Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve Suite

Given events in my life (see my “BillBoushka blog” Dec. 21), I thought this would be a good day to really celebrate Christmas Eve (without Rimsky-Korsakov – I think I have his Christmas Eve Suite lying around on a CD, but it was a favorite of a high school friend, along with [Ippolotov-Ivanov's] “Caucasian Sketches”).

The First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC held its Christmas Eve service at 4 PM. It was similar to the carols service Dec. 12, with candles.

The music was different. There was an anthem “On This Day Earth Shall Ring” from “Personent Hodie” by Gustav Holst, which ended not on the tonic but the second chord (Doian I think), that is a D Major Chord in a work written in C, a taste of pastorale modal polytonality. That reminds me of a substitute teaching assignment in 2007 in a music class, where the students had a quiz and had to identity modes from staff melodies, and the best grade in the class was a 75 (as I recall, a student in that class went on to act in the musical comedy “Senioritis”). Beethoven, remember, had used Lydian Mode in one of his late quartets. There was also a carol “On Christmas Night” as transcribed by Ralph Vaughn Williams.

Dr. Jeffrey Haggray made an interesting point in his homily. He said that a baby (whether conventionally or “immaculately” conceived) is more mysterious and miraculous than any human invention, even going to the Moon. In scientific terms, life is the most evolved form of matter, continuing itself through reproduction (I’ll get more into the “soul” again in a book review soon); but the pastor also said that the “Good News” was for all people of any persuasion, race, or gender identity (interpreted loosely).

On the way home, I found a gathering outside Mount Olivet Methodist Church in Arlington at 16th and Glebe, and Lo! There was a real manger with real sheep and goats, woolly and eager to be petted. And there was a hot chocolate stand.

Then I found that Trinity Presbyterian, about a mile west on 16th St, was holding three(!) Christmas Eve services: a “family service” at 5:30, a “contemporary” at 7:30, and a formal at 11 PM. I think they were pretty similar in content, but I attended the “contemporary.” (This church sometimes holds its less formal services in warm months in its gym rather than sanctuary.)

There were three anthems: “Carol of Prophecy” and “Lumen Christi” (no composers given), and “The Time of Snow” by Bob Chilcott, as well as a piano rendition of Vaughn Williams’s take on “Greensleeves”.

Here’s the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir (ABC, Dec. 23)

Conversation after the first of these events: Oh, yes, it takes a long time to become a good composer!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

"Christmas at Concordia: Journey to Bethlehem"

Some PBS stations (MPT in Maryland and of course TPT in Minneapolis) have aired a one hour version of “Christmas at Concordia: Journey to Bethlemen”, performed the first weekend of December.

Concordia College is in Moorhead, MN, across from Fargo, ND (of Coen Brothers fame). I visited Moorhead State on a weekend in November 2000 to discuss my book. I even remember a bar called the I-Beam there and missed a huge blizzard.

I had the college mixed up with Carleton, which is in Northfield, south of Minneapolis, a town that houses St. Olaf’s, which has an even larger Christmas concert, which I attended in 1999 (see Dec. 2, 2007 on this blog).

The concert was conducted by Rene Clausen, and much of the music consisted of his arrangements and transcriptions of major carols for large chorus. There was a South African carol, and an “Alleluia” with a cello solo.

The PBS link for the concert is here, and Concordia’s is here.

The Piedmont Singers in Leesburg VA perform Clausen’s “All That Have Life and Breadth”

Wikipedia attribution link for Morehead State picture, where I spoke.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Northern VA high school (Langley) performs "The Laramie Project"

On Friday, Dec. 17 and Saturday Dec. 18, Langley High School in McLean, Virginia is presenting “The Laramie Project”, by Moises Kaufman, directed by Lauren Stewart and Phyliss Jafee, with members of the Tectonic Theater Project, on the Saxon Stage.

I attended the performance this evening. I had substitute taught at Langley as recently as the spring of 2007, so there was a personal sense of déjà vu. The Matthew Shepard Foundation was conducting a silent auction. Thomas Howard, Program Director, conducted a Q&A. He started by asking the audience in what ways McLean as like Laramie. The audience was silent for a moment, before students started to respond.

I mentioned the cloture vote in the Senate on “don’t ask don’t tell” due Saturday, with applause, and said that official attitudes of the Congress and the US military (and the Pope) affect attitudes in general.

