Composers On Vacation

Check out the nice post on the WUOL website about Composers on Vacation, starting with a wonderful description by Edward Elgar about the Italian sojourn that inspired his symphonic poem In The South:

“Then in a flash, it all came to me – streams, flowers, hills; the distant snow mountains in one direction and the blue Mediterranean in the other; the conflict of the armies on that very spot long ago, where I now stood – the contrast of the ruin and the shepherd – and then, all of a sudden, I came back to reality. In that time I had composed the overture – the rest was merely writing it down.”

Many years ago on NPR’s Performance Today we developed an entire [summertime, natch] series around the topic, called Postcards from Composers.  Amazingly, a few are still available online, included Dvorak’s reminiscences about his summer in Spillville, Iowa

The three months spent here in Spillville will be a happy memory for the rest of our lives.  We enjoyed being here and were very happy….though we found the three months of heat rather trying!  But it was made up for us by being among our own people…our Czech countrymen.  And that caused us great joy.  If it had not been for that, we would not have come at all.

Postcard from Composers: Antonin Dvorak

…and Gustav Mahler’s yearning to get away from the bustle of Paris, in the grip of the 1900 World’s Fair, and head to the Austrian woods:

“The summer for me has been so glorious, I feel I am really and truly braced for the coming winter.  If I can keep this up in the future, managing to get mental and physical rest in summer, then I shall always be able to lead…a human sort of life.”

 

Postcards from Composers: Gustav Mahler

And, closer to home, New Hampshire native Amy Beach‘s inspirations from the bird songs she heard during her summers at the MacDowell Colony, the artists’ retreat in Peterborough, NH:

“In projecting our very selves onto paper, or canvas, or clay, we literally have to lose our life….in order to save it in the shape of any tangible result of our labors.  And to accomplish this at its highest and noblest, one thing above all is needed:  Silence….and solitude.”

 

Postcard from Composers: Amy Beach

This is one of the pieces Beach wrote at the Colony: “The Hermit Thrush at Morn:”

 

 

 

 

 

Juke Box

JukeBoxFred  First cut on the terrific Italian Cafe CD that’s been getting a lot of spins at El Rancho Roedeo. And what a nice discovery to see a c. 1958 “video” from the crooner Fred Buscaglione:

Inspired by Hollywood icons Clark Gable and Mickey Spillane, and  a devotee of American jazz and swing, Buscaglione personified the laid-back, devil-may care spirit of postwar Italy.

And can you not love these lyrics?

 

Per sentire una canzone con te
ed averti solamente per me
il mio braccio ti darò e con me ti porterò
in un piccolo e nascosto caffè

Che e la macchina dei dischi che và
tanta musica per noi suonerà
con Sinatra e Johnny Rave
Franky Lane e Doris Day
ogni cuore suonerà

Juke Box e una magica invenzion
Juke Box pochi soldi una canzon
Juke Box un gettone la felicità

 

Green Mountains

 

GMCFA very nice 24 hours in Vermont, first having the honor of being the inaugural speaker in the Green Mountain Chamber Music Festival’s Perspectives and Contexts series, and then joining morning host (and freshly-minted Managinr Producer) Kari Anderson on the air the next morning at Vermont Public Radio‘s classical service.

The GMCF is run by old friend Kevin Lawrence of the UNC School for the Arts in Winston-Salem, whom I’ve gotten to know through his participation in the “Music and Museum” series I program at the Bechtler Museum in Charlotte. Kevin and his wife Barbara are now steering the Festival – which takes place on the UVM campus in Burlington – through its 10th anniversary season.  It’s an intensive program for string students (generally ranging in age from 15 to 25), led by some first-rate faculty who also concertize a couple of times a week.

I didn’t have the chance to hear much music-making (except for the cheerful cacophony of walking past the all the practice rooms), but I was truly impressed by the smart, engaged students attending my talk, who peppered me with questions about classical music, media, and technology, which was the subject of the presentation. Truly a stimulating evening.  Very nice to visit in person one of the places we featured on one of our New England Summer Festivals programs as well.  You can check it out here.

 

 

Up bright and early the next morning to spin some platters with Kari, and talk up some bright young lights in the classical biz. In no particular order: Anderson & Roe (I’m already on record as being a big fan) with their own arrangement of Bizet’s Il Pergolese (“where jazz meets opera”),  the stunning Montreal period-instrument band Ensemble Caprice, with one of the zippiest recordings I know of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos.  As well as a new discovery: the Atlanta-based choral group called the Skylark Vocal Ensemble.

 

 

Meanwhile, there are some changes in the wind in classical radio in Vermont, as WVCT, the state’s sole remaining commercial-classical station (an increasingly endangered species), is due to format-flip on July 1.

 

Truth To Power IIIa: Exploring the Shostakovich “Year 1905” Symphony

Following the post about the Shostakovich Symphony No. 11, here’s the “guided tour” to the symphony, from the perspective of conductor Hugh Wolff and some of the brilliant young NEC Philharmonia performers. I really enjoyed putting this together with Andrew Hurlbut and the NEC video folks, with invaluable help from James David Jacobs.

