Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Zemlinsky's two early "romantic" symphonies: Call them "muscle music"

Fifty years ago, as Gustav Mahler was becoming more “popular” after the work of Leonard Bernstein, his younger contemporary Alexander von Zemlinsky was overshadowed as a mystery figure, his “Lyric Symphony” viewed as a logical companion piece to Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde”.

Zemlinksy (despite the sound of his name) was born in Vienna and his career certainly fits into the history of “Viennese post-romanticism”.  Records International or Marco Polo had issued his first two symphonies on CD in the mid 1980’s, but the first symphony was missing a finale.

I ordered the EMI (“Angel”) recording (available from resellers on Amazon) with James Conlon conducting the “Gurzenich-Orchester Kolner Philharmoniker” in Cologne (or Koln), from 1998.

The Symphony #1 in D Minor (1892) was composed at age 20.  The first three movements are a bit workmanlike, but do anticipate the mood of Bruckner.  But it’s the “missing” finale that makes the work.  Starting at Moderato, the movement picks up with a catchy little march that I’ve heard before – in the movies I think.  Hollywood composers love to raid obscure post-romantic works (some of the Nachtmusik from Mahler’s seventh had shown up in scores well before the work was generally known and played after the 1960s).  There may be a theme like this in one of Dvorak’s early symphonies or Slavonic Dances.  The work does end in a fanfare of triumph.

In the video above, the familiar march theme occurs 31:09. 

The Symphony #2 in B-flat (1897) has been compared to the Brahms Fourth, and the work combines the harmonic and rhythmic manners of Bruckner and Brahms (if that can be imagined, particularly with the cross rhythms and syncopation) with a little folksiness from Dvorak.  The first movement ends with a grandiose coda that does predict Bruckner’s symphony in the same key.

The last movement is a rather declamatory passacaglia, inviting apt comparisons to the finale of the Brahms Fourth. 

I seem to remember that my “music friend” at William and Mary that lost semester of 1961 had said that B-flat was his least favorite key.

Nonetheless, these two symphonies are a “young man’s” music.  They reflect strength, muscularity, energy.  They make you see Bryce Harper running, rather than trotting, the bases after a home run. Reach for the "muscle milk". 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Liszt piano Consolation on a new organ; Reger; Strauss; Schumann

Today, at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC, more sounds had been added to the new Austin Organ.

Lawrence P. Schreiber started with an “Adagio in D-flat” by Franz Liszt, which was actually an organ transcription of the third of a series of Consolations for Piano which I recall learning when in high school.  This was a favorite of my parents during my senior year in high school.  The piece goes into some rather dramatic chromatic adventures.

The service also offered the “Holy Is thy Lord”, a quiet, mostly a cappella movement from the German Mass in F (1826) by Franz Schubert.

For an offertory, Dr. Schreiber played the “Herr Jesu Christ” by Max Reger, and for a postlude, the “Jesu, Lead Thou On”, also by Reger.  Now the congregation remains seated during the postlude.  When it coes to Reger, I like to mention another work, the “Sinfonietta” in A, more like a middle-Mahler symphony with a crunching scherzo.

After the service, I went up and played a little more on the organ console, and tried to play from memory the triumphant closing passage from the film “A Canterbury Tale” (Movies, May 15, 2011).  The concluding four minutes combine “Onward Christian Soldiers” with a tune that sounds derived from “Immortal Invisible”, and then turns to bells and a “Moonlight Sonata” derived theme in close-in notes, finally to crash down on to four huge D-flat major chords.  I think there is a passage like this near the end of one of Hevergal Brian’s symphonies. Sir Arnold Bax had closed his Fifth Symphony in enharmonic C# Minor (Chandos) with a triumphant setting on a heavily chromaticized version of the Sibelius “Finlandia” with a little bit of "The Old Rugged Cross", and even a motive from the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony thrown in.   I always wondered what the soccer ball in the final closing of the film’s epilogue (shown coming to the audience as the final chords crash down).  Play these last four minutes on YouTube here. This would make a wonderful concert piece.  I wonder if Prince William knows this music;  it could have fit into the Royal Wedding. 
I found a Nimbus CD with a 1980s performance by Vlado Perlemuter of Robert Schumann’s “Kreisleriana”, Op. 16, running 31 minutes (longer than I recall).  There are ten tracks, with the second movement taking three.  The final movement dies away into playful nothingness.  On Dec. 11, 2010, I covered a performance of this work by Timo Andres, who was inspired by this piece to conceive his own parallel suite “It Takes a Long Time to Become a Good Composer”.

