Monday, December 30, 2013

Local church gives solo jazz interpretation of Christmas music; was Busoni a teen prodigy?

The combined service at the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA on Sunday, December 29, 2013 featured special jazz music by Robert Stocks, who usually organizes the early morning contemporary service.  This music comprised mostly Christmas carols played on a solo saxophone, sometimes with electronic piano keyboard, sometimes with accompanying guitar, and at least once case (“The Little Drummer Boy” on an unusual drum and percussion apparatus that I haven’t seen before. 

For a little more material, I looked up my 1988 CD of piano music of Ferruccio Busoni, played by Bruce Wolosoff, and see that I had reviewed the Piano Sonata earlier (Oct. 25, 2011).  So today, I played the much more "modern" Seven Elegies, which run 42 minutes. The Second of the elegies ("All'Italia") has passage work that anticipates the slow movement of the mammoth Piano Concerto in C.  The Third, "My Soul longs and hopes for You", somewhat recalls the Christmas carol "What Child was this?"  The Fourth invokes the familiar tune "Greensleves" (aka, "What Child?" and even more obviously now) and is called "The Boudoir of Turandot".  The Fith is called "The Nightly" as if to anticipate "The Night Jaunt" in Timo Andres's "Shy and Mighty".  The last, "The Vision" is said to be the best known. Each elegy ends quietly, and some have a sudden tonality shift at the very end.

I've recently discussed the Liszt "ad nos" variations from Meyerbeer (Nov. 25);  Busoni transcribed that for piano.  

I like it better for organ, still.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Eve (is over): Vaughn Williams and Britten rule

On Christmas days in the past, I used to play two particular works by CD.  One was Hodie ("This Day"), the Christmas cantata by Ralph Vaughn Williams, almost an hour, a 1969 performance by David Wilcox on EMI-Angel.  The ending is rather virile, and calls to mind the conclusion of the Eigtth Symphony. The other was an RCA recording with the St. Louis Symphony and the Tchaikovsky complete Nutcracker.

The Tchaikovsky really sounds hackneyed to my ear now.  The best moment is not at the very end (in B flat), but another fast passage near the end that crashes down in G Major.  I remember hearing this climax play one day at the old Crossroads Market in Dallas (at Cedar Springs and Throckmorton). The Nutcracker sounds less effective to my ear than “Swan Lake”, which was realized so well in the 2010 film “Black Swan”.  And remember how director Paul Thomas Anderson used the finale of the Brahms Violin Concerto so effectively in the end-credits of his 2007 Christmas-season film "There Will Be Blood"?  A teenager sitting next to me made his whole family stay to hear the complete movement before leaving the theater.  
And don't forget Rimsky-Korsakov's "Christmas Eve Suite", a favorite of a high school friend my senior year.

There is actually a piano solo Christmas hymn by Franz Liszt, in D-flat major, in an old hardbound anthology that I would have to hunt for.  It's bombastic and rather resembles "St. Francis Walking on the Water". 

There was some notable a cappella vocal music at the Christmas Eve 11 PM service last night at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA., some rather modal arrangements of familiar carols, followed by some Britten (one piece from the Ceremony of Carols), and Rutter, and anthems by Jonathan Willcocks, John Leavitt, Bob Chilcott, and Daniel Kantor (“Night of Silence”). 

As we sung the carols, I noticed that Ralph Vaughn Williams has his own setting for “O Little Town of Bethlehem” that nobody uses.

The pre-school at the church has some artwork in the hallway, with one of them a visual comparsion Mozart (fast, with violins) to Tchaikovsky (slow, with flutes).  
Christmas celebrations this year seem a little less elaborate than in years past.  It’s not so much recession (not in this area); it’s more that people seem to be moving back into their own personal spaces.  That’s common in large cities, and it’s happening a little more in affluent suburbs, too.  I think as we become more “self-sufficient” we think we need to do less together.  There’s the whole idea of “Alone together”, like on Facebook.  It’s funny, because from my Twitter feed I can tell that a friend some hundreds of miles away is watching “The Hobbit” to celebrate Christmas Eve.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

"Why the Chimes Rang" (Dinda-Alden) presented by DC Church on new organ for Christmas

The First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC held a short Christmas celebration with the small Wednesday night congregation sitting in the chancel, facing the organ, on Dec. 18.

