Thursday, December 31, 2015

Bach's Mass in B Minor, a major source for the compositional techniques of all western music

One Christmas Eve – actually Christmas morning after midnight in the mid 1990s, I was driving back to an Arlington Apartment across the 14th Street Bridge from a Christmas Eve service at MCC Washington in Shaw, the concluding “Dona nobis pacem” of the Mass in B Minor, BWV 232  , by J. S. Bach played triumphantly on the car stereo radio. I have near-perfect pitch, and wondered why the triumphant, rising theme of the final chorus (earlier the Gratias, BWV 29/2) ends in the relative D Major, rather than the Picardy Parallel B Major.  This is Bach's only complete setting of the "Ordinary" or "short mass".

I have an Angel-EMI recording with the Trevor Consort somewhere, but today I played on Youtube with the English Consort conducted bt Harry Bicket, recorded in 2012 in Royal Albert Hall in London. The soloists are Joelle Harvey, Caroyn Sampson, Iestyn Davies, Ed Lyon and Matthew Rose. It runs 110 minutes, slightly less than average.  The pitch in the recording is 1/2 step low (that is, B-flat minor to D-flat Major) compared to my Casio piano, which I believe is set to A440.

The Wiki notes explain that D Major is the key that Bach associates with Christ, with the elements of the Cross by the surrounding keys of B Minor (in which the work opens) and F# Minor, often used.

One of the comments says that the B Minor Mass, along with Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, are the three greatest works of classical music ever composed.  The Mass was not completed until 1749, shortly before Bach’s death and reuses a lot of earlier material.
The work (especially this robust performance) demonstrates how “modern” Bach can sound.  Bach (whom my first music teacher starting in 1952 said was the greatest of all composers) was the first composer to standardize modern western harmony as well as counterpoint, away from the modal systems, and to enrich the process of key modulation, all possible because the technology of pitch temperament had improved during his lifetime. That fact gets relatively little attention now.  In fact, the way romantic composers (from Beethoven and Schubert to Bruckner and Mahler) manipulated dissonances, sometimes allowed to hang unresolved (as with a famous moment in Beethoven’s Eroica) can be traced all the way back to Bach, especially this work.

In the 19th Century, most Romantic composers built cyclic works around harmonic concepts that Bach had developed to seemingly absolute perfection.  (There were rare exceptions, like Chopin’s B-fat Minor Scherzo, which ends in relative major, and sounds a bit trite to me.) It became common for large works in minor to end in the parallel major, often triumphantly. However, Mahler chose to end the Resurrection (#2) in the relative E-flat major, and ended the first movement of his Third in the relative F Major (as if the 30-minite first movement were one long Exposition in a bigger “process piece”) before ending the entire work with a (finally triumphant) slow movement back in the parallel D Major.  To my ear, a parallel major ending is more satisfying because it tends to ratify the original tonality.

As an example of the way Bach’s idea of progressive tonality works, consider the three minute popular song “In the Moonlight” (2010) by Reid Ewing, which his character Dylan sings on “Modern Family” The song seems to be in B Minor, and a lot of the melody swings around the notes B, C#, and D (just as in Bach’s Mass) and then makes excursions to G and F#.  But the song ends in the relative D Major.  Try memorizing this song – the music only – and playing it on a church organ (like the new Austin at First Baptist in Washington DC).  As abstract music, It actually works!  It almost sounds baroque. The words, “do me” – oh, well.  

I’ll mention something else about the close of the Bach Mass – the rising theme sounds a bit like the original inversion of the “hymn tune” (which is a comparable downward scale) as a major second subject in the reconstructed finale of Bruckner’s Ninth. Did Bruckner really intend homage to this work in the way he concludes his last symphony, “To God”

Wikipedia shows the Mass as in four major sections, each section a suite of smaller pieces of the mass. The shortest is the Sanctus.  The First section encompasses what is often the Kyrie and Gloria in many later masses.

Back in 1961, during that lost semester at William and Mary, another music friend, Jon De Longe, said that the opening of the Kyrie (in B Minor) is one of the most thrilling of all music to him.  I was already a romantic.

Bach is reported to have said, “All music should have no other end and aim than the glory of God and the soul’s refreshment; where this is not remembered there is no real music but only a devilish hubbub.”  De Longe often talked about “The Real Music” back in 1961.

Update: January 1, 2016

Sebastien Letocart recommends the performance with the Monteverdi Choir and John Rliot Gardiner (also on YouTube).  He also says that "western" tonality was well established by or for Byrd, Sweelinck, and Buxtehude.  He also says that the tuning convention for baroque music is A415, about a half step lower than common today. 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Unusual family rock concert at Arlington service post-Christmas

Today, Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington had a Christmas “rock” so-to-speak (call it “contemporary”) concert by “The Scholl Family”.

Unusual carols included “Mary, Did You Know?” and “That’s Christmas to Me”.

Instead of a sermon, there were four testimonials.  There were some poems by Anna George Meek, and a statement about reconciling the specificity of the Gospel at Advent with the vast vision of cosmology and quantum physics (of greatest interest to me), and a narrative about a man who opened his home and expanded it for the intellectually disabled, which is off the chart for me personally.