I may have mentioned here before that I passed through Laramie myself on Aug. 7, 1994 (before the tragedy), the day after I had made the personal decision to write my “Do Ask Do Tell” book and had spent the previous night in Cheyenne.

The stage was extremely wide, with the 25 actors (many having multiple roles), spread out, giving very much a “dolby digital” effect. The centerpiece of the stagecraft was the notorious fencepost.

The second half of the play was longer and more dramatic, ending with the “trials” (at which the “panic defense”, with some explicit language -- “junk” -- was brought up). The Fred Phelps demonstration as acted in the play came down the right aisle, and the angels came down the center.

The script mentions that Matthew was kept warm for a while by a female deer.

Howard mentioned that Kaufman has a sequel script, “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later” in which it seems many town residents have distanced themselves from the atrocity and see it as a Coen Brothers-movie-style drug deal gone bad. (See Nov. 14 posting for video.)

The Laramie Project has this link.

Tectonic Theater has this link.

The Matthew Shepard Foundation has this link

Howard said that Phelps’s Westboro Baptist Church had “threatened” to picket Saturday night in the winter cold (23 F according to my car in the parking lot as I left), but he doubted they would show up.

(Note: typo spelling error in blog posting header name, fixed in display, does not matter).

Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas Candlelight Carols 2010, at First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC

On Sunday, December 12, at 4 PM, the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC held its 54th Annual Candlelight Carols Concert.

The current sanctuary had opened on Christmas Day, 1955. I was baptized in this church with my mother on January 29, 1956. Partly because of the size and active plan to supply stained glass windows (generally finished by the early 1960s), the facility soon attracted attention as a good location for events involving multiple choirs from multiple churches in Washington. The first Candlelight Carol service was held on December 8, 1957.

In the early days, many of the stained glass windows were not yet in place, and blue light came in from the southeast during Sunday morning services. Gradually, donations put the current system of stained glass in place

There is a Redemption Window in front, a Rose Window above the Bapistry, and side windows presenting various historic Baptist personalities, and events in the Life of Christ. Despite the controversy within the denomination over historical positions on social issues taken by Southern and American conventions (FBC is affiliated with both), the Baptist denomination, compared to many others, has always regarded a faith commitment as a personal one to be made by an informed adult or older minor. Theologically, it is closer to mainstream positions on individual rights in western democracies than is, perhaps, the authoritarian teachings of, for example, the Vatican.

My father’s fund, the John Boushka Memorial, with his wife and my mother, Margaret Boushka, contributed to several windows; my mother’s class contributed to Life of Christ windows.

The service yesterday was perhaps the grandest ever, lasting about 90 minutes, with deep bass from the organ all the time (a contrast for me to Saturday’s piano experience). It started with a brass and handbell concert with music arranged by Jim Lucas. As the program progressed, there was more music by the standard classical “good composers” (previous post). The Runnymede Singers performed Gustav Holst’s “Four Old English Carols” which sounded a bit like Vaughn Williams; later Jennifer Lowery, Shannon Steed and Deborah Miller performed the mini-cantata “Christmas Day” also by Gustav Holst (not quite on the scale of Ralph Vaughn Williams and “Hodie”, so well known since David Wilcox recorded it for Angel in 1965). The concert also presented two fragments from the unfinished oratorio Christus by Felix Mendelssohn: “Say Where He Is Born” (with Issachah Savage, Stephen Peters, and Terry Miller), and “There Shall a Star from Jacob Come Forth”, with the combined choirs. (It’s interesting that it’s Jacob and not Esau; a Freudian point.) When I think of “Christus”, I think of the 3-CD oratorio (conducted by James Conlon) by Franz Liszt, with its crunching embedded tone poem “March of the Three Wise Men” in the Christmas section, and the heaven-storming E-Major conclusion of the Easter part (the ending), matching the heroics of “Faust Symphony. Mendelssohn also wrote the music to the familiar carol “Hark, the Heald Angels Sing” which was also sung.

Post script: Cell phone picture from event, and subsequent gallery pictures.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

"It Takes a Long Time to Become a GOOD Composer" (Yes it does, and you need the opportunity first!)

