Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Hanging Out in Philadelphia's Kimmel Center

Verizon Hall exterior under the Kimmel Center dome
The reason I chose Temple University for both undergraduate and graduate Music Theory study was that I wanted to be in a big city with a big orchestra, a big opera company, a big ballet company, and a big amount of chamber ensembles and other music opportunities. By 'big' I mean well-respected and frequently offering performances. Back when I was in college and graduate school,
Inside the Academy of Music
most of these performances happened in the stately Academy of Music, built with opera in mind in 1857. Riccardo Muti conducted most of the time. Back in my heyday, there was talk of a future venue designed for the city's world-class orchestra, but I finished school and moved away before groundbreaking. That new venue turned out to be Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center, a little over a block south from the venerable Academy, and approximately an hour's automobile or train ride from my current dwelling. While the Academy seats 2900 listeners, Verizon Hall seats a mere 2400 on more comfortable red mohair seats.

"It's only an hour away," I thought, as I examined the Orchestra's schedule of concerts. I was in a giving (to myself) mood and selected an early November program devoted to Mahler's Second Symphony, "The Resurrection," and a later November program which featured the Orchestra's first-chair clarinetist, Ricardo Morales. The concerts were fantastic as I expected they'd be, but the extra stuff before and after were unexpected delights.


I like getting lost in a Mahler symphony, but the real reason
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
I selected this concert was to watch the relatively new conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra conduct the giant piece. I hadn't seen Yannick Nezet-Seguin conduct yet, but I've been impressed with his social media presence and his outreach to the musically-interested community. He has a superstar reputation and held that orchestra in the palm of his hand throughout the over-eighty minute work.

This symphony first performed in 1894 is known as "The Resurrection" because it's the kind of work that builds and builds to a humongous climax as the huge orchestra and choir (the Westminster Choir College choir from Princeton) works out the melodies and motives and transforms them into a giant new sound. One of the delights of this afternoon was the pre-concert talk where I learned a bit about The Resurrection. There's no indication on the score, but Mahler described the 'program' or story in general terms. The listener should imagine themselves standing at the grave of a beloved deceased person and let the music of the first movement represent their grief. The second, third, and fourth movements are intermezzi in which the mourner reminisces on the deceased's life. Then in the fifth movement, the listener is graveside again, experiencing the pain of loss along with a glimpse of optimism that comes with thoughts of the last judgment and resurrection. (I struggle with words to describe this profound piece; the music says so much more.) It's during the fifth movement the the giant choir sneaks in, at first barely perceptible, but ultimately strong at the conclusion.

After the meal of Mahler, there was desert! three of the orchestra's cello players came back on stage to play some chamber music. Yannick Nezet-Seguin himself (in street clothes now) introduced this "Postlude,"Leopold Mozart's Frosch-Parthia in C major and the Beethoven Trio in C major, Op. 87, both works arranged for three cellos.


Ricardo Morales
After many years of playing the clarinet in school, college, graduate school, and in various ensembles afterwards, the clarinet seems to me my own voice. Back in the days when the orchestra performed in the Academy of Music, Anthony Gigliotti was the first-chair clarinettist that everyone went to hear and schlepped to Philadelphia to study with. Since 2003 that chair is held by Ricardo Morales, who, before his arrival in Philadelphia, was first-chair with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. (A career to envy!) Morales dazzled us with two clarinet works, the Debussy Rhapsody No. 1, for Clarinet and Orchestra and the Rossini Introduction, Theme, and Variations for Clarinet and Orchestra, two pieces that I've studied and on my best day might have played at one-eighth the speed. Take a look at the photo at the left of Morales with his clarinets (orchestral clarinetists carry two, one in A and one in Bb). One of them is brown. This is unusual as most clarinets since the beginning of time are black as licorice and made from grenadilla wood or African mpingo. This orangey-brown wood is called cocobolo and comes from Central America. I want one. Here's a sample of a rehearsal of the Debussy piece with this very soloist:

The orchestra, under the baton of guest conductor Juanjo Mena, also played Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol (with all its fiery clarinet licks) and the Tchaikovsky Symphony #5. And there was desert after this: four orchestra members enchanted us with the Ravel String Quartet.


A soft-spoken veteran usher named Bill walked a gang of us through the Kimmel Center: Verizon Hall, the Perelman Theater, and the mysterious Roof Garden. Verizon Hall is where the Philadelphia Orchestra concerts happen along with other events including the venerable Philadelphia Speaker Series I also attend. The spectacular mahogany interior of this hall is shaped like a cello to enhance the sound, and (I didn't know this until the tour), is protected from subway noise by twenty-four-inch blocks of rubber under the building. The corridors we walk through to get into the hall also provide insulation from noise. Centered behind the stage is the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ with its 7,000 pipes. It is the largest concert hall organ in the United States.

Verizon Hall's stage set up for the Philadelphia Orchestra
The Perelman Theater was created for smaller performances and features a rotating turntable stage that I didn't know about. The seats on the floor (orchestra level) actually fold down and slide under the stage in order to permit even more varieties of events. The unexpected concrete floors add to the live acoustics of this hall.
Inside the Perelman Theater
And then there is the Roof Garden. I'd never seen this space, but I had heard that after only a few years it was necessary to renovate it. The story is it was meant to be a garden with trees and plants, but it was too hot to use in the warmer months. Under that glass dome temperatures rose to 130 degrees! So, the space was re-thunk and the Roof garden got its own roof and air-conditioning system and now accommodates parties, weddings, concerts, meetings, and other events that do not require oppressive tropical heat.

