Thursday, November 22, 2007

PBS: Israel Philharmonic 70th Anniversary; curious interpretation of Brahms "youth concerto"


On Wednesday, Nov. 21, PBS aired the 70th Anniversary Gala Concert of the Israel Philharmonic from Tel Aviv, with Zubin Mehta conducting. PBS link is here. There are more airings of the performance scheduled as listed there.

There was plenty of great photography of the city (Tel Aviv), the concert hall, and footage of past outdoor concerts since Israel was established in 1948, accompanied by minor-keyed orchestral music that may have come from the film "Schindler's List" . There was a famous outdoor (in Jerusalem) concert in which Leonard Bernstein conducted Mahler’s Second Symphony, a controversial choice given the issues of the region.

On this concert, there were three items. The first was the familiar Violin Concerto #1 in G Minor by Max Bruch with violinist Bronislaw Huberman. The first movement is essentially an extended prelude, leading to the melodious slow movement and the lively G major finale. I recall hearing this at a friend’s house over a chess game right after I graduated from high school in 1961, setting of a sequence that would eventually become a major life story. (The three Bruch symphonies on Philips are robust and ingratiating.)

The middle piece was Ravel’s La Valse, which is supposed to constitute bitter “satire” of what had just happened in Europe (the shell shock of World War I) at the time it was written.

But the main attraction of the concert was Daniel Barenboim ‘s performance of Johnannes Brahms ‘s Piano Concerto #1 in D minor, which Brahms started at the age of 20, originally as a symphony. It was finally performed as we know it today when he was 25. By contrast, his known first symphony, which he worked on for many years, was not performed until he was 43.

The Concerto was inspired in some part by the attempted suicide of Robert Schumann. At its time, it was “unconventional”, sounding, especially in the first two movements, like a Symphony with piano rather than a concerto. For me, it has always been a curious paradox. The majestic, even monumental first movement proves what Brahms can do with 6/4 time: it starts on a thundering b-flat major chord, then to the dominant A until it settles on the sturm and drang of d minor. In this performance, the orchestra phrased some critical passages unconventionally, with ellipsis, pulling the music forward with an effect that I don’t recall ever hearing before. But at the very end of the movement, Mehta paused be for having the orchestra boom out its final crashing d minor chord, for a tremendous effect. The second movement stays in the tonic D, moving to major, and stays in 6/4 time, which is unusual.

The finale, a Rondo in 2/4, usually sounds “lighter” in many performances. It is supposed to echo the rondo of Beethoven’s C Minor piano concerto (remember how that movement starts with an enharmonic trick on the note G#-A-flat). But here Barenboim and Mehta try to fix what has always been a letdown in the movement. Barenhoim speeds the cadenza up with great virtuosity (giving an effect like that of the cadenza-fugue near the end of Eugen d’Albert’s youth-composed first piano concert) and then Mehta starts to draw out the D Major orchestral ritornel that concludes, speeding up and then slowing down for the very last fortissimo chords. Barenboim also makes a lot of the trills in the piano part, reminding one of the curious effects in the closing passages of Brahms’s youthful Piano Sonata #2 (f-sharp minor).

Brahms did something similar with the second concerto (B-flat) where the first movement is the most massive, and then the scherzo is rather melodramatic, but the slow movement and finale are surprisingly relaxed. (The Schumann A minor concerto is like this,) The custom in some minor keyed romantic piano concertos that would follow would be to convert to the parallel major with a majestic “big tune” for climactic effect. Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and Grieg provide the best known examples of this “chills and fever” effect for concluding a concerto, and that concept really had not developed that well by the mid 1850s. That’s why the conclusion of the Brahms first piano concerto has always been problematic by comparison.

In my own mind, as a teenager, I always connected the first movement of the Brahms with the first movement of the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, stylistically different until one plays the ossia cadenza, not often used but perform by Van Cliburn in his 1959 recording with Konrashin. In my own crude “concerto-like: D minor piano sonata that I composed at 16, in D minor, I tried to combine the two “styles” and the piece rather works. I tried also making the slow movement in the subdominant (G major), not done often with works in minor keys. I guess I’d like to get Cakewalk set up with midis to record it, at least to offer on the Internet.

