Sunday, February 26, 2012

Deja Vu for me (from past lives), at "As the Youth run a Service-Concert" at an Arlington VA church; film "Sunday's Aliens"

I thought I would follow up on last week’s note on the “30 Hour Famine”, because the youth at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington put on quite a multi-media performance today with music, brief “sermons”, and a short film.

The highlight of the “singspiration” was a setting of Matt Redman’s “We Are the Free”, with the famous lyrics, “there’s a fire in our hearts”.  Plenty of guitar music followed.

The testimonials, or three-minute sermons, tended to revolve around the reasons for fasting and for personal involvement "in deed" with those in need, rather than just on the distant giving of money.  I wasn’t aware that fasting was taken up in the Old Testament (Isaiah 58, which talks about “going through the motions”).  The moral demands in Matthew 25, toward the end of the Chapter, are striking.  In fact, back in the 1980s, the Lama Foundation in New Mexico (since rebuilt from a 1996 fire), offered weekends of “purification through fasting” as well as “spring work camps” (I went to one of them in May 1984).  This is really a loaded topic for me, the idea of that everyone must learn to become a social creature (and not decide he or she can reject everyone who is less than perfect).  I’ve talked about it a lot on my main blog, and today on my Issues Blog in a posting about a NY Times article on “moral hazard” and the limits of depending on “personal responsibility”.

The short film (the postlude), about four minutes, was a sequel  “Friday’s Aliens II” (Movie Blog, Feb. 27, 2011), which I guess you could title “Sunday Is Coming” (given a famous 1981 sermon in Dallas by MCC pastor David Day).  Or maybe we call it "Sunday's Aliens". The youth dressed in choir robes with cross-like designs and distorted them (through digital editing of the film, I think) to look like ghosts.  A couple people were actually a little disturbed by this kind of comedy. 

What an "Event" for Oscars Day!

I don’t recall if I’ve mentioned this, but a the old MCC Dallas, back in August 1979 (long before the Cathedral of Hope was built), at a Sunday night service, a popular guitar singer named Terry was performing “He’s Alive”, and a woman who had been paralyzed got up and walked for the first time in years, at least according to what I was told.  (Maybe it was an illusion: after my hip fracture accident in 1998, I put aside my crutches “for the first time” at an Academy Awards benefit party in Minneapolis and spent the evening without them.)  I’ve seen a couple of people “slain in the spirit” at a service in Pensacola FL (in 1998, when I visited the Brownsville Assembly of God), and it certainly seems real to the people participating.  I had my own epiphany at a night service on a Texas prairie on 1979 (during a storm), but that’s a topic for another day.

Note: I took the third picture tonight at the Rosslyn Metro, as I was returning from an Oscars party in Georgetown.  I am seeing this all around Metro stations these days, outside, in the winter.  It was around 35oF when I shot the picture outside.  

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Dumbarton Concerts: Brooklyn Rider plays Beethoven Quartet 14; music by Zhurbin, Glass, itself;; a note on the film/play "Bent"

Tonight, Feb. 25, 2012, a string quartet called Brooklyn Rider (link) performed at for the Dumbarton Concerts in Washington DC. The players are Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violin, Eric Jacobsen, cello (brother of Colin), and Nicholas Cords, viola. Except for the cello, the group performs standing, which is unusual in my concert experience, and makes it a rather athletic looking event.  The group did not have to re-tune instruments before each piece.

Let’s start with the second half of the program.  This comprised the String Quartet #14 in C# Minor by Ludwig Van Beethoven, Op. 131.  The group says that there is significance to the number of movements, seven, but two of these movements are really introductions to what follows.  They took the quartet fast, and played the movements without pause. The opening fugue sounded more like Andante than Adagio. The central A Major “slow movement” in variation form was rather animated, but the fugal nature of the variations matches the first movement.  The only movement in sonata form is the finale, which has a very elaborate and climatic coda, really like another development section.  Is C# minor, instead of D Minor, more difficult to play on strings?

This quartet was a favorite of another patient during my stay at NIH in 1962, which I’ve discussed elsewhere. He had definite opinions on how it should be performed.

The first half opened with a suite called “Seven Steps”  (no apparent connection to "12 steps"), composed by the entire group in collaboration (and this is unusual in classical music, where individual ego rules composition).  It was lighthearted but given to virtuosity, rather like an album of etudes, but played without pause.

