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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Vivaldi Gloria is up

You'll find it here.

UNT Collegium singers & Baroque Orchestra (all students, undergrad and graduate).

Monday, December 5, 2011

NCCO and Bach/baroque music - Jesu, meine Freude

I was able to attend the NCCO (National Collegiate Choral Organization) conference in Colorado Springs in early November.

It was a marvelous conference with both excellent concerts/choirs and sessions.

Paul Carey has posted beautifully on content of the sessions on his Musical Mayhem blog, so I won't attempt to do that.

Helmuth Rilling was the headliner, working with James Kim's excellent CSU Chamber Choir. Everyone knows Rilling's work, of course, from his Gächinger Kantorei and Bach-Collegium Stuttgart and his work since 1970 with the Oregon Bach Festival.

Certainly, his work had a big impact on me. As an undergraduate I was tremendously interested in baroque music and got to know his recordings and those of Wilhelm Ehmann, among others. In 1971 the University of Washington Chorale, under the direction of Rod Eichenberger, took part in one of the Vienna Symposiums organized by Paul Koutney. This meant two weeks in Vienna, each of the seven American university choirs doing a concert in a different church, plus combining for performances of the Kodaly Psalmus Hungaricus in the Rathaus and Mahler's Symphony #8 in the Konzertverein (quite a fabulous experience, with the Vienna Boychoir). Afterwards, the choir toured, ending up in Paris. I stayed over after that, among other things going to Ehmann's Westfälische Landeskirchenmusikschule (unannounced, I should add, as were all the things I did on that trip--more about that in another post!).

When I was in Herford, I mentioned to one of the German students that I'd really like to see Rilling work . . . and they said, well, we'll call him and find out what he's doing! So I found out that he was doing a Kantat-Fest at the Gedächtniskirche the following weekend, then the weekend after rehearsing with the Gächinger Kantorei for the first time on some repertoire for a concert about a week after that. So, off to Stuttgart I went.

The first weekend I watched rehearsals on Saturday for the Kantat-Fest, which simply meant that anyone who wanted showed up on Saturday to rehearse a Bach cantata (about 100 people) and they would then sing it in the service the next day. I didn't stick around for the service, as I'd already arranged to visit two friends from the choir, Greg and Nancy Vancil, who would be studying at the Mozarteum in Salzburg for the next year, but enjoyed watching the rehearsal. I then came back to Stuttgart for the rehearsals with the Gächinger Kantorei the following weekend. The Choir was doing an unusual program for Rilling as I knew his work, all a cappella: Debussy and Ravel Trois Chansons, Schoenberg Friede auf Erden, Schumann Talismane, and Genzmer Südamerikanische Gesänge, if I remember correctly. Great fun!

The next summer, 1972, I  attended the Oregon Bach Festival, which was truly a mountain-top experience for me in many ways. We sang an all-Schütz program (big Schütz year) and Bach's Mass in B Minor. The Bach, in particular, was life-changing in many ways. By that point, I'd already conducted Christ lag in Todesbanden, and was about to start doing a project inspired by the Kantat-Fest weekends. But it was Rilling's knowledge, expertise, and passion which truly inspired. At that time, he told us it was the 50th time he'd conducted the Mass--one can hardly imagine how many times it's been now! The style was fairly romantic, compared to what he or we would do now (although not at the time). It's also been interesting to see how his style has changed: the phrasing in the opening Kyrie fugue, for example. While I never went back to the OBF as a participant, I've occasionally gone to hear a few concerts and, in fact, heard the Mass when the Gächinger Kantorei came to the OBF for their 50th anniversary. Fascinating to hear how the concept has changed, and what has remained not too far from what I remember way back when.

(I should also say that I was able to catch Rilling sitting outside of the hotel one afternoon and thank him for the inspiration he's provided and mention that long-ago couple of weekends in Stuttgart, as well as the early OBF experience--it's always nice to be able to do that!)

Since I've done lots of work with period instruments (it's one of the reasons the job at UNT was intriguing to me, and certainly one of the reasons I got the job)--the Bach Ensemble in Seattle from 1978-80 began using period instruments--my ideas about performance have changed as well.

With that in mind, it was interesting to listen to the concert at the NCCO, which had two motets (Singet dem Herrn and Jesu, meine Freude) plus the Magnificat. I found that there were two things that struck me most strongly: some aspects of phrasing and the tuning of major thirds. As I mentioned, Rilling has certainly changed many things about the way he phrases baroque music (with the example of the Kyrie in the B Minor), but there are other aspects where my way of phrasing has changed.

In addition, I've gotten so used to different tuning systems that my ear now wants a considerably lower/pure major third, particularly at cadences. For me, the thirds I heard in Colorado were far too "jangly," the only way I can describe the difference between the "beats" of a tempered third and the beatless relative calm of a pure third (the purity refers to a major third which matches the third heard in the natural harmonic series.

Since I'd just done Jesu, meine Freude with my Collegium Singers at UNT, that was very fresh in my mind. Given what I've said, it's only fair that I provide a link to what we did, not that I'm claiming anything for it, but it represents in a more concrete way what can only be expressed poorly in writing. You can find that performance here: the Bach begins at 1:04 (that's one hour, four minutes). You'll know it's live, not only because it's on video with no possibility of editing, but also because our organist (the fabulous Christoph Hammer) played a decidedly non-picardy third at the end of one of the movements! We were using Vallotti for tuning the organ, a decent compromise for this program, which was mostly mid-baroque from northern Germany (Buxtehude, particularly). For other repertoire (Monteverdi Vespers, for example) we've used quarter-comma meantone, which has extremely pure thirds (in some keys!).

We'll shortly have a video up with a performance of the Vivaldi Gloria with this choir and our period instrument baroque orchestra and I'll post a link when it's up. Strangely, I'd never conducted the Vivaldi before (perhaps because I'd heard so many terrible performances!), so it was great fun to approach in as fresh a manner as I could. More about that later.

A long time gone!

Far too long gone from blogging!

My excuse (such as it is) is taking on a big church job beginning in late August: Interim Choirmaster at Church of the Incarnation ( This large, Episcopal Church is a vital and interesting place. Choral music, traditional Anglican liturgy, traditional Anglican music are all important parts of the life of this church (if you peruse the website, you'll see there is also a very active contemporary worship/music component of Incarnation). This means that the choir sings for two services Sunday morning and we also do Evensong (1662 Book of Common Prayer) almost every Sunday during the academic year. Anglican chant (Coverdale Psalter) is also an important part of the 11:15 and Evensong services.

This has certainly meant a busy schedule for me this fall in addition to my UNT schedule. I go in for staff meetings Tuesday mornings, choir rehearsals Wednesday evenings, and Sunday is an all-day affair. Since I also have to do some administrative coordination for newly re-constituted or new children's choirs, youth choir, and handbell choir, as well as the Music Series, there's always something that needs doing.

We did the Durufle Requiem for All Soul's as part of the music series, in the version for small orchestra (strings, harp, 3 trumpets and timpani) and organ, which was a lovely experience.

Traditional Lessons and Carols (following the King's College model) are the next two Sundays (Dec. 11 and 18 at 5 PM, with a pre-service organ recital by Gerre Hancock, for many years organist/choirmaster at St. Thomas in New York. If you're in Dallas, do come, it'll be wonderful.

Christmas Eve is also full of services: noon, 2, 5, and 10:30, with the choir at 5 and 10:30, children's, youth, and handbell choirs at the earlier services.

I'll attempt to get back to a more regular schedule of blogging, although it's likely to go up and down as my commitments do!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Jeremy Denk's response to David Lang

David Lang (whose Little Match Girl Passion has been an enormous success), in an op-ed in the NY Times, promoting new music, but comparing classical music to baseball (really!):
Certain things that happen in classical music would be unthinkable in baseball. Imagine a baseball game in which all the players dress up in the uniforms of a hundred years ago, and then follow, pitch by pitch, a classic match-up from the past. Imagine watching a game, and saying that a hit or a run on the field in front of you is not as elegant or meaningful as a hit or run from a game 50 years before. Imagine seeing your favorite team win a game, but discounting it because you remembered a previous incarnation of that team that was more talented or exciting. Or imagine going to a game that wasn’t as thrilling as a game you remember from your past and then deciding never to see another live game again.

That last one is the analog to classical music that bothers me the most.

Could baseball have a lesson for music lovers that would allow us to appreciate the past and the present at the same time? What is behind this ability of baseball fans to connect the present action to the sport’s past glory and still appreciate the moment-to-moment excitement of the players on the field? These aren’t distinct functions of sports fandom; they are closely related to each other, and they inform each other. A fan appreciates the successes of the past more as he or she sees contemporary players working to succeed now, and vice versa. This is the kind of thinking that the institutions of classical music need to promote if we want the field refreshed by new music and musicians.

