Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter Sunrise with Aaron Copland

On Easter Sunday morning, at a Sunrise Service, a congregation sings a hymn to Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” fanfare opening.  This was at the Easter Sunrise service this morning at Trinity Presbyterian Church, on the little "mountain" (elevation about 440 feet) behind the church.  You could see the damage to the trees above from the derecho and (to a lesser extent) Sandy in 2012.  

The Congregation sang the words to “Lord of the Dance”.  Actually, the piece of classical music that best fits that description is probably the finale of Beethoven’s Symphony #7.

Back in the 1950s, radio station WGMS in Washington DC used to open the evening “Symphony Hall” with the orchestral fanfare from Copland’s ballet.    It was a popular work then, in musical circles and even among high school music buffs with whom I often socialized.  
Here’s an orchestral rendition of Copland’s ballet fanfare, link. :

By way of comparison, the “Fanfare for the Common Man” provides a majestic close to the Symphony #3, with Slatkin conducting here.This music seemed appropriate during the days of battling “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”. 

At the 11:15 AM Easter service, the choir, organ and brass band performed two neo-romantic anthems by Roland Martin: "A Song of Resurrection" and "Alleluia: Christ Has Rosne".  The offertory was a more modal "Easter Triumph: Easter Joy" by Carson Cooman.  The prelude included Handel, Farlee, and Boles ("Nigerian Fanfare"). and the Postlude was "Gaudeamus!" by Richard Proulx.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Massenet's "comique" treatment of the tragedy of Manon, an immoral woman

I’m a little big mad at the Kennedy Center for the mess on their website the week “Mormon” went on sale, when I had to go through a third party (stumbling) to get symphony concert tickets at all. So, when, this week, Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut”  was featured for three performances in the Opera House, I looked at options.  I treated myself instead to an Arthaus DVD of a 2001 performance of “Manon” by Jules Massenet (premiered about nine years earlier, in 1884), by the Paris opera with Jesus Lopez-Cobos, and with Renee Flemming as Manon Lescaut and Marcelo Alvarez as Le Chavalier Des Grieux.

The set is in 2 DCD’s (it wasn’t Blu-Ray, but looks sharp anyway); but 164 minutes could fit onto one.
Technically, the opera is known as an “opera comique” despite the tragedy and moralizing of the interesting story, based on a novel  “The Story of the Chevalier des Grieux and Manon Lescaut” by L’Abbe Provost (1731). I don't remember reading any of this in high school French (I do remember Victor Hugo).  

The love story, or course, pairs Manon and des Grieux, through several stages:  first they live together in poverty (she had been intended for a convent).  Later, Des Grieux considers being a priest but his family will give him an inheritance if he will marry and have children.  (Where have we debated that before?  The “natural family” anyone?)  Manon returns to his life, they elope, and waste their wealth, partly through gambling (a big theme in the opera).  Manon is considered an immoral woman and will be deported to a penal colony, but dies of exhaustion in her lover’s arms at the end.

Despite the “tragedy”, the opera is technically called an “opera comique”.  The music seems light in the beginning, but gradually grows more intense in the many arias and choruses, especially in the festivals in the long “scherzo” Act 3.  (The Opera is in 5 Acts (originally 4), and 6 scenes.)  The major tonalities are B-fat, E-flat, and D-Minor.  (I could check them on the Casio.)  Every act ends in a major fortissimo.  Even at the end, when Manon dies, the music gives us triumph in B-flat major.  Is that because it’s comedy?  (I haven’t heard the Pucinni , except for the passionate, chromatic intermezzo).  But Tosca ends on a loud minor chord with tragedy, and Turandot, completed by Alsonso with a rather Mahlerian touch, ends in a triumphant D Major, one of the most magnificent in all of grand opera.)   Massent,  to my ear, sounds a little more spontaneous but less chromatic than Puccini.  The opera has several  famous themes;  a minor-keyed theme in Act IV appears in a piano reduction in one of John Thompson’s piano courses.
The novel has been filmed a few times, but not since 1970.  The original novel is set partly in Louisiana, where Manon dies at the end of exposure in the bayou  after a possible hurricane (at a time when the bayous were undisturbed and offered some protection) .  Given the strength of the film business in Louisiana, it sounds like a no-brainer that someone will want to film the original novel again, and even play on the idea of the environmental irony. 