I remember from my years in Texas, that contemporary was common with many evangelical churches.  There was one ("Bible Church") I visited in a trailer in Rowlett, which is probably near the area affected by the tornadoes Dec. 26.

Christmas Eve, Trinity held three services, with the main event the 11:00 PM carols and lessons service. The anthems included a Cradle Hymn by Isaac Watts and “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow” by Fred Gramann, as well as “Night of Silence” by Daniel Cantor.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Christmas Light Balls display in North Carolina simulates UFO scene or rapture (with carols)

Today, the NBC Today show covered the “Christmas Light Balls” festivals in certain neighborhoods of Greensboro, NC, as well as Port Huron, MI and Morgantown, W Va.

The effect at night is that of hanging UFO’s, s if a scene from a sci-fi movie, or even a simulation of a Rapture.

There are collection drop-offs for food banks as people drive through.

One issue is that practically every home in a neighborhood would have to do the work of setting them up and participating, to make it effective.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Atlanta Homeward Choir, composed of homeless men, sings at the White House

On NBC News tonight, Kristi Nelson reported on a homeless men’s chorus that was formed in a shelter run by a church in Atlanta, that is the Central Night Shelter.

The best link is from an Atlanta NBC affiliate here. (An earlier video embed on NBC seems to have been accidentally overlaid.)

CNN has a similar story by Deena Zaru and Alex Lee with Video.

The group will perform at the White House this week.  The brief excerpt on NBC included “Alleluia” and the spiritual “Go Tell It on the Mountain”.

The founder of the choir Donal Noonan (Director of Music Ministry at the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception) spoke about helping the men this way as a moral necessity.

The group is called the The Atlanta Homeward Choir and has this Facebook page.

Picture: Atlanta Pride, mine, 2004.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

"The Dream Isaiah Saw": moving cantata dedicated to Sept. 11 tragedy, presented today by Arlington VA church

The Mount Olivet Methodist Church of Arlington VA today held a “Lessons and Carols” service that presented a short but powerful cantata, "The Dream Isaiah Saw" by Thomas H. Troeger, words from a poem by Glenn L. Rudolph, for chorus, organ, piano and percussion.  The work is dedicated to those who perished on September 11, 2001.

The Saturday Chorale has a descriptive article on the work.

The work begins in A Minor and emphasizes a slow triple meter that oddly can be marched to (sometimes Robert Schumann did this).  The work ends in triumph in the relative C Major (rather than the Picardy A Major).

Naxos Records has licensed a performance by the Washington Chorus on Youtube.

Also performed were an anthem “There Is No Rose” by Howard Helvey, and a children’s anthem “Come, Jesus, Prince of Peace”, by Dianne Hannibal.

Monday, December 14, 2015

58th Annual Christmas Candelight Carols service at First Baptist Church Washington DC

The First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC held its 58th Annual Christmas Candlelight Carols at 4 PM Sunday December 13.

I misplaced the program (going to Trio and JR's afterward) so I don’t have the names of all the hymn composers.  Some church composers are not as well known in the general classical audience.

I do recall an anthem “The Work of Christmas” by Dan Forrest based on a poem by Howard Thurman, link.

The Runnymede Singers, directed by Erica Haman with Caroline Heaney, performed several hymns including a spiritual.  It also performed the “Angels’ Carol” by John Rutter (well known for his “Requiem”).

Organist Lawrence Schreiber and a brass and timpani group performed several hymn settings by Robert J. Powell.

It’s important to note that several Christmas carols come from major composers.  “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is #2 of “Festgesang”, which also has the text “Vaterland in deinen Gauen”.

And “Joy to the World” has a theme pieced together from two different melodies in George Frederick Handel’s Messiah.

There was also a Holy Family Tableau.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Major Christmas cantata by McDowall performed at Arlington VA church today

Today, the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA held an advent music performance at the 11:15 AM service.

The main work was the cantata “Christus Natus Est” (“Christ Is Born”, 17 min) by Ceclia McDowall (1951- ).  Again, a major modern female composer, from Britain.
The work seems centered around the tonality of F Minor but the score (which I could see today) doesn’t have key signatures.  But the style resembles that of Ralph Vaughn Williams, with the louder, rowdier and more joyful works like “Hodie” as well as a little harmonic darkness (the Fourth Symphony)..

The text is in both Latin and English. One of the more controversial lines is “How should I a mother be That am to man a stranger?”

The performance included a brass and quintet and percussion.  I had never seen a tuba muffler used before.

The service also included, as an offertorium, a “Prelude on Puer Nobis Nascitur” by Paul Lindsley Thomas, with both Matthew Stensrud and Carol Feather Martin at the organ.  I’ve never seen four hands organ (at one instrument) before, even though it is common with piano.  (Latin translation: “To us a child is born.”)

The Postlude was another 4-hand piece on the organ, a “Flourish on ‘Joy to the World’” based on the carol by George Frederick Handel, transcription by Robert Hobby.

