Saturday, September 26, 2009

"It would be enough if music could make people listen."

As the leader of a non-profit arts organization, the "state of the arts" is an omnipresent concern. The Virginia Chorale is set to kick off its 26th season with a program entitled Sing in the Seasons. I've already posted the program notes for this concert. Last month I wrote a book review of Why Classical Music Still Matters. If that seems like a non sequitir, making connections is one of my raisons d'etre.

This week a colleague forwarded a link to a new Kennedy Center initiative called Arts in Crisis.

This "is a program designed to provide planning assistance and consulting to struggling arts organizations throughout the United States." And make no mistake about it, arts organizations throughout the US are struggling more than ever. I just started reading a book that's been on my list since I first learned of it, by the president of the Kennedy Center, Michael Kaiser. The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations is a blueprint for how non-profits can rethink, revise, and restructure in order to turn things around. His mission-focused agenda is full of practical advice. This advice is supported by case studies of the major organizations he has helped turnaround in the past 20 years: the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Kansas City Ballet, American Ballet Theater, and London's flagship opera company at Covent Garden, the Royal Opera House.

Kaiser's mantra is "good art marketed well." I know our organization is fulfilling the "good art" half of that equation. It is increasingly challenging in today's world, however, for smaller organizations to be the visible presence necessary to garner the attention and support required for the successful turnaround.

The Chorale was recently told by one of the (lamentably few) major corporations in the region that we're simply not big enough. "Not enough bang for the buck" was the reason we were denied sponsorship by a company that supports our big brother organizations like the Opera and the Symphony.

While a cappella choral music may be among the most rarified of classical music genres, it is no less relevant, no less vital, no less current & important than any of the omnibus genres that require larger stages & ensembles (and audiences). I would argue, moreover, that the meeting of poetry and music sung by a group of human voices in harmony is sui generis and thus the specialized nature of a cappella choral music is a singular and defining virtue.

One of the defining virtues of classical music in general is its ability to transcend specificity and be relevant across time and space. Our opening concert features a variety of settings of Shakespeare. One of his love poems features the line "When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed." This 400-year-old poem inspired a contemporary response by the American composer Dominick Argento. His setting of Sonnet LXIV is a gripping, haunting, and moving elegy for 9/11.

Though it seems to pass with less ado with each successive year, 9/11 is a case study of why classical music will always matter. The most meaningful expressions of the emotions associated with such tragedy--grief, sorrow, anger, confusion, lament--are best expressed via the arts. And no form more than music gives life to such expression. I would argue that choral music in particular is best fit for performing, enacting, and embodying such expression. In the aftermath of September 11th, and in the anniversaries since, the major works most often performed in commemoration have been Beethoven's 9th (choral) symphony and the Requiem settings of Mozart & Brahms .

Our fall concert is framed by two classic standards from the American songbook. Autumn Leaves and Summertime are two great ballads that happen to be the work of Jewish composers. The first example, made famous in this country by Johnny Mercer's lyrics, is a song of the Hungarian composer Joseph Kosma, who fled Nazi Germany for Paris in 1933. Earlier tonight I read a review in this week's New Yorker of Dancing in the Dark, a survey of art from the Depression-era thirties. While it did not mention the Gershwin brothers' ground-breaking work of musical theater, Porgy and Bess, it is worth noting that this operatic musical appeared in the same period.

Victor Hugo said "music expresses that which cannot be said and cannot be suppressed."

The subject heading of this post is a quote from one of Claude Debussy's letters. His Trois Chansons (Three songs) are at the center of a program of great music inspired by the seasons of the year. 17 of the finest singers in the Commonwealth will be singing that program next weekend. There is not another group like ours in Virginia. And there is no better way to experience the wealth and immeasurable variety of such expression than by participating in a concert of live music.

Come. Hear. Outstanding. Rewarding. Artists. Listen. Engage.

We hope you'll come hear what we're up to Oct 2-4.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

VC Program Notes: Sing in the Seasons

Virginia Chorale Fall Concert, Oct 2-4 (
Sing in the Seasons: Five Centuries of Songs for the Four Seasons
Notes on the Program

If the famous set of concerti by Vivaldi are the first name in classical music as far as the Four Seasons are concerned, the months of the year and their many accompanying metaphors have inspired all kinds of artists. Our opening program will examine a mere handful of the possibilities falling under the colorful umbrella of songs for the seasons. From Elizabethan England to today, these works come from the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, France, Norway and Finland.

Even if the foliage of Hampton Roads shows few signs of fall, Autumn Leaves is a perennial favorite. American audiences that associate the song with Johnny Mercer may be unaware its composer, Joseph Kozma, was a Hungarian Jew who studied in Budapest and Berlin before fleeing to France from the Nazis. Placed under house arrest and banned from composing, he still managed to be a successful songwriter and film composer.