They followed with the Suite for String Quartet from Bent by Philip Glass, based on his chamber music score for the early 1997 film ("Bent") directed by Sean Mathias, based on the play by Martin Sherman in 1979.  I believe I saw a small production of the play in Dallas (when I had started living there for the 80s), and I saw the indie British film (Samuel Goldwyn) at the old Janus theater near Dupont Circle in Washington shortly after it appeared.  (I must have seen it when “home” for Christmas after moving to Minneapolis in September of that year.)  The story is summarized in the program notes and is worth mention here. Max (Clive Owen) gets arrested by Nazi storm troopers on “The Night of the Long Knives”. His boyfriend Rudy (Webber) is taken to and is killed on the way to the camps.  Max tries to pretend to be a Jew  (star) rather than gay (pink triangle) but falls in love with Horst (Lothaire Bluteau), sharing the experience of the work detail in the rock quarries.  I recall a graphic scene when Max arrives at the camp where not only is his head buzz-cut, but also his chest hair is dispassionately lopped off.

The music still sounds like typical Glass, with the typical patterns of repetition.

The first half of the concert ended with a string quartet, about 15 minutes, subtitled “Culai”, by Les Ljova Zhurbin, b. 1978.  It makes heavy use of Romanian folk dance rhythms and melodies. The third movement is a wild tarantella that sounds like it should close the work, but then a funeral march (“Doina Neacsu”) closes, following the form of the Tchaikovsky Pathetique (or even the Mahler 9th). 

The group played two encores, one piece being “Music of the Roma”, based on Romanian folk songs, again by Zhurbin, and another encore that sounded like Enesco to me.

Dumbarton Concerts has another young “composer in residence”, Tudor Dominik Maican, whose family has Romanian origin, and I’m hoping we’ll hear some more of his work there soon.

Brooklyn Rider's YouTube video clip of music from Philip Glass's music for "Mishima" (I have not seen that 1985 film; it's in my Netflix queue now.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Arnold Schoenberg's "Gurre-Lieder": the ultimate post-romantic opus

I recently splurged on a modern recording of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Gurre-Lieder”.  This one, on Berlin Classics, has Herbert Kegel conducting the Dresden Philharmonic and choirs from Berlin, Leipzig, and Mens’ Chorus from Prague, with Eva-Maria Bundschuh (Sop) as Tove, Manfred Jung (tenor) as Waldemar.

The 1979 recording with Ozawa and the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Chorus on Philips had been underwhelming.

This new recording lasts a full two hours, and the grandeur of Schoenberg’s youthful masterpiece works with the slower tempos.

It’s common for pre-atonal Schoenberg to be regarded as post-Mahler.  That’s an oversimplification.  I think some of Britten’s work (the War Requiem and the biggest operas) sounds more like the direction Mahler might have gone had he lived longer.  Schoenberg’s  “young manhood” (he composed the first part in his twenties but finished it at around age 36) really sounds closer to the “original” Wagner (even Liszt) than Mahler. It’s easy to imagine how Lars Van Trier could have interspersed some of the orchestral interludes (especially the last one) with the Wagner “Tristan” music in “Melancholia”.

The key scheme of the work, however, may be an accidental or intentional completion of Mahler.  The Second Symphony starts in C Minor and ends in the relative Major E-flat.  The Eighth Symphony, just performed by Gustavo Dudamel on Fathom, stays in E-flat. But this work, which is somewhere between oratiorio, song cycle, and cantata, and symphony, starts in E-flat major and actually takes us back to C Major.  The overwhelming conclusion, “FFF”, may constitute Schoenberg’s only C Major “lost chord”, but it is surely one of the grand closings of all choral-symphonic music, almost outdoing the two well-known Mahler works just mentioned.  Would Dudamel conduct this work?   Kegel makes the last two minutes (after the final chromatic descent to C Major) much more monumental than had Ozawa (who takes it much too fast – a problem also with Dudamel in many of his interpretations).  Could Schoenberg’s depiction of a sunrise (no doubt inspired by Gotterdamerung)  have inspired a similarly spirited close (“Tomorrow Comes”) by another composer named Schoenberg?

The story of the work is derived from poetry by Jens Peter Jacobsen, and at first glance it sounds like fantasy in the Toiken world.  But it defines the structure of the work.  A norse king Waldemar has a secret love of Tove, a common girl.  A jealous queen or wife conspires, in soap opera fashion, for her death.  The long first section (68 minutes) concludes in a dour B-flat minor. 

The short second section has Waldemar  in an existential argument with God for destroying Waldemar’s source of pride and ego.   In Part 3, Waldemar and his vassals (making the male choruses) go on a “wild hunt”, to discover their ghostly nature and disappear as the sun rises.  Waldemar (spoken for in caricature by a gester) must come to terms with how he will manage his own ego given the "common self" that God would make of him before passing into eternity, as new life (“generativity”) still goes on.