The Kimmel Center's cool Roof Garden space (looking north)

The Roof Garden again, looking west
Looking south at Broad Street (the Avenue of the Arts) from the Roof Garden
I'm pleased that I splurged these two orchestra concerts and their extras. All too often I get hung up on how things used to be back in the glorious college days and why do they have to change, EVER? I feel content now that Yannick Nezet-Seguin has replaced Muti, the Kimmel Center has replaced the Academy of Music, and Ricardo Morales has replaced Gigliotti. I just had to get to know them!

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Barber of Seville, a Guest Post by Lester M Choodle

Your author, Lester M Choodle, waiting for the train to Philadelphia

My name is Lester M. Choodle and I am guest blogging for Margaret. My credentials: I sit on a perch in Margaret's house and as such I view an inordinate amount of operas, independent films, Law & Order episodes, and 1970s sitcom reruns on SD TV. I also get to hear music of all genres. I could file a report on the latest Bruce Springsteen record as easily as this blogpost on Rossini.

You may be wondering why I am writing the blog when she is sitting right beside me for the entire excursion. It seems that Margaret publicly stated this week that Rossini Operas Buffo are not her favorites. "I like drama," she said. I (Lester) am here as an impartial observer so that you, Margaret's readers, can be assured an impartial report on this opera production.

We took the train to Philadelphia for this matinee performance.

Here I am on the train with my ticket:

We attended the pre-performance talk at the Academy of Music where we got to sit in the posh seats close to the stage to hear Composer-in-Residence Lembit Beecher filled us in on this opera's history. Evidently, the first performance of The Barber of Seville was a catastrophe. A cat actually ran onstage, twice, distracting the singers and the audience. The tenor singing the Count Almaviva part sang his favorite Spanish song (not from the opera) in the first act, accompanied by his own untuned guitar. The second performance was much smoother, no animals ran onstage, and the opera has been a hit ever since. This setting of this performance, directed by Michael Shell, was updated to somewhere in the late twentieth century, the technicolor costumes were extraordinary, and the singing actors were given opportunities to ham-up their comic performances with exaggerated dance moves. Shell claims the movies of Pedro Almodóvar served as inspiration.

After the talk, we made our way up to the highest balcony called the Amphitheater for the performance. Where else would an owl perch for a performance? Here I am perched on the high wooden back of the seat in front checking out the stage:

Here I am back in my red velvet seat with my program and opera glasses:

But enough about me...This opera was probably familiar to most people in the audience, possibly from Bugs Bunny or Alfalfa on the Little Rascals, but we were instructed by Michael Shell's Director's Notes in the program to watch and listen as if this is the first time. This was not difficult since the sets and jewel-toned costumes were updated to the late twentieth century. Close your eyes and it is 1816. Open them and it is Technicolor 1970s or thereabouts. Don Basilio, Rosina's music teacher, performs an interesting Elvis impersonation.

Do you remember the plot? Lovely Rosina is the ward of Dr. Bartolo, and he falls in love with her. She falls in love with dashing Count Almaviva who is disguised as "Lindoro" so that he can assess whether Rosina is in love with him or his money. Figaro, the barber and jack-of-all-trades, ultimately helps the two young people get together by distracting Dr. Bartolo. Almaviva gets the girl, but Bartolo keeps her dowry, so everyone is happy.

One of the best scenes of this production was Dr. Bartolo's nightmare. (This scene replaces the traditional thunderstorm.) Bartolo was obsessed by roosters, and about seven of them, human-sized, invaded his bedroom and danced around. Roosters! Dancing! Terrifying! Colorful!

Margaret asked me which character I would like to perform if I were a singer/dancer/actor. She suggested "Figaro because he gets to wear that great coat with the eyes on it?"
"FIG--oh yeah, you're an owl." ['Who?' in Owlspeak means 'yeah.']

Here's a different Figaro with a different coat singing "Largo al Factotum," one of the most popular arias of this opera. It's a patter aria which means it has fast-moving text that has a tendency to get stuck in your head. (Don't say I didn't warn you!) This is one of the aspects of Opera Buffo that grates on Margaret's nerves and gave me the opportunity to guest-post on this one.

Margaret realizes that this is an important step in the evolution of opera and that Rossini was a true opera innovator. In fact, The Barber of Seville is one of the milestones of opera history that she discusses in her course, The Passion of Opera. I'll close this post with a few slides from her course showing Gioacchino Rossini, the Teatro Argentina in Rome where The Barber of Seville premiered, and two images of Rosina.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

"Fifty Years of Makin' This Guitar Talk" at Monmouth University

Wilson Hall, Monmouth University
What's your favorite Bruce Springsteen song? That was the gist of the first panel at "Fifty Years of Makin' This Guitar Talk," a symposium to celebrate Springsteen's 65th birthday this week, presented by the Friends of the Bruce Springsteen Special Collection and Monmouth University. As you might expect, "Born to Run" was the favorite of most of the panelists and audience members. One panelist suggested that if you tend to ignore the song because it's old and often-played, then you should listen to it again fresh, as if you've never heard it before. I'm happy to say that I do this every time I hear the song, and I always hear something new or different in the lyrics or the music taken as a whole, or in sections, or in the individual instruments. The music and performances are transformative on so many levels.