Dominick Argento is one of our greatest living composers, and one who has enriched the body of American vocal music—operas, songs, and choral works alike—over the course of his prolific career. Sonnet LXIV is an elegy in response to the events of September 11, 2001. “When sometime lofty towers I see down razed” inspired an intensely felt and pungently harmonized chorale setting of Shakespeare’s verse.

Danny Boy is one of the most beloved elegiac ballads in the repertory. Joseph Flummerfelt’s arrangement seizes on the lyricism of the tune and its poetic sentiment.

While not explicitly concerned with autumn, the Witches’ chorus from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Double, Double, Toil and Trouble exudes Halloween and is a perfect close to our opening section of songs for the fall. Jaakko Mäntyjärvi has been an increasingly visible presence on the international choral scene since winning acclaim at the 1997 European Choral Composition contest. His skills as a professional Finnish-English translator are in evidence in the deft setting of Shakespeare’s grotesque recipe. He exploits the voices’ range, incorporates parlando (speaking) effects, and closes by using the choir as a massed percussion instrument.

Our section devoted to winter is framed by two impressionist triptychs. Hildor Lundvik was an important 20th century Norwegian composer, and his indebtedness to the fluid textures of Debussy and Ravel is apparent. His three Nocturnes use textures that conjure mid-winter frozen rain; spare harmonies echo the cold, and the varied use of modes (whole-tone & pentatonic scales) evokes the constantly shifting weather between late winter and early spring.

In between the impressionist works are two madrigals. April is in My Mistress Face is one of the classics of the Renaissance genre by its central exponent, Thomas Morley. Morley’s words and music chart a familiar metaphorical journey that begins with love in spring and ends unrequited in winter. New York composer Matthew Harris has written several collections of songs by Morley’s colleague and contemporary, William Shakespeare. O Mistress Mine (from Twelth Night) sounds like a popular ballad closer to top 40 than the Renaissance, replete with a crooning tenor solo.

Claude Debussy is one of the most important composers in music history. After all, how many composers are THE epitome of a ground-breaking genre? Debussy is music's great Impressionist composer (even if he claimed to disdain the term). In the brief span of his truncated career (he died of cancer in his mid-fifties), his oeuvre, though modest, would define a style and influence many of the developments of the 20th century.

His Trois chansons de Charles d’Orleans are among the great miniatures for the a capella chorus. The first chanson (song) is a lilting & simple sounding folksong. The attractive sheen this impressionist music creates belies the extraordinary care and detail in Debussy’s craft, which is anything but simple for the performer of his music. The second song, Quant J’ai Ouy le Tabourin features an alto solo accompanied by the voices imitating instruments, like the tambourine of the title. The final song, Yver, vous n’etes qu’un villain (“Winter, you are a villain”) requires virtuosic precision in rhythm and diction, with icicle like accents punctuating the alternating textures between individual sections, a solo quartet and the entire ensemble.

Spring opens with a fluid setting from the Song of Songs by the Canadian church music composer, Healey Willan. Rise up, My Love, My Fair One is a prime example of this composer’s gifts for text setting, effective melody and affective harmony.

We feature next another pairing of Morley and Harris. Now is the Month of Maying is a paradigm of the Renaissance madrigal, ebullient and effervescent, rounded out with the trademark fa-la-la refrain. Harris has written another pop ballad-inflected chorus in It was a lover and his lass. Here the line “with a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino” serves as the madrigal-esque refrain. The hummable tune is shared between the tenors and sopranos, with the lower voices providing accompaniment.

Another outgrowth of the Renaissance madrigal is the English part-song. Cousin to the French chanson and German Volkslied, the part-song is typically an a capella setting of a romantic or traditional poem. Finzi elevates the popular genre in his inspired setting of Seven Partsongs on poems of Robert Bridges. Nightingales is the fifth in the set, and uses the descriptive poem to create a sound world evocative of the natural one. The final stanza, narrated by the Nightingales themselves, depicts the “innumerable choir of day” building to an arresting & impressive finish.

Frederick Delius’ Two Unaccompanied Part Songs dispense with words entirely. To be sung of a summer night on the water (I & II) features jazz-like harmonies between the wordless voices, evoking the very image the composer identified in the descriptive title.

O My Luve’s Like a Red, Red Rose, is a contemporary American part-song. David Dickau’s setting of the popular Robert Burns ballad is a lovely serenade, and typical of the immediately appealing style of its composer. Nocturne was the first piece of Adolphus Hailstork’s with which I fell in love. Here, Hailstork uses effects to create the atmosphere of a summer night abuzz with the sounds and signs of life. The chant-like soprano solo leads to a rousing tutti where the poet invites the beloved to “come and watch these skies with me.” The atmospheric opening of humming lower voices accompanies the solo soprano, returning to frame and close this striking nocturne.

