Monday, January 27, 2014

Minnesota Orchestra ends lockout; recalling concerts when I lived, worked there; Grammy award for its Sibelius recording

The Minnesota Orchestra and the musicians’ union have reached a deal that ends a 15-month lockout, as the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported on January 15, 2014, here, story by Graydon Royce. .

The deal is significant to me because I worked as a caller (aka telemarketer) for the Orchestra from April 2002, until June 2013, specifically for the Guaranty Fund, and even more specifically to raise money for the Young People’s Concerts. We worked on the second floor of the Oakwood Apartments near the Symphony Hall. 

I do wonder what became of those jobs, since the public has become much more resistant to telephone solicitations, even from non-profits, than it was then.  I definitely see that in my own attitude, as robocalls have become a problem, driving out legitimate callers.  In fact, charities and non-profits may have to struggle to stay off NoMoRobo.

During that time, I got complimentary tickets.  I lived in Minneapolis from 1997-2003, and recall a few of the concerts.  Some of these may have been paid, before I had access to comp.

The Berlioz Romeo and Juliet Symphony was performed.   I vaguely recall that the Montreal Philharmonic may have been visiting.  The work is uneven, with a long moving orchestral slow movement, and a rousing finale as the families settle their feud, despite the tragedy of the story. Berlioz’s orchestral music has never been as moving to me until he adds chorus (as in the Requiem and the Te Deum).

The Mahler Symphony #3 in D Minor was performed.  This is the longest of Mahler’s symphonies, running almost 100 minutes.  It is in two parts.  The massive 35-minute first movement, with a famous opening theme in the horns that sounds like a paraphrase of the melody from the Brahms First, has an unusual form feature: the expansive Sonata allegro, actually rather strict and clear, recapitulates the martial second theme and closes the movement in the parallel F Major rather than the Picardy D Major.  A few other romantic compositions do this, like Chopin’s B-flat Minor Scherzo (not my favorite).  Part two comprises some shorter movements, starting with a minuet, a scherzo, a song with soprano, a lively movement with women’s and boys’ chorus, and finally a 25-minute Bruckner-style adagio, that, instead of subsiding, builds to a majestic climax in the Picardy D Major at the end, and sustains its final fortissimo chord for about 30 seconds.  I actually played the theme of this movement on the organ at Fort Jackson, SC for the chaplain in a service while I was in Army Basic Training back in 1968.  There are stories that Mahler planned to put the close of the 4th Symphony at the end of the 3rd, but that would not have worked, for me, at least.  It really belongs in the 4th.

I also heard the Bruckner 5th in B-flat, performed by itself, by a conductor visiting from Vienna.  The 70-minute work is known partly for the crunching first movement, which crashes to a close that makes it sound like an overture. After a slow minor introduction, it has a very catchy theme going between major and minor.  This music was played, curiously, by C-Span during the Intermission when it televised the Senate’s 2004 hearings on gay marriage!   But it goes on to a moving slow movement in D Minor, a scherzo, and then a complex fugal finale that even outdoes Reger, to end in glory with the opening theme in B-flat. 
I likewise recall hearing the Rachmaninoff Symphony #2 in E Minor, with a comp ticket, in February 2003, on a bitterly cold Saturday night in Minneapolis, and walking to “The Saloon”, the best gay disco in Minneapolis, a few blocks away on Hennepin right after the concert.  Yes, they needed a coat check.   This work may be best known for its moving slow movement in A Major.  The Finale is entirely in the the Parallel E Major with typical Rachmaninoff virtuosity, but it spins a big tune near the end.
Despite the lockout, the Minnesota Orchestra won a Grammy last night for its BIS CD recording of the Sibelius Symphonies 1 (In E Minor) and 4 (in A Minor), as reported here
The First was a favorite of mine in high school, and in those days I had the Columbia Beecham recording.  The work is said to be influenced by Tchaikovsky, and the finale is unusual in that it reaches a “big tune” climax in the dominant B Major before returning to E minor to crash and die.  I remember playing the big tune through my head on that 1961 Science Honor Society trip to Mount Washington.  A friend would call Sibelius “musically sterile”.  Maybe that is how I would feel about the strange, alien Fourth, which sounds icy and explores some strange tonal relationships.  The finale, after being in Major, comes back to minor to end with the odd designation of mF, or just mezzo-forte.  It’s usually played quietly.

The Musicians Minnesota Union has a video, above, and the Sibelius Fifth is quoted as it opens. 

