Sunday, January 13, 2008

Eclipse Chamber Orchestra Dumbarton concert

Last night, Saturday January 12, 2008, The Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, directed by Sylvia Alimena, selected from the National Symphony Orchestra, presented an important concert at the historic Dumbarton Methodist Church in the Georgetown section of Washington DC, about a one mile walk (uphill) from the Foggy Bottom Metro. The website is this.

Let’s deal with the bookends of the sandwich first. The opening work was Sir Edward Elgar ‘s Serenade in E Minor. I’ve haven’t heard it as often as Tchaikovsky’s or Dvorak’s (or even Wilhelm Stenhammar 's), and it really sounds laid back when I’m used to the Elgar of the Enigma Variations (which are about “people”), the Cello Concerto, and the two massive symphonies (the first of which does curious experiments with modulations over the tritone interval, from A-flat to d minor).

The closing work was Gustav Mahler ‘s “orchestration” of Franz Schubert ‘s “Death and the Maiden,” D. 810 / 790 string quartet. This seems like another attempt to create another big Schubert “symphony,” the motives for which I’ll get to below. The performance was robust and melodramatic, particularly the song variations in the second movement, that rose to climaxes like those in Mahler’s own slow movements. The piece stays in minor at the end and is not triumphant. The tragedy and vigor of the piece stimulated the 1995 political thriller Roman Polanski film by the same name in which "Ripley" Sigourney Weaver stars (and I dreamed about that film last night) and talks a lot about Schubert’s personal life, as if a parallel to events in the movie.

But the real main draw of the concert has to be the world premiere of a new suite by the 19-year-old Dumbarton composer in residence, Tudor Dominik Maican, who presumably made a quick hour plane trip from Indiana University to attend the premiere and bring the flower bouquets to the conductor for the applause afterwards. The composition is called "Solaris", and it is a three movement string dance suite of about twenty minutes. (Besides all the baroque examples, dance suites have been common among Romantic and modern composers: Grieg ("Symphonic Dances"), Dvorak ("Czech Suite"), Tchaikovsky's four suites, Bartok (as such), Rachmaninoff ("Symphonic Dances" and indeed a curiously effective late work). Each movement is based on a Romanian folk dance. Maican himself, while raised in the United States in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, has family roots in Romania and Germany. His succinct program notes describe a moving weekend trip to the (Carpathian?) mountains where he observed the folk dances, an experience that sounds a bit like one of my two trips to the (New Mexico) Lama Foundation in the 1980s. The name of the piece refers to the setting sun illuminating the dancers. He writes about their joy as if “it was the last evening of their lives,” a curious paradox that makes me wonder what is happening to them. Does if refer to the reign of Ceau┼čescu (but before 1989)? The Wikipedia entries on Romania and the Romanian language are quite interesting.

Of course, most people, when they see the title of the piece, will think of the sensational sci-fi novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, which generated the monumental Russian film in 1972 (actually spelled Solyaris) about a space mission to a distant planet that seems to be alive as a conscious entity. The film was remade (and unfortunately simplified) in 2002 by 20th Century Fox (as "Solaris"). The New Age concept, behind a recent book by “The View from the Center of the Universe” by Primack and Abrams, seems like an interesting concept for a musical tone poem. But that is not the case, according to the notes.

With any new composer, one likes to place the music in relation to other composers he knows. On the surface, the suite reminds one of Bartok, especially the early “Deux Images” (or perhaps Bartok's "Dance Suite" itself). The middle movement, as played in the concert, had a little bit of Viennese schmaltz, as if to remind one of Samuel Barber’s famous (string quartet) Adagio, or even the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. But here, even the slow movement is a dance, with motion and a sense of coming change, rather than mere memorial reminiscence of beauteous times. The first movement, especially, has an uptick motive that drives it; had the tempo been taken a tad faster, it could have almost worked on a disco floor. (I’m serious: the most radical “acid” music on disco floors these days –driving all the “break dancing” (I use a moderate term) could be repackaged as serious concert music, perhaps to become a “scherzo” of a traditional symphony.) The meters seemed to be duple or quadruple, but with a lot of syncopation, strettos and the like. Maican’s music seems to be built on simple motives that become the building blocks of melodies the way atoms build molecules; this feature of composition may help listeners learn and recognize his music and style quickly. From an economic point of view, that’s good. His talents could work in film, and his music reminds me of the background scores of some recent dramatic and horror films, particularly “There Will Be Blood” (original score by Jonny Greenwood, from the UK – although the closing credits collapsed on the finale of the Brahms Violin Concerto), “The Orphanage” (original score by Fernando Velazquez, Spain), and “The Host”, (original score by Byung-woo Lee (S. Korea)). (Sorry, the score of “Atonement” (Dario Marianelli, Italy) is of a different mold, mesmerizing as it is.)

