Monday, November 28, 2011

My Favorite Christmas Music

Survivors from the days of vinyl, some Christmas albums have withstood the test of time, and the holiday season does not start for me until I choose to play my cassette of these lps that I grew up with.

Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians The Sounds of Christmas is not available in its original configuration, but selections of it are included on this assortment of Waring releases from the 50's and 60's. (Tracks 1, 4 and 8). The original lp featured a gorgeous picture of a snowed-in Vermont village (East Corinth)? and the tunes had a continuous flow with snippets of
common carols segueing between less-well-known tunes, such as Jesu Parvule, Go Where I Send Thee, Ring Those Christmas Bells, While By My Sheep and a host of others you have never heard, but will wish you had. Beautiful part-singing and peppy late-50's arrangements are both contemporary and nostalgic at the same time. It warms the cockles of my heart to read comments on Amazon to the effect that this is one of the best– if not THE best– Christmas record ever made.

Original vinyl editions of this recording START at $200 on Amazon.

Harry Belafonte’s To Wish You a Merry Christmas IS available digitally, and it’s a blessing. This ultra smooth, understated collection of Christmas favorites and rarities has less to do with Belafonte's calypso style and more to do with music to calm you down after being pepper-sprayed at Best Buy. One of the rarities is present on both the Waring and the Belafonte collections, Rise up Shepherd and Foller; both versions are unforgettable. Word has it that when I was not able to speak complete sentences or read yet, I kept asking to hear this record, but just kept saying “Gave to me! Gave to me!” No one understood what I was trying to say, but one day when The Twelve Days of Christmas came on the radio, I nodded my head, smiled and said “Gave to me!” and the mystery was solved. “(On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me...)”

While still a high school senior, I was a member of the Hartford Community Orchestra. They tackled challenging repertoire in my two years with them, not the least of which was Vaughan Williams’ Christmas cantata Hodie. A 16-movement work scored for chorus, boys' choir, organ and orchestra, and featuring tenor, baritone, and soprano soloists, it is full of rich, gothic, chocolaty goodness. A truly spine-tingling moment is the segue from the March of the Three Kings, in D minor, into the hymn No Sad Thought, His Soul Affright, in D♭ major. I came to love this early London recording with Dame Janet Baker headlining.

This same community orchestra the following year played Berlioz’ oratorio L'Enfance du Christ. A more involved work than the Vaughan Williams, the centerpiece of it is L'adieu des bergers (The Shepherd’s Farewell). Both this and the Vaughan Williams No Sad Thought have been performed by the KSO on Clayton Holiday Concerts, although it was likely before some of you were born.

I have some strange Christmas traditions. One of them is to listen to Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Trilogy lp every Christmas Eve. Sure, it’s not Christmas music per se, but when this was first released in 1973, it seemed like a religious experience, and I never wanted to let go of that myth. Songs like From the Beginning, The Endless Enigma and Abaddon’s Bolero were a nice backdrop to my holiday preparations, and FTB was one of the first songs I learned to play on guitar.

There is very little to say about the Rachmaninov Vespers (also known as (All-night Vigil) that doesn’t say itself, once you start listening to it. Some have gone so far to say that this is Rachmaninov's crowning achievement. Although it also is not specifically Christmas music, what could go wrong with more than an hour of a capella Russian choir singing, with sometimes up to nine voices and bass parts that will make you involuntarily look skyward and close your eyes?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

(insert Thanksgiving-oriented title here)

As Thanksgiving descends upon us, it is tempting to get all sentimental and post a bunch of drippy, gooey testimony. So here it is! (JK)

My wife Helen, son Richard and I are joined by Helen’s parents, Mary and Tom Gover of Minneapolis this Thanksgiving. Our older son Thomas is a junior at Middlebury College (VT) and will be spending Thanksgiving with a friend in New York City. The Govers are big music lovers who have majorly supported Helen’s musical training since her childhood (she played for Dr. Suzuki in 1976- I’m working on getting a link to the vid), in college (at Smith, where she was Philipp Naegele’s teaching assistant and concertmaster of the Five College Orchestra), and throughout her professional career (as former concertmaster of the Oak Ridge and current concertmaster of the Johnson City Symphony).