I can imagine what you're thinking. That a bunch of us Springsteen fans, experts and scholars got together at a symposium at a university to talk about our favorite Springsteen songs and that that is superficial indeed. But wait. That initial discussion served as an icebreaker, and soon the panel and audience were naming their favorite "guilty pleasure" and twenty-first-century songs and then those songs that may have done better if they had been recorded differently. "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" was suggested as a favorite from the current century, possibly because of the excellent imagery:

Since many of the attendees have been to many Springsteen shows, there was also a category of discussion for songs that were okay on the recording but brought to live in live performance. Springsteen has been playing for a long time (50 years according to the title of this event), and performances have evolved and matured along with the performers and the audience.

Stan Goldstein (blogger and author), Christopher Philips (Editor/Publisher of Backstreets Magazine), Holly Cara Price (writer, Huffington Post), and Barry Schneier (long-time photographer of Springsteen et al) sit on a panel at the symposium

So if you still don't get why people would bother convening at a symposium to discuss a man's body of work and his influence, let me try to understand. I enjoy spending lazy days off reading and writing. It's almost as if I am hosting my own storytelling salon where famous authors share their stories with me and I'm writing my stories for anyone who will read them. Even when I take a break for lunch and pop on the TV for an hour, I'm drawn to stories being told by actors. Guess what: Bruce Springsteen is a master storyteller, and if you listen closely to his lyrics you'll hear that. Every person brings their own experiences and knowledge to a story being told, and that is why it is so interesting to discuss a book with a book club, or discuss a movie around the office water cooler, or, discuss Springsteen's music at a symposium.

'Symposium' is a word with stuffy, pedantic connotations, but this symposium was not that. It was casual and interesting, with ample opportunity for attendees to offer their thoughts on various panel topics. I'll be honest: I wasn't sure I wanted to dissect my beloved Springsteen music in this way. I deeply appreciate his work as an innovative musician and poet, but I don't analyze his music in the same way as I would a Beethoven symphony or Puccini opera, The symposium topics were more general, assessing Springsteen's relationship with his audience and how it's evolved, his use of religious themes, and what's happening in Springsteen scholarship and media. Speaking of which, if you are not aware of Backstreets Magazine and BOSS, an open-source scholarly journal on Springsteen-related topics, you should check them out right now.

Waiting to start
My favorite moments had to be when panelists and attendees responded to the question, "How did you become a fan?" This sharing of stories brought tears to eyes as individuals described hearing their first Springsteen record or attended their first show in a seedy little bar or a giant stadium. Everyone agreed that no matter where he plays Springsteen has a way of involving everyone present, and showing that he appreciates everyone's attendance. Every show is different, and that is why fans go to multiple concerts when he plays in their town, and they might even follow him around the country to see him in other cities, and some even catch him abroad.The Springsteen audience is cohesive because they've experienced these feelings that they have not with other performers and they share. In this age of social media, there's even more sharing, and more firs-hand accounts of what various concerts are like. Did you know concert attendees live-Tweet set lists so those not in attendance will know what was played? (Springsteen fan Tweets were a subject of a scholarly study.)

As with any conference or symposium or event where experts speak on a topic that interests me, I came away with a list of books to investigate. Interested?

  • A Race of Singers: Whitman's Working Class Hero from Guthrie to Springsteen by Bryan K. Garmin (University of North Carolina Press, 2000).
  • Talk About a Dream: The Essential Interviews of Bruce Springsteen edited by Christopher Phillips and Louis P. Masur (Bloomsbury Press, 2013)
  • Bruce Springsteen, Cultural Studies, and the Runaway American Dream, by Kenneth Womack, Jerry Zolten, and Mark Bernhard (Ashgate, 2012)
  • Finding Grace in the Concert Hall: Community and Meaning Among Springsteen Fans, by Linda K. Randall (Waveland, 2010)
And the upcoming
  • Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Bruce Springsteen, by Jamez Chang, Jen Conley, Mark Krajnak, James Peterson, and Chuck Regan.
So there you have it: a day well-spent listening to people share their ideas about Bruce Springsteen and calling up my own similar stories. I can't wait until the Boss plays in Philadelphia again! Here's another of the big favorites...

Monday, June 23, 2014

J-B Lully and The Sun King

Jean-Baptiste Lully

"Oh! I've seen that name before. I just didn't know it was pronounced 'loo-LEE'." I was telling a friend about a course I'm teaching. It focuses on Jean-Baptiste Lully's musical innovations (mainly in opera and ballet) in the court of Louis XIV (1638-1715). I loved preparing this behemoth course, but as it is multidisciplinary, it took a lot of time and a lot of reading. I spent much class time introducing the court of the "Sun King," its major players and Louis XIV's lifelong desire to make France the epitome of culture and intelligence of the early Baroque. Only with an understanding of that milieu would Lully's court entertainment make sense.