I think what baseball projects, and what classical music needs, is the sense that one goes to a live event not to experience greatness, but to experience the possibility of greatness. It really comes down to risk. We revel in the risk inherent in the clash of competing ideas and options, before time evens them out into a few straight, orderly narratives. The game, the concert, the experience in front of us — the chance to experience greatness is a risk. Not every game is great but what we go for is the chance that this particular game might be. Maybe for baseball fans the possibility of greatness alone is reason enough to go.

Then pianist Jeremy Denk (whose blog is wonderful) wrote a response:
David is giving us a metaphor for the classical concert experience, hyperbolically, to emphasize its absurdity, i.e. as in, look how ridiculous it is, all of those people in their tuxedos playing old music! Now, I agree a classical concert can sometimes seem or even be absurd. But am I the only performer out there who finds this metaphor demeaning? Is that what composers think we do? The association I get is that classical performers are something like Civil War reenactors. We prance out there in our silly clothes and try to mimic some thrilling event of the past, but it’s a battle so predictable and harmless that people are serving drinks, memorabilia: we already know the score, who won, who marched where, who pitched a fast ball, who had better cannons, who committed an error, what handkerchief Napoleon sneezed into, no matter what detail you choose, the point is the result is foregone.

When I was a child, my parents took me to a Revolutionary War reenactment, and it was ridiculously hot and my mother got faint from the heat and had to be tended in an ambulance. I forgot who won. Come to think of it, ambulances are present at many classical music concerts too.

David’s metaphor, which attempts to capture the absurdity of the classical concert, is itself absurd. It collapses upon the slightest examination. Suppose you were to reenact a baseball game, “pitch by pitch,” the way he suggests. OK, you have somebody out there, and you say throw a curve ball, that’s what happened in the original game, and the guy throws a curve ball, would he be lucky enough to capture the exact curve of the pitch as thrown in 1959 or whenever? And if so, would the breeze floating across the field be precisely the same so that the parabola of the ball would confuse the batter in precisely the same way, and the flutter of the flags and the taste of the beer in the stands and the sweat and hope of the players would those be the same too? You get my point. Reality would continuously, infinitely frustrate the recreation of the ephemeral event, and you would never get the same score. A baseball game CANNOT be reenacted in this way, and that is why it is absurd to do it, and that is why the metaphor is silly, not because classical music is silly. The only way to “replay” a baseball game would be to DVR it and watch it, or devise some incredibly subtle robots to perfectly recreate every single muscular movement of all those players on the field, a technological feat that might pointlessly consume many programmers’ lifetimes. 
Read the full posts--what do you think? In what ways can we make the concert experience more relevant or interesting? I've written about a few things, such as our Victoria Requiem performance. But in what other ways can we make classical music exciting? Let me know.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Interesting time (and memories!) visiting WA state

I had a great time visiting friends and family in Washington state the past three weeks. The impetus was my former choral group, Choral Arts, beginning a commissioning project in my name--a great honor, I think!

The initial work was by Eric Barnum, Sing in the Dark Times, and it was magnificent. Thanks to Robert Bode, the choir and board for making this possible!

Below, me, Robert and Eric from the reception following the concert:

17 of the 26 singers had sung with me, not so much a tribute to me, but to Robert and the work he's done with the choir.

The week was full of memories and connections.

The night we arrived, we went to a concert by the Choir of the West under Richard Nance, my good friend and colleague, who's now Director of Choral Activities at PLU. They sang wonderfully, just before leaving for their European tour. I was DCA at PLU and conductor of the Choir of the West from 1983-2001.

The next night was the Seattle Opera's production of Magic Flute, which we attended since John Tessier, a friend and soloist with Pro Coro Canada, was singing Tamino. A beautiful performance by John and it was nice to chat with him backstage afterwards. He'll sing in Dallas this coming season, so we hope to get him out to UNT for a masterclass.

However, in the lobby we also saw Karen Thomas, conductor of Seattle Pro Musica, who's done such a great job with a group I founded in 1973.

Interesting timing in my life: began my first choral group (SPM) in 1973, came to teach at PLU in 1983, and founded Choral Arts in 1993--in 2013 that will mean  40 years since founding Seattle Pro Musica, 30 years since I came to PLU, and 20 years since I founded Choral Arts! Not too bad . . .

Other memories as well, of course. It's the 10th anniversary of when I left PLU and also the 10th of the tragic death of my close friend, James Holloway. Jim was a brilliant musician (pianist, organist, conductor), raconteur, cook, and much else. Jim and I worked together even before he taught at PLU, he accompanied Choral Arts many times, played and stood for me in our wedding (a close friend of Kathryn as well, in a sense he introduced us), and came to Hungary with us just after we were married in 1996 to play the Bernstein Chichester Psalms and work as accompanist with me during a "Singing Week" in Veszprem--yet another eerie connection on this trip was that the third movement of Chichester was on the Choral Arts program. Jim was murdered just the day after my last big performance at PLU, the Verdi Requiem, and just before I'd take the choir on my final tour at PLU, to Scandinavia.

Most of the memories, however were good ones,  and the ones listed above are just a small part of the memories evoked during this trip. I can't begin to list all the friends and family we were able to see, but it was a great time.

I've been blessed!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

. . . and Davis conducting "Nimrod" from Elgar's Enigma Variations

Nice article/interview with Colin Davis

Colin Davis has had an extraordinarily successful career. A lovely article and interview in the Guardian.

A few excerpts below:

Colin Davis doesn't want to be a guru. But that's what the 83-year-old conductor has become to the musicians who play for him, the audiences who hear his concerts and anyone who meets him. Sitting in his north London home, surrounded by the accoutrements of a life at the heart of classical music – busts of Berlioz and Beethoven, a letter by Sibelius, a slew of scores on his table – Davis tells me he has spent a lifetime fighting a battle. Not against orchestras, managers, or musicians, but against his ego. "One's ego becomes less and less interesting as you get older, to oneself and to everyone else. I have been around it too long.

"The less ego you have, the more influence you have as a conductor. And the result is that you can concentrate on the only things that really matter: the music and the people who are playing it. You are of no account whatever. But if you can help people to feel free to play as well as they can, that's as good as it gets."

And Davis's music-making is as mesmerising as it has ever been. The last time I saw him with the London Symphony Orchestra, where he was chief conductor for 11 years, he achieved a miraculous communication between the fluid gestures of his baton (no other conductor has the ability to make it seem like a fully expressive limb), his musicians, and the music. It's a symbiosis only a handful of conductors ever manage. Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony was a quicksilver dance of rhythmic energy; Elgar's Violin Concerto was even better, a single melancholic song that lasted nearly an hour but passed as a fleeting, dreamy vision. Not that Davis takes any credit. "We had a wonderful soloist, Nikolaj Znaider. He plays so well, he doesn't have to think about any of the technical difficulties, so he can just focus on the shapes, the expression. In any case, everybody loves that piece. And the Scottish Symphony …" He laughs, as if the popularity of the pieces on the programme explains why the concert was such a success . . .

I ask Davis about the music he's currently preparing, from Weber's opera Die Freischütz to the strange symphonies of Danish composer Carl Nielsen, and Beethoven's setting of the mass, the Missa Solemnis, which he conducts at the Proms on 4 September and takes on tour to New York with the LSO in the autumn. "My ego should be flattered by all that – but instead it's apprehensive. Whether I'm going to survive it all is the big question. Especially the Missa Solemnis. That piece is a hell of a task: it's so difficult for the orchestra to play and the chorus to sing that performing it is like failing to reach the top of Mount Everest. I think it's one of the great statements of any time. And nobody likes it very much. Except me."
The Missa Solemnis is an enigma: a sparkling expression of faith that is at the same time riven with doubt, ambiguity and darkness. "At the end of the piece, in the final movement, the Agnus Dei, Christ has gone back to heaven, and Beethoven gives us this image of humanity left behind, crawling about in this mud, loaded with sin. The music is saying that humans cry for peace – and make war. That's what Beethoven means. It's absolutely clear. The music reaches an intensity of protest which is almost unbearable. And yet, there's the power with which he sets the words: 'Credo in unum deum!' [I believe in one God!] You'd better believe him when he says it. And I do. I believe every word of the Missa because Beethoven makes it possible. But when I'm left alone, I can't believe anything. So it's even more poignant for me. But for that brief hour and a half when I'm conducting the piece, I do."

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Kleiber conducting last mvt. of Beethoven 4

Wonderful conducting! A great example of doing what's needed and no more, yet being expressive of the music:

Saturday, May 7, 2011

new CD by Stephen Layton of American (and Canadian) music

Stephen Layton is one of the best British choral conductors and I've long admired his work.