When I worked from 2002-2003 calling for contributions to the Minnesota Orchestra Young People’s Concerts, I got complimentary tickets, and I particularly recall a performance of the Schumann Symphony #2, with a guest conductor whom I don’t recall. But there was a Q&A in which the conductor described this as a symphony that “talks to itself” and has a curious circularity. Every movement is centered on the tonality of C, and the music is a curious mixture of march-like figures and folk-like tunes, including the Romanza. The effect works as the climax at the end is almost Bruckner-like. That is the work where Bernstein's unearthing of the opulent "original orchestration" created controversy in the 60s but is well accepted today as the standard way to perform the work.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Christopher Marlowe: Edward II (Shakespeare Theater DC)


The Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington DC has been putting on two Christopher Marlowe plays, Tamburlaine, and Edward II, his last play (1592), which I saw tonight (directed by Gale Edwards) at the Sidney Harman Hall on F Street near Chinatown in Washington DC. The theater seems new and is in a freshly renovated building.

The theater offered two kinds of programming notes, including a larger tabloid style with an essay “Why Marlowe Matters.” Marlowe was one of the first men from a commoner background to become well known as a literary figure; he was the son of a shoemaker who, because of literacy, was able to influence his son go get educated. Marlowe graduated from college at 18 and, as the notes say, postponed “real life” to go to graduate school, but once out on his own, at 23, may have spied for the Queen while starting to write. Marlowe was one of the first playwrights to deal with real social issues, including class distinctions and sexuality. He took real risks, but his plays were quite influential. It appears, however, that his history Edward II, of an apparently gay 14th Century king, may well have contributed to his been framed and murdered (at the age of 29). This was his last play and has been little performed over the years until recently because of the subject matter. Marlowe got into a cultural battle with Shakespeare, not only over writing history, but over presenting “station in life” progression: a high born King like Edward II who falls, or a shepherd (Tamburlaine) who becomes king. The theater flyer indicates that Marlowe set a very important example for Shakespeare. Today, Shakespeare and Marlowe compare the way other contemporary pairs in the arts do, such as Beethoven and Schubert.

There are a lot of accounts of the play on the Internet, but much of the play has to do with Edward’s (played by Wallace Acton) relationship with his male lover, low born Frenchman Gaveston (Vayu O’Donnell). Some of the passages in the early part of the play are quite passionate. (One of Mortimer’s lines reads “Leave now to oppose thyself against the king; Thou seest by nature he is mild and calm,
And seeing his mind so dotes on Gaveston, Let him without controlment have his will. The mightiest kings have had their minions: Great Alexander loved Hephaestion,The conquering Hercules for Hylas wept, And for Patroclus stern Achilles drooped. And not kings only, but the wisest men: The Roman Tully loved Octavius, Grave Socrates, wild Alcibiades.”

Gaveston moves in and out of banishment, generating all the political complications and deaths. Gaveston is killed by the enraged nobles just before the Intermission, and Edward II is dispatched by a fire poker at the end – well and then his son king (he was married to Isabella and did reproduce) gets his vengeance for his father, whom he dearly loved.

The production was cinematic and colorful, with trapdoors in the stage providing popups all evening. There is a cathedral scene near the end with multiple candles that reminds one of the Fatima shrine in Portugal (which I visited in 2001). The play was amplified with music, from Tchaikovsky (the 5th and 6th symphonies in the many romantic scenes between Edward and Gaveston), Shostakovich (the 1st, 4th and 5th symphonies for all the political violence), Britten, Leonard Bernstein (“The Age of Anxiety”) and, at the end, the memorial march by Sir Arthur Sullivan (in honor of his father) that ends the play in triumph. The original music was by Karl Lundeberg. The sound was stunning (like Dolby Digital in a first rate movie theater -- Landmark’s E Street Cinema is a few blocks away) and the presentation made me wonder, wouldn’t this play make great opera?

The costumes were from an odd mixture, with a lot of the sartorial tastes of the early 20th Century evident. I think it would have been more effective to use 14th century dress.

Homosexuality was not viewed as an orientation in Elizabethan times; it was viewed as conduct in which some men engaged, often viewed as sinful (as today). Yet, homosexuality does occur in English literature, with this play one of the most important example. It would be hard to teach the topic honestly (even in public school, where some parents pressure schools not to) without acknowledging that. Many sources indicate that it is likely that Marlowe was homosexual, and Shakespeare may have had a homosexual affair, even though he married Anne Hathaway and produced children.

There is a film “Edward II” directed by (deceased in 1994) Derek Jarman from Fine Line Features (1992) with Steven Waddington and Andrew Tiernan. The film is a bit compressed (90 minutes) but uses a mixed modern setting and seems like a filmed play with closeups. The idea that old-fashioned notions of sexual morality and lineage can justify inherited privilege and political power does come through the film version even more than in the play.