Louis XIV, King of France, in Royal Costume
Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1701
Musee de Louvre
ARTSTOR 1039490421
Louis XIV's father, Louis XIII, died when XIV was only five years old. His mom, Queen Anne (of Austria) took over as regent until XIV was old enough, or as they say, attained his majority. Queen Anne selected Cardinal Mazarin as her assistant. Depending on who you listen to, Mazarin might be an evil, power-hungry genius, or he may be a nice, smart guy who administered France until XIV was ready to take over. In any event, Louis was crowned in 1661, and he set about modernizing Paris and creating an opulent lifestyle that he hoped would be emulated by all other European countries. Part of that lifestyle was top-notch entertainment, and here is where Jean-Philippe Lully (1632-1687) enters the story. 

Lully came to Paris from Italy and worked as a page and choirboy at the palace. He was trained on the violin as most musicians were then, and eventually began composing music for ballets. There were two kinds of ballets then, Ballet de cour which were spectacles, and La belle danse ("The Dance of Kings") which evolved into classical ballets as we know them. Louis XIV danced often in these productions, at least when he was young, and he was very proud of his dancer's legs. That is why his legs are often shown in portraits (with different colored tights). He got his nickname "The Sun King" from his affinity for portraying the sun itself in these performances. Here's a clip from the movie Le Roi Danse with Louis XIV as the sun, and music by Lully. The ballet is Ballet de la Nuit, a ballet de cour.

Eventually, Lully enjoyed a collaboration with actor/playwright Molière (real name Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) and they created a new form of ballet called comédie-ballet which combined music, dance, and theater. This collaboration only lasted from 1664 to 1671, but it happened at a very important time in Louis XIV's career. He had just moved to the new palace at Versailles (did you know it had been a hunting lodge before it was transformed into an opulent palace?), and Louis XIV ordered lavish entertainment for his housewarming. Lully and Molière came up with Les Plaisirs de l’Île Enchantée, a six-day celebration where the king and 600 of his closest friends visited various spots on the Versailles property for installments of Ludovico Ariosto's epic poem "Orlando Furioso." On the second night, the king, as the character Roger, introduced the Lully-Molière comédie-ballet La Princesse d'Elide. Here is some lovely music from that production:

After the brief but productive collaboration with Molière was over, Lully turned to writing opera. His contributions to this field were numerous and long-lasting. French operas long after Lully contained ballet sequences, and his French Overture form would be copied by many composers in the Late Baroque (J.S. Bach, G. F. Handel to name two) and forward. The opera Phaëton from 1683 was nicknamed "The People's Opera" because it was so darn popular. (You know the story--Phaëton borrows his father's chariot to impress a girl, drives it too close to the sun and threatens the very existence of the Earth and gets shot down by the girl's boyfriend's father and Phaëton dies. Did I mention that Phaëton's father is the sun?) Lully's operas contained magnificent scenery, costumes, and machines, so you can just imagine what a crowd-pleaser that sun-chariot was.

J-P Lully enjoyed a fantastic career in Louis XIV's court, making lasting innovations in music and ballet, but he is probably best-remembered for his unique tragic death. Back in Baroque France, conductors conducted with a tall staff instead of a little baton. Lully was jubilantly conducting his Te Deum, a sacred work in honor of the king's recovery from an illness. He accidentally stabbed his own foot with the staff, developed gangrene and died a few weeks later. "Ne me coupez pas!" Ironically, Louis XIV would also die of a gangrenous infection in his dancer's leg 28 years later. 

During those 28 years after Lully's death and before XIV's, the court continued to enjoy Lully's compositions and newer composers would continue to compose in Lully's style because that is what the king liked. His reputation spread throughout the French provinces and beyond to other European cities. So have you heard of him: loo-LEE?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Colorado Symphony at Denver's Boettcher Concert Hall

Last week, I wrote in this blog about a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert in their 1904 Orchestra Hall. This week, I got to hear another CSO, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in their 1978 Boettcher Concert Hall in Denver. As you might expect, the Boettcher is modern, claiming to be the first concert hall in the round. Take a look at the collage above and you'll see the seats all around the stage. The top left photo shows the seating 'rings' that are actually suspended from the ceiling. Yes, there were people sitting in there for the concert we heard, but we could only see them when they stood to applaud. The center top  photo shows the round acoustical panels also hanging from the ceiling. If you remember last week's Chicago Symphony post, I went on about roundness there, too. You must remember that my home symphony hall is the Kimmel Center where we sit inside a cello shape. Round is new to me.

That's the facade of the Boettcher Concert Hall on the left, among its theater-siblings in the
Denver Performing Arts Center
Enough about the hall! Would you like to know what Michael Stern and the Coloradans played? Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3, Op.72a was composed for Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio in 1814. That one opera had four overtures written for it, and only the last is still attached to opera performances. The other three overtures are considered concert overtures and are named for the opera's main character, Leonore. Are you wondering who Fidelio is then? That's Leonore's named when she masquerades as a guy to visit her incarcerated husband and attempts to get him set free. Here is a video of a bearded Bernstein conducting the Bavarian Broadcast Symphony Orchestra.

