Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Live Long and Prosper- Or Compose


As the Principal quartet of the KSO rehearses Beethoven’s op. 95 quartet for its April concerts, I am pondering the term “late Beethoven,” a style period of which his op. 95 is a bellwether. The term conjures up images of an old man sitting at the piano, inspired by ideas that only old age can foster. But then I think about it, and realize that even his last works were composed when he was not much older than me! The quartet we are playing dates from his 40th year.

Then I got to thinking about how tragically short some of the great composers' lives were. Franz Schubert died at 31, Mendelssohn at 38, Chopin at 39, Mozart at 35, Bizet at 37, Stephen Foster at 38 and Gershwin at 39. The mind boggles at the thought of 600 works by Mozart written during a 25-year composing career, and 600 songs by Schubert, written in roughly 16 years. The truth is however, according to a JSTOR Population Council report, that average GLOBAL life expectancy around 1800 was actually around 29 years. So as tragic as it sounds, these composers actually beat the odds.

So Beethoven’s death at 57 may only seem premature to us now because we are so used to seeing people thriving and in their prime at that age these days. Many other composers died in their 50s, among them Tchaikovsky (53), Mahler (51), Glinka (53), Respighi (57), Debussy (56), and Borodin (54).

The eldest composers are a mixed bag. Elliott Carter is widely regarded as the longest lived composer ever, having recently died about a month short of his 104th birthday. But to find the next contestant, you have to go back to 1623, when the early baroque keyboard composer Jan Adam Reinken was born, (although there is some controversy about this- some authorities now say it was 1643, although that would mean that he was appointed organist at Bergkherke in Deventer, Germany at age 14. Hmmmmmm...) He lived until 1722; regardless of when he was born, either 99 or 79 was a long life in those days.

Other notable elders were Sibelius (1865-1957, although he wrote very little in the last 30 years of his life), Verdi (1813-1901; his magnificent Requiem will be performed here in April), Stravinsky (1882-1971; I can’t wait for the Rite of Spring to close our Masterworks season!), Saint-Saens (1835-1921), Messaien (1909-1992), Richard Strauss (1864-1949), Kodaly (1882-1967), Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), and Josquin des Prez (ca. 1440-1521). It would appear that the French have the edge as a whole in longevity, although two French composers met untimely and somewhat unusual demises. Jean-Baptiste Lully accidentally struck his foot with the staff (used to bang out the beat on the floor) with which he was conducting, dying of gangrene shortly thereafter at age 55, and Ernest Chausson (as you may remember from the Principal quartet concert from last April) was killed in a bicycle accident in 1899 at the age of 44.

Well, if the secret of a long life is to get enough sleep, then it’s time for me to go. Tomorrow I’ll try and find out what Elliott Carter had for breakfast all those years.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Sweet Gospel Singing In Concert With the KSO


Our attention turns to Monday’s FREE Concert in Celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. At the Tennessee Theatre at 6 PM.  That’s tonight. The Celebration Choir under the direction of Aaron Staple offers many splendid soloists, and local radio host Hallerin Hilton Hill will narrate Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait in a concert that also offers works by Brahms, William Grant Still, Rossini, Richman and more.

My first Lincoln Portrait was memorable in several ways. Also in the orchestra were oboist Phyllis Secrist and clarinetist Gary Sperl, who, unbeknownst to any of us at the time, I would soon join as permanent co-workers here! It was at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC in 1985, at a plantation known as Middleton Place, America’s oldest landscaped gardens. It’s a gorgeous spread with a stage set up on an man-made island on a pond for a big end-of-the-season bash. Back then the Festival involved 5 weeks in Charleston, then 4 weeks in Italy, playing opera, orchestra and chamber music while getting paid AND boarded AND flown over and back. I had never FLOWN before, let alone getting paid to fly. We also played a twelve-show run of Puccini’s Fanciulla del West (which will kick off our February here with the Knoxville Opera), but that’s another story...

So, put it together. A hot June South Carolina night+pond=BUGS! Skin-so-soft as a bug repellent was a fairly recent discovery then, and it flowed like wine, but that only kept the mosquitos away. It was frightening. The footlights were always veiled in janky-smelling smoke from bugs that got fried in them, and the locusts that crashed  into our stand were like zombie hummingbirds. Under the baton of Jahja Ling we managed to steer through the music, and Frank Langella’s narration was unforgettable. A dainty audience member lady in a red hat congratulated me on the concert afterwards, but was quick to ask me if the Copland piece was a world premiere, because, as she said,  “Mr. Lincoln is not a very popular person around here.” I believe I responded that it most certainly was not, and shuffled off to the bus, but... ouch! There was some work to do then, and there still is now...

