Truth To Power I: Beethoven Egmont Overture

 

Now all of the evidence is finally out – a collection of videos from the final concert in the New England Conservatory’s ambitious season-long series of thematic presentations called Truth to Power. Some absolutely cracking performances by Hugh Wolff and the NEC Philharmonia at Symphony Hall, with Yr Hmbl Srvnt as the video director/producer struggling to catch up.

We produced – and I’ve posted – the videos in reverse order from the actual concert.  But now you can see how it began: With this blast of Beethoven.  Enjoy!

 

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.

 

 

 

Helen Keller, Beethoven Fan?

HelenKellerRadioAstonishing post in the San Francisco Classical Voice about a 1924 letter that blind, deaf, and mute Helen Keller wrote to the New York Symphony (the rival of the New York Philharmonic before they eventually merged in 1928), recounting the experience of tuning in to a  broadcast of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on the radio:

Last night, when the family was listening to your wonderful rendering of the immortal symphony someone suggested that I put my hand on the receiver and see if I could get any of the vibrations. He unscrewed the cap, and I lightly touched the sensitive diaphragm.

 

What was my amazement to discover that I could feel, not only the vibration, but also the impassioned rhythm, the throb and the urge of the music! The intertwined and intermingling vibrations from different instruments enchanted me. I could actually distinguish the cornets, the roil of the drums, deep-toned violas and violins singing in exquisite unison. How the lovely speech of the violins flowed and plowed over the deepest tones of the other instruments! When the human voices leaped up thrilling from the surge of harmony, I recognized them instantly as voices more ecstatic, upcurving swift and flame-like, until my heart almost stood still.

 

Really? Congrats to San Francisco Classical Voice Writer Janos Gereben for this bit of sleuthing – the letter was apparently in the Helen Keller Archives of the American Federation of the Blind.  But I’m rather surprised that this story has never come up before – and the skeptic in me wonders is Ms. Keller did not indulge in a bit of a creative flight of fancy.  I don’t tend to think of a 1920s-era radio as capable of “surround sound,” but it sure is fascinating notion to imagine that someone who was doubtless as hypersensitive to vibrations as Helen Keller could actually pick out and detect a symphony that way.   Can anyone corroborate this?

Wild About Harry: Belafonte @ Berklee

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A celebration of Harry Belafonte’s life and music at Berklee.

Great love fest and concert last night for the ever-dignified and charismatic Harry Belafonte, the “High School drop out getting an Honorary Degree from Berklee.”  At the age of 87, Belafonte stopped singing in public a few years ago,though you could spot him in the finale at least mouthing the words to “We Are the World,” the 1980s megahit for African famine relief that Belafonte brought in to being.

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Moments before awarded Harry Belafonte his honorary doctorate, Berklee President Roger Brown speaks about his remarkable career.

That’s just one of an incredible list of accomplishments recited by Berklee president Roger Brown before conferring an honorary Doctor of Music to the singer, songwriter, and activist, who noted that “Belafonte” literally translates as “fountain of beautiful things.”  The tone and feel-good vibe of the event (not to mention some incredible performances by Berklee students) is nicely summarized in today’s Boston Globe:

No artist has worked harder on behalf of truth and social justice than Belafonte. He bailed out Martin Luther King Jr. from a Birmingham, Ala., jail; was John F. Kennedy’s cultural ambassador to the Peace Corps; and helped raise more than $50 million for humanitarian aid in Africa by organizing the recording of “We Are the World.”

That is how the current generation of Berklee College of Music students knows the singer, said Larry Watson, the professor who produced the show, introducing a rousing encore of the song. But to an earlier generation — long before Michael Jackson crowned himself the King of Pop — Belafonte was the “King of Calypso.” He was the first recording artist to sell a million copies of a single album, and he had enduring hits with “Matilda” and “The Banana Boat Song” (that’s “Day O” to fans of “Beetlejuice” or “The Muppet Show”), both of which were part of the program presented by four dozen or so colorfully attired students.

When it came time for Belafonte to speak, he was his usual poignant, gripping, and humorous self,  recalling the first time he went onstage to sing at a jazz club in New York.   The great jazz pianist Al Haig had agreed to let him work up a short set of standards, beginning with “Pennies from Heaven.”   But, when the moment came, Belafonte recalled,  “Up jumped Max Roach to sit behind the drums. And then Tommy Potter picked up a bass.  Charlie Parker sat down with his sax. So I looked around at my backup band.  And I haven’t looked back since.”

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Parting shot from Belafonte: “After this, I’m going home and smoking a joint.”