At one point I got a nice email from him about my Scandinavian Christmas CD with Choral Arts:
 Dear Richard Sparks,

I have greatly enjoyed listening to your CD A Scandinavian Christmas. It is beautifully sung and there are some beautiful tracks.
 I have been trying to locate some of the music so that I can perform it but am not having much luck.
I hate to be irritating and bother you, but I wonder whether might be able to point me in the right direction of at least one copy to get an idea.

I particularly like :

HENRIK ØDEGAARD: Den yndigste rose
BROR SAMUELSON: Ave Maris Stella
HAROLD SVENTELIUS: O makalösa stjärna
GUSTAF NORDQVIST: Jul, jul, strålande jul!

All good wishes and admiration of your CD,

Stephen Layton
Very flattering, of course!

If you don't know his group Polyphony, you should! He also conducts the Holst Singers in London and has been Principal Guest Conductor for the Danish Radio Choir (and, for a period, the Netherlands Chamber Choir). He has lots of recordings.

Certainly his Britten CD with Polyphony is stunning, with fantastic performances of both AMDG and Sacred and Profane, both challenging pieces.

In addition he's now at Trinity College Cambridge and this is a new CD of American (and Canadian) music on Hyperion:

Beyond all mortal dreams
American a cappella
Trinity College Choir Cambridge, Stephen Layton (conductor)

1 Tonight eternity alone  René Clausen (b. 1953)
Three New Motets 'in memoriam Thomas Tallis'  Steven Stucky (b. 1949)
2 No 1: O admirabile commercium 
3 No 2: O sacrum convivium 
4 No 3: O vos omnes 
5 Sanctus   Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978)
Hildegard Triptych  Frank Ferko (b. 1950)
6 No 1: O vis aeternitatis
7 No 2: Caritas abundat 
8 No 3: O virtus sapientiae 
9 Lux aeterna   Edwin Fissinger (1920-1990)
10 Fair in face   Healey Willan (1880-1968)
11 I beheld her, beautiful as a dove    Healey Willan
12 Rise up, my love, my fair one   Healey Willan
13 How they so softly rest   Healey Willan
14 The day is done    Stephen Paulus (b. 1949)
15 Pilgrims' Hymn   Even before we call on your name   (Excerpt from The Three Hermits)   Stephen Paulus (b. 1949)
16 Hymn to the Eternal Flame   Ev'ry face is in you, ev'ry voice, ev'ry sorrow in you   (Excerpt from To be Certain of the Dawn)  Stephen Paulus
Two Motets  William Hawley (b. 1950)
17 No 1: Mosella  Quis color ille vadis, seras cum propulit umbras
18 No 2: Te vigilans oculis
19 Phoenix  Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi   Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978)

And some nice notes on the pieces:
Stephen Layton and his acclaimed Trinity College Choir perform a stunning disc of American a cappella choral works.

The recording is a showcase of little-known American composers unearthed by Layton during his travels. These distinctive and luminous compositions illustrate the context in which better-known composers such as Lauridsen and Whitacre—already championed by Layton—learnt their craft.

The choir is in perfect voice. Their purity of tone, flawless intonation and depth of feeling are truly exceptional. This wonderful disc is a must for all choral fanatics.

American choral music travelled far in the twentieth century. At its inception, the ‘Second New England School’ of Edward MacDowell, Amy Beach and others was wedded to the aesthetics of German Romanticism, and it wasn’t until Charles Ives arrived to claim America for the Modernists (not that anyone took much notice to begin with) that a more distinctive sound began to emerge. His adventurous nature, mocking the conservatism of his colleagues, spawned the mid-century flowering of American music in Copland, Barber and Bernstein. Founded upon the teaching of Nadia Boulanger and others, and fermented within the newly established conservatories of music, these years saw the emergence of American choral music as a vibrant force; and whilst their European counterparts received commissions principally from Cathedral foundations, with their attendant liturgical requirements, the Americans enjoyed a broader reach of listeners and performers, serving the secular choral bodies of collegiate campuses and metropolitan music societies.

Nowadays, choral libraries up and down the USA are stuffed full of twentieth-century American music, and music publishers will freely acknowledge that this vast body of work keeps their businesses flourishing. The outputs of Randall Thompson, Norman Dello Joio, Howard Hanson, Vincent Persichetti and others have established an ‘American sound’ which, though difficult to define precisely, is predominantly tonal and broadly accessible; yet with the exception of Thompson’s ‘Alleluia’ and a handful of other works, it was not until the century closed that this music crossed the Atlantic and entered the repertoire of British choirs to any great degree. One of Stephen Layton’s other choral groups—Polyphony—produced two definitive recordings of the music of Morten Lauridsen in 2005 and 2007 (CDA67449 and CDA67580), and in between these came a recording of works by the current darling of the American choral scene, Eric Whitacre (CDA67543). This new recording casts light on another eight composers who have illuminated the last half-century, and who now take their place on the international stage.

The regional flavours of the American choral scene are every bit as distinct as Europe’s, and whilst great efforts are made to build unity through popular annual choral conventions, these disparities are entrenched by historical patterns of migration and settlement. Traditionally a destination for Scandinavian immigrants, the northern state of Minnesota is home to generations of choir-loving Lutherans and it contains some of the best university choirs in the country, none more notable than that of Concordia College directed by René Clausen, one of a number of prominent composer-conductors in American academia. Tonight eternity alone sets a modified verse of the poem ‘Dusk at Sea’ by Thomas S Jones in the composer’s trademark neo-romantic language, and captures a feeling of contented solitude in a vast empty space.

Just a few dozen miles away at the University of North Dakota, Edwin Fissinger occupied a similar role until his retirement in 1985, at the helm of another great north Midwestern choir. Lux aeterna was composed in 1982, and is dedicated to the memory of one of Fissinger’s composition students and his wife, who were killed in a car accident. The composer combines familiar Gregorian motifs with cluster-chord harmonies, and introduces the work by assembling chords from the bottom upwards in a manner strongly reminiscent of Gustav Holst’s Nunc dimittis. The female and male soloists, perhaps in representation of the ascended souls of the departed, fly free of the clustered choral textures.

Although he died more than twenty years ago, Fissinger’s compositional language places him among the newer generation of American composers represented here. The same cannot be said for Healey Willan, whose music flourished in the earlier part of the century and who, by virtue of his British extraction and Canadian, rather than American residency, retained strong ties to the Edwardian style of Stanford, Parry and Finzi in the country of his birth. Like his British counterparts, Willan admired and parodied the music of the Tudors (he founded a choir in Toronto bearing the name) and in the style of the Renaissance masters he proclaimed plainchant to be the backbone of his work. An immense force in the growth of twentieth-century Canadian church music, his place in the establishment was secured thanks to a commission from the Queen to compose a work for her coronation in 1953. The first three pieces represented here are from his sequence of eleven Liturgical Motets, set to texts drawn from eighth-century ‘Office of Our Lady’ responsories, and the Song of Songs. This is followed by a lavish setting of Longfellow’s ‘The Dead’ (How they so softly rest), whose sense of unbridled longing brings to mind Parry’s Songs of Farewell—composed, like this work, during the final months of the Great War. Willan’s own choir at St Paul’s, Bloor Street, in Toronto, for whom this work was written, must have enjoyed the services of an excellent low bass section.

Aside from Willan, the four composers most prominently represented on this recording (Paulus, Hawley, Ferko and Stucky) were born within sixteen months of each other, between August 1949 and November 1950, and have together done much to shape the American musical landscape for the new millennium. As the first American to be commissioned to write for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge, and as the composer of the only American opera production to be staged at the Edinburgh Festival, Stephen Paulus has already gained a strong foothold among foreign audiences. Back home he co-founded the American Composers’ Forum in 1973, and subsequently built a reputation as a leader among American choral composers thanks to a fruitful collaboration with Robert Shaw and his eponymous choir. There are now an astonishing number of titles in his choral output, only three of which can find room on this recording. Composed between 1997 and 2006, these works are separate compositions, but they are united in their strophic approach to the text, their homophonic compositional style and their accessible harmonic language. The sweeping melody and relatively static harmony of The day is done (2006) reflect the peacefully romantic mood of the text (once again by Longfellow), whilst Pilgrims’ Hymn, a sacred poem full of innocence and devotion, is drawn from Paulus’s one-act opera The Three Hermits, composed some years earlier with a libretto by Michael Dennis Browne. The same collaboration of composer and author created the oratorio To be Certain of the Dawn in 2005 to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of death camps in Europe; Hymn to the Eternal Flame, featuring a soaring soprano solo, is drawn from this work.