Truly though, we KSO players have a lot to be thankful for. For the good breaks we’ve had in our careers that have allowed us to continue pursuing classical music despite warnings that it would be a tough row to hoe. For the wise management and munificent donor base that has kept the KSO in the black for five years in a row, and kept the music flowing through tougher times in the more distant past. For composers famous and otherwise who have supplied my colleagues and I with a seemingly endless stream of soulful, provocative and challenging music to perform. For those colleagues themselves, in all genres, who live for music and the good times that accompany it, and who would also give you the shirt off their back in time of need (like when you forget a shirt)! For city planners and entrepreneurs, who helped make Knoxville as intriguing as its orchestra. And for appreciative audiences, whose compliments help reinforce our conviction in making music.

I know the list should be a lot longer, but it sure is a good time to count our blessings in these all-too-often unblessable times. It's late. I'm going to bed. Have a happy and safe Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

From Budapest (and Prague, and Bucharest) with Love

The Thursday and Friday night KSO Masterworks concerts bring orchestral genius from Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania. The centerpiece is the Dvorak Cello Concerto, with cellist Zuill Bailey playing a beautiful Göfriller instrument from the 1690's. The evening opens with Enescu’s vivacious Romanian Rhapsody #1, and the Eastern European tour will end with Bartok’s fascinating Concerto for Orchestra, about as perfect a piece of music as has ever been written.

The Enescu (or Enesco, as he is spelled sometimes) work is a new one for me. I had heard of it for many years; there was one short bit in the excerpt book, but it wasn’t something to slave over like Beethoven 5 or Don Juan. The rhythm and drive remind me of Smetana and Khachaturyan, but this is pure gypsy music. The mood freely alternates between a gently lilting melody and a frenzied Bucharest two-step with the drums fueling the fire and the violins fanning it.

Zuill Bailey is no stranger to the area; he performed the Saint-Säens Cello Concerto with the Chamber Orchestra under George Hanson (during Hanson’s guest visit as a music director candidate in 2002). Some time in the 90's he performed with the Oak Ridge Symphony, perhaps the Elgar? Anyways, that’s all immaterial as he is here now, and his Dvorak Concerto is rich and effortless. This quintessential cello concerto is the last work Dvorak composed in the US, but its heart (like Dvorak’s after three years in America) is thinking of home.

The Bartok has been on my mind ever since I learned of it being programmed. Bartok had an incredible sense of what an orchestra could do, and a big ol’ bag of Hungarian folk songs from which to draw for melodies. Every player is put through his paces and the musical language is accessible. In the Elegia, the clarinets play a lick that can only be described as otherwordly. You will not forget it. Like the Dvorak, this work was composed in the United States, although under very different circumstances. Dvorak was the head of a vital Conservatory in New York in the 1890's, but Bartok had fled the Nazis during WWII and lived in relative obscurity in New York, where he died in 1945.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Happy Birthday, Robert J!

I always listened to the radio growing up. We had to. Although we had (and still have- right Katy)? LPs, there was no YouTube, MP3's or Spotify. My mother and I listened to the weekly broadcasts of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on WDRC-AM, Hartford. That same station would carry Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 later that night. The Red Sox were on WTIC-AM, and the National Lampoon Radio Hour was on WHCN-FM. When I started college, Howard Stern was the morning drive DJ on WCCC-FM. By the time it mattered to me, a long-time classical station in Hartford, WTIC-FM, had sold out to bubble-gum pop and the only outlet for classical music was NPR.

Yesterday marked what would have been the 80th birthday of a voice from my past. Robert J. Lurtsema hosted a remarkable morning radio show called Morning Pro Musica, syndicated on NPR in the Northeast from 1971 until 2000. His own quirky package of news, classical programming and live guests greeted New Englanders thirsty for eclectic repertoire and a slow pace to begin their day. From 7 a.m to noon. Every. Day.