The Prelude was Carol Feather Martin’s own transcription of J.S. Bach’s “My Spirit Be Joyful.”

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Richard Strauss: Symphony #1 in D Minor, composed at age 16, deserves more performances; also, Marion Bauer's "American Youth Concerto"

Here’s a nice find, the Symphony #1 in D Minor (37 minutes) by Richard Strauss, composed in 1880, at the age of 16, played by the Hong Kong Philharmonic on the Marco Polo label here.
The work has a bit of “storm and stress” rhetoric, and often sounds a bit like Mendelssohn, but has several amazingly familiar themes, especially in the finale.  Is this obscure work familiar to Hollywood film composers?  (I used to ask that about the Mahler Seventh, whose “Night Music” seemed to get quoted a lot in the movies before the work became part of standard repertoire thanks to Leonard Bernstein.)   There is some strong contrapuntal writing in the finale, too.

It’s not just Mozart;  a lot of composers wrote very strong works in their teens and early 20s.  I’ve talked about D’Albert here.  Brahms would not compose a symphony until age 40, but the passionate first piano concerto was written at age 25, and the big piano sonatas are youthful.  True, a lot of Bruckner’s work is from an older person, as is much the case with, say, Vaughn Williams.  Mahler’s Piano Quarter was composed at age 16, and the impressive “Das Klagende Lied” was finished at 18, but the first symphony waited to age 28.

It seems that major symphony orchestras could organize concerts around the idea of works composed before age 20.  I used to “call” for the Minnesota Orchestra’s Young People’s Concerts (in 2002-2003 when still living in Minneapolis, after “The Big Layoff” at the end of 2001 at my old job).  It strikes me that works like this one by Strauss could be a good selection (you could pair it with youthful contemporary works).

Richard Strauss, as a composer, has always been recognized for the strength of programmatic tone poems that he composed early in adulthood, as some consider the later orchestral works weaker.

While on the topic of "youth", I mention the Piano Concerto in G Minor (1943, 16 minutes) by Marion Bauer, titled the "American Youth Concerto" which I read when taking piano lessons, here. I may have an old hardcopy score lying around in a moving box somewhere.  The majestic (turning to lively) theme in the finale will sound familiar.  Bauer's style recalls Amy Beach.
(I had reviewed the big F Minor Symphony, #2, here on June 19, 2011).

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Eugen D'Albert: Symphony in F, and Cello Concerto in C

Today, I found a couple more major concert works by Eugen D’Albert on YouTube. D'Albert was born in Scotland, has a French name, but wrote music in the style of German romanticism, often inspired by Franz Liszt and to some extent Brahms (and oddly, on the same palette, Bruckner).  He was born four years later than Mahler, but became very accomplished technically, particularly with counterpoint and very chromatic harmonies, by his late teens.  Some say he was a "ladies' man".
The first one I looked at is the Cello Concerto in C Major, Op. 20, performed by Antonio Meneses, cello, and Ronald Zollman conducting the Basel Symphony Orchestra, link. The work, running 22 minutes, is in three connected movements, opening with an allegro moderato with a lyrical theme.   The slow movement has even more lyricism, and the finale is more dance-like. But the opening theme for the work comes back before the triumphant end in the rondo dance rhythm.  The work perhaps resembles the longer first piano concerto in that a lot of relaxed, deliberate tempi tend to predominate most of the work.

The other work is the Symphony in F Major, Op. 4 (1886), conducted by Jun Markl.  Like the first piano concerto, this is a youthful (age 22) and very big and ambitious work.   There are four movements.  The tonal pattern is a bit like the Brahms third:  the slow movement is in C Minor, and scherzo in C, before returning to F.  The style resembles a combination of Brahms and early Dvorak, but the slow movement has passionate climaxes that remind one of Bruckner.  The opening theme may sound familiar.  The finale has a slow introduction, and then becomes vigorous and triumphant at the end (whereas Brahms quiets down, in a key that has a reputation for  a “pastoral” personality, ever since Beethoven).  The music is not quite as original harmonically as some of the first piano concerto (like the cadenza) which still remains an underperformed teen masterwork.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Ohio middle school principal learns to play viola in his own music class, performs with students in school concerts

NBC News presented a story about Intermediate School Principal Jeremy Day who joined in learning to play the viola in an orchestra class as a pupil in his school, and played in the school’s fall concert, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The principal says he shows that it is never too late to learn a new skill, especially music.

The program was not specified.   Maybe a Bach Brandenberg Concerto, perhaps, or one of the Seasons from Vivaldi.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Pianist drives 400 miles to play Lennon music in Paris at tragedy sites; he hauls his piano with a bicycle!

A pianist Davide Martello (trade name “Klavierkunst”) drove 400 miles to Paris from Germany to play at every site of the Paris attacks, including the Bataclan Theater.  He would play John Lennon’s “Imagine”.

ABC Breaking News | Latest News Videos
“EW” has an article by David Coggan here.   The Guardian article shows Davide hauling his piano around the streets of Paris with a bicycle.  It’s amazing that this could work physically.  own twitter feed on this event is here.
The piano in the picture is in a motel in Midland, TX (my pic, 2011).