Next up, soprano Sara Jakubiak sang three Mozart arias. The first two ("Misera, dove son!," K.369, and "Nehmt Meinen Dank," K. 383) are concert arias intended to be sung with orchestra, and the last, "D'oreste, d'ajace," was borrowed from one of Mozart's many orchestras, Idomeneo. I couldn't help thinking about how different these two Classical composers composed. Mozart wrote smooth, singable melodies, almost catchy tunes. Beethoven occasionally came up with lyric melodies, but he is really better known for motivic development. He would take a motive, less than a complete phrase, and repeat, embellish, transpose, and otherwise alter it. [Think of the first four famous notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and how those four notes swim around in that symphony and keep popping up in different forms.]

So, we heard a Classical opera overture, and then some Classical arias, and then a Romantic-Era symphony composed by Johannes Brahms. So what's the connection there? The Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73, was premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic in 1877. Vienna, as you probably know, was called home by Mozart and Beethoven during the times they each flourished.
Vienna (not Denver)
Justin Bartels

There's another connection I never would have thought of. Before the concert started, Principal Trumpet Justin Bartels strolled onstage to make some announcements, and told the audience that the Beethoven and Brahms each contain trumpet solos. These solos are so important to the repertoire that they are used as audition pieces for trumpeters. Mr. Bartels had a big night!

We enjoyed the Colorado Symphony concert. Thank you, Michael Stern, for a great program, and thank you for not getting mad when the audience applauded in-between movements of the Brahms! They were just swept away, I think.
Michael Stern, usually of the Kansas Symphony Orchestra

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Visiting the Chicago Symphony

A red-jacketed usher guards the balcony.

I didn't get to see Riccardo Muti conduct the Chicago Symphony. This would have been nifty because he was music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra when I was a graduate student in Philadelphia and somewhat addicted to orchestral concerts. He's The Man in Chicago now...

Chicago Symphony Center with giant Muti poster
...but Leonard Slatkin skippered the Chicago Symphony when I was in town and I was not disappointed.

First, the hall: everything is round. The stage itself is round in back and curved in front. The balconies are rounded and join a narrow balcony over the back of the stage which holds more people. The 'ceiling' over the stage is an incomplete dome. The organ pipes are framed with arches. That thing suspended over stages everywhere that holds lights, wires, speakers, and whatnot, is round in Chicago' Symphony Hall. The decorations on the walls are round wreaths. Of course the proscenium arch is round. Even this guy's head...

This night's program was all American: exciting, accessible, sparkling American music. I had just heard Samuel Barber's Overture to The School for Scandal on the radio a week before, so I knew that this piece, premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1933, was a student work of Barber's. He could have already called himself a musical success as he had a triple major at the exclusive Curtis Institute, but this premiere kicked off a new kind of success. He enjoyed a career as an innovative composer with commissions coming in from many of the top names in music and dance. Take a look and listen to the Metropolitan Orchestra conducted by William Schrickel...

Few people know Barber's contemporary, William Schuman, so Maestro Slatkin filled us in. It's very unusual for a conductor to turn around and talk to the audience, but this is what he did before the orchestra's performance of Schuman's Symphony No. 6 (1949). He told us how Schuman (no relation to Romantic Robert) was an educator who worked his way up to president of the Juilliard School in New York City, and then the first president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. We really should know him better because he won two Pulitzer Prizes, the first in 1943 for Music, and the second in 1985 for his work as an educator and composer. As a busy administrator and educator, he had to compose in the morning before going to work. Maestro Slatkin gave us a few tips on listening to Schuman's Symphony No. 6, most notably that he often wrote in more than one key at a time which gives the impression that various sections of the orchestra are arguing. The four movements of the Symphony No. 6 are played contiguously. I couldn't find a Slatkin recording, so here is Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphians back in 1948.

After intermission, the orchestra performed Mason Bates's Violin Concerto (2012) featuring soloist Anne Akiko Meyers. You know, modern music composed by live composers can be at times difficult to listen to and understand without studying the composer's methods and philosophies. Sometimes it seems boring and the listener imagines that it must have at least been interesting for the composer to compose or else why would it exist? I'm happy to report that Bates's piece was fabulous to listen to, with changing orchestral colors, innovative effects, and fiercely virtuosic violin riffs. The audience leapt to its feet at the concerto's conclusion, and as a special treat, Mason Bates himself appeared onstage to acknowledge the ovation. Now I couldn't find a recording of this piece to share, so you're on your own there. I did find an interview that Bates and Meyers did before the premiere of the work by the Pittsburgh Symphony in 2012.

How can you attempt to top the excitement of the Bates Violin Concerto? George Gershwin's joyous An American in Paris can do it! Imagine being in that first audience in 1928 when this piece premiered with its jazzy rhythms, expanded percussion, car horns, and SAXOPHONES! Gershwin imagined the piece as a ballet while he was in Paris and sketched it out for two pianos. The orchestration was completed just after he returned from Paris with four Parisian car horns to use for the traffic jam section. What a treat! I couldn't find Slatkin online, so here's Dudamel with the Los Angeles Philharmonic:

I loved this concert! I didn't think it was possible to enjoy another orchestra as much as I enjoy the home team (The lush Philadelphia Orchestra), but the Chicagoans' sound was bright and shiny. Slatkin won me over when he turned around to tell us about the Schuman, and the program he selected was engaging and exciting! When was the last time you described an orchestra concert as exciting?!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Lost in the Excitement of PucciniPalooza