The music is simultaneously thick and transparent.  It surrounds us with the voluptuous beauty of heterosexual passion that would make Masters and Johnson proud.  The music lover will feel that many of the themes and passages are familiar, as if they had been frequently used in 40s film noir without credit (I suspect they have been).  We don’t think of Arnold Schoenberg as a melodist, but some of the themes, include the closing hymn to the Sun, could almost have fit into “Miserables”.   They are part of our everyday musical awareness, and few people realize it. This is a work that helps define our civilization, almost as much as Beethoven. 

The story behind the cantata bears some curious parallels to my own screenplay (main blog, Monday, Feb. 20).  In my opus, “Tovina” is the “ordinary girl” and super homemaker in the afterworld ready to teach “cadets” (and maybe angels, or at least the “vassals”) how to be real men.  The character parallel to me (it’s a stretch to call me Waldemar, but there is someone who corresponds to the jester)  has to come to terms with the heavenly demands for practical skills and neighborliness before ego and self-expression, and Tovina can teach him that.  But in my setting, Tovina (eg Tove) doesn’t pass away, but she teaches “me” how to be jealous so that I won’t.   The “summer wind” may be more like the space wind  from coronal mass ejections.  But I have my own music for this.

This YouTube video reminds me of "Tree of Life".  Or maybe a landing on "Earth 2".  I can't wait for Hollywood to discover the conclusion of this piece.  Lars Van Trier, where are you?


Update:  July 30, 2014

A blog called "Down with Tyranny" has a further detailed discussion of the work here

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Local Arlington Church presents overlooked Russian composer; a note about Percy Fletcher; also, 30 Hour Famine

Today, the Trinity Presbyterian Church of Arlington VA presented an a cappella anthem by a curiously obscure Russian “nationalistic” romantic composer, Alexander Kopylov, who actually wrote one big symphony in C minor that is on an obscure CD that costs $40. He was also a violinist. He was never able to get into a conservatory but studied privately with Rimsky-Korsakov and Liadov.  The piece was “Heavenly Light”, and Alice Mattullath and Wilhousky also share some credit.

Gustav Mahler (yesterday’s post) had called the solo song that makes the fourth movement of his Second Symphony “Primeval Light” (“Urlicht”).

The orchestral postlude, played by Carol Feather Martin, was the lively minor-keyed fast-waltz-like "Tocaata on 'Deo Gracias'" by Michael Burkhardt, a loud piece that got an applause.  It reminded me of the “Festival  Toccata” by Percy Fletcher, British composer, with its famous theme “C-B-C-B-E-D-E-D-“, that ought to have been in the running for the William-Katherine wedding.  The piece jumped into mind suddenly. I had heard it in Charlotte, NC back around Easter in 1955 when I was 11, on a visit to family friends (wo would play a curious, if accidental, role later in my William and Mary fiasco in 1961). I remember watching the organist play it. 

In this YouTube video, the unidentified organist could use the iPad to make turning pages of music easier. You will recognize the staccato-like theme a bit into the video. 

There was mention today of the teenagers’ project, the “30 Hour Famine” the last weekend of February, this year based on the famine in the Horn of Africa (web site).  I’m not sure that the “sacrifice” is really necessary, but that’s another discussion. I remember money being raised for this a couple years ago there, and then last year during the “Fast” the teenagers made a short film “Friday’s Aliens” ( review Feb. 27, 2011 on Movie’s blog). Today the teens did “Clark-Kent-speed-tricks” moving between the balcony and the Bell Choir up front, breaking the laws of physics.  I believe that the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington has done the famine some years, usually before Thanksgiving.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Dudamel conducts Mahler Eighth from Caracas on Fathom

Today, Fathom broadcast a live performance from Caracas, Venezuela, of the Mahler Symphony #8 in E-flat, the “Symphony of a Thousand”.  I saw it at a Regal in Arlington.

Gustavo Dudamel (link for this event) conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Simon Bolivar Orchestra, and choruses from Los Angeles and Caracas. 

The performance was preceded by a 40 minute presentation by John Lithgow, of the Caracas Youth Orchestra, and of Dudamel’s explanation of the work.  The actual performance started at 6 PM, after an intermission, and lasted about 70 minutes.  Fathom showed the words of the text in both parts.

In the first movement, Dudamel did not slow down right before the majestic beginning of the Recapitulation, the way Bernstein and other conductors have.  I think it needs that moment to be drawn out.

The second part, as is well known, presents a setting from Geothe’s Faust, a closing scene where Faust does not appear but where other characters make the case for his salvation.  Dudamel explains this “oratorio” aspect, but insists that this work is still a symphony, not an oratorio or opera without words. 