Let me start this post with a recitation of my own experience with Robert Schumann. Back around 1956 or so, when I played in a “Festival”, I had selected Schumann’s Song Without Word “May, Sweet May” as the “required” piece. I remember stumbling on the memorization and getting caught in a loop. It was the only time I scored below “Superior” (I got “Very Good” which is like a graduate school “C”, a middle grade.) In fact, I think medical physiology would benefit from studying how pianists memorize their solo music; it might help us understand memoryl loss with aging.

Schumann wrote a lot of miniatures, but some of his piano works tended to put layers of episodes together, in pieces that are formally collections of little pieces but actually are rather like rhapsodies. The “Papillons” (“Butterflies”) (Op 2) and “Carnaval” (Op. 9, with its ¾ march at the end) fit this. (Sherwood Music School included the "easier" Butterflies in its course, so I did play it at around age 13.)

Today, in fact, at a Metropolis Ensemble concert in New York City (link on the last post), today Timo Andres played the 8-movement "Kreisleriana", Op. 16. Now to me, this composition did not sound as integrated as the other pieces I just discussed. ((The Fantasy, Op. 17, probably fits better.)  It was noted that Schumann's 200th birthday had occurred in June this year.

The Schumann concluded a concert that started with two new compositions by Timo: “Chamber Music”, about 15 minutes, for piano and two violins (Owen Dalby and Tema Watstein). The music starts out lively with some of his typical passage work, but winds down toward the end, with the violins in a couple places sounding hoarse with microtones, so they sounded to me. (In ninth grade, our mixed chorus teacher had written a piano piece in B-flat called simply “Ballet Music”, which she brought the score in for me to see one time.) But the main event for the concert was the work that defined the name of the whole concert, “It Takes a Long Time to Become a Good Composer”, which is a “suite” of sorts in five “movements”, layered in Schumann fashion. The first movement is nameless, but the other movements have enigmatic titles (e.g. “Everything is an Onion” and “Please Let me Sleep in Your Entrance Hall”). The music livens up in the middle. Again, Andres likes repeated notes and technique, often making some of his music etude like. There is never really a “Philip Glass” effect.

Andres’s technique emphasizes virtuosity, with an interesting an paradoxical combination of svelte and athletic strength. (Is he ready to trade places with Tim Lincecum?) The top notes on the German-made grand piano (a Bosendorfer) rang the way I had been taught melody notes should by my second piano teacher (previous post). Even if his tempos sometimes sounded a bit quick (we used to say, "Toscanini-like") compared to markings (where known), his memory and technical rendition of the music (how own and Schumann's both) seemed absolutely "mistake free".

Timo is a sort of “Justin Timberlake” for classical music, if a bit more clean cut in the PG direction (and sometimes projects an intentionally “geeky” appearance ready for “The Social Network”). He strives to entertain. I suspect he can act or do comedy, or something like host SNL. That’s not true of most classical musicians.

The score of Timo’s “adaptation” of Mozart’s Coronation Concerto (with polytonality – Nov. 18 here) was on display.

The concert, which sold out quickly all three performances ( the "three game series" was "played" Dec 9 and 10 night, 11 afternoon  -- preceded Saturday by a very crowded Starbucks across 67th St., being overrun by Santamen) was held in an expansive condo or apartment in the Millennium Building on W 67th Street, with a view looking Northeast to Central Park (two blocks away). (You could see from the GW Bridge all the way to the Chrysler Building.) Lincoln Center is a few blocks “behind” the building from this viewpoint. I’ve never seen a concert have a Doberman before, but he was named “Tiger”, as if he were feline as well as canine. Actually, he held doors for people, and came to you when you called his name. The whole event seemed like something Donald Trump could have set up as a task for his “Apprentice” show. (Don’t snicker: The Donald says he will probably run for President for the GOP because the country “needs” him more than it needs Sarah Palin (or even "IND" Bloomberg), but I think he supports the repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell”.)

There was a brief Q&A after the performance, with Robert Schumann’s bipolar (or perhaps manic-depressive) personality as a focus of questions.

I would be a delinquent blogger if I didn’t get a review of this concert posted the same day (PST).

Update: Check this story from the "Get Classical" blog, Jan. 2011, link.  Check June 10, 2011 for "Bargemusic".