Saturday's La Bohème performance by the Metropolitan Opera was the most fun I've had at the opera in a long time. I've blogged about attending their performances broadcast Live in HD at my local movie theater before, here at the regular blog and here in this music blog. They are Saturday afternoon fantasylands, the best escapist entertainment ever, and I don't have to worry about train schedules, parking, or uncomfortable seats as I snack on popcorn or contraband snacks brought from home. Since I teach (music classes) on some Saturday mornings and run from that to the theater, I sometimes end up in what I refer to as the "opera slums," the first few rows in front of the giant screen where casual and curious end up because they are unaware that you must arrive at the theater an hour before curtain to get a good seat. I've noticed that these folks do a lot more chatting and candy-wrapper rustling during the performance than the hard-core audience in the upper rows. The La Bohème crowd was proving me wrong until that guy's ringtone went off obnoxiously, and he answered it!

Nevertheless, I was expecting to land in the front seats and I didn't much mind this time because friends of mine were attending the same performance in New York and I was going to entertain myself before the show trying to find them. The HD cameras sweep around the New York audience and usually focus on younger folks (as if to prove opera is cool!). My friends qualify for this label in this context (it is all relative) but it turned out they had an even younger person seated in front of them that the camera really liked. I found them once, twice, 3, 4, and 5 times, even from the back once I triangulated their seat location. So that was fun, but what I'm really interested in is what accommodations the New York Met performance has to make for the Live in HD transmission. My friends were warned that the lighting would be different, and I wondered if the intermissions were extra long for them because we in the movie theater are treated to interviews of key singers and backstage secrets.

Vittorio Grigolo and Kristine Opolais as Rodolfo and Mimi in La Bohème April 5, 2014

What I wasn't expecting was the drama that had played out Saturday morning in New York. Our Mimi, Anita Hartig, fell ill and the Met management had to scramble to come up with a replacement. You'll never guess who they asked: Kristine Opolais who had sung the title role in Madame Butterfly the evening before! Well, she did a bellissimo job in my humble opinion, and yes she was interviewed in the first intermission with her Rodolfo, Vittorio Grigolo. She was so wired after singing Puccini's other showstopper Madame Butterfly the evening before FOR THE FIRST TIME AT THE MET, that she didn't go to sleep until 5:30am. Then she got the call asking her to sing Mimi FOR THE FIRST TIME AT THE MET at 7:30am. Imagine that! And so a career and a legend are made. Funny story: in their interview, Grigolo and Opolais told host Joyce DiDonato that they had met earlier in the week and agreed it would be fun to perform together.

It's all really quite dramatic and exciting, but beyond that, the performance was terrific, too. The sets were gorgeous, and we got to see backstage where workers were employing all three "stage trains." Each scene, Rodolfo's garret, Cafe Momus, and the snow scene, were put together on huge floors that wheel out during intermissions. Usually operas don't use all three of these "stage trains," but this Franco Zeffirelli production is especially lavish.

Puccini is emerging as my favorite opera creator. (The above book sits on my shelf beckoning  to be read.) He led a dramatic life and wrote dramatic, heart-wrenching operas. I cannot even imagine how Ms. Opolais turned on the Madame Butterfly performance, died a violent and dramatic Butterfly death, snoozed for a couple of hours, transformed into Mimi, and died again as a tubercular Mimi! I wonder, are those fabulous Puccini melodies still swimming around in Ms. Opolais's head as they are in mine?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Cesar Franck (1822-1890)

Cesar Franck (that's FRAHNK) was on my mind this week. I don't know why, but perhaps I heard a piece of a piece of his and recognized it without realizing it. That happens sometimes. Franck is a role model for those of us at a certain age who know, just know, that we still have some adventure and creativity left in us. His only symphony was performed by the orchestra of the Paris Conservatoire when he was sixty-six (1889). The critics, audience, and even musicians were not thrilled with the piece that evening. Here's the whole Symphony in D Minor, performed by my favorite orchestra, the Philadelphia, conducted by Riccardo Muti. As they say on Saturday evenings on Turner Classic Movies, "It's an ESSENTIAL!"

Franck was a frugal man who never traveled far from Paris: the Conservatoire, his students' homes, and the Church of Saint-Clothilde where he played the organ. The story goes that he was saving money to take a trip to Beyreuth to hear a Wagner opera, but his darn wife found the money and used it for household expenses.

Franck was an organist and organ teacher at the Conservatoire, so guess what instrument turns up often in his compositions...the orgel. Hear the Prelude, Fugue, and Variations, Op. 18, here:

But he wrote for other instruments, too:

That's the second movement of his String Quartet (Scherzo Vivace). This work was not performed until his last year (1890), and was well-received by the audience at the Société National de la Musique.

(One might surmise that Cesar Franck (FRAHNK) did not pose for many headshots during his career, but remember he was a frugal man.)

Franck lived humbly and died tragically. He was hit by a bus on his way to a student's home and tried to perform a two-piano version of his Variations Symphoniques with that student. He did not make it through the performance, though; he left, stopping on the way at Saint Clothilde to say good bye to the organ, and died soon after in his bed.