The highlight of the program was the 25-minute narrated organ piece, “Why the Chimes Rang”, with music by Robin Dinda, performed by Lawrence P. Schreiber on the Austin Organ, with Rev, Deborah Cochran reading the children’s story by Raymond MacDonald Alden (1909). 
The story presents a fantasy setting, with a huge cathedral at the entrance of a walled city, and a spire thousands of feet high, with chimes that no one remembers hearing.  The descriptions of the countryside rather remind me of one of the dominions in Clive Barker’s “Imajica” (or perhaps of Toilken). A little boy helps a homeless woman outside the city, and takes her donation to the service which, given after all the gaudy gifts in the style of the Magi, is met by the chimes ringing.  It is a setting of the “widow’s coin” parable.    The music has some fugal settings of carols, but ends with a very French-sounding triumphant close in E Major, after the organ plays the mysterious chimes. 
The service had started with an intermixing of two organ preludes based on “In Dulci Jublio” by Marcel Dupre and Paul Manz.  The Dupre was not as loud as the composer usually is, and the Manz again played with a fugue.

Earlier there was a supper with mushroom soup!  

Update: Dec, 22, 2013

The Trinity Presbyterian Service today in Arlington Va. offered the Trinity Brass Players with the Giovanni Gabrielli piece "Hodie Christus Natus Est", in a transcription by S. Drummond Wolff. 

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Kennedy Center offers a stirring Brahms First, some interesting Mozart

I hadn’t been to the Kennedy Center since the web snafu last February forced me to go to a broker for an ordinary ticket.  But last night, after some more minor website problems in the morning, I went to a reminiscence of Mozart and Beethoven.

The concert, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach, started with the Overture to “The Magic Flue” (“Die Zaungerflote).  This majestic E-flat late Mozart overture became part of my memory in the early 1970s. I can remember driving out to West Virginia to tour strip mines with a previous grad school roommate (an episode that I elaborate in the story “Expedition” in my upcoming book) and the piece came on to the car radio as I left town, early from work and a pow-wow on a friend’s last day at work before leaving for a new job. The music seemed to represent that friend.  The performance here was a little unsteady at the very beginning, as there seemed to be a slight tuning problem in the strings on the opening chords.

The second work was the Violin Concerto #4 in D, K. 218, with violinist Nurit Bar-Josef. She wore a form-fitted blue gown, bringing to mind the title of a particularly controversial film (Movies, Dec. 3).
Again, this brings back that troubling time in my coming of age.  After returning “home” from my William and Mary “expulsion”, I (in 1962) bought a Parliament (cheap) recording of this work with the Bassoon Concerto on the other side.  The first movement is typical enough, and the program notes characterize the slow movement, with its gentle scalar themes, as “moonlight-tender”, as if had inspired a particular episode of “Modern Family”.  The finale sounds like playful fluff, and the concerto ends simply and quietly, as if to invite a response.  I don’t recall if any of the other Mozart violin concertos end like this, but on December 1, 2012 Jonathan Biss played an early Piano Concerto that does.
I didn’t know that Johannes Brahms had started to compose his Symphony #1 in C Minor at age 22. He didn’t finish until over 40.  This work really penetrates when you sit on the fourth row, with Eschenbach’s deliberate, Klemperer-like tempos.  The harmonies sound rich and adventurous.  In the first movement, Eischenbach kept a “moderato” pace for the formal allegro and slowed down at the end of the development, before announcing the recapitulation.  Note that the movement ends quietly, on a Picardy Third.  The second movement shows how Brahms can make complex triple-meter interesting with syncopation and complex rhythm. The third movement seems like a relaxing respite (getting to the remote key of B for the trio) before returning to reality in the famous finale.
In the finale, the Introduction is almost like another slow movement in itself.  (Brahms introduced the finales of a couple of his big piano sonatas with long slow introductions, sometimes recalling the material of earlier movements.)  The program notes, after noting the famous C Major hymn theme, state that the movement has no development section.  I don’t perceive it that way.  After the hymn is introduced, the music gradually shifts to G Major and then E Minor for an adventurous second subject.  That was the music playing mentally on an evening in high school during a small event important to my coming of age, as I describe in my upcoming book.  Yes, this brings back those days of being a senior at Washington-Lee in 1960-1961.  The hymn theme returns to start what seems like a development.  After reaching a tremendous climax, the move slows with some of the adagio-material, and then enters what seems like a recapitulation, but only of the venturous second theme.  It comes to a false ending in C Minor, before embarking on the Coda, which turns in a development and almost a cadenza for orchestra, before finally homing in on the “Big Ben” trombone motive, ready to crash down in C Major triumph.
It strikes me as interesting that German romanticism (following baroque and classic periods) split into two paths.  I tend to put Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms in on bucket in my own mind.  In fact, there is a lot of counterpoint in the Brahms First.   The other path seems to comprise Handel, Mozart, Schubert, Bruckner, Mahler, with Struass, Wagner and Liszt nearby.  (Liszt actually worked with counterpoint, as he proved in “ad nos”.)  Eschenbach’s conducting style brings all these styles together.
Seated up close, I could see the musicians, often female and not necessarily young.  Eschenbach is active with the baton and seems to make eye contact with the musicians.  You can hear the cellos playing pizzicato and see it.  I wondered what makes someone want to play bass as a primary instrument (usually young men).
The embed above shows a Bernstein performance with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1981. 