The CD also contains the mammoth Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13 (for solo piano, still), which are actually a mixture of etudes and variations, with a triumphant final march. I had discussed another performance of this work here Jan. 20, 2011.

I also found a Marco Polo CD of the “Symphony #0” (remember Bruckner?) so to speak, of Richard Strauss (1881), from Records International, with the Hong Kong Philharmonic conducted by Kenneth Schemrmerhorn.  It sounds rather like Mendelssohn, and isn’t too subtle about its “sturm un drang”.  The 14-minute finale (f a 36 minute work) is in all major, which dissipates tension too quickly.  Strauss’s F Minor Symphony builds to its final climax much more effectively (see June 19, 2011).   The CD also has the “Interludio”, and then “Kampf und Sieg” which sounds a bit like the Mendelssohn “War March of the Priests”.   Why does the final chord die away?  

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Ted Hearne: art and politics in his "Katrina Ballads" (even a little bit of AC360)

Ted Hearne, one of a “gang” of young composers, won the 2009 International Gaudeamus Prize for composition for his 70-minute ensemble suite “Katrina Ballads” (his description here), available on a CD.  You have to buy the CD to get all 12 movements; two of them are not offered on mp3 download.
The suite (or "song cycle"), almost a miniature oratorio, is performed by five vocal soloists and a 12-piece chamber orchestra conducted by the composer, recorded at Avatar Studios in Manhattan in 2008.  The soloists are Abby Fischer (mezzo-soprano), who sings the Prologue; the composer Ted Hearne as tenor, who sings the eighth movement titled “Brownie, You’re Doing a Heck of a Job”, Isaiah Robinson, tenor, who sings “Kayne West”; and a duet of Soprano Allison Semmes and baritone Anthony Turner, who act as Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu and CNN news anchor (AC360) Anderson Cooper, respectively.
The musical numbers track the approach of Hurricane Katrina, and the first belief that New Orleans had dodged a bullet.  The Anderson Cooper interview is supposed to happen on September 1, 2005.
Some of the text refers to the spending on war overseas (Iraq) and unpreparedness to take care of people at home when there is a natural disaster.  But that effort can be put in personal terms.  Of course, it’s relevant to consider Spike Lee’s HBO film “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts”.  Oprah Winfrey had visited the New Orleans Superdome, turned into a refugee center, and almost vomited when she saw the stench. 
The music has a somewhat expressionist mix of jazz (especially with the winds), modal music, and occasional serialism, with a “Pierrot Lunaire” effect in a few places.  Tempos are often relatively slow.
Hearne has composed other works with a political bent.  On August 24, 2011 I discussed his piano suite “Parlor Diplomacy” as performed by Timo Andres, who whimsically called the performance “Parlour Timocracy” – all as if to make fun of the inability of a bickering, partisan Congress to act with a financial default staring it down.


I actually volunteered with the Red Cross in Falls Church VA for a while, manning phone centers, but about all we could do is direct callers to FEMA, where they faced telephone waits for hours.   I visited New Orleans myself in February, 2006.  

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Baseball gives military vocal performers some visibility; an odd experience to go to a game on the day of the MLB suspensions

Okay, a Major League Baseball game is hardly a Broadway Play, unless you think it’s fixed.   No, but I did make time to get out to see the struggling Washington Nationals play the division leading Atlanta Braves Monday night, in order to see Stephen Strasburg pitch.

There was a little bit of military show:  a detachment from the United States Coast Guard embellished the “first pitch”, and a female officer named Christ sang the National Anthem a cappella, and then sang Ronald Reagan’s favorite “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch.  What followed was some disco music that you would be more likely to hear upstairs at the Town DC.