The New York composer William Hawley, after an early career dominated by instrumental music, is now recognized as an important voice in the choral world. In rejecting the avant-garde methods of his teachers, he has created a language which revels in suspended harmony, in his own words ‘reintegrating the emotional and spiritual elements of pre-twentieth-century Western classical music with the technical and conceptual acquisitions of Modernism’. The Two Motets of 1981 were composed for the Gregg Smith Singers, and are conceived of very similar material. Unusually for choral music, the Latin texts are poetic rather than biblical, and contain no sacred elements at all. Mosella is a fragment of a longer work by the fourth-century poet Ausonius—a celebrated evocation of the scenery experienced along the course of the river Moselle—and in this stanza we are treated to the soothing sight of water reflecting the light of dusk. For the second poem, Te vigilans oculis by Petronius, the scene shifts to an anguished poet lying sleepless in bed, longing for his lover. The contrasts in thematic material from the first motet are magnified by their very similarity, as Hawley shifts to a darker mode in reflection of the text. Both motets end with prolonged and unresolved suspensions to sharply differing effect: unending beauty in the first instance, and ceaseless torment in the second.

Frank Ferko is an important musicologist as well as a composer, and is one of the leading American experts on the music of Olivier Messiaen; but his music on this recording reflects another of his passions—the work of Hildegard von Bingen. The Hildegard Triptych is a challenging set of works set for double choir, and represents just one part of a significant body of choral and organ works inspired by the great medieval mystic. O virtus sapientiae recalls the music of Hildegard as well as the text, opening with an exchange of organum duplum phrases which rapidly expands to encompass the whole choir, decorated with florid melisma. The extraordinary pan-tonal opening of Caritas abundat brings the meditative works of Messiaen immediately to mind, invoking a tantalizing vision of a thousand years of mysticism squeezed into three minutes of music; and O vis aeternitatis, announcing itself with a prolonged bare fifth, opens the set in a medieval idiom, this time with the homophony of the conductus style.

Steven Stucky is a much-fêted composer whose orchestral music has been performed by many of the leading orchestras of the world, and whose Second Concerto for Orchestra earned him a Pulitzer Prize. A prominent lecturer and teacher, he is considered one of America’s leading commentators on its contemporary music scene, and was recently appointed Chairman of the Board of the American Music Center. Like Frank Ferko, he has devoted part of his working life to the study of a great twentieth-century European composer, publishing his acclaimed biography of Witold Lutoslawski in 1981; and with his Three New Motets ‘in memoriam Thomas Tallis’, composed in 2005 for the Seattle Pro Musica as part of Tallis’s 500th birthday celebrations, Stucky pays tribute to another luminary from the world of ancient music, albeit half a millennium younger than Hildegard. Of the three texts chosen by Stucky, only O sacrum convivium was definitely set by the old Elizabethan master, and the connections to the musical language of Tallis are looser than those which bind Ferko’s music to Hildegard. Alongside the rhythmic urgency of O sacrum convivium, O admirabile commercium and O vos omnes, both predominantly homophonic, are quiet and respectful, much like Tallis’s own shorter four-part motets. For all their adventurous harmonic language they engender a modest yet powerful feeling of homage to their dedicatee.

The youngest composer amongst this group is the Norwegian-born composer-pianist Ola Gjeilo, who completed his studies at the Juilliard School in 2006 and has been based in Manhattan ever since. Gjeilo has enjoyed startling success in both choral and commercial music, deploying musicians in innovative combinations and incorporating improvisatory techniques. His music is represented twice on this recording, in works using texts drawn from the Mass. The majestic Sanctus, whose rich texture divides into as many as twelve parts at times, was composed for the Uranienborg Vokalensemble soon after his graduation, whilst Phoenix, a setting of the final movement of the Mass (‘Agnus Dei’) and the concluding work on this recording, was composed in 2008 for the Phoenix Chorale, with whom Gjeilo has enjoyed a fruitful association. The piece employs chant-like melodic phrases in a gradually thickening texture, building up to the final prayer for peace which is expressed in both extremes of the dynamic range—first ffff, and, at the conclusion, ppp.
I'll certainly get the CD. Perhaps Mr. Layton should listen to my Randall Thompson CD to get some additional ideas for American music (!): the two George Herbert settings, The Last Invocation, and his Odes of Horace are almost unknown, but wonderful music.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Es ist vollbracht

With our performance of Bach's St. John Passion Good Friday, my tenure as Artistic Director of Pro Coro Canada is over.

It's been twelve years of working with this ensemble, board members, volunteers, choral colleagues in Edmonton and across Canada, funding agencies, and audience members.

It's difficult to express just how important, both personally and professionally, this association has been to me--but know that it has gone beyond just "important."

From a professional perspective, it offered me the opportunity to work with and develop a superb ensemble. It was the invitation to become Artistic Director that led to my leaving academia (and a job that I loved at PLU) to explore the professional world. That led to opportunities to spend time in Sweden in 2007 and 2008 (for more information, just look at the listing in the right column) and work with the Radio Choir, something I couldn't have done with an academic position.

Through Pro Coro I got to know some outstanding Canadian composers and perform works by many of them, some of these premiere performances. I built an especially close relationship with Allan Bevan, and our premiere of his Nou goth sunne under wode, in particular, was an enormously successful collaboration.

I also got to know Canadian artists and worked with wonderful singers and instrumentalists. I worked with Ray Nurse on putting together the orchestra for our 2001 performance of the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers, which led to connections with the Whole Noyse and ultimately to a performance of Monteverdi's Orfeo at the U of A's Festival of Ideas arranged by my wonderful friend, Miki Andrejevic, who was Executive Director of Pro Coro for the longest tenure during my time there.

My Canadian conducting colleagues have been incredibly welcoming of an "outsider" in their midst and honoured (note the spelling!) me with the invitation to conduct the Canadian National Youth Choir in 2006, the first non-Canadian to conduct this marvelous choir. I've been blessed with wonderful conductor friends, quite a few of whom have sung with Pro Coro. And Len Ratzlaff, who runs the top graduate conducting program in Canada at the University of Alberta, has guest-conducted Pro Coro on several occasions and graciously sung as an extra with Pro Coro--for all three of my programs this year.

I have mentioned before (and soon will start a series of posts on this) that my education as a conductor has come largely from the ensembles with whom I've worked. Yes, my formal education is important and I owe a lot to various teachers and mentors, but a conductor ultimately learns by doing. Having an instrument like Pro Coro, with many wonderful musicians, has been such an important part of my development. For twelve years, I've gone to Edmonton from 3 to 5 times a year to prepare a program, rehearse it, and conduct it in concert. That's been an enormous gift.

And I can't begin to express my gratitude (and Kathryn's) for the friendships we've formed, which will live long beyond these twelve years. I give my thanks to the many people of Pro Coro Canada for the friendship they've offered both Kathryn and me. I know they'll live long beyond my tenure with the organization.

I've been blessed to work with several ensembles, two that I founded, and have been able to watch their successes after I've left. Seattle Pro Musica was my first group (really, three ensembles, from a chamber choir to a group that performed Bach cantatas once a month to a chamber orchestra), which I founded in 1973 and left in 1980. Under Karen Thomas this organization has been amazingly successful. Choral Arts was another organization I founded and led for 13 years (1993-2006), where I was ably succeeded by Robert Bode, and they've gone on to important recognitions.

I have no doubt that Pro Coro (which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year) will go on to greater successes in the years to come. I can only wish them the very best.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Bach Johannespassion with Pro Coro

I'm in the middle of final rehearsals (final choral rehearsal last night; this afternoon continuo, Evangelist and Pilate; tonight full orchestra with arias and some work on the choruses) for the Bach St. John Passion. Tomorrow afternoon: arias with a few instruments; tomorrow evening, chorus and orchestra; Thursday morning: recits with Evangelist and Jesus; Thursday night dress; Friday evening performance at 7:30.

This is my last concert as Pro Coro's Artistic Director, a position I've held (and enjoyed) for twelve seasons. I first guest conducted, filling in for Gustav Sjökvist, in 1996. I was then approached in early 1998 about being a candidate for the vacant AD post. I agreed to become a candidate and conducted an audition concert in the Fall of 1998, then began my tenure in Fall 1999.

When I decided to take the position I now hold at the University of North Texas, it was clear to me that I couldn't devote the time necessary to do the job with Pro Coro. When I interviewed for PC long ago, I told the committee that if I took it on, it wouldn't be a "gig," that I always planned and thought long-term in such a job. And I do feel proud that I've always looked at my work with Pro Coro that way. I've always tried to think of what would build the choir and organization to be the best it could be--of course, it's for others to judge how successful I was.

This coming performance is one that gives me great joy. I love doing extended works such as this, music that calls for shaping large forms and pacing a great story into a cohesive and dramatic performance. And Bach's works have always been one of my loves--early in my career I founded a group in Seattle called the Bach Ensemble specifically to perform Bach cantatas, and I've conducted over 50 of them, plus all the big works, most of them multiple times.