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

"Appomattox", opera by Philip Glass and Christopher Hampton, plays at Kennedy Center

On Monday, November 16, 2015, the Kennedy Center offered a second performance following the Nov. 14  premiere of a new production of an expanded version of the opera “Appomattox”, music by Philip Glass, with a two-act libretto by Christopher Hampton. The Washington National Opera Orchestra was conducted by Dante Santiago Anzolini, and the stage work was directed by Tazewell Thompson.  The opera was first completed in 2005 and then revised, with an expansion of Act 2.

The Kennedy Center's site for the production is here.  Performances occur Nov. 14, 16, 18, 20, 21, and 22 in 2015.
The two Acts of the opera are set 100 years apart.  Act I covers the closing days of the War Between the States, starting with the fall of Richmond and leading to the signing of “surrender” at Appomattox in 1865.  The revised opera is long, and ended at 10:10 PM having started at 7 PM, with a half hour intermission.  

Act II covers the battle over the voting rights act of 1965.  The earliest version had stressed the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964, which I remember well. 

The cast includes Tom Fox as Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Baines Johnson, Soloman Howard, Jr. as Frederck Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. David Pittinger as Robert E. Lee and Rdgar Ray Killen. Richard Paul Fink as Ulysses S. Grant and Ncholas Katzenbach, Melody Moore as Julia Grant and Viola Liuzzo, and Robert Brubaker as Wilmer McLean and J. Edgar Hoover. 
The stage was set up as a plantation house front, and adapted to all kinds of other scenes.  

The music was rather gentle (and always tonal), even more so than usual for Glass, and it followed Glass’s pattern of repeating phrases often in groups of four. 

Act I, after the surrender, has an epilogue concerning the near murder of a black journalist in 1873, and ends loudly but doesn’t give a final chord, but merely a high note in the strings.  Act II’s music builds up to a climax over “Hallelujah” (a controversy known now in the Bruckner Ninth) but then the music recedes into a long epilogue, especially a debriefing of  KKK prisoner (in for life without parole) in 2011.  The music ends quietly with a female chorus in C major.
There is quite a bit of humor about LBJ in the second half, with the boil on his ass, and about J Edgar and hints of his homosexuality.
After the performance, there was an extensive QA in the orchestra level, with the entire production crew, led by Opera Artistic Director Francesca Zambello.  There was a question on the transformation of Robert E. Lee’s personality through one actor into the monstrous Killen, who plotted the murders of Chaney, Goodwin and Schwerner (wiki) and is presented as a terrorist. There was also a question of Hampton about having to rewrite the words of Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, because of a rigorous copyright enforced by the King family (wiki on the legal case with CBS, here. )  The National Archives has a copy online in PDF format here.

There is a lot of  quality free video material (all of it "legal") about the opera on the Washington National Opera's own YouTube channel here.

It would sound logical that a Universal Studios or a Columbia Pictures would want to make an Oscar-season film based on the opera in a couple years, the sort of film that can open on a Christmas Day.
First three pictures: Appomattox, VA, my visit in 2005;  also visited Farmville that day.  Also, Pettus bridge in Selma AL, my visit, May 2014. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Millennium Stage at Kennedy Center presents hip-hop show about the game of chess as a metaphor for political exploitation in real life

Tonight, the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage in Washington DC (free shows at 6 PM) put on a bizarre hip-hop concert, hosted by Haysoos, presented by Words, Beans and Life, Inc., called “Crowns: A Chess Inspired Album”, curated by Zoma Wallace.

The Kennedy Center’s own link is here.

The presentation was a bit like a metaphor based on the game of chess, where people’s actions and behaviors can be mapped to the moves of various chess pieces.  The stage had large models of all the pieces.  The lyrics sometimes said that people felt like pawns in other people's games.
The words kept reciting “I want to do hip-hop” and the music, for all its spoken noise, had a true passacaglia-like ground bass, it seemed on the notes C, B. and then G.  (See Timo Andres’s remarks from yesterday’s post.)

There is a Hip-Hop chess federation, as shown in this supplementary video.

The performance was rather lightly attended, as an Anti-Defamation League dinner was taking place on the Terrace Level.

(I will review the opera “Appomattox” very soon in a successive post.)

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Takacs Quartet performs Haydn, Dvorak, and Andres (premier) at Shriver Hall at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD

Sunday, November 15, 2015, the Takacs Quartet gave a chamber recital in the Shriver Hall Concert Series on the Johns Hopkins University Campus in Baltimore, MD in early evening, at 5:30 PM. The violinists are Edward Dusinberre and Karoly Schranz; the violist is Geraldine Walter, and the cellist is Andras Fejer.

The opening work was the String Quartet #57 in C Major, Op. 74, #1.   The first movement starts with the theme “C-D-F-E” that also opens the finale of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony (#41).  Here the initial effect is more cerebral, almost as if this were an early Beethoven quartet.  But the movement remains monothematic and tends to become mechanical.  The second movement (marked Andantino Grazioso) in G sounds like a minuet, rather than a slow movement, but has more themes.  Perhaps there is foreshadowing of the writing of the famous “Allegretto” of Beethoven’s Seventh.  The third movement is a formal Minuet and Trio, and the Finale has the typical Haydn humor.