Friday, January 18, 2013

Happiness is a Warm Civic Auditorium Filled with Music of Lennon and McCartney


The British are still coming! Saturday night, January 19th, the 2013 KSO Pops series kicks off with the Classical Mystery Tour, a Lennon/McCartney tribute show that has held up for an amazingly long run.

I guess there are a few people out there who don’t like the Beatles, and even fewer who aren’t familiar with them. So this blog probably won’t interest them. Preparation for this installment of the British invasion consists of listening to the soundtrack of my past, as it exists in my mind’s musical memory bank. Christmas of 1966 is about where I started to see things clearly, when one of my sisters, or maybe all of them, received the Rubber Soul LP as a gift. In my humble opinion, this is one of the best POP albums ever made, and my second favorite Beatles album after Abbey Road. That thing got played and played and played. Unlike the currently available Rubber Soul CD, side1 started with I’ve Just Seen a Face, instead of Drive My Car. Side 1 ended with Michelle; being the last song on the side, and a lullaby at that, it probably sang millions of people to sleep at some time or another. Put that disc on, and by the end, the record player would turn off and, with any luck, either you or your child was asleep. Side 2 started with It’s Only Love, a 1-1/2 minute song that is currently on the Help! CD. If I Needed Someone, What Goes On, and Nowhere Man were nowhere, man, on the original LP.

Fast forward to June of 1979, my senior year in high school. My school chamber orchestra, Ars Musicus, traveled from Newington, Conn. to New York to compete in a festival of orchestras of that type. We had the time of our life; four nights in the Taft (now the Michelangelo) Hotel, dinner at Mama Leone’s, performances at Damrosch Park and Washington Square Park, a Circle Line tour (which left me green with motion sickness), and... a theatre outing to see Beatlemania. This remains the only Broadway show that I have ever seen, on Broadway proper, at least. So you could imagine it was shocking in the most pleasant of ways to perform with the ORIGINAL cast of these shows when they performed here about four years ago, and even more pleasantly shocking to see them in attendance at the Bistro by the Bijou after the concert, where my gypsy jazz band was playing! Sadly, they didn’t remember me as an audience member from 1979.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Great Britten


The strings of the Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra are gearing up for an all-English program to be played on Sunday, January 13 at 2:30 at the Bijou Theatre. Soloists for Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings will be Jeffrey Whaley, horn, and Cody Boling, tenor.

We will start with a neo-renaissance work by Peter Warlock, Capriol Suite. Similar in character to Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances and Strauss’ Bourgeois Gentilhomme Suite, Warlock draws from a collection of courtly dance tunes entitled Orch├ęsographie, assembled in 1589 by French cleric Jehan Tabourot, under the nom de plume of Thoinot Arbeau. As with these other composers, Warlock makes use of some “dirty” chords to somewhat modernize the tunes. The titles of the six brief movements have given us quite some amusement; Basse-Danse, Pavane, Tordion, Bransles, Pieds-en-l’air, and Mattachins (Sword Dance). Someone comically suggested that the fourth movement, Bransles, is what happens when you eat too much bran.

Next up will be the Britten Serenade. Mr. Whaley will begin the piece off-stage with a horn-call played on a natural (valveless) horn. The nature of this instrument will render some of the pitches a little flatter than where a valved horn would play them, setting a very pastoral musical table. Mr. Boling, another in a series of fine singers reprised from Sweeney Todd, was memorable in his portrayal of the Beadle Banford. There is again a neo-renaissance feel to some of the movements of the Serenade, some of the lyrics of which date from 17th century English poetry. Tennyson, Blake and Keats are also tapped for lyrics. If you wish that the Barber Adagio for Strings had words, or even if you don't, then you will surely enjoy this work. "Ahh, one of mother's favorites!"

After intermission, the Britten keeps coming with the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. I have spoken of this work in a previous post; suffice it to say that the Gothic lusciousness that ended the first half will continue. The fugue near the end of the work is a feisty game of “bloody knuckles” which gives way to a deeply moving ending. Ending the afternoon will be Gustav Holst’s St. Paul Suite, another dance suite that has nothing to do with the his Planets that we played last March. This is the most famous of many works he wrote for his students during his tenure at the St. Paul’s Girls’ School between 1905-1934.