I also get to work with this wonderful choir, with a number of players I've worked with regularly here in Edmonton, in an absolutely great hall. Soloists include Derek Chester, who's a new friend and colleague from Texas, as the Evangelist; Paul Grindlay, a wonderful musician whom I've worked with numerous times since coming to Edmonton, as Jesus; and soloists for the arias who'll also come from and sing in the chorus: Abra Whitney singing the alto solos, Michael Kurschat the bass solos, and Jordan Van Biert the role of Pilate. Jolaine Kerley and Tim Shantz both sang with the choir regularly in my early years and as soloists in more recent years--both did DMA work at IU. Jolaine has built a  career as singer, voice teacher, and conductor (the solo roles in both of Allan Bevan's two great oratorios which we premiered were written for her); and Tim is a wonderful conductor and superb singer as well. It's my special pleasure that they both agreed to sing for this concert, and as the other soloists, sing in both arias and choruses.

I look forward to the next couple days of rehearsals and the performance. I don't look forward to ending my regular association with the many wonderful people and musicians of Edmonton (and our favorite restaurant, Bistro Praha)! But it simply must be done. I know I'll be back to visit and hopefully occasionally conduct or do a workshop, but I'll miss this part of my life incredibly.

More after the performance (I'm sure including some photos taken by my wife) and news about Pro Coro's future.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

And for another view of what's important: Mitsuko Uchida

Fabulous pianist Mitsuko Uchida is interviewed on what's important: music or marketing--in The Telegraph.

"Even schools like Juilliard are telling students that PR is the most important issue,” she says. “I say it is the least important issue if you have something musical to say! If you have something to say, the world will come to you.

“I notice you see classical musicians in posters advertising expensive watches. That person may be able to command a very high fee, but that’s not the point. I can vouch that people come to my concerts to hear music, not because they have seen me looking grand with an expensive watch.”

Building audiences

A great guest post by Henry Peyrebrune on Drew McManus' site: Adaptistration

Some excerpts (but go to the full post--it's worth it):
Community service has been the orchestral buzzword for the past decade as orchestras have grappled with competition from new media and other art forms, and the loss of our privileged position in the minds of the media, academia, philanthropy and business. We ask ourselves whether we can educate enough people so that they’ll support us in the fixture. Have we isolated ourselves via the traditional concert experience? Will performing in nightclubs or grocery stores reach new audiences? How can we reach the underprivileged youth of our cities in order to share our music with them and try to somehow replace the loss of the substantive public school music education most of us had?
While these ideas intrigue us and excite some of our major funders, we question whether this will harm our responsibility to the art form. We’ve spent decades trying to build longer subscription seasons with thoughtful, challenging programming, sufficient rehearsal time, good conductors and an ever-rising level of playing. The level of playing and access to strong performances of the full repertoire is better that it has ever been. Will a new emphasis on community service harm the artistic quality we’ve worked so hard to develop? Did I practice and sacrifice so much just to end up in a string quintet hacking through March of the Toreadors in a shopping mall somewhere?
These are all good questions, but they’re the wrong ones.
I’d like to propose 3 simple questions to replace them:
  1. Who are our audiences? (emphatically plural)
  2. How can we touch individual members of our audiences?
  3. What do we do to build on that relationship?
. . .

I tell my students that music is a great way to communicate human emotion. If you’re feeling angry or insecure, music is a great way to share that with your listeners. It’s also an incredible way to communicate an aching love for beauty, to share that desire for something beyond us. At its best, music reaches from one heart to another, or even to many.

Once we’ve touched someone like that, they want to get to know us. They want to spend time with us, to feel a sense of pride and ownership.In Cleveland, Apollo’s Fire and CityMusic do a great job of inspiring and building this relationship. Their audiences love to hear AF music director Jeanette Sorrell greet them and share her ideas about the pieces. CityMusic serves cookies at intermission so the musicians and audience can mingle and both orchestras play in venues that have the musicians and audience in close proximity. People feel an emotional connection with the music and the performers.

King's College Cambridge - Easter at King's

A rather amazing assortment of music at King's College Cambridge--imagine doing this repertoire (for the choir) in the space of about four days!

From the press release:

The seasonal Cambridge centrepiece, widely broadcast, has been given a makeover this year by music director Stephen Cleobury.

The big event is Golgoatha by the Swiss composer Frank Martin. Petris Vasks, the Latvian, gets a big look-in and Prime Brass will bow out the festival with anticipations of the royal wedding.

Now in its seventh year, Easter at King's has forged an enviable reputation for presenting traditional and innovative repertoire for Passiontide and Easter.  It offers a varied feast of services and concerts that illustrate, contemplate and celebrate the Holy Week and Easter narrative. In most years, BBC Radio 3 has broadcast from the Festival to listeners all over the world. 

The climax of this year's festival is on Good Friday, 22 April, with a rare opportunity to hear Frank Martin's epic oratorio, Gologtha, which will be broadcast live on Radio 3.  Martin wrote some of the most poignant sacred music of the 20th century. Golgotha (1948), written when the composer was at the height of his powers, is a personal response to the desolation of war-torn Europe. The awe-inspiring space of King's College Chapel, combined with the drama and sheer scale of Martin's work, will make the evening a rewarding musical and spiritual experience.

Easter at King's opens on Tuesday 19 April with a performance of Bach's St John Passion. The Choir of King's College Cambridge and Academy of Ancient Music combine forces again and the strong cast of soloists includes King's alumnus and Cambridge local Andrew Kennedy as the Evangelist, and former Cambridge student, Elin Manahan Thomas returns to sing soprano. There is an additional opportunity to enjoy this performance in London, at the Cadogan Hall on April 20th.

Chamber Music for Maundy Thursday, on 21 April, offers a chance for reflection and contemplation. The concert will take place at the east end of the Chapel by candlelight. The trio of top young artists, including Cambridge favourite and former King's chorister, Guy Johnston, will perform Vask's extraordinary allegorical work, Episodi e Canto perpetuo framed by works by Beethoven and Fauré.

Pergolesi's masterpiece, Stabat Mater, combines with Bach for the Easter Vigil programme on 23 April. The work conveys, with great beauty, deep and heart-rending compassion for Mary's suffering during the events of Good Friday. Bach's powerful Cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden was written for Easter and takes us from the crucifixion to the resurrection, whilst another work by Bach, the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto prefigures the celebratory theme of Easter Sunday. These three works provide the perfect mix of celebration and contemplation for a concert set at the heart of the Easter weekend.

Daniel Hyde, a former Organ Scholar at King's College, will give an organ recital on Monday 25 April, which concludes our Easter celebrations. However, we will be celebrating the Royal Wedding in style the following Saturday with a brass concert given by Prime Brass. The concert programme features some great British music, including William Walton's majestic Crown Imperial.

Throughout, the powerful and moving Chapel liturgies are fundamental to the series and are sung by the Chapel Choir.  Good Friday is an excellent day to visit Cambridge with Allegri's famous Miserere mei Deus sung in the morning and the Lamentations of Jeremiah of Thomas Tallis at evensong. Alternatively, why not come to the concerts on Easter Eve and then stay the night so that you can also enjoy the services on Easter Sunday itself?

We are taking the Festival outside King's Chapel and into Cambridge for the first time in 2011. To celebrate the 400th anniversary of the death of Victoria, the extraordinarily powerful Tenebrae Responsories will be performed in three late night services in three different Cambridge College Chapels. The climax of the three will be in King's Chapel on April 23rd.

Easter at King's Schedule

Tuesday 19 April
Bach St John Passion

Maundy Thursday 21 April
5.30pm Sung Eucharist and Stripping of the Altar
8.00pm Concert:
Chamber Music for Maundy Thursday
9.30pm Victoria Tenebrae Responsories Clare College Chapel

 Good Friday 22 April
10.30am Ante-Communion and Veneration of the Cross
5.00pm Choral Evensong
6.55pm Concert:
Frank Martin Golgotha
9.30pm Victoria Tenebrae Responsories  Corpus Christi College Chapel

Holy Saturday 23 April
7.00pm Concert:
Pergolesi Stabat Mater
Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 4
9.30pm Victoria Tenebrae Responsories

Easter Day Sunday 24 April
10.30am Sung Eucharist
3.30pm Festal Evensong

Easter Monday 25 April
4.00pm Concert
Daniel Hyde Organ Recital

Saturday 30 April
6.30pm Concert:
Prime Brass
Music for Easter ...and a Royal Wedding

Monday, March 21, 2011

More about great choirs of the world--Stephen Layton

Layton (well known for his work with Polyphony, the Holst Singers, Trinity College-Cambridge, principal guest conductor of the Danish Radio Choir, etc.) is organizing a festival. Here from the Telegraph:

World beating choirs - our great unsung heroes

A four-day choral jamboree at the Roundhouse in London will be an exciting showcase for the UK's talents in choral singing.