Note the discussion of the Brahms Symphony 2 on Jan. 13. 

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

CD by Houlihan showcases Vierne; the music of Amy Beach

I did purchase a CD of organist Christopher Houlihan, after the concert on Nov, 24 in Washington DC.   Here Houlihan is performing at the Trinity College Chapel in Hartford, CT, on another Austin Organ, Op. 2536 (from 1971).  The CD is Towerhill recording TH-72018.
The main course on the CD is the Organ Symphony #2 in E Minor, Op. 20 (1903), by Louis Vierne, who was legally blind.  The music, despite what the program notes say, doesn’t sound so far from Franck.  There are five movements.  The first movement and finale end in a triumphant Picardy Third in E. There are two slow movements.  The “Choral” has a surprise loud ending, but the Cantabile is quiet, as is the preceding scherzo, which the organist had used as an encore.
The CD adds the “Carillon de Westminster” as performed in the Nov. 24 concert.
The CD includes the Widor Sixth Symphony Allegro, and adds the Andante Sostenuto from the “Gothic Symphony” (sorry, no relation to Havergal Brian’s “Gothic Symphony).  I’m not a fan of performing separate movements.  But Widor endorsed the practice, linking the Allegro and Finale of his Sixth along with the Andante of the Second to form a “Symphony for Organ and Orchestra.”  I seem to remember hearing some Widor at a church in Charlotte as a boy on a family trip in the 1950s.
At the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC Sunday (Dec. 1), there was a communion anthem “Sleepers, Wake, A Voice Is Calling” from Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Saint Paul”, with Austin organ.
I’ll mention that we had a “handbell” music lesson at the monthly potluck, to accompany some carol singing.  Some of the bells had notations of the pitch and diagrams.  The other church that I often attend in Arlington (Trinity Presbyterian) often performs musical numbers with bells. 

I’ll mention a couple more adventures on YouTube.  I found the Symphony in E Minor and Piano Concerto in C# Minor by Amy Beach (probably Aemrica’s most important female composer before modern times) on YouTube, along with the Piano Quintet in F# Minor.  All are examples of late "German" Romanticism, with a taste of Brahms.  The E Minor Symphony has a restless first movement that ends abruptly, but the big tune in the Finale is based on an Irish folk song. It’s on Chandos. It will sound familiar. The Piano Concerto has four movements, heavily rhythmic, and a spectacular, pre-Rachmaninoff conclusion to an otherwise playful finale.  I also found Eugen D’Albert’s Piano Concerto #1 (the “Everwood”) on YouTube, but I’m not sure how legally.  I commented on the work anyway there.  I’ve discussed the work  (inspired by the Liszt B Minor sonata) in detail here before.  

Update: April 16, 2016

Here is a YouTube video that shows the Amy Beach Piano Concerto score as it is played.  The first movement, 18 minutes, is noteworthy for its very expansive sonata structure. The finale "scioltezza" means with agility.  The music is noteworthy in sounding laid back but erupting into powerful, even violent, climaxes.  The work has more orchestral passages than usual for a piano concerto, almost as if a "concerto for orchestra with piano".  The piano writing has some similarity to Brahms and Liszt, but looks ahead to Rachmaninoff.  Beach has a way to take mundane, almost pedantic or perfunctory themes (which sounds like an odd thing to say because she often uses her own songs or other folk songs in her large works), and make them interesting.  In her music, the "development" is everything  Although this concerto is hardly every played, it is easy for the "ear" to learn and sounds familiar after two or three playings;  like D'Albert's big works, it has its own internal logic that seems quite compelling. .
A male pianist should play this work with the New York Philharmonic the weekend before the general election, if we wind up with Hillary Clinton v. Donald Trump.  Performing the work could make a political statement.
But every Easter, this work gets attention, as below:

Update:  April 16, 2017

That video with the sheet music isn't available now, so try this performance by Joanne Polk and the English Chamber Orchestra, link.  Movement timings are 19:16, 25:24, 30:14.  

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Homeless man in Vancouver plays piano by ear as a gifted pianist

A shop called “Second Hand Solutions” in Vancouver BC has hosted the homeless pianist David Allen Welsh, who is said to be a prodigy and plays by ear but does not know how to read music and never had music lessons.
The CNN story link is here.
A friend of David, James Maynard, contributed to the report.
Welsh can play with good technique despite fingers numbed from outdoor life in the cold as a homeless man.

David played a distant transcription of the hymn “Amazing Grace”. 

Wikipedia attribution link for Vancouver picture.  My only visit was in Dec. 1966.