The second work was a world premiere of the String Quartet #2 in C, called “Strong Language”, by Timo Andres, who just celebrated his 30th birthday.  The 23-minute work has three movements, titled “Middens”, “Origin Story”, and “Gentle Cycling”.  I wonder if the first movement title refers in part to his cat (or maybe Gabriel Kahane’s feline), at least seen in some of either artist’s social media.  The last movement title seems to refer to Timo’s love of cycling around New York City, at least in outer boroughs, not competitively.   (No, I don’t think he biked to Baltimore; maybe Amtrak.) The music is built in cycles that mimic physical design patterns, on rather simple thematic elements, lending to ground-bass effects like a passacaglia, well known in the music of Glass, but also Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer, and in a recent work by his friend Chris Cerrone (reviewed Nov. 9).  The music is more lush than a lot of Andres’s other music.  Sometimes it reminds one of Bartok’s quartets (the "arch" structure), and there is even a hint of late Sibelius in spots, or maybe even the palindrome that quietly concludes the Hindemith Horn Concerto. The ending is quiet, as is common in Andres’s works, as if getting off a ride in Orlando.  The work was commissioned by Shriver Hall Concert Series  and by Carnegie Hall.

Timo's own link describing the piece is here.  His official music publisher's site (Project Schott New York) is here.  I don't see this piece here yet but I suspect it will be there soon.  The site does allow the visitor to look at sample sheet music pages (much as Amazon does).  I was surprised to see that he uses key signatures more often than I had thought. (See posting about Schott Nov. 2, 2011.)
After a rather crowded intermission (there were a lot of college music students, some carrying cases, maybe some from Peabody) the concert concluded with Antonin Dvorak’s String Quartet #14 in A-flat Major, Op. 105.  This is an odd key for a string work (and not common in cyclic works, though look at Elgar’s first symphony).  The first movement is supposed to reflect a longing for home, and the second movement, in F minor, is a famous scherzo and most familiar portion of the work.  The slow movement in F is a gentle hymn, and the Finale is idiomatic Dvorak, running away from itself with the jovial end.

Before the concert, Timo did a QA lecture with a music professor from Johns Hopkins.  Timo made many interesting points.  Kids today are not as likely to grow up learning classical music as they did even 20 years ago, but still come to using professional techniques in composition.  He talked about the use of ground-bass (the chaconne or passacaglia) as the basis of most popular music and even disco (other than perhaps hip-hop), and some composers bridge these popular idioms with more formal compositions.  I can add that the songs of artists that I have reviewed elsewhere on these blogs (especially the movies blog) like Reid Ewing and Timo Descamps provide some examples.  The use of repeated figures to build effect is counter to the original thrust toward atonality and non-repetition in early 20th Century music, especially expressionism.  He did describe the process of working with Sibelius (AVID software)  and composing under commissions.  It appears that performing as a pianist serves the purposes of composition, even though he performs many other composer’s works (especially Schumann, and more recently Glass).  There were questions, and I asked about the Schumann Fantasy.  He said that some of the March in that work is viewed as almost unplayable. He also mentioned the pressure that was put on women composers – not to – until modern times.  Not many people know that Alma Mahler composed.  Now Clara Schumann’s piano concerto is not a lot, but try Amy Beach’s in C# Minor.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Violinist Tim Fain gives stunning concert at Le Poisson Rouge, Cerrone's Violin Sonata included

The Composers’ Concordance held a concert at Le Poisson Rouge on Bleeker Street in NYC.

Tim Fain, violinist, was the featured performer.

The program opened with a solo piece called “Arches”, by Kevin Puts, rather Paganini-like. If I recall correctly, Fain mentioned the Dalai Lama's ideas as being connected to the piece.

There followed Dan Cooper’s “El Planeta Rojo” with electronic synthesizer, rather modern for the sake of sound effects.

The most important work was the Sonata in D for Violin and Piano by Chris Cerrone(18 min).  The work unfolded as like a Passacaglia (although in quadruple time usually, with a three-note ascending motive), to build toward a triumphant ending on the highest registers of the piano (with Timo Andres as pianist on an electric Yamaha).  The effect becomes a bit like Don Zimmer’s “Inception” score (see review March 22, 2011).  Fain has actually worked on music scores, like “12 Years a Slave” (with Zimmer) and with Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” for Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan”.

(See Movies blog Nov. 9 for three more pieces accompanying short films, including a 20-minute video on modern Beirut.)

Monday, November 02, 2015

Alfred Fedak: "Requiem: For Us the Living", a rather gentle setting (with Valedictory performed on All Saints Day)

On Sunday, November 1, All Saints Day, the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC presented as “The Gradual” an anthem called “Valediction” (or Valedictory), from the “Requiem: For Us the Living” (2007) by Alfred V. Fedak (b. 1953) , which the composer describes here on his own website. The work is to be performed by chorus, organ and small string ensemble.  The composer is a choirmaster and composer in residence at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Albany, New York.