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I am both sorry and pleased to announce that BOTH performances of next week’s Concertmaster Series are sold out. I apologize for any confusion that may have arisen after saying that some tickets were still available.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Major Reason to Be Happy


Although it is not the VERY next thing on the agenda, the Dvorak Piano Quintet in A Major is proving to be  just the thing to break me out of vacation mode. As I think of all the piano quintets there are, and the fact that I have only played Schumann’s iconic opus, I wonder how I have lived so long and not met this gem. The piano quartet repertoire is actually quite broad; some very well-respected composers have dogs in the race, but sadly, some of those works are just that: dogs. Dvorak’s quintet compared to the other “Best of Breed” entries in the genre is happier than Brahms’, deeper than Franck’s, prettier than Shostakovich’s; the tunes just won’t leave you alone. We have been piecing it together at American Piano Gallery out at Turkey Creek; what a perfect rehearsal space.

The first movement is probably the best because it starts with a cello solo. Haha! Anyways, the mood swings frequently between warm and fuzzy to restless and urgent. The movement’s second theme is startlingly similar to that of the last movement of Brahms’ 3rd Symphony, a piece written just four years earlier. F# minor is the flavor of the second movement, a dumka. A “folk-legend/-ballad” is the best translation I can muster for that word, with the time I have. Thematically speaking, Nat King Cole’s monster hit Nature Boy comes straight out of this, I think we can all agree on that. The furiant third movement is a rollicking Slavonic Dance in A with a trio section that is sooooo Christmasy... (I really don’t understand why they call it a trio, I mean, all five of us are playing...) The last movement is excitable, has a killer fugato section and has some chorale playing that will remind you of a hurdy-gurdy. The joy and grace flow like Pilsner Urquell at a Masopust celebration.

This work represents Dvorak in his prime. It’s hard to believe that in his day, some unscrupulous publishers would print later opus numbers on his works in an effort make him appear a less accomplished composer. The video of the first movement I am posting is from Washington, and on it are two old colleagues from the mid-90's KSO: violinists Zino and Natasha Bogacek, although Natasha is playing viola! Good to see old friends.

And good to play music with friends. Gabe Lefkowitz's Concertmaster Series January edition will take place next Wednesday and Thursday nights, the 16th and 17th, at 7:00 at Remedy Coffee in the Old City. He will present solo works by Bach and Ysaye as well. Single tickets are still available for Thursday night.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Happy New Year! The British Are Coming!


2013 starts with a big ol’ bang. Works by Britten, Warlock, Holst, Dvorak, Schumann and Puccini are leering at me from the music stand. They’re saying, “Haha, you had your fun down in Florida, now stand  and deliver!” Well, I certainly did have fun, visiting Venice Beach and St. Augustine with my wife and two boys, topped off by a swim in the ocean New Year’s Day. (We weren’t the only ones in the water)! The temperature hit 75 that day and the water wasn’t much cooler. At the same place during our visit two years ago, the temperature never got above 40. We were relieved.

What a joy it is to have Youtube and Spotify to fill in the gaps in my own personal collection and those of the library. Works like the Brittens that we are playing next weekend (Chamber Orchestra, Sunday, January 13th, 2:30 at the Bijou) are rare finds in the public library, and even if located are subject to availability. I often like to treat any unfamiliar piece I am playing as “new music,” untainted by someone else’s renditions. So don’t ask me how I like Beecham’s, or Szell’s, or Bernstein’s this or that, because I am neither well-versed nor particular. In the end, it is almost always a performance in which I took part that will become my favorite. Britten, however, is a composer whose performance success is better off not left to chance. Every once in a while a work will be on the docket that is impossible to find for free. For that I break down and buy it on Amazon. I think the last work I had to do that for was the Bax Overture to Adventure that Kirk Trevor performed with us in March of 2011. (You remember, “obscure even by British standards).”

Speaking of Britten, it is (sort of) the 75th anniversary of the premiere of his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. It was written in 1937, having been commissioned in May for performance at the Salzburg Festival in August of that year. Britten was Bridge’s most accomplished composition student. Ten-year-old Benjamin attended a performance of Bridge’s orchestral suite The Sea, and the word is that Britten “was knocked sideways.” Bridge took him under his wing, and Britten eventually became a “handler” of sorts for Bridge and a good friend. Variation 10, “Fugue and Finale,” contains many references to other works of Bridge.

The three remaining works on the program span a compact period of the early 20th century in Britain, from 1912-1943. It is hard to imagine the variety of styles that will be represented, despite this relatively narrow confine of time and geography. It will be great to hear Cody Boling (Beadle Banford in our recent Sweeney Todd production) again, teaming with KSO principal hornist Jeffrey Whaley to bring Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings to life. (In referring to this work, please be advised that it is NOT for tenor horn and strings. That comma is there for a reason).