Loud and proud: Gareth Malone and The South Oxhey Community Choir
Loud and proud: Gareth Malone and The South Oxhey Community Choir 
Stephen Layton is ready to stick his neck out. “I think I’m going to stand up and claim that, when it comes to choral singing, we are the best in the world, with a tradition stretching back to the Reformation but now richly diversified. The scene had never been healthier. I just wish it was something that we celebrated more loudly.” Layton knows what he’s talking about. Two of the English choirs he directs – Polyphony and Trinity College, Cambridge – were recently rated by The Gramophone among the world’s top five, and he also has a busy international career conducting foreign ensembles.
This month, he brings all his experience to bear as one of the organisers of Voices Now, a four-day choral jamboree starting next Thursday at the Roundhouse in north London (0844 482 8008), which ecumenically embraces everything from primary school choirs and Gareth Malone’s South Oxhey Community Choir to venerable crack chamber choirs, such as the Latvian Radio Choir and BBC Singers, singing everything from Tallis’s Spem in Alium to songs from South African townships.
“What one notices, compared with mainland Europe,” says Layton, “is how much of our first-rate choral activity is unpaid: just think of the great orchestra choruses, or the northern choral societies. You can’t imagine amateur orchestras playing alongside professional ones, but our amateur choirs are often every bit as good as the professional ones.
“Singing is a great leveller. You don’t need to master or buy an instrument; you just need to open your mouth. And I feel that, in these dark times, more and more people are turning to the emotional connection with great music that singing in a choir involves.”
Voices Now offers an exciting showcase for these riches, but Layton’s dreams don’t stop at the Roundhouse. “Something that we could do without any sweat would be to fill a stadium with singing voices,” he says. What a wonderful way that would be to launch or close next year’s Olympics, and Layton is ready to put himself up for the job of conducting it.
Very interesting . . . it will be interesting to see what the result is. Certainly the Latvian Radio Choir is stunningly good. With Pro Coro Canada I participated in a festival with them in Toronto and their work is superb.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Striggio Mass rediscovered

Sorry, long time, no blog!

Interesting story about a rediscovered Striggio Mass. Some excerpts from the article:
Alessandro Striggio's 1566 mass, performed by 40 choristers, sees voices, strings and brass meld into a jaw-dropping harmony.

The mass was first performed in the 16th century, touring Europe, before being lost in the mists of time.

Several years ago, the work, Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno, was rediscovered in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, where it had been miscatalogued. In 2007, it was given its first modern performance at London's BBC Proms. Now, a new recording of the work has made its debut on the pop charts at number 68, beating the likes of Bon Jovi, George Harrison and Eminem. It is extremely rare for core classical music releases to appear in the British pop charts. The recording is number two in the classical listings and there are further plans for a live touring performance to coincide with the London 2012 Olympics.

"I think people are interested, for starters, because of freak aspect of it," said Robert Hollingworth, 44, conductor and founder of vocal group I Fagiolini, which recorded the work.
. . . 
Striggio is believed to have left copies of his work in several of the places where he toured it, including the courts of Albrecht V in Munich and Charles IX in France. Because of copying errors on the original manuscript and card catalogue, when the French version eventually ended up in the Bibliothèque Nationale, it was attributed erroneously to "Alessandro Strusco" with 40 voices being altered to "four voices". The work was recovered by British musicologist Davitt Moroney, who also conducted the 2007 Proms performance.

The release also features a version of Thomas Tallis's Spem in alium, which is believed to have been inspired by Striggio's works. Tallis lived between 1505 and 1585 and was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. That piece is known for being incredibly technically advanced for its time.
. . .

"That our group of musicians got it right first time is additionally impressive. With the surround sound it is really fantastic. It can be an unpractical thing to perform live,  but in this way you can appreciate its intimate parts, at the level of sacred conversation, as well as its grand scale."
. . . 
Universal Music Group's Decca Records used five choirs to record the album in Tooting's All Saints Church last year, employing authentic period instruments including a lirone, a precursor to the cello, recorders, and lutes. Mr Hollingworth said instruments took the place of some of the vocal parts, which was an accepted practice at the time.

The album also went to number one in the iTunes chart on the day of its release.
Back in 1992 I conducted the Striggio 40-part motet which is thought to be the work that inspired Tallis' Spem in alium with the Portland Symphonic Choir called, Many Voices in Early Song, while Bruce Brown was on sabbatical. It included Alessandro Striggio's Ecce beatam lucem; Robert Carver's O bone Jesu; Giovanni Gabrieli's Gloria; Monteverdi's Laudate Dominum terzo; four madrigals by Luca Marenzio; and Tallis' Spem in alium.

Bruce was originally planning to conduct the program, which I only slightly changed. It was an interesting program to do with a large symphonic choir (some works, such as the Carver and Marenzio, were done with a smaller ensemble; the Tallis was done one-per-part until the big tutti's) which didn't normally do music from this period. A challenge, to be sure!

I've done the Tallis two other times (and will surely do it again!): for Peter Hallock's 40th anniversary with the Compline Choir at St. Mark's Cathedral in Seattle and with my PLU Choir of the West on my final tour with them of Scandinavia in 2001. It's a magnificent work!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Wonderful documentary on Carlos Kleiber

If you don't know the work of Carlos Kleiber, here's a fascinating documentary about him: Carlos Kleiber--Traces to Nowhere. You may want to see and hear further examples of his work as conductor after watching it! You can find a number of them on YouTube and some are on DVD: here, here, and here, for example. 

His father, Erich Kleiber, was a well-known conductor who led the premiere of Berg's Wozzek.

Best to watch on YouTube itself, not on these smaller videos--and it's high enough resolution to watch full screen on most computers (and see if you know what music ends the video!).

Part 1

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Interesting concept - voices as orchestra in Michael Ching's opera

Opera Memphis presents Michael Ching's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- interesting concept which I'd love to hear (and see the score). 'way back I commissioned Peter Schickele to write a piano concerto (it's The Twelve Months) with choir instead of orchestra (well . . . it was his idea--we met after a PDQ Bach performance at PLU and I asked, as I sometimes do, "Is there a piece you've always wanted to write, but haven't had the opportunity yet?" The idea and commission followed). I know of a few other such pieces, but not an opera!

Perhaps interesting to do here at UNT . . . 

Some excerpts from the review by Heidi Waleson at the Wall Street Journal follow:

Is it possible to write an opera without an orchestra? Composer Michael Ching's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," given its world premiere here by Opera Memphis and Playhouse on the Square, has a "voicestra," an ensemble of a cappella singers, instead of instruments in the pit. Popular a cappella has branched out in recent years from its old-fashioned roots (think "The Whiffenpoof Song") to all kinds of music, including elaborate arrangements of up-to-the-minute rock and hip-hop numbers, with voices re-creating the instrumental parts.

Mr. Ching's remarkably inventive opera is a celebration of what voices can do and still, with the exception of a few startling vocal percussion effects, sound like voices. The voicestra —between 15 and 20 amplified voices, depending on the performance—supports the singers on the stage, its overlapping lines and syllables weaving around them, amplifying their characters and conflicts, sometimes echoing their words (or even their thoughts), or supplying atmosphere. The voicestra gives the opera an added human dimension, and its invisibility goes with the magical nature of the story.
The text, taken from Shakespeare, has far more prominence here than most opera composers allow, as Mr. Ching's tonal and tuneful vocal lines are written for maximum intelligibility rather than musical display, and some of the words are spoken. (There were no supertitles.) To mix things up even further, the lovers, especially Hermia and Helena, often sing in a style that draws from musical theater, and the play-acting workmen occasionally borrow tunes (Flute/Thisbe's speech in the rehearsal is comically set to a bit of "I Am Sixteen, Going on Seventeen" from "The Sound of Music"). Opera singers take the roles of Oberon and Titania, and double as Theseus and Hippolyta, thus giving the grandest style to the rulers of fairyland and Athens, respectively.

. . .

DeltaCappella, the Memphis male a cappella ensemble that was the inspiration for the opera, formed a key part of the cast. (Mr. Ching, who was general and artistic director of the Memphis Opera until last year, was the group's vocal coach.) Along with RIVA, a female a cappella group, their members made up the voicestra, and some of them also climbed out of the pit to play the parts of the mechanicals. Charles Ponder and Thomas "TeKay" King, both large, African-American men, brought a particularly potent energy to Bottom/Pyramus and Flute/Thisbe. Mr. Ponder's rendition of Pyramus's death scene, set hilariously to "E lucevan le stelle" from "Tosca," was brilliantly over the top, while Mr. King gave Thisbe's lament a bare, touching gravity.

