A Milestone of the Millennium: Bach’s St. Matthew Passion

What an unexpected delight on Good Friday to see today’s excellent Deceptive Cadence blog from my old my mates at NPR devoted to a program we produced 14 years ago, as part of our ambitious Milestones of the Millennium series.

A Visitor’s Guide To Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’

And I do mean ambitious: We attempted nothing less than to “create a picture in sound of the pivotal events, places, movements, artists and musical works of the past 1000 years” through what amounted to a weekly documentary folded into our ongoing five-day-a-week production of Performance Today.   Oh yeah, and also with “build outs” on this newfangled Interwebs thingy.

PT’s Milestones of the Millennium Series

But wait -there was more! We also entered into a partnership with Sony Classical to create an entire Milestones of the Millennium CD project:  “The program series will be accompanied by Sony’s release of historic recordings highlighting the development of music over the past 1000 years. Each Sony Classical compact disc will contain musical choices inspired by the series, with liner notes written by the NPR commentators.”

High concept as hell, balanced by decidedly modest sales in the marketplace.  Doubt anyone has the entire collection, but I was surprised to see that after being out of print for quite some time, Sony has now made a few of the titles available as MP3 downloads on Amazon and other sites.  And you do see the odd CD copy for sale here and there.

But, bacj-s-bach-the-brook-and-the-wellspring-national-public-radio-milestones-of-the-millennium-0.jpgk to Bach:  Of the entire two years’ worth of productions, this program on Bach’s St. Matthew Passion was one of the very best, hosted by NPR’s Lynn Neary and produced by Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr.  It’s a “guided tour” through Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, with commentary from such luminaries as noated Bach scholars Christoph Wolff and MIchael Marissen, tenor Ian Bostridge, conductors Joshua Rifkin,Ton Koopman, and Kenneth Slowik, as well as soprano Ann Monoyios.  Take a listen here.

Incidentally, Bach was the subject of the very first MIlestones of Millennium program, which aired January 1, 1999.  It was called  Johann Sebastian Bach: The Brook and the Wellspring, featuring a commentary by the Boston Conservatory’s Jan Swafford“Using the metaphor suggested by the composer’s name (“Bach” is German for “brook”), Swafford explains how Bach emerged from a family of musicians to become perhaps the greatest master and innovator of all time.”

The Brook and the Wellspring

Prize-Winning Storytelling…in 25 Seconds

In and among the usual suspects to land Peabody Awards today (including AMC for Breaking Bad, NPR for The Race Card Project, FRONTLINE for the excellent NFL concussion expose “League of Denial,” and a host of other terrific PBS productions) was the first YouTube video ever to win. In the words of the judges:

“Short, simple and spot-on in its critique of rape culture, the ingenious PSA by two University of Oregon students takes just 25 seconds to make its point that real men treat women with respect.”

Amen.  Congrats to students Samantha Stendal and Aaron Blanton for such a succinct and brilliant little production.   The complete of Peabody winners for 2013 can be found here.

Happy

It’s the first day of Spring on the Calendar, and time to celebrate with some shades of happiness.  First up, the brilliant opening credits to Portlandia, the wacky ode to The City of Roses from the off-center minds of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, set to “Feel it all around” by the singer-songwriter Washed Out.  Beautiful mix of music and imagery that gets me every time.  Hey Mr. Mayor! Can we make this the new official City Song?   (And if you haven’t seen Portlandia…what are you waiting for?)

How about some long-delayed happiness captured on camera, as Stanford University scientist Andrei Dmitriyevich Linde— one of the main authors of the “inflationary cosmology” – e.g., what happened after the Big Bang – gets his entire life’s work validated?  “Happy” seems too mild a word for the powerful, deep sensation….but it makes me want to watch it again.

And finally, the Detroit Academy of the Arts and Sciences kids getting all “Happy.” with Pharrell’s hit.  Sure, it’s gone viral…and why not?  How can you not see this and smile?