Some of Maican’s music is on the Internet (as at NPR’s website, here -- some of the music from the finale of the Second Quartet has motives and rhythms similar to those in Solaris), and there are elements of Bartok, Ravel, maybe even d’Indy or, in another direction, Boulez. It’s a synthesis of post-romanticism with expressionism and impressionism, a synthesis of all the major European styles. But that’s pretty much the case these days. The music scores in the movies I mentioned above have similar styles with the composers from very different countries. Music has become globalized. Leonard Bernstein probably started this trend with a style that embraced post-romantic symphonies, modern expressionism, and Broadway, all in one vision. Composers today don’t seem to have the clear-cut personalities of “modern” composers of the early to mid last century – say Britten, Brian, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, the list goes on.. Instead, the assimilate.

We’re used to thinking of composers in contemporary pairs, and we learn to distinguish them. It’s usually easy to distinguish Mozart from Haydn, very easy to separate Beethoven and Schubert – but it is those last symphonies of Schubert (and quasi-symphonies like the String Quintet) that provided the building blocks for Mahler and Bruckner – and Mahler would go on to inspire Schoenberg, Berg, Shostakovich (especially the 4th and 8th Symphonies) and Britten (in the War Requiem, the Sinfonia da Requiem, even Billy Budd), and even Hevergal Brian (the Gothic Symphony), and of course American Leonard Bernstein (the Kaddish Symphony). They say that modern music started in 1909 with the first movement of the Mahler 9th, a movement that played in my head all summer long before that lost first freshman semester at William and Mary (search for this in my other sites). That all started with Schubert more than Beethoven (no wonder Sigourney Weaver’s character has such a fixation on him in the aforementioned movie). Then you compare Brahms and Schumann. While the Brahms Violin Concerto got mishandled in the movies, I can see the finales of the Second Symphonies of both Brahms and Schumann working in the closing credits of a movie I would make. No cuts, please. Closing credits music these days is awful; bring back the days of “All about Eve” or even “A Canterbury Tale” where the music score takes us to the very end.

Maican has already composed an unbelievable amount of music (so did Benjamin Britten in his youth). He is going to compose an opera from a house consecration in Romania. I have no idea what the subject matter is, but I can suggest a future project. "Smallville". The opera would tell the "DADT" coming of age story of a young man who has to hide his identity as an alien. The pilot of that series is a masterpiece, even as the CW series has slipped into comic book silliness in recent years. But the concept could generate a masterpiece. (Just rent the 2001 Pilot from Netflix and watch the drama build up. It's masterful screenwriting.) I’ve always thought that the Clark Kent as teen legend could make great opera.

The notes mention Maican as a presidential scholar. That puts him, according to imdb,in the company of actor Jared Padalecki aka level-headed brother Sam in Supernatural. He also is said to have a double major at Indiana University, with one of the majors bio-mathematics. Ashton Kutcher nearly majored in pre-med to go on and become a surgeon. How these career choices hang on a thread sometimes.

Dumbarton has a website for Maican now (4/2008), with this link.

There is also an announcement of a Maican concert at Strathmore in Maryland in 2009, here. Timothy Andres, another young composer, also preforms. Note 2009/05/01: There is a new development about the concert, here; anyone with more information is invited to comment. (End of note for 2009/5/1}.

Both of these references mention that Maican has been invited to compose an opera for the re-opening of the Cluj National Opera House in Romania. I posted a little relevant history about Romania on a discussion of the Bernstein "Freedom" concert in Berlin in 1989, on this blog later (Aug. 3, 2008).

The Dumbarton Methodist and Epsicopal Church appears to be a property separate from the Dumbarton Oaks, nearby (Wiki entry), for which Igor Stravinsky composed a famous chamber concerto in 1938.

Update: Jan. 21

This picture comes from a wall on Marquette street near the Minnesota Orchestra in downtown Minneapolis. The picture doesn't have good resolution, and I've never been able to identify the piano music. Ravel, maybe.

Update: Feb. 17, 2008

Check the CBS "60 Minutes" story "Gustavo the Great," (by reporter Bob Simon) about young Venezuelan conduction Gustavo Dudamel, who soon takes over as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He was shown conducting Beethoven, Mahler, and Bernstein. He now is only 26. Let me suggest some synergy, that he would conduct one of Maican's works.

Also tonight (Feb. 17), ABC "Extreme Makeover Home Edition" helped out another musician and composer (Patrick Henry Hughes) in Louisville, KY, see review here.

Update: March 4, 2008

NBC Nightly news reported a Massachusetts study on the beneficial effect of musical training on mathematical cognition in teenagers and younger, video here.

However ABC News has a bizarre story by Laura Viddy Darga on March 5, 2008, "One Woman's Struggle to Live in a World With Music; Music-Triggered Seizures Prompt Unusual Treatment," about a woman for whom music can start an epileptic seizure, a very unusual trigger. Link is here.

Update: Jan. 21, 2009

I heard Dudamel conduct the last movement of the Beethoven Fifth today on the radio, and he took the Finale extremely fast (like Toscanini) and bypassed the Exposition repeat.

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