 

Truth To Power III: Shostakovich’s “Year 1905” Symphony

So what is the Symphony No. 11?  Shostakovich’s most Russian/ Mussorgskian work?  A piece of cinematic agit-prop?  A commentary on the crushed Hungarian uprising? A deeply reflective “Requiem for a Generation,” as Shostakovich claimed, according to [Solomon] Volkov’s controversial memoir?  The work of a washed-up genius who, after 20 years of suppression, has succumbed to the political juggernaut? A beautifully organized work that speaks tragically to the inevitable recurrence of despotism?

NEC website, April 2014

 

I have to be honest with you: After living with this symphony for the last two months, I still can’t make up my mind.  Parts of it are searingly, heartrendingly poignant; others definitely veer towards the kitsch.

What I do know is that conductor Hugh Wolff and the NEC Philharmonia certainly rose to the challenge of performing this sprawling, hour-long symphony at Boston’s Symphony Hall. Regardless of the decidedly mixed critical opinion, it strikes me as a really hard piece to play, with a huge number of forces (celeste, two harps, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, full battery of percussion) being asked to play both with tremendous, brutish force as well as precise, controlled delicacy.  Not to mention those moments of extreme, naked exposure – just ask the trumpets, horns, flutes, or bassoons!  Or for that matter, just check out the achingly long lines of the English horn solo in the final movement.

Above all, it strikes me as a symphony requiring enormous concentration both to conduct and to perform. The symphony clocks in at just over an hour, after all.  And from a producer’s perspective, I certainly was exhausted at the end! But all in a day’s work for Hugh Wolff, who did a masterful job of keeping all the forces together, and sculpting a shape and arc out of the sprawl.

Not to mention calming the NEC student’s nerves – playing in Symphony Hall for the first time in four years.  Playing a piece that I was surprised to discover had never been performed by the hall’s “house band.” (Neither Seiji Ozawa nor James Levine were fans of DSCH, but…not even any guest conductors?).

This was the biggest and hardest of the three pieces on the program, (the others being the Beethoven “Egmont” Overture and the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1), and we’re going to produce them in reverse order. It’s all part of NEC’s season-long series of thematic presentations called Truth to Power, and I had the great pleasure of directing the shoot at Symphony Hall.  Today’s post contains the whole symphony; the story behind it will come next.

 

 

 

Ever Wished That Calvin and Hobbes Creator Bill Watterson Would Return to the Comics Page? Well, He Just Did.

Wow. just Wow.

Ever Wished That Calvin and Hobbes Creator Bill Watterson Would Return to the Comics Page? Well, He Just Did.

May 23 Birthdays: Alicia de Larrocha and Jean Françaix

For your Friday enjoyment: A fabulous performance from 1997 of the seemingly-ageless Alicia de Larrocha (74 at the time) playing the Ravel Piano Concerto in G with Jesus Lopez-Cobos and the Cincinnati Symphony. As someone learning the ropes in the television world, I’m coming to appreciate really great camera work in shooting orchestras – far easier said than done! After a little rooting around on the Interwebs I discovered it was the handiwork of Brandenburg Productions, in tandem with Cincinnati’s PTV Station WCET 48.  (Turns out it was the CSO’s national television debut.)   For an example of the terrific camerawork, check out the beautiful harp close-up at about 5 minutes in.

Then there’s De Laroccha. Her usual ferocious technique, but at her age it’s also economical and elegant. No wasted movements or theatrics from this stately Queen…but utterly faithful to the energy and verve embedded in Ravel’s music!


nicolenarboniAs for Jean Françaix (1912-1997). I had always admired the froth and effervescence in his music (and he wrote for virtually every combination of instruments known to man), as well as the man’s craft, wit, and unpretentiousness. Then I got to know it a lot better when I got involved executive-producing a CD devoted to his complete piano works with pianist Nicole Narboni.  (You can also check out her video about the project here.) Like his Cinq Bis (Five Encores”)  – wherein the composer offers a tongue-in-cheek Chinese Menu of choices for pianists to play, depending on the success of the recital.   As Nicole explains in her liner notes:

Perhaps the most comical of all the works contained on this disc are the Cinq Bis, or Five Encores, from 1965.   In the preface, Françaix  quotes the 18th-century French author Nicolas de Chamfort …Quand vous êtes sur une scène, si vous n’êtes pas un peu charlatan, l’assemblée vous jette des pierres… (“When on the stage if you are not a little of a charlatan, the crowd will stone you.”)
These pieces have all the elements of great encores.  Pour Allecher l’auditoire (“To entice the audience”) is a sarcastic warm-up; Pour les dames sentimentales (“For romantic ladies”) is a wonderful combination of silly and serious.  The last three Bis are best saved for a third or fourth curtain call:  En Cas de succès  and En cas de triomphe  – no translation required!.  The fifth and final of the Bis, En cas de délire (“In case of delirium”)  suggests a scene from a Victor Borge concert…

Besides Nicole, the only pianist I know who plays these “Cinq Bis” with any regularity is the excellent Aussie pianist Simon Tedeschi…the acclaimed “stunt double” for actor Geoffrey Rush in the David Helfgott biopic Shine.  (Those were Simon’s hands you saw tickling the ivories in the close-ups!)  Here you can watch his fingers fly through all five of the Françaix encores!