A Frosty St. Paddy’s Day from The Chieftains

For St. Patrick’s Day 2014 in the still-snowbound Northeast (and even the Mid-Atlantic, thanks to last night’s storm), a performance by the Chieftains in the WGBH Fraser studio…

“The praties are dug and the frost is all over
Kitty lie over close to the wall”

For Pete’s Sake

PETESEEGER5string

I’ve been thinking for several days now about what I could say about Pete Seeger that hasn’t already been said, seen, or heard. Certainly it is impossible to overstate his influence on my generation. “How to Play the Five String Banjo” – both the tattered red music book and ten-inch LP  from 1954- were as ubiquitous in the households of my youth as the Glenn Gould Goldbergs, the Ormandy “Messiah” recording with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and Kind of Blue, if not more so.  His was the first concert I ever attended in my life…in the glorious trappings of a school gymnasium in Acton, (or was it Maynard? or Harvard?) Mass. in 1963. As part of the concert Pete led a singalong of “Froggy Went a Courting” just for us wee ones, and I remember it to this day.  (And was totally tickled when Springsteen chose it for his tribute album The Seeger Sessions.)

seegersessions

I’m certain it was the first time I had ever been invited to sing in my life. And decades later I joined the decidedly nonexclusive club of folks who have produced programs about Pete’s remarkable life.

But none of that is particularly new, unique nor noteworthy. What might be, however, is the saga of Pete Seeger the public television host: Before finally being “readmitted” to commercial television in the late ’60s, Pete made 39 episodes of a quirky, wonderful, and decidedly low-production-value program called “Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest.” Take a look at Episode 1, with Pete talking about his “distrust of this little magic box,” and then going on to teach us all at home how to play along, and join the chorus…

November Numerology: JFK and the meaning of 11/22

Think piece I wrote for WCRB Classical New England for this rather remarkable day on the calendar…\

November Numerology: JFK and the Musical Meaning of 11/22

Play in Subway, Win Pulitzer…

Joshua Bell in the DC metro Not quite one year to the day it was published, funnyman writer Gene Weingarten‘s celebrated story about Joshua Bell busking in the Washington Metro wound up as one of six Pulitzer Prizes won by the Washington Post today – an impressive and near-record haul. Even though the little social experiment was in itself something of a failure (hardly anyone recognized who it was playing underneath that Curly W cap, and even fewer chucked in any change); the story itself was a PR bonanza for Bell — and now, it seems, for the author.    BTW, you can hear Bell’s entire subway performance  here.

And if the past is prologue, I’ll bet that the “Joshua Bell Pulitzer” will get a lot more attention than the “official” Classical Music Pulitzer for 2007: The Little Match Girl Passion, by David Lang, commissioned and premiered at Carnegie Hall by Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices ensemble.

My piece is called The Little Match Girl Passion and it sets Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Little Match Girl in the format of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, interspersing Andersen’s narrative with my versions of the crowd and character responses from Bach’s Passion. The text is by me, after texts by Han Christian Andersen, H. P. Paulli (the first translator of the story into English, in 1872), Picander (the nom de plume of Christian Friedrich Henrici, the librettist of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion), and the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. The word “passion” comes from the Latin word for suffering. There is no Bach in my piece and there is no Jesus—rather the suffering of the Little Match Girl has been substituted for Jesus’s, elevating (I hope) her sorrow to a higher plane

Nothing against Lang or his work, which sounds interesting enough, t’s just that invariably these Pulitzers go to pieces that have been played once in often out-of-the way locations.  Back in my NPR days, tracking down the actual *recording* of a Pulitzer-winning-composition – and doing it in time for the morning news! – invariably involved a combination of detective work, browbeating, and more than a little luck.

Not so in the Internet age, however.  Want to hear Lang’s piece – or even download it?  Get it here– direct from the Carnegie website.     For that matter, this may be the most information-rich Pulitzer ever — you can even hear an interview with Lang about the creation of the work.

Oh, yeah, and there’s one more musical Pulitzer today – a Special Citation for Bob Dylan – for his “profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”

See the complete list of Pulitzer winners here.

PS – nice to see another Hans Christian Andersen piece set to music to some acclaim.   Throughtout his career the Danish writer/poet/playwright collaborated with and was inspired by a number of notable composers – including Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Wagner.     And Lang is just the latest of a long line of musicians who have in turn found inspiration in Andersen’s words.