The Valedictory appears to be the closing section of a 30 minute work, rising to a climax and subsiding to a peaceful close in C.  The entire work is available now on YouTube on in two Parts, with Part 1 here, and the Part 2 embeded below.  (Another version divides it into four smaller parts.)

The style of the work reminds me of Vaughn Williams, and also of the Requiem by John Rutter, and perhaps Gabriel Faure (which I recall hearing in Chambersburg, PA in March 1991, but that leads to another long curious story for another time).  The music is often gentle, and a bit modal (Lydian) in places.  The opening (a descending tetrachrodal theme that bears a curious resemblance to the hymn tune in the controversial completion of the finale of the Bruckner Ninth)  in G Minor (the key for a Vaughn Williams Mass). But the 17-minute Part 1 ends affirmative in F# Major, and odd descent. Then it seems the entire work will end a tritone away, in C.  (I’ve experimented with a similar scheme for the finale of my own Sonata, so discovering this work was interesting for me.)

The church service on Sunday opened with the setting in G Major of “For All the Saints” by Ralph Vaughn Williams. But the original tune was composed by Joseph Barnby and called “Sarum” with original words by Anglican Bishop William Wakefield How.  Vaughn Williams sometimes called it “Sine Nomine” of “Without Name”.  As a Postlude, Lon Schreiber performed another setting of the hymn by Leo Sowerby, with a little more dissonance.

All Saints Day turns around the mood for those who survive Halloween in the clubs very quickly.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Timonium MD train show adds exhibits, even invokes "Wicked" show as a tunnel takes the rider into another dimension

I put train shows on this blog, which may seem a bit extraneous.

Today I revisited the Timonium, MD show, this time in the Cow Palace (not San Francisco), spread out over three huge rooms, about ten exhibits.

To me, the most interesting included a European model, with two vertical levels of trains (similar to my screenplay), a coal exhibit (with mountaintop removal), and perhaps the largest (Reading Railroad), and a Z-scale.

But the most interesting of all, from a Baltimore group, showed a tunnel, where inside the train passes through a “Wicked” exhibit, as if going into another dimension before going back out into the world.  This is not a "road to nowhere".  Another exhibit (Meade) kept a section for Hogwarts.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

The symphonies of "communist" German composer Hans Werner Henze; his controversial "The Raft of the Medusa"

Back in my college days of the 1960s, I did take an interest in other modern composers who might somehow follow on to post-romantic traditions.

Sometime, after starting working, I bought the DG set of the six symphonies by Hans Werner Henze, and eventually “replaced” them with the CD set.

I played symphonies 1, 5 and 6 today (dated 1947, 1962 and 1969) today, and I have to wonder what I was thinking.  The Berlin Philharmonic (#1 and 5) and London Symphony (#6) are conducted by the composer.

Symphony #1 is rather accessible, and reminds me of Hindemith.  There is a measure of real lyricism in the second movement, a Nocturne.

Symphony #5 offers a theme (as a second subject in the first movement) from Henze’s opera “Elegy for Young Lovers”.  There is some controversy as to what city stimulated Henze’s creativity here:  New York, or Rome?

But the most unusual symphony in the set is the last, #6, running about 40 minutes, for two large chamber orchestras (one of which has the preponderance of percussion), in three continuous “sections” which in turn break into 21 separate little “songs”.  The work comes across as a sequence or narrative  of experiences, morphing from one into the next, rather than the usual “symphonic” argument (something I have experimented with as a kind of “development” in my own writing). 
The work is politically significant because Henze composed it while living in Cuba it was first performed before members of the Revolutionary Army. Henze was also gay, and his actions perhaps demonstrated a naïve faith in connecting leftist politics with gay rights which we know the history of Communism did not support. Henze dedicated some works to Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara.
Henze actually finished ten symphonies, the last in 2000, before his passing in 2012. 

I have, packed up somewhere, an LP set of the controversial 1968 oratorio “The Raft of the Medusa” (“Das Floss der Medusa”), as a requiem for Che.   The story concerns a shipwreck of a French frigate on the West Coast of Africa in 1816 (was it in the slave trade?)   Some characters wind up on a raft, and lives have to be sacrificed.  When the work is performed on stage, the “living” gradually move across the stage to join “the dead”. There is also a rock musical based on this opera (see YouTube) that was recently performed in Quebec City.

Friday, September 18, 2015

"The Spoils": Jesse Eisenberg explores self-serving values in his new play (a "comedy")

As anyone learns in high school English (here I am, talking like “The Sub”), the next best thing to going to a “legitimate” stage play is to read one. 

That’s particularly true with young playwright Jesse Eisenberg, the actor who has played Mark Zuckerberg (and imitated Zuck on SNL), as well as a Pulitzer journalist and then a CIA retread. 
The Spoils” was produced at The Pershing Square Signature Center in New York in May and June of 2015. On my next Amtrak visit to NYC (need to ride up the new Freedom Tower), I’ll visit the facility.  The website for the production is here. I don’t know if this is defined as “Broadway” or not. Don’t know if Signature in New York has any connection to the ample Signature Theater in Arlington VA (in the Shirlington Village), which could be a good future venue for this play if it comes to DC.

