Sunday, May 17, 2009

"The Song of Ruth", a children's cantata, has a curious cultural and moral slant

On Sunday, May 17, 2009, the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA presented a thirty-minute children’s cantata “The Song of Ruth” as its “message in music.”

The music is by John J. Horman and the script is by Mary Nelson Keithahn; it was published in 1996 by Abingdon Press, with this Open Library link available. Search engines show several other works by this name by other authors.

The music, on the piano with bells, sounds routine, although the fugato “Elimelech’s Field” near the end is interesting. The ending of the piece is drawn out and intended to sound triumphant, but is seems to need an orchestra or organ to work, or at least aggressive piano playing (like in the review before this one). Two Psalms are used, 146 and 113, but the script (especially in 146) varies a lot from the Psalm texts.

The work has an overture and six scenes, and the kids had to move very quickly and in well-rehearsed movements to make the scene changes quickly to keep the production moving. Each scene has some acted text and then a song or chorus (or several of them).

But it’s the content of the story itself that is interesting. The Book of Ruth is considered one of the Bible’s gentler stories, one about family loyalty and caregiving, and about the events that led to the lineage that would lead to David and eventually Jesus.

The eventual marriage of Ruth to Boaz in the story is an example of Levirate marriage in which a man is required to marry his deceased brother’s widow to ensure that she has a provider. It is common in tribal societies, which place an affirmative obligation to continue a lineage (with marital intercourse) on every male, and help explain some of the deeper religious meaning of the rules of sexual morality (and even the supposed proscriptions against homosexuality). A parallel situation in modern society might be the pressure placed on an unmarried, childless sibling to raise the children of a tragically or accidentally deceased parent (as in the WB/Spelling show "Summerland" a couple years back).

A couple of the songs reveal the religious concern over the obligation to marry: “What Would We Do Without a Man?” and “It’s Time You Had a Husband”. There is also a song about Ruth’s gleaning (Psalm 146), which was a conservation activity to make sure that the poor were fed.

The cantata certainly emphasizes some of the “collective” social values in Jewish law.

Picture: from Liberty University, Lynchburg, VA, 2005.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Timothy Andres gives entertaining concert of modernity at Strathmore Mansion in Maryland

Timothy Andres (b. 1985) gave a solo piano concert as the last “Strathmore Concert at the Mansion” for the 2008-2009 season, in Bethesda, MD. The concert was called “A Celebration of the Piano: From Bach to Boogie-Woogie and Beyond”. Mr. Andres's blog site is this and has some recent additions. (Note the picture of "LondonTown" on Oct. 6, 2009, with music that sounds derivative of or built upon the opening of one of the Prokofiev piano sonatas.) It's called "Hymn to the Big Wheel" (on the Thames) and I can imagine disco dancing to it at the Town DC. (By the way, the music plays differently in Google Chrome than in IE, maybe because of ActiveX.)

There were six compositions. Before the intermission, Mr. Andres played two of his own compositions, “How can I live in your world of ideas?” (sounds like it’s about psychological growth, doesn’t it) and “Sorbet”, which he says was written for Richard Dyer, for the retirement of that music critic from the Boston Globe. The composer says his “ideas” piece starts out as a passacaglia but becomes gradually distracted, rather like an overplush computer. He prefixed his compositions with Ingram Marshall’s Authenic Presence (2001).

After the intermission, he played the suite “Surely some revelation? …” by Stephen Gorbos (b. 1978), who was present, and the sonatina-like piece is supposed to track the “end of days”. But the most remarkable piece as Frederick Rzewski, “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues" (1979), which is workaday program music in the spirit of Mosolov’s “Iron Foundry”. The piece starts out with repeated clusters in the base, simulating the assembly line work on a cotton mill, early in the days of the Industrial Revolution. The workers get a meek break when some jazz blues comes out (after a climax where Andres let the Steinway sound board die down). Then the piece dies away with a gentle fugato, leading to a mechanical effect with the piano keys that I have never heard before. The piece is almost a musical picture of the regimented lives of workers caught in a particular circumstance of karma and time, and there is some sense of their desperation for a better lot.

The last piece in the concert was the movement “The Alcotts” from the Concord Sonata (#2) by Charles Ives (1910-1915). In spots the piece almost resembled a Chopin nocturne.

Mr. Andres performing style is entertaining, almost with a touch of Justin Timberlake. The body movements are geometric, almost Pixar-like, and he goes for extremes in dynamics at the end register of the piano. At one point in the Rzewski he plays a whole tone cluster with a forearm. He comes across as an entertainer, and one could almost imagine him playing the Rzweski on “Saturday Night Live,” or perhaps on Oprah or Ellen.