The voicestra itself, conducted by Curtis Tucker, was splendid, creating a variety of sounds and textures—the haunting background of Oberon's "I know a bank"; a sinister repetition of "Chop! Chop!" when Hermia's angry father Egeus (Kent Fleshman) demanded "the law upon [Lysander's] head"; hunting-horn fanfares to awaken the lovers; a forest full of insect noises. It was fascinating to read the biographies of these fine avocational musicians in the program—one is an ear, nose and throat surgeon; another is a special-education teacher. In addition to creating a new kind of opera, Mr. Ching and Opera Memphis deserve recognition for successfully incorporating a wonderful local resource into their work.
Ms. Waleson writes about opera for the Journal.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

cutting music education

This article about British cuts in arts education is written by Helienne Lindvall, who went to Adolf Fredriks school in Stockholm, which is an outstanding music "magnet" school focusing on singing. The Adolf Fredriks Girls Choir, conducted by my good friend Bo Johansson, is well-known throughout the world.

Important questions for us all, given budget cuts happening everywhere.

Behind the music: Why music education cuts could be a dumb move

The coalition government clearly sees music lessons as a luxury we can do without. But evidence suggests music can be beneficial to both overall academic performance and well-being

The first things to go when there are governmental budget cuts are "luxuries" such as arts funding. Education secretary Michael Gove's decision to declare music students ineligible for the new English baccalaureate certificate sends the message that music education is another luxury we can live without. As does cutting the £82.5m a year in funding specifically aimed at providing music education – not to mention the news that one in four councils have already issued redundancies for music teachers.

What these decisions appear to ignore are the overall benefits music lessons provide to children and teenagers. Growing up in Sweden, I went to a music school that provided regular academic education with extra lessons in music and choral singing. The school, called Adolf Fredriks Music Skola, was free of charge, and the students – from age 10 to 19 – were accepted through auditions. At the time, it was the only school of its kind in the country. What's interesting is that the school regularly came top for average grades of all subjects. As there is no proof that musicians are cleverer or more academic than others, there must be another reason for these results.

First of all, there was less truancy: if you cut class you would also lose out on music-making at school. Singing together created a sense of community and connection between students, making school something students looked forward to instead of dreaded. There's also been evidence that learning an instrument can improve numeracy and literacy skills in young people, as well as behaviour.

A friend of mine told me about a London scheme in which he'd taught music programming and recording to teenagers in a studio made available through government funding. The young people had been placed on the scheme after being deemed "problem students" due to their high rates of absenteeism. The change in their behaviour was palpable, according to my friend. It was as if creating music brought out a sense of purpose and self-worth that had previously been absent.

Music lessons shouldn't be seen as an optional extra for students who desire a career in the field (just as sport in school isn't just for children aiming to be professional athletes). The majority of my fellow students at Adolf Fredriks did not become musicians, nor did they desire to.

Judging by the comments on my recent Comment is Free blog, about how listening to great music makes the brain produce dopamine, it's clear that music is a great source of passion, joy and wellbeing (in fact, just reading the comments made me feel good). Part of the point of music education is for children to be exposed to music they wouldn't normally come across. If music classes were cut in public schools, this opportunity would be the sole preserve of the middle class.

The decision to wipe out funding for the teaching of arts and humanities courses at universities means becoming a classical musician, for example, could be less about talent and more about independent wealth. Even conservative estimates believe the cost will be over £7,000 a year.

But all is not lost – yet. The government has commissioned Darren Henley, the head of Classic FM, to carry out a review of music provision in schools, which is due to be concluded this month. When cuts to libraries were announced last year, writers such as Philip Pullman, Kate Moss and Will Self publicly fought the decision. Why haven't famous British musicians done the same? Maybe Damon Albarn – who this week agreed to become president of the Colne Valley Youth Orchestra, with whom he played violin 30 years ago – could set the ball rolling.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Huge challenges for classical music

In this article on NY's classical radio station WXQR website, Brian Wise covers some of the stories of financial difficulties, particularly in the orchestral world. How will our world of classical music change? Are there solutions?

Classical Music in 2010: Joyful Noise, Troubled Silence

Sunday, December 26, 2010

In 2010, some of the most memorable moments in classical music were marked by silence, not sound: Joan Sutherland passed away, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra went on strike, classical radio stations went dark and several orchestras faced continued financial troubles.

No force had as big an impact on arts institutions and audiences this year as the country’s economy, which has led to a flood of red ink, cutbacks and conditions that cultural leaders say are the most challenging they've ever seen.

Deficits are up, individual and corporate donations are down, ticket sales are weak and anxiety is racing through the corridors of culture like an especially virulent infection. What is particularly striking about 2010 is the parity of the impact: even top-tier organizations have not been spared.

Major Presenters Cut Concerts
January brought a particular chill when the chairman of the Philadelphia Orchestra suggested that bankruptcy was possible as the venerable ensemble saw average turnout fall to 65 percent of capacity last season and revenue plunge. Just days earlier, the Cleveland Orchestra went on a short-lived strike when players balked at management-proposed pay cuts.

Both orchestras regained their footing; in Philadelphia, leaders were forced to assemble an emergency bridge fund of $15 million to cover projected deficits. But their problems were not unique.
The orchestras of New York, Atlanta and Detroit ran multimillion-dollar deficits, as have the Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera. Meanwhile, Carnegie Hall reduced the number of concerts it presented this season by "10 to 15 percent," a preventative measure that, according to Clive Gillinson, the hall’s executive and artistic director, “enabled us to get through.”

“We’re nowhere near where we were before the recession, in terms of revenue streams,” Gillinson continued. “I don’t think the world is, and I don’t think the arts are. Everybody is going to be building back much more slowly than it went down. But equally, I think everybody’s much more rigorous about their business because they absolutely must respond because otherwise they're gone.”

Carnegie’s cutbacks may be hardly noticeable to the average concertgoer, in part because hall rentals by outside groups have filled in some of the gaps. Elsewhere, programming cuts are far more apparent.

Columbia University’s Miller Theater is presenting 35 concerts this season, down from as many as 60 concerts in the 2007-08 season.

Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series has just 33 concerts on its calendar in 2010-11, down from as many as 76 performances in 2008-09, and 62 in 2009-10. Instead, there are two thematic festivals -- November's White Light Festival and the TullyScope Festival which will run this February and March -- conceived partly as a way to appeal to single-ticket buyers as fewer people are investing in subscriptions.

In an email message, a Lincoln Center spokeswoman noted that the organization had balanced its budget this fiscal year and is on track to do the same next year.

Detroit as a Harbinger
Outside of New York, the recession’s impact on symphony orchestras has been extremely variable, said Jesse Rosen, the vice president of the League of American Orchestras. “Some, for whom their endowments were a critical part of their income stream, the recession has had an impact," he said.
Orchestras that were already experiencing financial strains reached a tipping point in 2010, notably the 110-year-old Honolulu Symphony, which folded in December; the Louisville Symphony, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy two weeks earlier; and Long Island Philharmonic, which has only one concert scheduled this season and is without an executive director.

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra musicians walked off the job in late September after negotiations broke down over a proposed contract calling for the salaries of veteran musicians to be cut by nearly a third. Along with cuts in salary, pension and health benefits, their jobs would be redefined to include more education activities.

It is feared that where Detroit goes first, other cash-strapped orchestras may follow. "The Detroit Symphony situation is widely looked upon in the business as just a harbinger,” said Greg Sandow, a consultant, blogger and author of the upcoming book Rebirth: The Future of Classical Music. “Basically, in the field, everybody thinks that orchestras are headed in that direction. There will be cutbacks and there will be salary cuts and musicians will have to go out in the community or the jobs won’t be there.”

Finding Ways to Adapt
No one believes that 2010 will be the year that classical music starts to disappear for good. Yet many people in the field acknowledge that orchestras, opera companies and presenters need to do more to confront deeper concerns about aging audiences and shrinking cultural relevancy.

One model for a nimbler, if ostensibly less lucrative, future is Le Poisson Rouge, the Greenwich Village nightclub that became a destination for a number of top-level artists in 2010, including Kronos Quartet and violinist Hilary Hahn. Along with its genre-hopping programming philosophy and casual atmosphere, the club eschews traditional funding models.

“You’ve created a situation where all of these festivals and all these ensembles are dependent on grant funding,” explained Ronen Givony, the music director at Le Poisson Rouge. “We said from the beginning, we never want to be in a place where if someone withdraws a $20,000 grant we can’t do something. We want to be able to do it without any help and we have always taken that as our organizing principal. The concert has to cover it’s own bottom line.”

Givony concedes that LPR has never been in the position to be able to pay musicians the kind of fees they receive at major uptown venues, let alone union scale. "We’re a 300-seat venue and we charge $10 or $20 per ticket. But people that I know that have to cobble together a living, that’s the existence they have always known."