Picture: A building near the Orchestra has the Ravel "Gaspard de la Nuit" in staff shown (2003 photo, mine)/  

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Havergal Brian's "Psalm of Victory" has counterparts with Zemlinsky, Bruckner, Richard Strauss (and Mahler)

The Symphony #4, in C, by Havergal Brian (1932), the “Psalm of Victory” (or “Das Siefeslied”), is a 47 minute choral “symphony”, in three interconnected and episodic movements, based loosely on Psalm 68.  While Brian (as a Brit) has admired German culture, he was already concerned about the direction the country seemed to be going, and the implications of early Nazi ideology, which was little understood at the time. 
The work seems simple at first, opening with a majestic orchestral march with diatonic harmonies, before the chorus sets in.  It will close that way, too.  The slow movement has a long passage for soprano solo.
I have a Marco Polo CD, dating to 1988, bought from Records International when I was living in Dallas, with Jana Valaskova, Sopraano, and the Brno Philharmonic Choir and the Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony of Bratislava conducted by Adrian Leaper.  Many of Marco Polo’s recordings of that period were made just before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The obvious comparison is to Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, and there is a similar general sound, but not quite the harmonic opulence of the Mahler; yet the Brian work is as much plain post-romantic and modern; the dissonances here seem a bit random and incidental.

The CD also has the ultra compressed Symphony #12, 11 minutes, in four short sections, with a funeral atmosphere, and lots of inventive percussion.  The work ends quietly and mysteriously, leaving an open-ended question.

There are other works to compare the “Psalm of Victory” to.  One could listen to Zemlinsky’s Psalm 83 (“Keep not thy silence, O God”, composed at 29), Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) at about age 40, and the better known Psalm 13, “How long wilt thou forget me, Lord?”, much latter.  The first of these (13 min)  starts mysteriously in F and migrates to D Major for a triumphant close; the second (10 min, D) ends quietly, and the third, also D, is triumphant at the end.  For Psalm 13, I have a London Recording, with the RSO Berlin conducted by Riccardo Chailly, 1987, filling out “The Mermaid” (Jan. 19).  The Psalm 13 is melodically adventurous, with extreme register changes, and abrupt modulations, around a central tonality of D Minor. 

One could also make comparison’s to Anton Bruckner’s Te Deum, and Psalm 150, in C, the latter of which I heard at the Dallas Symphony in 1980, which is quite heaven storming, with a grandiose fugue in the middle.

Cesar Franck also set this Psalm to music, in D.

 Perhaps Richard Strauss’s “Peace Day” (“Friedenstag”, a late work, which I have on Koch with the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus included) could fit into the discussion; it has the most bombastic C Major close in history.
By the way, I’m hunting for my own copy of Havergal Brian sensational Symphony #3 on Hyperion.  It’s hard to find a few things after so many relocations.  I played it on YouTube and commented on Google+, and then Hyperion had YouTube delete it.  Seriously, I wish the record companies would sell all their recordings as MPG files (through Amazon or iTunes), that can be saved in the cloud as your “copy” (with PDF’s for program notes).  They need their revenue, but please make it convenient!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"Wicked" on Broadway, 10 years strong, a lot about witch hunts

Sunday afternoon, I attended a performance of the Broadway musical “Wicked” at the huge, emerald-decked Gershwin Theater on 51st St near 8th Avenue in New York City.  It strikes me how the midtown area is still always hopping.  And that a show like this can charge $150 or so a seat and come close to selling out almost every show for 10 years, as this musical (with lyrics and music by Stephen Schwartz and book by Winnie Holzman) has run since 2003.  The musical is based on a fantasy novel, “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West” by Gregory Maguire (1995).  That book is a parallel (or “mashup”) of the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz” (which I saw on TV once about ten years ago, but did not see the 3-D reshot) which itself comes from the 1900 short story “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by Frank Baum.

The show is actually produced by (and largely legally owned by) Universal Pictures, a large Hollywood movie studio connected to NBC and Comcast (I’m not sure of the recent mergers and spinoffs).  I wasn’t aware that Hollywood had been buying interest in Broadway.  The film version of this musical is due from Universal in 2016. (I can think of another legal sidelight: if telecomm companies can own movie studios and Broadway productions, does this make them “content providers”, potentially on the hook despite Section 230 after all?  Good question to explore strategically.)  Other production credits go to Marc Platt, the Araca Group, Jon B. Platt, and David Stone.  The somewhat tinny and light orchestra was conducted by Bryan Perri.