In his own compositions, and some of the others played, there was a sense of improvisation; I did not get a feel for tight form with a drive toward a resolution, that we get used to with a diet of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Chopin, even Rachmaninoff.

Timothy Andres was to share the concert with Tudor Dominik Maican, who is briefly sidelined with what is reported as a minor injury. You can play one of Maican’s piano pieces on the Internet, “La ou la mer rencontre le ciel” (“Where sea meets sky”), a piece that is a bit Ravel-like, and reminds me of Fire Island, at this link on National Public Radio.

I hope Andres will learn the first piano concerto of Eugen d’Albert (itself a teen composition with an interesting massive one-movement architecture) and play it with an orchestra (maybe Dudamel would conduct it). The massive fugal cadenza in the d’Albert reminds me of some of Andres’s own writing. Another piece that I think that Andres would enjoy performing is the last prelude (D-flat major) of Rachmaninoff's Opus 32.

The Los Angeles Times has an article May 9 by Yvonne Villarreal, "Timothy Andres is enjoying his moment in the L.A. sun", about the premier of his chamber piece "Nightjar" conducted by John Adams ("Doctor Atomic"), link here.

Andres has a couple of other pieces "La Malinconia" and "Antennae", the latter of which sounds remotely like an adaptation of "Fairest Lord Jesus" (See Feb. 21, 2009 entry on this blog for link).

Mr. Andres contributes to the blog for Metropolis Ensemble, here, about Nov. 15, 2009.

Update: May 18

The Ellen DeGeneres show presented an unbelievable piano prodigy, a girl (Umi Garrett, 8 years old) who played a Liszt etude -- one that I remember reading when I took piano as a teen.

Update: July 20

Andres offers this embedded video (may require adobe flash and ActiveX) from his blog entry June 23 at (This worked for me on Vista with Internet Explorer 8 all right; I had trouble with Firefox; OK -- later it worked; Vista is very tricky in making you close Firefox completely to install plugins...)

Synesthesia from Terri Timely on Vimeo.

Update: Aug. 29

Here's a YouTube clip with Andres at the e-keyboard and a cellist (Nick Photinos) playing another of his works. It sounds like a kind of takeoff on a Back passacaglia. The link is on Tim's blog Aug. 4. Visually, the clip speaks for itself.

Check Tim's blog entry Sept. 22; he mentions thinking about a violin concerto. I just noticed it this morning because of Google Chrome's list. I guess telepathy is prescient: last night (Sept. 27), I dreamed about a Symphony in Three Movements (not Stravinsky's), with a wordless chorus, lots of compound rhythm configurations, and a loud ending with an "A-D" repeated sequence after a lot of scalar melodies in between. I need to get an e-piano in here and get my own stuff back to work on my own music. Check this blog, Oct. 21, 2008). By the way, many people don't know that film composer John Williams has a violin concerto to his credit. Or, try the little known violin concerto in D by Beethoven contemporary Franz Clement, with it's famous "hymn tune" in the first movement (F#--A--D--EF#GABE--) -- again, as with D'Albert, a case a familiar music (used in Hollywood and in church hymnals alike) from obscure romantic composers.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Samson and Delilah: Netflix has a solid performance; in Belgium, an adaptation with switching sides!

Today (Thursday May 7) The New York Times Arts section has a review of a controversial adaptation on Camille Saint-Saens opera “Samson and Delilah” in Antwerp, Belgium, a review by Michael Kimmelman, where the Philistines (those “enemies” from Sunday school) are Israelis and the Hebrews are the Palestinians. That would unthinkable (referring to Joshua Cooper Ramo and his sandpiles) in the United States. But that is a clever mashup. And one can even extend the Biblical parable’s fascination with hair to the obsession with beards in much of patriarchal Muslim culture, where facial shaving is forbidden. The Times link is here.

Netflix offers (from Kultur video) the 1981 performance from the San Francisco Opera, conducted by Julius Rudel, with Placido Domingo and Shirley Verrett as the wayward lovers. The music seems surprisingly tame and mannered to me. We know that Saint-Saens was fascinated with Egyptian themes, as in his last Piano Concerto. The best music is probably Delilah’s famous scalar aria in Act II.

Rudel tells us that Saint-Saens almost wrote this as an oratorio, and notes that the French prefer mezzo-sopranos for their female leads, whereas Italian opera favors sopranos.