Whether recent conservatory graduates or veteran performers, diversification proved to be a key to a viable career in 2010. Consider Eighth Blackbird (right), a contemporary music sextet founded in 1996 whose portfolio includes a variety of university residencies, educational activities and performances in art museums. In February 2011, the group will co-curate a "Tune-In Festival" in the Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory.
Tim Munro, Eighth Blackbird’s flutist, says the group has been going through a process of diversifying its activities and funding streams. "Since the 2007-08 season, our traditional sextet bookings have dropped off slightly,” he said. “But in addition to that, we offer a specific stage program every year. We also offer a huge number of residency activities and we’ve expanded what we offer. We now have a new Concerto for Sextet and Orchestra [by Jennifer Higdon] that we’re now currently touring with. Diversification seems to be the way that we’ve been able to weather the storm.”

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Mahler 5 in manuscript

The manuscript of Mahler 5 is now available online here. Alex Ross mentions that the Morgan Library will put on-line digitized versions of hundreds of manuscripts. Already available are Mozart's Haffner Symphony and Schubert's Winterreise

Here's the opening of the famous Adagietto:

It's always amazing to look through a composer's manuscript. I wonder if we will have such experiences in the future, with many (most?) composers using music writing software. What will be lost, not seeing the individuality of handwriting, cross-outs, scribbles? Hard to know, but this is a beautiful manuscript!

I own several facsimiles, including Bach's Mass in B Minor and Mahler 7. It was interesting to answer a question a couple of the grad students at UNT had about a spot in the Bärenreiter edition (based on the Neue Bach Ausgabe) with the facsimile last year.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

and the Philadelphia Enquirer's take . . .

Coming into view slowly before becoming music director in 2012, Yannick Nézet-Séguin is only starting to fill out a public profile, and what the public thinks of him inevitably hinges on what expectations one harbors of an orchestra leader in this unfortunate trough of institutional ambition.

If, for instance, you feel the group's way out of financial and organizational chaos is to connect a podium personality and a community, then Thursday06 night's guest appearance by Nézet-Séguin was a tidy triumph. He presided over the Mozart/Süssmayr Requiem - a crossover work as surely as is Orff's Carmina Burana – which by its very presence guaranteed to bring the house down. It did.

If, however, you desperately want this orchestra to flourish, but cling to a philosophy that the Philadelphia Orchestra is a great ensemble deserving musical leadership of suave technique, an ear for sound-cultivation and strong personal interpretive statements, you probably left Verizon Hall feeling underwhelmed.

Nézet-Séguin quite often falls short of highly developed ideas. He likes to get through a lot of music quickly, which, in parts of the Requiem, meant leaving aside the possibility for close detailing. Sweep is important to him. Momentary gusts of emotion billow up.

He does like pretty textures, which was an aspect of the Debussy Nocturnes not to be undervalued. The third movement, “Sirens,” wasn’t a place for wallowing or mystery, but, with 30 women from the Philadelphia Singers Chorale, became fluid and alluring. Making the fanfares of “Festivals,” the electric second movement, more legato than usual was a nice idea, but it muddled the rhythms.

Transitions between sections were sometimes bereft of clear direction, as if the conductor were already thinking about the music ahead before the current phrase had played out all its string.

Mozart’s Requiem (finished by Süssmayr and presented here in the Franz Beyer edition of the 1970s) is perhaps the most breathlessly myth-gathering piece in the standard repertoire, and yet it hasn’t made a Philadelphia Orchestra appearance in two decades (other local groups have done it often enough).

The last performances, led by Muti in 1991, featured Arleen Auger, Susanne Mentzer, Jozef Kundlak and Simon Estes. No such starry names join the current performances, and no huge personalities. But in many ways, soprano Lucy Crowe, mezzo Birgit Remmert, tenor James Taylor and bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams were ideal. There was something shared in their vocal qualities – a limpid, uncluttered sound with vibratos turned way down. Each one at various points achieved a very high level of blending with an instrumental sonority in the ensemble. Crowe was astonishing, aglow with a honey-colored purity of penetrating presence without extreme volume.

The 100-plus Philadelphia Singers Chorale, prepared by David Hayes, was expert – always producing a focused, homogenous sound, always in easily discernable diction (a few starting consonants arrived roughed up a bit). Organist Michael Stairs was a sensitively girding presence throughout. The smallish orchestra – the score omits oboes, flutes and horns – was admirably responsive. You have to believe that by the next performance the usually solid trombonist Eric Carlson will have worked through the shakes in the famous solo of the “Tuba mirum.”

Nézet-Séguin chooses an intriguing ending mood – rather than angry, it is quietly resigned, almost a final resolution for a piece that has lived in the restive imagination of its admirers long enough.

. . . and now the review of Nezet-Seguin's performance of the Mozart

. . . in the NY Times:

January 7, 2011

Bringing His Baton and Bold Hopes to Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Orchestra with a French accent? The notion is almost as preposterous as that of an Italianate Chicago Symphony.

But the indomitable maestro Riccardo Muti, ex of Philadelphia, is now in Chicago, undoubtedly imparting an Italian lilt and gusto as only he can. And the Philadelphia Orchestra — after 11 decades of music directors from Britain (Leopold Stokowski), Hungary (Eugene Ormandy, for 44 years), Italy (Mr. Muti) and Germany (most recently, Wolfgang Sawallisch and Christoph Eschenbach ) — has taken a turn toward the Gallic.

The ensemble has been without a music director since Mr. Eschenbach left in 2008, but the Swiss Charles Dutoit has been filling in as chief conductor, purveying works by Berlioz, Saint-Saëns and other French masters with a knowing touch. And last June the orchestra announced that the French-Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin would become music director in September 2012.

As if to drive the point home, Mr. Nézet-Séguin opened the second and last of his subscription series this season, on Thursday evening here at the Kimmel Center, with Debussy’s Nocturnes. The orchestra played with the requisite suavity, fluidity and transparency while possibly sacrificing a bit too much of its trademark plushness and heft.

Elizabeth Starr-Masoudnia was excellent in the English-horn solos. If the French feeling broke down, it was only in the finale, “Sirènes,” where the women of the Philadelphia Singers Chorale sounded a bit square and uninsinuating.

But the larger issue during a period of artistic and administrative upheaval at the Philadelphia Orchestra has been not so much how the band would emerge stylistically, but whether it would survive at all. My last experience here was in September 2009, for a season-opening (technically, preseason) concert conducted by Mr. Dutoit, and the house was less than half full.

Mr. Nézet-Séguin, 35 and dynamic, seems at least to have stirred excitement. In fact, an extra concert was added to this series, on Sunday afternoon, because of ticket demand. It didn’t hurt, certainly, that the other work on the program was Mozart’s crowd-pleasing Requiem.

Here, too, Mr. Nézet-Séguin proved willing to sacrifice some of the orchestra’s vaunted richness to another purpose. With an eye toward period practice, he reduced the ensemble to some 50 players, though using a chorus — a fuller Philadelphia Singers Chorale — more than twice that size.

Despite the chorus’s numbers, and its strength in movements like “Rex tremendae” and “Confutatis,” some of its best moments were the pianissimos at, for example, the end of the “Introitus.” And Mr. Nézet-Séguin added another of those moments at the end of the work: a surprisingly hushed and attenuated final chord.

Some pointedly detached phrasing in the Kyrie made the pleas for mercy sound more perky than anguished. And Mr. Nézet-Séguin’s pounce from the Kyrie into the Dies Irae robbed the Day of Wrath of some of its harrowing thunder.

The vocal soloists — Lucy Crowe, soprano; Birgit Remmert, mezzo-soprano; James Taylor, tenor; and Andrew Foster-Williams, bass-baritone — were good and well balanced. The orchestra played beautifully, though the trombone solo in “Tuba mirum” was less than stellar.

Mr. Nézet-Séguin and the chorus and orchestra presented an encore — just about the only one conceivable after the Requiem, Mozart’s exquisite hymn “Ave Verum Corpus” — again showing the chorus to best advantage singing in an awestruck quiet.

Mr. Nézet-Séguin was originally scheduled to make his debut at the Cleveland Orchestra this weekend but re-allotted the dates to Philadelphia after his appointment was announced, to give him a greater presence here this season. That sort of thing is not uncommon, as a matter of courtesy — or negotiation — between orchestras.

But Mr. Nézet-Séguin has definitely raised eyebrows by canceling his debut appearance with the Chicago Symphony next weekend on short notice for unspecified “personal reasons.”

He now amplifies in a statement released by the Philadelphia Orchestra: “Due to an overly taxing fall schedule, I made the extremely difficult decision to create additional time in my schedule for rest and study.”

Mr. Nézet-Séguin is evidently content to put all his American orchestral eggs in one basket, and Philadelphia, as it emerges from a painful interregnum, seems happy to have them.