Could the novel deserve a modern operatic setting?  Maybe with a post-Katrina New Orleans and Las Vegas thrown in?  (Or maybe the casinos in Mississippi are good enough; imagine another hurricane.)  It’s pretty easy to imagine one of a few young composers today attempting it.  I won’t name names here.  But I would expect to see it. It probably will end quietly after Manon expires.  

It takes an unusual dedication to become an opera singer.  People start out in voice and become pop stars; or they start out in piano and become movie producers.   Opera would be too unifocal a life for most artists.  

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Maryland museum has complete display of century-old musical instruments; more on Sousa, jazz

The "Frostburg Museum", in alpine Frostburg MD (I discussed it in more detail today on my IT Jobs blog) has a lot of older musical instruments on display.
The most notable is the exhibition of an old brass ensemble that would play those loud marches by John Phillip Sousa.
There were also some old pianos (some with fewer than 88 keys), organs, accordions, and most of all 78-rpm record players.  I used to play Sousa marches on them!
Today, the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington offered the Trinity Jazz Ensemble to provide all the music for the long service in the gymnasium including an annual meeting.  Yes, it was packed, despite beginning an hour and a half earlier than usual (including the Daylight Savings Time spring forward), but people started leaving before the meeting (as did I), despite lunch afterward. 
 I;ve never been one for marching and playing music in uniform, but "here it is":

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Mahler's Sixth Symphony: could a student orchestra learn it?

Back in December (see posting Dec. 9, 2012), a high school student musician and percussion player told me that he had enjoyed the opportunity to read and perform the Mahler Sixth (the “Symphony #6 in A Minor” (1906)) at a summer camp at Berkshire in 2012.  It sounds incredible that this entire work could be learned in a summer by youth, but today I got out my own CD, a performance recorded in 1982 by Lorin Maazel and the Vienna Philharmonic (on Sony). 
When I was stationed at Fort Eustis in 1969 while in the Army, one of my “buddies”, having attended Berkeley, recalled a roommate who knew Mahler, and particularly had spoken about the Sixth.  That “buddy’s” called himself Rado Suhl.
And back during that lost freshman semester at William and Mary in the fall of 1961, a “music friend” and composer (mentioned here January 8, 2013) had mentioned the work, as the “hammer stroke” symphony.
Yet, until the 1960s, when Leonard Bernstein resurrected Mahler (and Carl Nielsen, and then his own works), most people had known Mahler only through Bruno Walter’s recordings for Columbia.  Walter never conducted the Sixth, Seventh or Eighth, considering them in a sense unfinished.  One textbook in the early 60s had called the Sixth one if Mahler’s “weakest works”.  Obviously, Bernstein’s rehabilitation of all the middle Mahler works changed the assessment completely. 
When I started working on my own in 1970, I bought an RCA Victor recording of the 6th with Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony at an RCA company store in Princeton, NJ (where I worked then). 
One of the most interesting innovations in the work is the way Mahler used to “tritone” key relationship, jumping from the A Minor of the Scherzo to E-flat major for the slow movement (which, as am “Andante moderato” is not very slow (as Bruckner would be), though passionate).  You get to this modulation by going to the relative minor twice.  The finale starts in C Minor, which is the relative minor of E-flat.  It can then pass through C Major to A minor, the home key of the symphony.  Not many major symphonies do this, although Edward Elgar does this within a single movement in the first movement of his A-flat Major Symphony #1 (where the main theme is presented in D Minor). 
The concept of two successive “relative minor” transitions (or reversed, relative major), pivoting across an enharmonic or parallel major, could be significant for song writing.  Many “pop stars” write songs in Minor-relative major format, more or less like a symphonic exposition.  The minor portion poses a question, and the major key section becomes a “refrain” that gets repeated, almost as in a church hymn. 
The first movement of the Mahler Sixth follows a strict sonata form, with the march theme in A minor moving into a transition (the “hammerstroke idea)  and then going to the “refrain”, the Alma theme (Alma was Mahler’s beloved wife), this time in F Major (the submediant, instead of the relative major, which would have been C Major). You'd better enjoy the climax of the First Movement, as there is no more joy to follow. 
The CD says that this is the Revised version of the Sixth.  I think that’s the only one performed.
I’ll talk about the Seventh another time (as well as the Fifth, whose famous Adagietto was played a lot the weekend of the Kennedy assassination in 1963).  I do remember hearing the joyous conclusion of the first movement of the Seventh while parking my car to cover a “Be brave and shave” fundraiser event at the Westover Market in Arlington.  I bought a Westminster recording of the work with Hermann Scherchen in the fall of 1962, a mono recording but the first record I ever played on my “new” VM stereo. 

