semyon's return home after 4 years of combat in WWII, his hopes of being reunited with his fiancee, Sofya--a union opposed by her wealthy, land-owning, German-sympathizing father. In a comic aria from Prokofiev's last opera, "The Story of a Real Man" I had the pleasure of singing--in Gilbert & Sullivan-inspired rapid patter (in Russian!)--an aria about Anyuta, the alluring pen- pal of many a Red Army soldier whose love-letters are reducing the valiant commanders of Russia to ineffectual drivel, and thus deleteriously affecting the war effort! The final concert of the festival was devoted to large-scale works by Prokofiev and one of his colleagues, Vladimir Dukelsky (more widely known here as the song-writer, Vernon Duke). I sang Prokofiev's early cantata, 'They are Seven' with the largest orchestra in front of which I've ever stood. A wild and dramatic evocation of an ancient, Arkkadian epitaph, the poem depicts 7 god-like figures who have power over all the elements and are rendered as cold, evil destroyers whose power may be conjured with the proper incantation--in this case, a screaming tenor soloist, a large chorus, and a sprawling orchestra of about 100 players!