Probably everybody knows that the story concerns the “witches’ side” of the now classic Wizard of Oz tale.  (See also my movie review of “Oz: The Great and Powerful”, Movies blog, March 17, 2013.)    The details, as on Wikipedia, are complicated.   The “wicked witch” was the green skinned Elphaba (Lindsay Mendez) who had taken care of a disabled sister. Galinda (Alli Mauzey), popular but naïve, descends into the kingdom as the show opens, singing “No one mourns the wicked”.  Soon, the princely Fiyero (Kyle Dean Massey) comes into the story as the witch’s love.  (I wondered if Kyle has any relation to actor Chandler Massey, who until recently had played Will Horton in “Days of our Lives”.) 

The show is long (about three hours with intermission) and the first half runs something like 100 minutes.  But it really gets going with the social issues about half way through, as a professor says that animals are no longer allowed to teach in Oz, or Shiz.  A leopard or some large cat is put in a cage, and the argument is proposed that animals benefit from being “protected” by zoo enclosures.  I think there was a line referring to Orwell (time to mention, I did Michael Radford’s “1984” film that year in Dallas).   In the second half, there is a song “March of the Witch Hunters”.  It isn’t hard to imagine this as applying to the past attitude of society to gay people, or, specifically until the 2011 repeal, the “witch-hunts” that had often happened chasing gays in the military. (While I recall applicable films, "The Witches of Eastwick" and Jack Nicholson's B.O. come to mind.) 
The music comes to a better-calculated climax at the end of the first half, where Elphaba flies up into the sky, singing “Defying Gravity”.  Is the “witch” really a female Clark Kent?  Can woman fly?  (You expect a Lex-like character to pose the question directly.)   Really, she sometimes wants to be “normal” (like Clark in “Smallville”) and Fiyero seems to appreciate that.  (If I were a hidden E.T. with powers, I’d be grateful for them, and deploy them clandestinely.)  The ending of the entire show is quite abrupt, given its length and complexity.  I wonder how much Broadway should be compared to opera – and the answer is not much unless the music comes from a composer in both worlds, like George Gershwin or particularly Leonard Bernstein.  (Let me mention, I saw “Candide” at the Arena Theater in 1995 in Washington; less overwhelming than the London performance on CD, where the final stirring climax is well prepared.) 

The official site for the North American tour is here.
Check to the tour.  And watch for the movie.
The theater had garish “machinery” as décor at all levels (rather like the old Lionsgate logo for horror films).  And it was decked in green light.  There plenty of memorabilia at the theater for sale, and the geography of Oz is interesting (there’s a map on a curtain on the stage before the show).  The T-shirts vary;  one version has the word “Wicked” broken into three lines. 

“Some things I cannot change.” Then, “You are not as powerful as you think you are.” Then, “Come with me.”  (Clark says that to Lana at the end of Season 2 of “Smallville”).  “Everyone deserves to fly.”  

Monday, January 20, 2014

Grand Central Station has a permanent train show of NYC undergounrd

The Holiday or Christmas Train exhibit at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens may be over until next Thanksgiving, but there is an impressive permanent Lionel exhibit in the Grand Central Station toy store that is open most of the time.

The exhibit comprises a model of some of Manhattan and the nearby Westchester suburbs.  There is a lower outer loop that circumscribes the entire exhibit.  There are inner loops upstairs that go among skyscrapers than then suburban malls and houses, and water inlets.  Some of the exhibit shows the underground NY train world (the commuter and Amtrak worlds, not just the subway), which may highlight its vulnerability (as in the recent Jack Ryan movie, on the movies blog Jan. 19.

With the outer loop, I wondered about a sci-fi idea:  what if, on a space station, a rail track ran on a Mobius strip.  Think about the kind of world you would get.  Actually, each rail (and power rail, if there is one) woud be a separate strip, so the rails would overlap.  This is a good algebraic topology problem.  What would a space station landscape around it look like?  Regal Cinemas could experiment with its corporate trademark video this way; it already shows a railroad on a space station.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Zemlinsky: "Little Mermaid" and Stravinsky "Nightingale", based on Hans Christian Andersen