The “book”, 104 pages paper, is published by Grove Press, which used to be right next door to me when I lived in the Cast Iron Building in the 1970s.  The ISBN is “978-0-8021-2390-9”.

The play has five characters, and is set in “modern apartment in New York City”.  It’s probably more spacious than my old pad on the sixth floor of the Cast Iron Building, where I once hosted an event with 30 people (“Understanding”, back in 1976).  Maybe it has high ceilings.  Maybe Donald Trump built it.  Well, the furniture is dumpy; Trump wouldn’t live like that. There are two acts, and eight scenes.

The protagonist is Ben, whom Jesse played in the NYC run.  Ben is a late-20s-something who has been kicked out of grad school and lives on his parents’ dime. Yet he has a roommate Kaylan  from Nepal (Kunal Nayyar), who seems to live off him. Kaylan has published a book on international third-world economics (quasi dissertation) that no one has bought, and seems to need a job himself.  OK, Kaylan is working on his MBA.  (I used to call a particular friend “The Young MBA.”) Then Ben has an ex-girl-friend Sarah (Erin Drake), who now dates (and is actually engaged to) Ted (Michael Zegen), who still likes to sell derivatives on Wall Street.

Ben also pretends to be a filmmaker, and brags about a “reality” short he has made about homeless street life.  Ben sets out to win Sarah back by showing her the film and pretending it is more than it is. 
The play seems to focus on character.  Ben bullies everybody and doesn’t care.  But Kaylan and Ted are both naïve about the trials of the real world and insensitive to others in their own ways. (Kaylan is above minimum wage work.) The play has an undertone of protesting inequality, even as demonstrated by the paradox of how he handles the “shitty” subject matter of homeless people.

Will the play become an indie movie?  The round-robin of interactions between the characters is somewhat parallel to that of one of my favorite films, “Judas Kiss” (Movies blog, June 4, 2015).  While this play is in the straight world, the parallels are rather striking. Ben could be compared to the character Shane Lyons (in Judas),  a college student whose actor (Beligan-born Timo Descamps) describes as “rich, kind of spoiled, and a little mean”.  But, as Timo plays the character, Shane (majoring in music) comes across as clean-cut and overpowering, if self-serving in the way he manipulates others into dependent relationships with him. Jesse plays his own character with a someone uncouth cast, with the dirty language and the smoking.  Jesse has sometimes said that Ben could have represented the worst in himself if he had let it happen.  I wondered, could Timo have played Ben on stage and could Richard Harmon play Ted?

There’s one particular line on p. 85 where Sarah says to Ben, “But we had all the same interests. I’m marrying Ted because he love back in an adult way. In a real way. He takes care of me.” (My emphasis.) On p. 270 of my “Do Ask, Do Tell III” book, the short story “Expedition”, p. 270, the character Randy, ambushing “me” by talking about his fiancee, says to me at dinner in a coal country remote cafe, “I depend on Karen, That’s got a lot to do with why I date her. I find I need her presence to enjoy things. No doubt she’s made a few significant changes in me, and that’s all for the good.” I have to wonder something else:  Is it good to expect someone to love you back just because you think you love him/her? 

Stage acting would seem to be very demanding, to perform the same work night-after-night, even if you wrote it. Jesse says actors and playwrights make very little doing this compared to movies.

Kunnal has a new book, “Yes, My Accent Is Real” and Eisenberg has a story collection “Bream Gives Me Hiccups”.  Eisenberg has two other plays, “The Revisionist” (with John Patrick Shanley) and “Asuncion”.

Update: Aug. 3, 2016

Ezra Klein of Vox has a piece on Eisenberg's work here

Friday, September 11, 2015

"Spirit of America": Stage play with music depicting entire US military history, at DC Armory, free, from US Army

This morning, I attended the U.S. Army’s “Spirit of America” at the Armory in Washington DC (near RFK Stadium).  The basic website is here

The multi-media "almost arena" stage presentation has two major acts, and a third act epilogue of “Stars and Stripes Forever”.

The two major acts include various skits and testimonials by soldiers, along with singing and drill exercises.

The first act dramatizes US military history through the Civil War, but (with a slow Metro this morning) I got there toward the end, in time to hear the Service Medley honoring all branches of service.

During the Intermission, I could watch the orchestra rehearse.

It is Act 2, about one hour, that really is the heart of the show, and about more familiar history.  After a guitar performance, it starts with World War I , then spends more time on World War II, particularly FDR’s charge that the war would affect every American (something we don’t buy today with the Middle East). It focused particularly on the Battle of the Bulge.  It moved on to the Korean War, and offered a brief fireworks stage show.  During the Vietnam era piece, it mentioned the draft, and then the issues faced by Vietnam era veterans returning home.  It moved on to the Persian Gulf War and then to 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, showing humanitarian work by soldiers in Afghanistan. At the end, there was a sensational performance by the drill team, which included drill and ceremonies with M14 rifles with fixed bayonets, and even the passing of weapons through the air to teammates, to show trust and unit cohesion.  During that portion, patrons were asked not to use flash photography, out of concern of distracting the team members and creating a hazard, but there was a projection on a screen on a wall to the side, where one could film.