“Robert J.’s” voice was so reliably serene, his pronunciation of foreign names was flawless, and the range of his programming was jaw-dropping- cycles of Boyce Symphonies, the complete works-- good and bad-- of every major and minor composer that ever lived, and every Sunday morning a Bach Cantata. The Hartt School’s excellent music library had scores to a surprising number of these works and I seized many days and devoured whatever I could. Guest artists included Scottish singer Jean Redpath, Julia Child, John Cage and Aaron Copland.

Much to his (and his devotees') chagrin, NPR decided to introduce a talk element to their programming “(Morning Sedition with Bob Bedwards),” and when grad school rolled around I could only hear him from 9-11. Still, I would religiously make notes in the 24-PAGE program guide for WFCR in Amherst, MA of pieces to record (remember cassettes)?? and I still refer to some of these tapes today. It was thanks to him that I became aware of the music of David Van Vactor.

When I was first diagnosed with diabetes in September, 1979, I also had mono and things were not looking good; I spent a week in New Britain (CT) General Hospital, figuring out what I needed to do to combat this new peril. I missed my first week of college and the day after I was discharged, my brother got married. Little did I know Mr. Lurtsema had decided to program the complete Bach Cello Suites that week as performed by Maurice Gendron. After I slept through the first Suite, I decided to set my alarm to coincide with the first downbeat of any successive Suites. Gendron’s renditions of the Suites were so refulgent and pure, echoing down the hospital floor, I had no choice but to pursue this music until I owned it, while vowing to never let diabetes own me. Mr. Lurtsema, your timing was impeccable.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Youth Orchestras Take the Stage!

The Knoxville Symphony Youth Orchestras will open their 38th season Monday evening, November 14th at the Tennessee Theatre. This FREE concert will start at 7 p.m. The bigger-than-ever Preludium Orchestra, led by Erin Archer, will start the evening off.

The Philharmonia Orchestra, under the baton of Katie Hutchinson, will delve into a fun arrangement by Ben Clinesmith of S’Vivon (Hebrew for “dreidel”), and Richard Stephan’s Variations on a Well-Known Sea Chantey.

Kathy Hart-Reilly’s Sinfonia group will be playing their most challenging concert ever, featuring a Halloween “Spook-tacular” which will mash up several different ghoulish classical tunes.

Wesley Baldwin’s Youth Chamber Orchestra will be busy bringing Mozart’s F Major Divertimento, K. 138, and then will be joined by KSO concertmaster Gabe Lefkowicz in Bach’s Violin Concerto in E Major, BWV 1042.

The Youth Orchestra proper will finish up the evening with the Marche Militaire Francaise from Suite Algerienne by Camille Saint-Saens (wow! A piece I’m not familiar with!) and Tschaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, a piece I am familiar with, not just from playing, but from having many furrowed-browed students approach me with suggestions for fingerings.

Many of these young talents are students of KSO musicians. Come see the fruits of much labor and support the young musicians of Knoxville!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Intervals and You (video at end)

Intervals are the building blocks of music. Whether they are vertical (chords) or horizontal (melody), the ability to recognize intervals is a valuable skill for anyone wanting to become a better sightreader, composer or improviser.

The octave is the point at which the seven notes in a scale start to repeat themselves. E.g., if you start on a “c,” the next highest (or lowest) “c” is an octave away. The note that is five pitches away is called a fifth.

A fifth in its purest form is perfect; this is the interval that the strings on most bowed string instruments are tuned. (A bass is tuned in perfect 4ths, which is the inversion of a perfect fifth). Therefore, a perfect fifth + a perfect fourth = an octave. How can this be when 4+5 = 9?! It’s because the intervals are always measured inclusively of their start and end points. Fifths, even more than fourths, are the gold standard when defining what key you are in.