The New York Philharmonic performed two works based on stories (fairy tales) by 19th Century "Renaissance Man" Hans Christian Andersen.
One of these was Igor Stravinsky’s “The Song of the Nightingale” (“Chant du rossignol”), adapted from the composer’s own obscure opera, although skipping the first part. The work is quite dissonant (even more so that Rite of Spring, despite composition from 1913-1917), and has some pseudo-oriental  melodies resembling the male bird’s mating song, before the mechanical nightingales take over.  The last part of the piece deals with the illness, recovery, and then passing and funeral of the opera of China. This piece was popular on Washington DC station WGMS in the 1950s, with editor Paul Hume.
After intermission, the featured work was Viennese composer Alexander Zemlinsky’s “The Little Mermaid” (“Die Seejungfrau”), composed in 1902-1903, when the composer was in his early 30’s. The music mixes styles: Liszt, Wagner, Wunderhorn-era Mahler, with a sprinkle of impressionism than seems odd.  At times the music anticipates the first part of Schoenberg’s “Gurrelieder” was well as his own Pelleas et Mellisande.  The work is in three movements, with the first movement discovered only years after Zemlinsky’s death.  It could be viewed as a symphony, which would make it #3, in A Minor (41 minutes). 
The first movement (Molto moderato) evokes the mermaid’s ocean life and starts as a slow movement but becomes more agitated, and turns into a complex Sonata allegro.  At the end of the second subject, Zemlinsky introduces a paraphrase from stirring melody from the second movement of Tchaikowsky’s Symphony #5, but here the effect is quite different.  He refers to the melody several times in the work later.  The first movement ends quietly in the Picard major.  The second movement is a wild scherzo, but it stops and starts a lot, with frenzied tonal modulations (I think the basic key was F).  The finale seems rather like the first movement, and the whole work ends quietly in a remote key of E-flat (reminding me of the end of the Brahms Third in F), as the mermaid accepts the idea she cannot become human and have the prince as a husband.  He is done with her, and gone on to a real woman.  I guess humans and dolphins can’t mate.

The Disney animated film franchise (1989 on) has the mermaid more successful, able to match humans with aliens, I guess, if you look at it that way.

The first half of the concert was rounded out with the Bassoon Concerto in B-flat, K 191, by W A Mozart, with Judith Leclair, soloist.  I have a Parliament record of this paired with Mozart’s Violin Concerto #4. The second movement has a sudden modulation that anticipates Mozart’s later daring experiments.  The finale is a simple minuet.  The dynamic range of the performance was limited.

A saxophone player (simulating Bill Clinton) was playing he opening theme of this in Hades for money!

Andrey Boreyko conducted the concert.  He doesn't think like Putin, I hope.  

The concert was preceded by a lecture by Arbie Orenstein, professor at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. Scores from all three works were available, as was the conclusion of the Mahler First (first movement). 

Note also: At the Riverside Church in NYC on Jan. 19, the choir sang a setting of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford's Irish Rhapsody #1, "Danny Boy".  My favorite among those is the Fourth.  

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Ellicott City, MD train show again tries to present an other-worldly concept with Lego

I did make a visit to the Holiday Train Show at the "B&O" Railroad Museum at the station in Ellicott City. MD (SW of Baltimore) today.  The link is here.

There were four extra exhibits upstairs.  Two were larger (G scale) layouts with toy trains and little scenery.

There was an extra N-scale layout based on nearby scenery, similar to the permanent exhibit in the building next to the caboose (which simulates the coutryside between Baltimore and Harpers Ferry).

But the prize goes to the Lego exhibit, a partitioned city on three altitude levels, and various concentric track flows within (and that underground tunnel concept, too).  It rather reminded me of the Second Dominion in Clive Barker's "Imajica".

The Lego was probably smaller than the York exhibit (Monday's posting) but in some ways even more original.  

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Greenberg train show in York PA shows coal mine, Noah's Ark, and a subway from The Matrix

I did travel to the Greenberg Train show in York, PA, picking up some more interesting images.

The most interesting sight of all might have been a model of a coal mine by “Capital Pen NScalers”, giving an idea of how the real world makes a living for the rest of us.  I’ve never seen mountaintop removal demonstrated on such a model yet. I don’t know if this simulates typical practice in West Virginia, or focuses on the anthracite mines 100 miles to the NE of the show.

That same layout had a separate enclosure with a small train making a hidden elevated loop with two tunnels, and some cars on the “Road to Nowhere”, which go into a dead-ended tunnel (which actually exists in the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina, movies blog, July 14, 2012).

But the most interesting exhibit was probably the large Lego set by PennLUG.  One corner of it had a small city with what looked like the LA Courthouse, and a larger office building.  There was an “underground” concept which resembled a bit the “parallel words” on the Antietam display (Feb. 4, 2013). This time, the underground subway was a streetcar that ran back and forth like the Toronto subway seen in the last “Matrix” movie.  The lego exhibit also sported several little offshoots on the corners into separate worlds.
It was hard to get the shot when the subway car was actually in transit.
Another exhibit had a “Noah’s Boat Yard” and paint shop, and demonstration of men making an ark.