Some people, when they join the military, do get to perform music publicly – beyond the reach of the bands in each branch of service (who often perform on the Capitol Fourth).  The service academies have choirs, and Naval Academy midshipman Joseph Steffan sang the National Anthem at an Army-Navy game in Philadelphia in the 1980’s, before being denied the ability to graduate in 1987 for “admitting” he was gay late in his senior year (book “Honor Bound”, books blog, Oct. 10, 2007. 

I’ve always thought that “The Star Spangled Banner” could use some “recomposition” (by you know who), and maybe some polytonality, or at least more chromatics.  The first stanza is repeated literally.  And the chord under the word “Free” in the last line (“land of the Free”) should be harmonized on on a chord other than the tonic B-flat major. 

I hate to admit it, but the Soviet Union had one of the most interesting national anthems, a played during the 1982 movie “Reds”. 

The Nationals lost, 3-2, but missed several chances and did not execute particularly well last night.
There was another element on people’s minds, though; it was yesterday (that is, the day I chose to go to a game) that MLB announced its suspensions of a number of players for using performance enhancing drugs.  Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez was one of two players cleared.  But during the evening, people could see news on their smartphones that the Yankee’s Alex Rodriquez had appealed the almost career-ending suspension and was back in the Yankee lineup in Chicago  Practically everyone thought that the Yankees’s allowing him to return during the appeal was inappropriate.

The doping, as we note, is all part of what David Callahan calls “The Cheating Culture” in his 2004 book (as in Books blog, March 28, 2006). It makes one wonder how valid is the “eusociality” of rooting for home town sports teams.  

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Igigi Studios has some new music; Timo Andres offers "Home Stretch" CD

I’ll preface this review post with a few smaller avant garde musical items that I found at a (LA-based) site called “Igigistudios”.  There’s a lot of new short film and music there, but today I’ll mention three items.

There is a video music piece called “Snow White” (about 5 minute), by “Sur Realismo” and “Touche”.  The moog-like music is accompanied by an underwater visual art display, toward the end by two unidentifiable swimmers.   The link is here

Next to the “Music” link there is an item called “Projects”, two art-music pieces by Gianna Ferreya and Dylan Thomas Wilter, two movements of a suite called “In Between Buildings”.  The first movement is called “December” (2 min) and the second, “Sensory Stimulation” (4 min), with abstract video (perhaps about the origin of life, maybe an answer to the 1980 movie “Altered States”).

Igigi has a number of other videos on YouTube (not yet moved to the new site) like "I'm a Man, Not a Machine" -- I wonder if that title is inspired by Jaron Lanier's book "You Are Not a Gadget".

The site does have some short films by Reid Ewing and Jason Greene, some of which have been discussed on the movies blog, and it has other short film documentary that I’ll come back to later.  I doesn’t have any of Reid’s own music (that’s on YouTube); maybe we’ll see more of that soon.

I also wanted to mention a CD released by Nonesuch Records (534416-2) and composer Timo Andres July 30.  (Why are these releases always on Tuesdays?)  The CD is called “Home Stretch”, and that is the name of the first piece, an 18-minute Piano Concerto in three sections with increasing tempo, played by the composer with the Metropolis Ensemble (NYC) conducted by Andrew Cyr.  The program notes report that Timo composed this piece for the degree recital for pianist David Kaplan (who had performed with him on “Shy and Mighty”, May 2010, his link is here  ).  The second item is the “recomposition” of the Mozart Piano Concerto #26 (“Coronation”), and the last item is “Paraphrases on Themes of Brian Eno”.
I have to say that not everyone likes the idea of the Mozart recomposition.  There is a blog post by John Montanari on NPR, "Recomposition, or self-indulgence?" here,
I see that I had discussed actual performances of these works on Dec. 9, 2010 (the day before my own mother’s final decline, and two days before a big concert in NYC on Dec 11 there), and Nov. 18, 2010.

Note, January 27, 2014:  Timo's co-producer David Frost won best producer at the Grammy's, link here (item 72).

Update:  July 30, 2014

Timo Andres now jas a detailed article in Wikipedia here.

Igigistudios's content disappeared in June.  The site is still on Twitter and told me it would have a new site.