Other intervals, (seconds, thirds, sixths and sevenths) cannot be perfect; only either major or minor. A third is a special interval in that it is the interval that defines whether a tonality is major or minor. A blue-note is a third that cannot decide whether it is major or minor; jazz could not exist without this vacillation. The inverse of a third is a sixth. Seconds, and their partners sevenths, are intervals that serve in a vertical sense to liven up a chord by making it a little “dirtier.” A major seventh or minor second is the dirtiest interval of all.

While dirty can also describe the tritone, a better word for it is shifty. A tritone is the interval between a fifth and a fourth, or exactly halfway between 2 notes an octave apart. Technically, it is called either an augmented fourth or a diminished fifth, depending on how it is spelled. It is a chameleon interval which is unstable and wants to resolve, but it can resolve outward (to a sixth) or inward (to a third). Movie music that is used to accompany dirty dealings, cliffhanging, mystery and shock is heavy with tritones, some of which are there for their own sake and aren’t about to give you the satisfaction of a resolution.

Here are some easily recognizable intervals that occur in everyday living and in standard music repertoire.

Für Elise by Beethoven starts with a minor 2nd, wavering up high in the right hand. (Insert viola joke here). The first six notes of “Chopsticks” are a major second apart, played simultaneously.

Pick up a phone (landline). You hear that dial tone? That’s a major third. Now drive very slowly in the left lane on I-40. You hear that car horn? A lot of 2-tone horns use this interval also.

Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is one of the most instantly recognizable tunes ever written. The first two notes are a fourth apart.

Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra starts with two perfect intervals in a row a fifth and then a fourth. This interval is also all over the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony N. 9, vertically in the bed of 16th notes laid down by the lower strings, and horizontally in the violin melody.

Still confused? Listen and learn.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


The upcoming Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra concert will feature the KSO’s own Ildar Khuziakhmetov playing Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D. As this concert was to have featured Calvin Smith playing a Mozart Horn Concerto, we are all indebted to Ildar for stepping in on pretty short notice to fill some very big shoes. Ildar is a major force on Knoxville’s cello scene, having been a member of the KSO since 2000. His teaching studio produces great students, one of whom was featured on a KSO Family Concert a few years back. We all also owe a debt of gratitude to his wife, violist Jennifer Bloch and their young daughter, Alexandra for allowing Ildar to pursue Haydn with abandon.

The Knoxville Symphony has three members with the initials I.K.– Ildar, Ikuko Koizumi, and Ihsan Kartal, from Uzbekistan, Japan and Turkey. Ildar’s last name is very hard to pronounce, but I think I can help you out with it. To hear him say it, it’s a 2-syllable word, but just to break the ice with him for you, say “khoo Jacques MADE of,” very fast. Kh is pronounced like the “ch” in “chutzpah.”
While Haydn’s life may have been a little more incident-free than Mozart’s– there is no movie about Haydn called “Josef”– when he hit a home run, he hit a home run, and “Haydn D” is way out of the yard. A concerto my college professor, David Wells called an “old man piece” (meaning I was too young), it exists in a couple of different renderings. The autographed score from which we are playing was discovered in a storage closet in 1954 at Breitkopf and Härtel in Leipzig.

I learned a lot tonight. The last soloist for the Haydn D was Janos Starker, in February of 2000 with the Chamber Orchestra. Well of course, I already knew that, but it turns out that the first time this work was played with the KSO was in 1949 with Raya Garbousova, under the direction of David Van Vactor. (The KSO webpage and program notes have it wrong; it is not “Kaya.” She was the other cello professor where I did my undergrad! She introduced me to Feuermann’s widow. That is a scary enough coincidence, but...) Raya's son is married to Miriam Fried, who was the soloist on the January 1989 KSO Masterworks concerts, on the Sibelius Concerto. Miriam Fried’s son, Jonathan Biss, is a fine pianist who soloed with the KCSO in April of 1997! Yikes.