I was surprised to find out how big greater York is, driving through it.  The show was held in a relative obscure building on the huge fair grounds.   

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Eduard Tubin: Eastonian composer deserves to be performed more

There are a number of post-1900 composers who are reasonably popular with classical music buffs but not to the “average” concert-going public (whom symphony orchestras have to market subscriptions to), yet whose music seems find its way into Hollywood scores and even popular or disco mashups. All composition is copying, it seems. You play some of their work and the themes really pop out.  “I’ve heard that before”, probably in a chase scene in a movie.   

One quasi post-Romantic composer who attracted my notice in the late 1980’s, the early days of CD collecting, was Estonian composer Eduard Tubin, who emigrated to Sweden in 1944. 
Tubin’s music is a mixture of styles: the centerpiece is a modern implementation of Scandanavian post-Romanticism, with echoes of Sibelius, Nielsen, and British composer Arnold Bax, and some Soviet elements owing to Shostakovich.  At times, he can venture into impressionism.

The BIS label from Sweden issued most of his music on CD, usually with the Swedish Radio Symphony conducted by Neeme Jarvi.

There is a remarkable 3CD set of all of his piano music, performed by Vardo Rumessen. 
Tubin composed two numbered piano sonatas, apparently in E Minor and C# Minor, in 1928 and 1950.  The first is rather quiet a lot and not that remarkable, but the second is the infamous “Northern Lights”, which could be a warning sign of a solar flare or coronal mass ejection, threatening our power grid and dependence on electricity.  I doubt Tubin was thinking of that, and he lived at high enough latitude that the lights were common.  The first movement has lots of “Aeolian” (or “aurora borealis”) arpeggios that sound whole-tone-like but become lively.  The slow movement is a bit of a dirge, but then wakes itself up with the impressionistic arpeggios.  The Finale has a start-stop shape-shifter theme (harmonized in fourths) that sounds like sci-fi, and then returns to the aurora-like arpeggios.  The loud and percussive ending plays games with tonality, finally settling on the tonality of B.  
In between the sonatas, Tubin composed a 25-minute “Sonatina” (1949) in D Minor, which is deliberately classical in nature, almost like his own homage to Beethoven and even Haydn.  But he could have numbered it as a full Sonata.
Tubin was capable of writing miniatures, too, with his Seven Preludes and his Suite on Estonian Shepherd Melodies.
The ten completed symphonies (there is a first movement of an eleventh) range in style, with the earlier works being more obviously post-romantic.  About half the time Tubin ends his works quietly (as if to give the listener some extra mental space), but he is capable of working up heroic climaxes.
The first, in C Minor, ends on a loud dissonance.  The Second, “The Legendary”, in B Minor, is evocative and ends with a quiet epilogue that is often compared to Bax (especially the latter’s own Second).  The Third, in D, is called the Heroic and is filled with suspiciously familiar and quotable themes even though it isn’t performed often. The work includes a violin solo in the often-pirated second movement.  The recursive main theme of the first movement will also sound familiar, as Hollywood has used it in more than one western.  The Fourth, in A, is called the Lyric but is lively.  The Fifth, in B Minor, is the best known, with a moving and melodic slow movement and a powerful close that reminds one of the Shostakovich Fifth.  The Sixth is quite dissonant and hard to fathom (BIS pairs it with the Bax-like Second).  The Seventh is also popular, in that Tubin, in the finale especially, experimented with 12-tone writing that still has an eventual tonal center (in this case, apparently C).  Still,  the work curiously reminds me of Vaughn Williams (that is, of the latter’s “mean” Fourth Symphony).  The last four haven’t made much impression on me. Neither does the “Sinfonietta”.
Tubin composed a Piano “Concertino” which is a full-fledged, if short, Piano Concerto in E-flat (like Liszt). He wrote two violin concerti, of which the first evokes Sibelius a bit.  He also composed concerti for the Double Bass (who else did, for strong young men?) and the balalaika (a kind of banjo).
There is a lot of Tubin on YouTube, although not that many complete works. (The "Northern Lights" is there, although I don't know how legally.)  I would be concerned about the possibility of consumers getting lazy and not "buying" music legally often enough to support classical music.  It's important to pay for some things. Do your part, occasionally. "It's not "free" forever.  It really is "enlightened self-interest".