Note: As far as I know, no stages in the DC area are affected by the stangehands stike on Broadway. It's obvious to anyone who attends this production how hard the stagehands work, and how hard the actors work, every show. (The two lead characters here get abused and roughed up a bit; it looks like Gaveston's actor gets painted.) Let's hope the strike in NYC is settled promptly.

Update: Nov. 29, 2007

According to news reports, the stagehands' strike is settled. CNN story.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Randall Thompson's Testament of Freedom and other patriotic works at No Va CC concert Veteran's Day


On Veteran’s Day, Sunday Nov. 11, 2007, Northern Virginia Community College, the Music Program (http://www.nvcc.edu/alexandria/visual/music/ ), presented a short concert with four items. Performing were the Washington Metropolitan Youth Orchestra, NVCC Annandale Chorus, NOVA Community Chorus, and the Annandale High School Men’s Chorus. Conductors were Henry Sgrecci, Robert Webb and Mark Whitmire. The concert was held in the Rachel M. Schlessinger Concert Hall of the Alexandria Campus of Northern Virginia Community College.

The four program items were

(1) Roy Harris: Variations on “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” The music, developing the minor-keyed Civil War tune, adds quite a bit of massed chordal dissonance in places, in a style that reminds one of the composer’s Third Symphony.

(2) Edwin Eugene Bagley, “National Emblem March,” with a Presentation of the Colors by the Color Guard of West Potomac High School (Academy ROTC Program)near Alexandria, VA. (Both high schools in the concert are part of the Fairfax County Public Schools system.) I remember having a 78 rpm record of this march as a boy. The audience stood for the colors, which interrupted the march, and used M-14s. I was trained in Army Basic on the M14 (just before the M16 was introduced in Basic -- but even then there was no drill and ceremony for the newer weapon) but I would not remember how to disassemble and clean it now.

(3) Randall Thompson, “Testament of Freedom” (1943), a cantata in four movements, written to celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of Thomas Jefferson. The music has little modernism to challenge the popular listener and is accessible and straighforward, having the effect of hymn music. As such, it has relatively little tension compared to most concert choral music. The text comes from
“A Summary View of the Rights of British America” (1774) and the “Declaration and Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms” (1776). The text can be found here.

(4) Carmen Dragon’s arrangement of “America the Beautiful”

The concert hall is modern and ample (almost 1000 seats), with sound dampers that reminds me of all the news stories of the acoustic engineering of major orchestra concert halls back in the 60s. Before the audience was admitted, the choruses rehearsed in the lobby in front of the patrons. There are thirteen colonial flags below the stage symbolizing the thirteen colonies.

A concert like this also seems like an exercise in patriotism, a kind of homage. (We sometimes forget that we used to call this day Armistice Day, and that World War I was at one time called "The Great War." The commemoration hardly constitutes the “windmills” of real sacrificial service. The controversy is, just how much does the freedom of many of us depend on the sacrifices of some of us. (Economically it’s another matter.) In Iraq, just as with Vietnam, we are hardly sure. During WWII, the Greatest Generation, there was no question about it.

Update: March 15, 2008


The other Thomson, Virgil Thomson, composed some film music in the 30s and 40s. Here is a movie review that discusses him (from the National Archive's "New Deal on Film," here.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Musical requiem may be encoded in famous Da Vinci painting


A story by AP writer David Ariel “Leonardo Painting Has Coded ‘Soundtrack’” discusses a new book by Giovanni Maria Pala, “The Hidden Music” (“La Musica Celata”), in which he maintains that a musical composition, like a requiem, is encoded in Leonardo Da Vinci ‘s painting “The Last Supper”. The music would like sound like Renaissance music (which can sometimes sound “modern”). The book was published in Italy and does not yet show up on Amazon. A site for the book (in Italian) is this: The details for the book are La musica celata: With the collaboration of Loredana Mazzarella, Book+CD: Euro 15,00, ISBN 978-88-6206-005-9 (about $22 US). A site for The Last Supper painting is this.

The Ariel link is here.

Da Vinci, as presented in various (History Channel) documentary films as well as Dan Brown’s novel (and Columbia Pictures ‘s 2006 movie) “The Da Vinci Code,” was very much a super-individualist Renaissance Man, with artistic and scientific gifts in many areas that coordinated with each other. It makes sense that to Da Vinci music would be coordinated with painting and other arts and science and engineering, rather than followed as a lifetime pursuit for its own sake. But this, generally speaking, is unusual in gifted people.

It would be interesting to get the reaction from other composers (maybe American John Corigliano, of distant Italian descent).

A typical blogger entry today is by Spulch from the Seattle Times, here.

Picture: from the DC Metro