Update: (Aug. 22, 2011):  Check Timo's blog (yes, just the last name for the domain name) for a posting today "Parlour Timocracy", for the photo of some piano music being composed for him. Oh, yes, the music and photo are copyrighted. I just wanted to point out that I've never seen a time signature of "5/16" before, even alternated with other meters, like 2/8 and 3/8.  I think Leonard Bernstein experimented with some bizarre meters in his Concerto for Orchestra, however.  If you're a performer, it's nice if others compose for you.  Not a bad idea within families, where siblings or offspring play different instruments.  The score here looks weird.  It does not look like an Op. 111 "Arioso". I'll have to try the fragment I see on my Casio tomorrow.

Update: (Nov. 27, 2012). Timo has posted an audio file of his piece at his site, link here, from a performance at Le Poisson Rouge in 2012 in NYC.

There is a public photo album from one of the evening concerts (Dec 9 or 10) on Facebook, here. Note the views from the condo on the Upper West Side at night.  Good enough for Anderson!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

It takes dissonance to make music work (followup on Andres, Twitter talk on Gerard Grisey)

I was struck by some discussion by composer Timo Andres on his blog about an exploratory performance of a late work by French “spectral” composer Gerard Grisey, just before his death from a ruptured aneurysm (lesson learned) in 199, the posting “Conceptual Dissonance” here.  There was some Twitter clatter over all this, but what comes across here is a theory of how to compose a long, avant-garde piece and hold people’s interest (to talk about this in contraposition).

I pulled up some YouTube videos excerpted from “Quatre chants pour franchir la seuil”, (“Four songs to cross the threshold”) by Gerard Grisey, such as this one of the second movement “Interlude : II. La mort de la civilisation (“The death of civilization”), Catherine Dubosc, soprano, Klangforum Wien, Sylvain Cambreling, conductor.

. There is another Youtube excerpt with Barbara Hannigan (mentioned in Andres’s post) as soprano and the Contemporary European Ensemble, where Hannigan discusses the music, in French. I get the impression tha this music ponders the existential challenges to our sense of self-projection through "civilization", warning us that, like the Maya, we can fail. That's a downer for people who want to be entertained.

In general, the music vaguely reminded me of something like Boulez’s “Pli Selon Pli” (“Fold by Fold”), which I have on a CD somewhere, maybe some harkening back to “Pierrot”. I really didn’t pick up the microtones or quarter tones, but they’d be hard to discern in voice.

The post brought me back to a recollection of my own piano days. In May 1958, when I was finishing the ninth grade, my piano teacher suddenly died of colon cancer at 57, and I was really shocked at the time. I soon continued the lessons with another teacher who liked modern music, and soon read about the modern composers and even encountered the notion of quarter tones as well as formal “twelve tone rows”, which aren’t used as often as people think. In time, my ear would accept something like Alban Berg’s "Lulu" as lush, romantic music; whereas something like Grisey sounds mechanical (“spectral”) to me. (The second piano teacher would eventually go deaf.)

For me, postromanticism was the right transition into modernity. Mahler took us through that (it sometimes seems that contemporary music begins with the first movement of the Mahler Ninth. There is a kind of form, even if the music is episodic, that takes us along. When one comes to Stravinsky, it seems like there is negation of emotion, but not really; in "Sacre", the little episodes of massed sound (with the dancing) carry us along. But somewhere along the way, modern music started becoming what it always was, mathematics for its own sake, a map of the mind of Stephen Hawking (and maybe of some of his dire warnings).

The opening of the “Antennae” movement from Timo Andres’s “Shy and Mightly” is used in the background of a vimeo video from the Kaufman Center Ecstatic Music Festival, as here

Ecstatic Music Festival from Kaufman Center on Vimeo.

I may have heard a bit of this music (“Antennae”) on my car radio on Sirius once or twice; “Antennae” and “Flirtations” seem to catch the ear quickly. (They’re some distance away emotionally from Josh Groban singing “Hidden Away” on the next channel as you go up I-95 [buy that legally here].)