Franck's Tomb, bust by Rodin

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


"Serpent!" screamed the Pigeon.
"I'm not a serpent!" said Alice indignantly. "Let me alone!"
"Serpent, I say again!" repeated the Pigeon, but in a more subdued tone, and added with a kind of sob, "I've tried every way, and nothing seems to suit them!"
"I haven't the least idea what you're talking about," said Alice.
from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Alice had just eaten part of a mushroom that made her neck grow long like a giraffe's. The Pigeon mis-identified her as a serpent (understandable mistake from a pigeon's perspective). Would you, from a human perspective, be able to identify this musical instrument if it slithered by?

Serpent (http://www.springersmusic.co.uk/library/serpent.htm)
You'll never guess: It is a serpent! It has a mouthpiece like a brass instrument and keys like a woodwind, and plays very low notes like a tuba or euphonium. The instrument was popular in military bands in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and Richard Wagner actually used one in his 1840 opera, Rienzi. Some scholars believe it was invented as far back as 1590.

Wondering what it sounds like?

"The Military Serpent" by Thomas Key (http://www.bate.ox.ac.uk/military-serpent.html)

Monday, February 3, 2014

Think You Know Louis Armstrong?

Louis Armstrong is a jazz icon. He had a long career in which he mastered changing styles of music as a trumpet player, band leader, and vocalist. He appeared in movies opposite the biggest stars of Hollywood, and he also performed from his balcony in Queens for neighborhood kids. Imagine that!

Armstrong was born in New Orleans at the turn of the last century. His father worked in a factory and left the family when Louis was very young. His mother was very poor and turned to prostitution in order to feed her family. Louis often stayed with his maternal grandmother while his mother was working. On New Year's Eve in 1912, he made the mistake of firing a gun into the air. This blunder got him sent to the Coloured Waif's Home for Boys. This is where he learned to play the cornet and he performed in the band. He dreamed of a career in music. When he was released from the home in 1941 he played in clubs around New Orleans and on riverboats on the Mississippi.

Soon, Armstrong joined his friend and mentor, King Oliver, in Chicago. Armstrong and Oliver dazzled their listeners with their solos and the King Oliver Band began recording. He married the band's pianist, Lilian Hardin, in 1924. The Armstrongs soon left Chicago for New York City where Louis joined Fletcher Henderson's popular band, for a while.

The period between the early 1920s and 1930s in the Harlem section New York City was known as the Harlem Renaissance. Innovators in music, art, dance, and art flocked to Harlem where they encouraged each other and found support for their creations. Armstrong flourished during this period, and switched his main instrument from the mellower-sounding cornet to the brighter sound of the trumpet. Pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines came to town, and soon the two were collaborating. Here's "Weather Bird"...

After the Great Depression all but ended the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s, Armstrong returned to Chicago. His lip was sore from constant trumpet playing, and his marriage had dissolved. He found a new manager, Joe Glaser, who helped turn his career around and got him a new recording contract. He divorced Lil Hardin and married a woman named Alpha Smith. This marriage only lasted a few years, but then Armstrong found Lucille Wilson, a Cotton Club dancer. She turned out to be the love of his life. They bought a modest home in the Corona section of Queens where they would spend the rest of their lives. I got to visit this home years ago, just before it became a museum, and I remember the solid gold bathroom fixtures, and lots and lots of wallpaper. Standing in Louis Armstrong's office was a special kind of thrilling, I will tell you! Check out the Louis Armstrong House Museum website here.

Meanwhile, in the 1940s, Armstrong began to lead his own swinging jazz band. Here are Louis Armstrong, trombonist George Washington, and Velma Middleton performing "Swingin' on Nothing"...

In the 1950s, he continued to record, always evolving his musical style. Notable from this time was his jazz version of "Mack the Knife"...

Armstrong toured during the 1950s and 1960s, both in the U.S. and overseas. He was so popular in other countries that he was known as "Ambassador Satch." He also appeared in many movies including this, my favorite, from 1964:

He toured and he toured, probably too much, and had a couple of heart attacks that slowed him down. He played his trumpet every day, and performed occasionally. (I've left a lot out, believe it or not!) Louis Armstrong died in his sleep at home on July 6, 1971. Lucille died in 1977, leaving the Armstrong home to the City of New York. It was designated a National Historic Landmark and opened to the public in 2003.

Monday, January 27, 2014

BREAKING NEWS: Clandestine Plot Information Delivered Musically

We might not even notice the music accompanying a movie or television show, but that soundtrack has power. The music gives us information, for example, when the music turns ominous in a police drama such as "Law & Order," we know someone is about to give up the ghost. The music can establish a place or time, too. Without taking the time to consciously identify a clarinet and accordion with an 'Oompah' bass, we instinctively know that we're in some part of Germany. The other night during the Grammy Awards on TV, I was instantly transported back to the 1970s when the band Chicago began to perform. The people and places I knew then were conjured to the front of my imagination, just from hearing those familiar songs. Close your eyes and listen if you don't know what I mean (this will only work if you were, in fact, a thinking person in the 1970s).

I'm convinced that the theme music from the extraordinarily popular PBS series "Downton Abbey" has something to do with its success. First of all, it sets the scene for the viewer; we know just from the music that this is going to be a drama, and that the characters (or at least some of them) are going to be aristocratic. Then, it's so darn lush and intriguing that we're drawn in to the program even if we are not familiar with the story. I know this is true for me: I react like one of Pavlov's dogs whenever I hear it!