The presentation mentioned President Truman’s integration of the military in 1948, and of all-black units that fought in Europe during World War II.  It mentioned the leadership role of women, but it did not specifically address “don’t ask, don’t tell” or its 2011 repeal

Generally, the presentation sidestepped the political controversies of American military engagements. 
The act includes the African-American song “Make Them Hear You” by Richard Dixon.  The lyrics mention “the power of the pen”.
It also performed “Citizen Solider” by 3 Doors Down. 

In the first act, it performed “Till the Last Shot’s Fired” (Trace Adkins).

 At the end, the entire cast, from many Army units, paraded.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Discovering the music of Moritz Moszkowski

I found a recording on YouTube of another youthful romantic piano concerto and near masterpiece.  This is the Piano Concerto #1 in B Minor, Op. 3, of Moritz Moszkowski, completed by age 20 in 1974,

Moszkowski was born in Germany but some of his piano style resembles Russian composers sometimes, as well as Chopin, and even some Spanish style. 

The concerto was said to be unpublished, but seems to have been published in France, here.
The work is one of the longest piano concerti (excerpt for Furtwangler’s), running 51 minutes, and comprising four connected movements. Structurally, it perhaps resembles D’Albert’s youthful masterpiece (1884) but is not as harmonically daring and is somewhat loosely constructed.

The opening has a majestic orchestral introduction in ¾ time with an odd effect, before introducing the piano. Up to this point, the effect is a little but like that of the Brahms Piano Concerto #1.  The development begins but seems abbreviated, as at the 10-minute mark, the work moves to a romantic adagio, with soaring melodies.

A scherzo follows, leading to a 20-minute finale, a rondo-Sonata which will recap all of the material before.  Before the coda the Concerto has its one big cadenza. The Coda starts with a flowing theme, which, rather than becoming majestic, turns into wild dance with a Russian character, perhaps Balakirev.  Still, the themes sound familiar, as if Hollywood had pirated them before for movie scores without attribution.  The final conclusion is very bombastic.

The performance occurred at the National Philharmonic of Warsaw Rzeszow Philharmonic Vladimir Kiradijev, pianist Ludmil Angelov .  The comments on YouTube say there will be a professional recording for sale (CD or MP3) soon, at least by 2016.

I also found a recording of Caprice Espagnol in  A Minor, Op. 37, played by Balazs Szokalay, about six minutes.  I used to play this when I was a senior in high school, but I could not play it at this furious tempo (especially the repeated notes).  There is a middle section in F, and then a return with a race to a brilliant conclusion in A Major.


Thursday, September 03, 2015

Bruno Walter, famous conductor of Mahler, composed his own symphonies

When I was a teen, Bruno Walter was the main accepted interpreter of Mahler, and he only conducted the symphonies thought to be the “best” (he skipped 6, 7, 8, and 10, as well as the “Blumie” movement of #1). Over time (largely because of the effort of Leonard Bernstein in the 1960s) middle Mahler became a lot more mainstream.  A few conductors like Scherchen and Horenstein had also conducted Mahler on recordings before 1960.

Walter was also popular with Brahms and Beethoven, and usually appeared on Columbia Records, with his own Columbia Symphony Orchestra (recording in California).

Not too many people realize that Walter also composed.  His Symphony #1 in D Minor (1907), with an unknown orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein, can be played on YouTube.

The work, running 59 minutes, has been compared to the Mahler Sixth by at least one comment, although the layout and sonic environment is a bit different (sometimes sounding like Richard Strauss more than Mahler or Bruckner). The first movement, Moderato, is rather dour, with long sad melodic lines in strings, but it is followed by a true slow movement, that is not that remarkable.  The most interesting part seemed to be the lively Scherzo, which is in the oddly matched key of B Minor and Major.  The Finale seems to recapitulate earlier movements (as would happen with Mahler and Bruckner), and toward the end, it does adopt the martial mood of the Mahler “Tragic”, ending on loud minor chords (without dying away as in the Mahler). If Walter did not want to conduct the Sixth, it’s interesting that he composed his own symphony to convey a somewhat similar message to listeners.

Walter would not leave Germany (to escape the Nazis) for over 25 years after composing the work, but maybe he sense what could come.

Something about the art work on many YouTube classical performances.  Note the “Middle Earth” landscape, where the jagged mountains dwarf (by orders of magnitude) the settlement below, but where there may be towers on top of the highest pinnacles.  Imagine a luxury hotel room in a high castle on another planet.  Maybe this is Clive Barker’s Yzordderrex.

Some other memory occurred to me listening to this music.  There’s a relationship between the “Octave” theme in the first movement Bruckner Ninth (which comes back in the completed Finale in fugal form) and the opening theme of the Mahler Sixth.