It's interesting to note a comparison of the Mahler 6th to Bruckner's little played Sixth, actually in A Major, called the "Philosophical".  It is rather declamatory. I have a Denon recording with Sawallisch. 

Monday, March 04, 2013

First Baptist Church DC closer on re-opening sanctuary; North Carolina college gives choral recital at service

I did attend the first Sunday Communion service at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC March 3.
There was a guest chorus, the Campbell University Choir, from Buies Creek, NC., directed by Dr. Phillip Morrow, with service held in the Fellowship Hall, without organ (but with piano available).
The choir sung a twenty-minute a cappella program: “Sample Gifts” (by Renee Clausen), “Lord of the Small” (Dan Forrest and Johanna Anderson), “The Battle of Jericho” (Moses Hogan), “Bright Morning Stars” (a Kentucky folk song arranged by Jay Althouse) and “Stayed on Jesus” (Jan Marvyn Youngblood).  The Postlude (with piano) was the movement “The Ground” from the “Sunrise Mass” by Ola Gjeilo (Norwegian composer, stylistically a bit like Nielsen -- fitting given the Kennedy Center's recent "Nordic Cool" program).
The Church will resume using the Sanctuary on Palm Sunday, March 24, 2013.  But the date that the new organ will be in use is not yet established.  About $180,000 in fund raising remains (well over $1 million raised).
I’ll add another little field report to this posting:  Saturday, I went to the Greenberg model train show at the race track in Upper Marlboro, MD.  I bought an N-scale set which I will use as a prop myself for future film and video (see my main blog yesterday).  The exhibits from several local clubs were simpler, with less scenery, than usual.   

Friday, March 01, 2013

National Symphony presents music of Finland, with a moving reading of Sibelius #7

This week. The National Symphony Orchestra and Kennedy Center are observing “Nordic Cool 2013” with a concert of music from Finland.  This country has always been a mystery place, whose language is a bit of an enigma.  The country is one of the "highest tech" in the world (rivaled only by South Korea).  

The music of Jean Sibelius bookends the concert. The concert opens with the tone poem “Night Ride and Sunrise”, Op. 55, with a “program” that roughly reminds one of the conclusion of Schoenberg’s “Gurre-L:ieder”.  After the vassals ride in the early part of the piece, the brass shine toward the majestic end.  The final chord disappears, leaving two woodwinds to hold the last note, a bizarre technique that Dvorak had used to close the finale of the New World Symphony.  I’ve never been sure of the point.
The program concluded with the one movement Symphony #7 in C, Op. 105. From 1924.  I became familiar with Beecham’s recording of this work when I was a senior in high school, and it became a kind of personal motto in my “pre William and Mary” days (as I have discussed elsewhere)..  The sections of the symphony gradually morph into one another, so that the “movements” don’t have precise boundaries.  The work is one of the most mature examples of Sibelius’s mature style, his amalgamation of European post-romanticism with some modal techniques from impressionism (even Debussy), and his ability to build themes from little elements that start and grow gradually.  The elfish "scherzo" appears two-thirds the way through the movement (sounding more modern and even Parisian), and gradually gets snuffed out by the increasing grandeur. Not everyone warms up to this technique.  But the effect Feb. 28 of the performance by Christoph Eschenbach was monumental.
The first half of the program concluded with the Violin Concerto by Magnus Lindberg, and sounded a bit familiar.  It is somewhat neoclassical, and somewhat eclectic, in three sections with the cadenza near the end, followed by a dissipating and quiet end, .as if the listener could add his own material.  The young violinist was Pekka Kuusisto, who plays a Guadagmimi violin from 1752,  The solo tone was a bit featherweight, at least to a listener in the back of the top tier.  The violinist performed a folk dance as a solo encore. 
The second half began with the 25-minute three-part tone poem “Orion”, by Kaija Saariaho. The work is rather percussive and dissonant to the point of abstraction.   The conclusion has a perpetual motion machine where the volume dies down to nothing.  This music seemed devoid of emotion.

On the Millennium stage, a Swedish group called Skaran performed folk dances on native strings.  
In the photographs of the Nordic sculpture above (in both Kennedy Center hallways), notice the "Mobius strip" effect.