Have you ever heard of circular breathing? Very few musicians can pull this off, and those that do practice for years before finding success. Very simply, the musician plays by blowing out through his or her instrument, and at the same time breathes in through their nose! This is an effective way of creating tension in music because the listener expects to hear slight pauses where a musician breathes. Just like with language, music has phrases and sentences, and these are set apart by small pauses (commas and periods). I've enlisted everyone's favorite curly-haired soprano saxophonist to demonstrate this to you:

Musicians in bands and orchestras can work around having to learn this technique if more than one person is playing a given part. They will work out ahead of time which player will breathe where, and the other will continue to play. The result should be a seamless line of music without pauses which creates tension. Music is all about tension and release, after all.

Richard Wagner, King of the Leitmotif
The idea of using music to communicate information is not new. Richard Wagner was a revolutionary opera composer who assigned leimotifs or themes to characters, places, and even things, and then wove them together to support his opera story. So there's a character named Siegfried who has a theme, and he has a sword which has a name (Nothung) and a leitmotif. When Siegfried thinks about his sword, we'll probably hear Nothung's leimotif. Even if we don't consciously notice the sword's theme, our brain processes it. Wagner uses this technique of weaving together his many leitmotifs in all of his operas, but most prominently in his masterpiece four-opera Ring Cycle. The leimotifs are used to identify concepts and telegraph information to us before the characters on the stage even know what's going on. Here's the brass section of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra explaining and demonstrating the leitmotifs from Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle:

From now on, when you watch a movie (or opera) listen for these techniques and let me know what you find!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington by Terry Teachout (2013)

I finally finished the new biography of Duke Ellington (Gotham, 2013) in which I have been engrossed for weeks. This is a scholarly work, with lots of biography meat for a reader to sink their teeth into, plus notes, bibliography, discography, and photos. Lots of photos. Ellington's life is not candy-coated here; Teachout lets us know that we might not have liked this "Aristocrat of Jazz" had we met him. He was a womanizer who cheated on his wife and his mistresses, and refused to give the long-suffering Mrs. Ellington a divorce. (Reportedly, this was in order to supply an excuse for not marrying the girlfriends who came after her.) He was a procrastinator who wouldn't finish his musical compositions until the very last minute, so his musicians would have to be accurate sight-readers in the studio or on the stage--there was rarely time to practice one's part. He also liked to use melodies and riffs that he heard his band members come up with without giving them credit or later on paying them a measly $25.

But now that we have those negatives out of the way, Duke Ellington is widely regarded as the best jazz composer of the twentieth century, and some go so far as to call him his century's most innovative composer of music, period. He's the one who standardized jazz big band instrumentation after years of experimentation with the sounds of the instruments in various combinations: four (or five) trumpets, four (or five) trombones, five saxophones in three or four sizes with some doubling on clarinets, and a rhythm section consisting of drums, guitar, bass, and, of course, the Duke himself on piano. It was in Ellington's band that the tuba was replaced with the string bass for a warmer sound. His band's sound was innovative because of this instrumentation, but also because Ellington composed differently. Rather than composing melodies and harmonizing them with colorful jazz chords, he wrote, according to Teachout, in a mosaic style. He composed songs in modules that he rearranged while disregarding the traditional rules of musical composition and form.

One of my favorites, "Satin Doll" (listen to that bass! and those saxophones!)

This unorthodox style brought him success. President Nixon awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 1969, and in 1999 (for his hundredth birthday) he was awarded a special Pulitzer posthumously. Ellington was a gentleman and was asked by the State Department to tour the world with his band as jazz ambassadors. Sweet gig, huh? Guess what, though: Ellington did not like the word 'jazz' and preferred to be referred to as a 'musician' or 'music composer.'

His career had its peaks and valleys. Last week in this blog, I focused on his Harlem Renaissance (1920s and early 1930s) heyday. Big bands fell out of favor eventually, and Ellington tried to compose longer, more complex works for Broadway shows, symphonies, and ballet. The Ellington band had all but faded out of the public's eye when they appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956 and blew the roof off the place. Have you seen the 1959 movie "Anatomy of a Murder"? Ellington scored some of that film's music. Ellington was a man of faith, and tried his hand at sacred music, too, with some success. Here's a clip from one of those sacred music concerts...

Duke Ellington performed with his band until just a few weeks before his death from lung cancer in 1974. He was remembered as a man who took care of his family, bringing his parents, sister, and son to live at Sugar Hill (New York) with him as soon as he was able. He took care of his musicians, paaying them well and shielding them from racial discrimination when they toured in the early days. Rather than trying to find hotels willing to accommodate the Black musicians, they traveled in their own Pullman train cars!

This is a substantial book, rich in detail about Ellington's life, the places he lived and played, and the times in which he lived. When I read a big book like this, I like to create a mind map to remind myself of its interesting parts. Take a look:
As you can see, I like to note any unfamiliar words, surprises about the subject, the important places in the book, and the people important to the subject. This technique helps me organize information and find connections. I can go back to this mind map months or years from now and remind myself about the cool things I learned about Duke Ellington from this book.