The Old Testament “parable” of Samson in Judges has always struck me as a potential commentary on fetishism. Samson’s secret strength and power was in his “hair” (at least not in his ability to mold space-time, like Clark Kent’s -- that’s the only way to go if you’re going to be superhuman). But this was his scalp hair, so the biological analogy doesn’t quite hold. Testosterone is supposed to increase body hair in some men (Domingo, oddly, shows off his chest in this DVD a lot), so the Biblical tale here is symbolic in as general a way as possible. Nevertheless (like Clark when he recovers from green kryptonite) Samson will get his powers back (after prayer to Jehovah) and pull down the temple. The major-key music toward the end seems repetitive and perfunctory (although there is a reference to a theme from the first movement of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony and some interesting minor to major technical effects). As the temple falls down after Samson's Tug, the music crashes down on C Major orchestral chords.

I’m not aware that the story of Jacob and Esau has been put to opera, but it sounds like a good idea.

But so does an opera based on Smallville.

Attribution link for Wikimedia commons picture of Antwerp, Belgium is here. I passed through the city in May 2001.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Concert for "Autism Speaks" in Alexandria, VA plays Mendelssohn Octet for Strings

On Tuesday, May 5, 2009, The Episcopal High School in Alexandria VA held a benefit concert for Autism Speaks.

The program started with a brief video “Autism Speaks: It’s Time to Listen”, giving the facts about autism. In 1994, doctors believed that one in every 2500 children was autistic. Now it is one in every 150, and one in 94 boys. I am not sure if this statistic includes Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a milder “disorder” affecting social development and sometimes is very mild.

The concert comprised one work, the Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20, by Felix Mendelssohn. The performing ensemble was The National Chamber Players.

The violinists were Nurit Bar-Josef, Teri Hopkins Lee, Heather LeDoux Green, Jan Chong; the cellists were James Lee and Mark Evans; viola was manned by Daniel Foster and Maholo Eguchi.

The work is large, with the first movement (Allegro moderato, ma con fuoco) including a repeat and extensive development. It could have been inspired by Franz Schubert’s most ambitious chamber works (like another Octet) but it lacks the tempo changes and abrupt dissonances. The “slow” movement (Andante), in minor, is a “Song without Words” and is more like an Allegretto (following the concept in Beethoven’s Seventh and Schubert’s Great Symphong). The scherzo is the most familiar movement, and the finale offers a hectic fugue.

My favorite Mendessohn is the Scotch Symphony (the majestic close) and the fugal conclusion to the lively C Minor (#1).

The High School’s website for the concert is here.

Visitors will want to look at the impressive map of the photographic campus, here. The school, generally quiet and not often in the public eye, appears to be residential, with resident faculty, and looks like a college campus. Students from the school (perhaps those associated with music) assisted in ushering the concert and in preparing the reception and processing donations.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Classic Hertzog film "Fitzcarraldo" celebrates opera, symphonic music

Back in 1982, one of Werner Herzog’s most “ambitious” films appeared at indie theaters; it’s now on DVD from Anchor Bay, with Dolby Digital added and cropped for wide screen anamorphic. The movie was “Fitzcarraldo”, about a businessman, Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (played by Klaus Kinski), living in the Peruvian jungle around 1910 or so. With a passion for opera, he comes up with a plan to make enough money to build an opera house in Iquitos, the last stopover on the Amazon (almost) before the Andes bisect the country. He will lease the one unclaimed rubber-tree property in the area, and then buy a steamer (the Molly Aida), cruise it up the Amazon, and then hire local stevedores (call them that) to carry the boat on pulleys over a small mountain, and then down another river to sell the latex. And finally, the boat it self becomes a kind of opera theater. Well, pardon, it doesn’t have the eight parts of an Elizabethan theater (yes, that was one our first 10th Grade literature test on Julius Caesar; there are no proscenium doors here).

But his passion is music, and particularly certain operas and certain composers, and most of all certain performers (Caruso). The movie opens with significant portions of the more melodramatic portions of Vincenzo Bellini’s “I Puritani” (“The Puritans”). During the river scenes, harmonically adventurous passages from Richard Strauss’s “Don Juan” appear (that’s actually an early work). At the end, when Fitzgerald has accomplished his “proof of concept” (or perhaps a “proof of life”) there is talk of bringing Wagner (particularly Parsifal) to the jungle – so different from Italian bel canto. I recall an old Decca recording (pretending to be Deutsch Grammophon) of the Bruckner 5th with the “Parsifal” prelude on the fourth side, all the way back to the early 60s.

The movie has music from old 78’s, especially the verismo aria “Recitar! Vesti la giubba “ (Perform) from "Pagliacci", presumably sung by Caruso.

Here's an excerpt from the famous script on Scriptorama.