You can go to the site for his next concert with the Metropolis Ensemble (starts Dec. 9), to this link and play videos of his “I Found It By The Sea” for piano and chamber orchestra (about 12 min), apparently in high def and wide screen, and a video of the Piano Concerto “Home Stretch” (reviewed here Nov. 18) and one of the Paraphrases of Themes of Brian Eno (composer of many scores, such as “Money Never Sleeps” and “For All Mankind”, reviewed on my movies blog Dec 8 by coincidence). The last two of these were performed at the Trinity Church on Wall Street (near the 9/11 site). The last of the pieces evokes a mood a bit like a “Night Music” movement from Mahler’s Seventh (although there are more different motifs than in one of those aforementioned intermezzo movements); the piano is “just” an instrument of the orchestra. The first of these (what did I find? A UFO?) has the flavor of the Richard Strauss Metamorphesen, with a little more polytonal dissonance.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

"Sugar Strings" keep classical music alive for public schools in Chicago

Tonight, NBC Night News with Brian Williams reported on a youth group in Chicago, the “Sugar Strings”, which brings classical music to young people, including pieces such as variations (in classical style) on Michael Jackson’s music. Williams noted that music is often one of the first items to get cut from school budgets as school districts struggle.

I can speak from experience having worked as a substitute teacher: there are the students who are talented in music and want to be there (and perform outstanding music, both in orchestra and chorus), and those who just want an easy elective.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Arlington VA: "Liberal" Presbyterian congregation and LDS join forces for unusual Christmas concert

For the second straight year, and one week earlier than in 2009, the Arlington Trinity Presbyterian Church and the Ward 2 of the Arlington Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints joined for a service “The Sounds of Christmas: Carols of the Season”.

The music included “The Is No Rose of Such Virtue” by Stephen Caracciolo, an organ Toccata on “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” by Clay Christiansen (rather polytonal), played by Carol Feather Martin, the lilting and tuneful “And His Name Shall be Called Wonderful” by Sal Vittori (LDS) (instead of “Angels’ Carol” by John Rutter), and the “The Ringing In of Christmas” by William Payn, which was superimposed on the congregation’s singing “Silent Night!” with some polytonality again. (Yes: Christmas carols can use some polytonality, like Mozart.) It seemed that F Major carols were transposed up one whole step to G Major (to my ear).

Afterwards there was a sweet dessert pig-out at Trinity. (When traveling in rural Utah, I have found that restaurants wouldn't even serve coffee, but they would offer cholesterol-laden baked desserts.)

One thing about concerts in Mormon churches: there are lots of babies and small children calling, and there are lots of bassinets around. Phillip Longman would approve. The Washington Times should have covered this event.

Again, one thing I've notices: kids that go to church (or synagogue or mosque), whether politically liberal or conservative, do better in school.

It was a windy night, with a departing snowstorm that had dived to Richmond after missing us, but leaving us windwhipped.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Alexandria VA group plays Ellington "adpatation" of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite

Well, if Mozart could use some polytonality (at least in his Coronation Concerto), Tchaikovsky could use some jazz, particularly in his (first) Nutcracker Suite. That’s the theory of the jazz wind group of the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra (VA), which gave a Christmas concert today (Dec 4) at the Rossyln Spectrum Hall in Arlington, VA. The site for the orchestra is this and the sponsoring group is Arlington Arts, here.  (There is also an Artisphere in Greenville, SC). The group was conducted by Kin Allen Kluge.

Jazz works with music originally conceived in the idiom. Gershwin’s Piano Concerto, to me at least (in Pandolfi’s concerts) conveys real passion. (Even Alban Berg deployed jazz effectively in “Lulu”, which, for all its atonality, is grand romantic opera.) But here, the derivative work (of Tchaikovsky) by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn) does sound like so much manipulation (even Stravinsky, to my ear, sounds sincere an natural in comparison). The music was very loud, compared to a normal concert (there appeared to be amplification) and the all male band would be exposed to hearing loss from the constant din.

The group played several Christmas carols, and the Alexandria Choral Society Chamber Singers joined in, along with the audience, for several more (just one verse each carol).

If you want to hear some real Tchaikovsky, go see the Aronofsky’s film “Black Swan” in a theater with digital projection; the movie is essentially a thriller contemporary setting of “Swan Lake”, and I never heard Tchaikovsky sound so violent. At the end, the “pas de deux” was a little hard to work in, and the final major chords convey some irony.

I used to play a CD of the St. Louis Symphony playing "The Nutcracker" every Christmas Day (the story really takes place on New Years Eve, not Christmas). I love the penultimate G Major climax shortly before the end.