No season is complete without Shakespeare, and Harris’ When Daffodils Begin to Peer is a rowdy, romp of a choral hayride. With bluegrass-tinged twang, Harris sets Shakespeare’s verses about the good life with wit and flair. We close our opening program with the quintessential song of summer, Gershwin’s Summertime. We hope you enjoy listening to these songs as much as we enjoy singing them for you.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Nine Lives: Intro to the lives of nine 9th Symphonies

I have been mulling over a series of essays on 9th symphonies for some time. My recent post on Lawrence Kramer's engaging book, Why Classical Music Still Matters, has spurred me to at least take a stab at it. Kramer talks about one of classical music's singular and defining features via the personality a major work assumes. Separable from the performers who recreate the music, a great symphony, quartet or concerto takes on a metaphorical, allegorical, and--seemingly-- literal life of its own.

It is not difficult to ascertain why this anthropomorphic status should be assigned to the great symphonies. From Beethoven onward, the symphony evolved with its parallel form in literature, the novel. And the symphony in the 19th century would develop & change like its romantic & modern cousins, the roman a clef & Bildungsroman (simply put, the narrative novel--unfolding from or about the life of its protagonist--the French term applies more to satire &/or allegory, the German to the "coming-of-age" novel).

It is also with Beethoven the quasi-mythological status of the 9th symphony comes into being. Beethoven's magnum opus, the first symphony to employ vocal music (the famous "Ode to Joy" finale), is at once a starting place and endpoint of the work as "thing-unto-itself"--an alpha and omega of classical music's unequaled claim to transcendence. Its unique power is in evidence from its 19th century origins to monumental appearances at the end of the cold war to recent incarnations in the aftermath of September 11 and hurricane Katrina.

I became more fascinated with the idea of the 9th symphony as I grew more enamored with the life and music of Gustav Mahler. One of Mahler's teachers and mentors, Anton Bruckner, did not live to complete his own 9th symphony, and that shadow only strengthened the mythological spell cast by Beethoven. Some believe Mahler attempted to outwit Fate by calling his ninth entry in the symphonic genre Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). His last completed Symphony was numbered the 9th, but is the tenth symphony he wrote. His Tenth symphony remained unfinished at his death in 1911.

The opening adagio of Mahler's Tenth, interestingly, has taken on a life all its own. Schubert's so-called "Unfinished" symphony (his 8th) and Bruckner's 9th are multi-movement torsos of what would have been larger works. I can't think of a single movement that has the afterlife of Mahler's valedictory Adagio. Rilke's brilliant sonnet, "Archaic torso of Apollo," with its images of radiance and power still emanating from the incomplete, headless statue, will certainly be a source to which I return often in discussing the unfinished lives of these works. This is from the excellent edition of New Poems [1908], The Other Part (A Bilingual Edition, translated by Edward Snow. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).

We never knew his head and all the light
that ripened in his fabled eyes. But
his torso still glows like a candelabra,
in which his gazing, turned down low,
holds fast and shines...

Rilke's sonnet crackles with the energy of a great work of art, able to transcend its history & location--its specificity--and speak across time and space. This is another defining feature of the "classical" work, one which rewards those engaged with it, charged and changed by the very act of participation. As the actor Jude Law recently said--on playing Shakespeare's Hamlet--these speeches still resonate today because we have not found a better way of saying things in 400 years!

The inextinguishable resonance of the 9th symphony is such that a handful of major essays in the genre are, if not ignored, overlooked (and though Alban Berg said "there is only one 9th"--Mahler's, Beethoven's is the one most refer to as THE 9th).

9 is the ultimate number for composers around whom less aura has accumulated. From Schubert to Dvorak to Vaughan Williams, the 9th symphony would be a crowning achievement. Even further removed from the smoke and mirrors of myth is the American modernist, Roger Sessions, whose 9th is an incisive, tightly argued work.

Though not their final essays in the genre, Dmitri Shostakovich and Hans Werner Henze both wrote 9ths that were products of their time and in very different ways, responses to the dilemma of the post-Beethovenian, post-Mahlerian "9th lives." Following the brooding, massive, post-war canvas of his 8th, Shostakovich was expected to compose a heroic, Beethoven-inspired 9th honoring Stalin and the Soviet Union. This 9th, however, is a bird of a different feather. It is one of its composers most compact & drolly ironic scores. Henze has lived in Italy in self-imposed exile from his native Germany since the 1950's. His 9th is a choral symphony throughout, based on the anti-fascist novel of Anna Seghers, Das Siebte Kreuz (The Seventh Cross). It was by hearing and studying this engaging, committed, and moving work (and considering it as my dissertation topic) I first hit upon the idea of a "nine lives" series of essays exploring these symphonies.

Whether living in the limelight or abiding in obscurity, these works are bursting with energy and personality all their own.

I look forward to spending more time with these works and musing on the fascinating life of each of them in the coming weeks & months.