The Latin text of the first movement, by comparison, seems a bit “collectivist” when displayed on the screen. But the libretto in Part II gets into the dual nature of man (soul and body), mentions the role of angels, and even suggests that children are raised in Heaven, before the final chorus about “The Eternal Feminine” (yes, the Polarities).

Dudamel did a straightforward reading of the “Intermezzo”, orchestra only for about 15 minutes, that opens Part II, without making it sound ponderous.  That section introduces the choral theme that will end the work.  Then when the vocal parts from the Faust drama appear, themes and motives from the First Movement come back in for another development section (relative to part 1).

The final closing is thrilling indeed, even given Dudamel’s straightforward approach.

It appeared that the chorus must have numbered about 1800 members (about 60 per row times 30 in one mass).  There is a piano part which is not played on a grand, but a spinet, and has a rather bell like sound. 

The event started at 5 PM EST, about an hour after Whitney Houston's televised memorial service had ended.  By chance, the whole concert came across as a fitting memorial event on its own.

Picture: Near the Regal cinema -- Donnie Darko's rabbit?

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Furtwangler: Symphony #2, revisited

Some time back, a young violinist (in college as a sophomore, I think) tweeted that he still found it hard to keep the Bruckner symphonies apart in his musical memory.

I’ve long had CD’s of the three Wilhelm Furtwangler symphonies; 1 and 3 are from Marco Polo, and the longest, #2 in E Minor, comes from JVC, recorded in 1985, with the Osaka Philharmonic conducted by Takashi Asahina, on 2 CD’s running just under 80 minutes.  Tonight, I got out the E Minor after the Super Bowl ended, and tried it on my new setup.

The facile comparison is that Furtwangler (whose behavior during WWII is a matter of some controversy beyond this post) wrote three more “Bruckner symphonies”.  But the comparison really doesn’t quite hold.
The first movement starts out with a slow introduction and with a long but straightforward Sonata structure rather like that of late Beethoven. It ends on an abrupt E minor chord, forte, but without the fanfare of our comparison. The second movement is marked “Andante semplice (tranquillo)” and is more quickly paced and “simpler” than a typical Bruckner slow movement. The scherzo, though, is all of 16 minutes and takes itself all too seriously, and doesn’t have quite the momentum of Bruckner’s “scherzos”.

The finale, sprawling to 27 minutes, takes its form queues from late Beethoven.  It has a long slow introduction recapitulating the earlier material from the symphony, and then erupts with a fugal theme for the “Allegro”, rather like an orchestral “Hammerklavier”.  There is a wonderful familiar melody for a second subject, which concludes in a “hymn of praise” theme of descending tetrachords, very similar to the theme in the “completed” finale of Bruckner’s Ninth.  Still, we’re more in the world of Beethoven than Schubert (who leads logically to Bruckner).  The development is fugal, and comes to a crisis in unresolved dissonances (Beethoven’s Eroica passage recalled), when the recapitulation should start. Instead Furtwangler returns to the slow introduction, and imposes a slow fugue with gradually increasing momentum from both subjects.  He reaches one more mighty unsurmountable dissonance, but now he has taken us into the harmonic world of Wagner, taking chromaticism into outright atonality (my ear picks up some motives from Tristan). Then the Hymn of Praise, descending chords, comes back in glorious E Major, with background repeating figures that sound like a direct quote from Wagner’s Gotterdamerung, finally crashing down into Picardy Third chords and one finale “FFF” octave.  This is German romanticism at its summit.  Perhaps some would find it self-indulgent.  But it deserves concert performance.  It seems to me that Lars Van Trier could have used this music as “Melancholia” swallows up the Earth.  Nothing more can follow.

Yet, given the “similarity” of the conclusions (and the same “Hymn of Praise” theme), the “Schubertian” Bruckner Ninth, as completed, is more satisfying. (See March 8, 2011 here.)

The CD set has program notes entirely in Japanese. I obtained these in the late 1980s from a company in Santa Barbara CA called “Records International” which also sold a lot of Marco Polo then.  I do have to say that the sound is a bit tubby, but it make give better results at home if I get everything switched over to HDMI, which may affect how the channels split among the speakers.
By the way, I’m told that owners of CD sets should remove the plastic fluff inserts, as they tend to deteriorate over many years. 

By the way, last night, I dreamed, after acting in a soap opera and living in the world of "Days of our Lives" (changing places and changing bodies with Will), that I was playing a piano trio in F# minor with themes that sounded like Rachmaninoff to me, but then ended with a theme that I think is the second subject in Dohnanyi's First Piano Concerto, in E Minor.  I'll have to play it again, to check.  It's good to be able to remember a theme from a dream.  But what a weird work that would be.  

Also, CD collectors, watch out for this: