Thursday, May 26, 2011

Some more notes about Leonard Bernstein's post-Mahler symphonies

Recently (April 3), I wrote about Leonard Bernstein’s “symphonies”, specifically #2, and I wanted to round that out with some notes about #3, the “Kaddish”.

Back in my college days, I bought the original recording, dating back to 1964, in the Columbia KS series, of the work, issued in memory of JFK.  That recording is on Sony CD now, but in 1978, Bernstein performed, with the Israeli Philharmonic, a slightly shorter (with less unaccompanied speech) revised version, about 40 minutes, which he prefers.

The work is about as close to another “Mahler” symphony, with Boys Choir and vocal soloist, that we have (excluding Hevergal  Brian’s “Gothic”, which is in a more distant style anyway). The seven “movements” are grouped into three sections, with the Kaddish 2, and andante, concluding the second section, with soprano (Montserrat Caballe) definitely echoing the end of “Das Lied von der Erde” (with a pinch of Shostakovich).

Mahler, of course, never had a speaker (Schoenberg would, often enough, with his "sprechstimme"), but the text certainly extends Mahler’s soul searching. Here, the speaker (a woman in the 1963 recording, a man now) questions God’s “bargain” with him, and expects to rise to the level of a god himself. It sounds like “the tree of life”.  The last words are “recreate each other.”

The music has this way of modulating within a melodic fragment and yet always sounding original in effect.  In the end, the music becomes fast and loud, crashing to its end abruptly with accumulating fourths and octaves, recalling Prokofiev.

Not so, however, with the Concerto for Orchestra (1986-1989), on DG with the Israel Philharmonic conducted by Jose Eduardo Chama. The second movement is a long theme and variations that gives the instrument groups a chance to play soloist; but the finale is a quiet meditation with baritone soloist.  This may be the only “Concerto for Orchestra” with voice (however the Busoni piano concerto has a chorus).  Bernstein could have called this a numbered symphony had he wanted to; the same probably holds for his Songfest. 

The National Symphony in Washington will present the Kaddish June 2-4, link here.

The Washington Post has a critical prospective article by Stephen Brookes, May 27, "Samuel Pisar's 'Kaddish': A warning to a world out of control", link here. The new performance will have a different narration written and read by Holocaust survivor Samuel Pisar. Leonard Bernstein's own memorial website has an article on it here.

You can watch on YouTube a segmented performance of the Kaddish Symphony conducted by John Axelrod, CLC Productions with the Orchestra of Paris, starting here.  Pisar's text is harrowing. "My life is not my own."  Play it loud.

Update: October 23, 2017

The New York Times has a detailed article discussing the three numbered symphonies, by Anthojy Tommasini, link here.  YouTube videos are embedded.  The Symphony 2 is indeed in C# Minor and the ending does recall Mahler's Third (also Hevergal Brian's Third, in the same key).  The Symphony 3 ends if G Major according to my Casio.  I couldn't find any performances scheduled though by the NYPhil during the celebration period. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Arlington church performs "Wise Guys: A Musical Play Based on the Book of Proverbs"

Today, the youth of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA gave the pastoral staff a break with a service-sermon-long (29 minutes) performance of the musical play “Wise Guys: A Musical Play Based on the Book of Proverbs” by Joe Cox and Jody Lindh. The church had last performed it about seven years ago. 

On the left stage, there is a fictitious breakfast setting, with Pop Tarts, which I guess is  sugar-coated cereal. It’s the worst possible stuff (rather like Aphabits in the 50s) to eat if you have to get up at 5:30 AM for an early school start and have a first period test (particularly a biology test). Sugar will give you hypoglycemia, maybe pre-Type-2 diabetes, and not make you wise.

There is some expression of family values and fatherly role modeling, and a number of references to some current indie films (the kind that get on the list for AMC Independent). In particular, “The Tree of Life” (which this little musical anticipates – a biggie film coming from Brad Pitt and Sean Penn), which tests the loss of innocence of teens or young adults. Then there is Tom Shadyac’s “I Am”, when the musical refers to the idea of eating and consuming only what you need  (taking more than you need amounts to “cancer”). Or maybe even “There Be Dragons” – partly because kids learn about the subjunctive mood in foreign language courses (any language), but mainly because Wisdom teaches us that saints have a past and sinners have a future.

The story presents a character “Wisdom” who tries to keep Bobby distracted by what he “wants”, which is potentially risque.  The younger kids are presented as worker ants – which is a rather bizarre analogy (social insects sacrifice their workers for the good of the hive; it’s a trick of civilization to get beyond having to do that, for people).  National Geographic once wrote that humans sacrifice their young men in war (and, in the past, the draft); but ants sacrifice their elderly ladies.

The Prayer on Confession defined Wisdom this way, by negation: “We delight in the idea of mutual caring and celebrating life together, but we get bogged down in our own concerns. We are too busy to seek community and too preoccupied to ponder your will for us. We go our own way, cutting ourselves off from you and one another.” 

That reminds me of Philip Longman’s claim that people are getting too self-absorbed to be able to have and raise children (in any family unit).

You might want to read about “The Book of Wisdom” in the Catholic Old Testament in Wikipedia, especially the “Messianic” interpretations. I believe Leonard Bernstein addressed this topic in some of his more “modern” choral works, will look into it.

Also, yesterday, I attended a little concert with the angklung at the Embassy of Indonesia Saturday; writeup Saturday 14 in my International Issues blog.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Parry's "I Was Glad" (Royal Wedding) available from Hyperion (on Amazon), with organ

In the “wake” of the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Catherine April 29, a lot of public interest surfaced in the great processional music, a setting of a hymn by Sir Hubert Parry, “I was glad when they said unto me”. 

I found it on Amazon on Hyperion, a CD that dates to 1988, with Christopher Robinson conducting the Choir of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, and Roger Judd, organ.

The 5-minute hymn is performed here with organ, but the orchestral transcription is more effective, I think.
The Hymn was originally written for the Coronation of Edward VII in 1902. In C Major, it makes a teasing false start with a minor interval, with a theme that resembles that of the slow movement of Nielsen’s Second Symphony (the “Phlegmatic” temperament).  But the music quickly becomes loud and virile, bringing to mind Vaughn Williams and “Toward the Unknown Region”.

The CD includes a 12 minute “Evening Service in D Major”, “The Great”; and then Six a cappella "Songs of Farewell" (which sound a bit conventional to me).

There follows a 15 minute cantata “Hear my words, ye people”, which is quiet for much of its duration but rises to triumph, and then the familiar hymn, “Jerusalem: And did those feet in ancient time”), with a triumphant, modal theme in E-flat.

Many denominations include a lot of Parry in their hymnals.

There was a brief wait from Amazon to get this CD, which is no surprise. It’s CDA66273.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"Roadside America": a miniature village and model railroad that treats time as a basic dimension of physics

Today, I made a reprisal visit to “Roadside America”, a miniature village and model railroad exhibit (large!) off I-78 in Shartlesville, PA, about 45 miles NE of Harrisburg.  I had visited it once before, back in 1992. The website for the attraction is here.

The project was started decades ago by Mr. Laurence T. Gieringer and his family. 

What’s interesting to me is the concept of a train running through time, as if time were itself another dimension on the layout. The “main circle” is about 1/3 the way in from the edge; it seemed to have a passenger train running counterclockwise and a coal train running clockwise when I was there. The layout is so big it is hard to trace the “graph” (in mathematical terms) of the tracks completely.  The tour progresses counterclockwise; but it one does the tour clockwise, one advances in time, roughly speaking (not always consistently). There is an “old west” town on the first corner, and diagonally across the exhibit from that is the largest town, “Fairfield”, which looks like a town of the 50s, but there are building said to have an architecture of 19th century. There is a Pioneer Village, and various other artifacts of different time eras often close together.

The exhibit also simulates night, during which it plays the “Star Spangled Banner” and then Kate Smith’s wonderful rendition of “God Bless America”.  I think that’s in public domain and can be posted on YouTube (but will I test their copyright school?)   Kate Smith’s rendition makes me think of the days of Ronald Reagan!

One of my screenplays, “Prescience”, envisions another planet where the “masters” have set up civilizations with different levels of technology, going back in time around an annular railroad (in a “termination zone” since the planet always faces the same side to its star). When the protagonist is “abducted” he wants to perform his music, which is too advanced for the “civilization” that he is sent to, but his “friends” try to smuggle him devices from other “time periods”.

In a later screenplay, I present my protagonist in a possible “afterlife”, where he finds he can travel among different time slices that are like “plates” on a ring, and a shuttle train runs among the plates. Each plate is a replica of the other in a different time zone, and moving to any particular time period presents its own issues.  One could father children in one time zone and find them grown in the next (and ready to listen to one’s composed music.)  What a bad reason to have children, to satisfy one’s own ego, perhaps!  (Can one have children in the afterlife?  Maybe people don’t even age. They call them “angels”.)

Actually, viewed from the "Appalachian Trail" loft, the exhibit reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke's novel "Rendez-vous with Rama". 

The "Roadside America" miniature village has not connection to indie motion picture distributor "Roadside Attractions", other than it is a roadside attraction. 

Thursday, May 05, 2011

National Symphony and Jarvi: The Prokofiev Sixth really snarls; the Tchaikovsky could use some Aronofsky

Thursday, May 05, 2011, I attended a National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, conducted by Swedish guest conductor Neeme Jarvi, well known for his large catalogue of post-romantic recordings with the Scottish National Orchestra on Chandos.  Tonight, the theme was Russia, but that oversimplifies.

The Event (no pun on NBC's extraterrestrial landing) opened with Alexander Glazunov’s Concert Waltz #1 in D, Op. 47, a lively piece, that left me remembering that my favorite concert waltz is still the Carousel Waltz by Rodgers.

Then Yefim Bronfman performed as soloist in the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23, composed at age 34. Jarvi started the D-flat major horn theme before Bronfman was seated at the Steinway!  The famous introduction is taken for granted today, but starting out a piece in the relative major can sound trite unless skillfully handled. In fact, the whole device works because the main body of the First Movement is so masterfully put together, with all its complicated rhythms, building up to a B-flat Major triumphant conclusion that got an applause in its own right. (The other masterful movement in this key is the first movement of Chopin’s Second Sonata, which also culminates in a B-flat Major climactic conclusion.  On the other hand, Chopin’s B-flat minor Scherzo has always sounded trite to me because it does end in D-flat Major.)  Two more movements follow, with the ¾ Rondo finale that was one of the earlier examples of concluding a minor-keyed piano concerto with a “big tune” in the parallel major, a concept most often associated with Rachmaninoff.  (Grieg had done it already.)

Bronfman dispatched the technical difficulties easily, and sometimes seemed to want attention for what he could do as soloist – as if he wanted to be played  a Tchaikovsky  Piano Sonata (G or C# Minor), either an impressive piece.

Bronfman played an encore, a Liszt adaptation of an opera tune I could not identify (I’ll add when I find out.)
The encore shortened the intermission, leading us to the reason I came to the concert, to hear Prokofiev’s Symphony #6 in E-flat Minor.  Who can resist this weird masterpiece?  Who can pass up a piece in a minor key with six flats (the only minor key whose triad is all on black keys), starting so ambiguously in the horns, and then weaving us around with dour neoromantic melodies, with a thick palate, and  Prokofiev-trademarked sense of motor-mounting.  I planned the whole day around hearing this.  (This whole concert was not for people who like sharps more than flats.)

But actually, in many places, the music has the sound of late Mahler (almost as much so as some of Shostakovich), particularly with the serene but anxious close of the first movement, and then at the bizarre end, where Prokofiev, after some Haydn-rondo-like merriment, brings back his snarky side. It’s wonderful; the wrong notes are just right.  Finally, the last drop-roll crashes to E-flat Major. (That’s why he needed six flats for his opening movement, not one sharp.)  The whole effect, however, has a well-known precedent: the Rondo finale of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony.

The Kennedy Center preceded the concert with a free Hall performance from the Levine School of Music, with young people playing Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture (in C), and then some jazz, which it played much better.

Outside, in the Potomac, high school rowing teams practiced (or maybe college).  Washington-Lee High School maybe?  Reminds me of the “Winklevi” (as both Piers Morgan and Mark Zuckerberg call the twins in “The Social Network”; but there was no Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King” from Peer Gynt tonight; stay with Prokofiev.)

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Club 930 in DC presents "The Shpongletron Experience" (and what is it?)

Tonight, I finally made it to a show at the Club 930 on V Street in Washington DC (near Howard University and the Town-DC. The basic website for the venue (and this concert) is this

Because the club accepts all ages for admission and most shows are rather “PG-13” in nature, it is very strict about identifying everyone for alcohol. You put your hand down on what looks like a fingerprint press to get a readmission stamp .

The venue is run is an manner similar to "Poisson Rouge" in New York, which I discussed here Oct. 19, 2010, with shows most days and different artists almost every day, and apparently opportunities for new artists to appear.

The show tonight was “The Shpongletron Experience” by The Shpongle.   What is this? It’s about like asking “What Is the Event”?   Wikipedia describes it as a psychedelic trance project from the UK.  You can check “Twisted Music” (link) or Australia’s site. Here is their tour itinerary on Jambase, link.  "Coast to Coast" has an informatory link here.  I also see that Shpongle has its own Blogger thread here

Let me give my own summary of what I saw. I arrived at the scheduled 7 PM; the formal “show” started right around 8 PM.  The set has a Zardoz-Head with various appendages.  The first part of the show comprised a young man playing “drums” (of sort) to music that sounded as if came from a chase scene in NBC’s “The Event”.  I expected Sofia to appear any moment.  Behind the bongo player was a video screen with very creatively conceived animation, mostly consisting of two kinds of sequences. One set is a series of settings, where one is in some sort of urban canyon on another planet (after an abduction, or perhaps passing at death), in some great artificial chasm, that changes appearance. As in a dream (“Inception”), you don’t know how you got there. Another set comprises organic shapes evolving into life-forms, often toward the arthropod or mollusk, as if to show the possibilities for extraterrestrial life. Other additions to the video seem to recall Koyaanisqatsai. This part of the show embeds an independent film experience as well as a stage component.

Then, around 10 PM, much of the stage is broken down, and followed by a second “post-Intermission”, where all kinds of organic images are placed on the Zardoz-head and the appendages, including the Roving Eye of a Stephen King novel.  The DJ sits on top.

The show as not sold out at the beginning, but by 9 PM the dance floor was pretty full, and there was a waiting line outside as I left about 10:30.  The crowd was “mixed” and even "mainstream" (some people I recognized from Town and Cobalt, along with plenty of people from the straight slate side of college life (as shown in “The Social Network”, perhaps  -- plenty of "thirsty scholars" here).  But it was the behavior on the floor that was interesting.  “Dirty dancing” was minimal (this is supposed to be OK for kids, as I said, more or less PG-like). Instead, much of the crowd raised its arms and then jumped vigorously in unison, exactly as Arthur C. Clarke describes on the final page of his novel “Childhood’s End” (and I don’t know why that isn’t a movie yet).  The psybience takes over, as the celebrants join together in a common experience, losing some part of individual consciousness, willing to accept the idea that a future universe may have fewer fully granualized indivuals and instead emphasis a shared journey. It’s a daring but necessary thought.

I met some people; one group was there for a birthday party; then I encountered a “just married” (I think) couple (man and woman – you have to say that these days in DC) who did not have the financial backing of William and Catherine but had the same celebratory spirit. Maggie Gallgaher would be pleased.

It’s rather amazing to see that so many people in this age group and in this economy can afford to fill a place like this up on a spring weeknight. Just as in a conventional disco, most people here look lean and healthy, as if self-selected.  Real world exercise is good for you.

Shpongle Official has a YouTube video excerpt to watch here:

Let me add one dancer's "physic's experiment" with lights and "persistence of vision" that takes in stills only by playing with shutter speed. In motion, it's effective.