I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes – The Ukrainian Version

Bortniansky-1-mal copy Here’s some Easter Sunday testimony as to why the Ukrainian-born composer Dmitri Bortniansky (mentioned earlier in this space) was a giant in his day, The court composer to Catherine The Great wrote no fewer than 35 “sacred concertos” for choir, generally three-movement a cappella concoctions based on psalms.  This one I think is one of the most impressive, displaying, in the words of Slavophile liner note auteur Philip Taylor, “amazing richness, suppleness, and strength.”

Bortnniansky shows an outstanding gift for lyrical ideas such as we have rarely heard before in the concertos.  In ‘I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes Unto the Hills’ we are transported little by little in the cavernous depths in which the concerto begins upwards towards moments of sublime beauty.  The second movement is an uninterrupted stream of fresh melodic ideas….this provides an excellent contrast for the forceful vigor of the Finale….”

 

Can I get an Amen?   And check out the classic sound of those Russian basses in the excellent Russian State Symphonic Capella.  You can even follow along to the score in this video!

 

Music for Eastertide: Biber’s “Mystery” Sonatas

Passion, devotion, and a wealth of invention…at Easter time I am drawn to the remarkable set of the 15 “Mystery” (sometimes called “Rosary”) sonatas by the 17th-century composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. It’s a collection of 15 short sonatas chronicling key moments in the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary, organized into five “Joyful Mysteries,” five “Sorrowful Mysteries” and five “Glorious Mysteries.” And I find the final Passacaglia to be some combination of all three.

Which makes it all the cooler that uber-cool violinist Johnny Gandelsman (of Brooklyn Rider and Silk Road Ensemble fame) included this ancient marvel in his solo recital debut in NYC…at Le Poisson Rouge (“serving art and alcohol”). Go, Johnny Go!   And if you’re hooked, you can read more about the intricacies of Biber’s sonatas here.

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”

A President’s Day Salute: Alexander Reinagle: The First “First Family” Music Teacher

From George Washington’s diary: Tuesday, June 12, 1787:

“Dined at Mr. Morris’s and drunk Tea there. Went afterwards to the concert at the City Tavern.”

Washington was in Philadelphia for what at the time was called “The Federal Convention,”  and we now call the Constitutional Convention, that led to the creation of the modern American state.  Notwithstanding all of the politics and intrigues, however, Washington still found time to attend a number of events in what was at the time the nation’s cultural center.  And on this particular evening he attended a concert by a newly-arrived and highly-regarded “composer, conductor, pianist, and theatrical manager” named Alexander Reinagle.

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Washington apparently liked what he heard, for it marked the start of a long friendship between the English-born musician and the nation’s first President.  Reinagle was actually born the same year as Mozart (1756), and died the same year as Haydn (1809).  He came to the US in 1786, first living in New York before taking up residence in Philadelphia, then emerging as the young nation’s cultural center.

George Washington's Favorite Composer

George Washington’s Favorite Composer

In 1789, during Washington’s journey from Philadelphia to New York for his inauguration as the nation’s first President,  Reinagle supposedly composed a “Chorus”, with the words, “Welcome Mighty Chief, Once More!” which the composer rather puffily, (and some contend, untruthfully) put on the frontspiece,

Chorus Sung Before Gen. Washington as he passed under the Triumphal Arch raised on the bridge at Trenton April 21st 1789.   Set to music and dedicated by permission to Mrs. Washington by A. Reinagle… Philadelphia.

Washington was impressed enough with Reinagle that he hired him to give keyboard lessons to Washington’s step-grandaughter Nellie Custis…and to order a top-of-the-line double-manual harpsichord for their homes in Philadelphia and eventually at Mount Vernon…where it still can be seen today!

George Washington's harpsichord

As for Nellie’s proficiency at the instrument, a great article on the Mount Vernon website has her brother remembering  she had to practice”very long and very unwillingly at the harpsichord. . .the poor girl would play and cry, and cry and play, for long hours, under the immediate eye of her grandmother, a rigid disciplinarian in all things.”  Though apparently not for nought:

Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, a Polish nobleman who visited Mount Vernon for around two weeks in June of 1798, wrote of Nelly that, “Her sweetness is equal to her beauty, and this being, so perfect of form, possesses all the talents: she plays the harpsichord, sings, draws better than any woman in America or even in Europe.” On the last night of his visit, he wrote sadly, “In the evening, for the last time, pretty Miss Custis sang and played on the harpsichord.”

Several Reinagle compositions survive in the Nellie Custis collection of sheet music at Mount Vernon, and upon  Washington’s death in 1799, he composed a Monody on the Death of George Washington.   And the “First Composer” didn’t stop at Washington, his output also includes the Federal March, President Madison’s March and Mrs. Madison’s Minuet. 

Far more substantial and interesting are the four extended keyboard sonatas he composed in the style of his idol C.P.E. Bach, whom Reinagle had known during his travels in Europe.  The so-called “Philadelphia Sonatas” are the only pieces of Reinagle’s that really ever get any hearing at all.  Check out this performance in the WGBH Fraser Performance Studio by Handel & Haydn Society keyboardist Ian Watson.

Happy New Year!

Soprano Courtney Huffman and baritone Andrew Garland in Bach's wonderful "Coffee Cantata."
Soprano Courtney Huffman and baritone Andrew Garland in Bach’s wonderful “Coffee Cantata.”

A grand time had by all with Boston Baroque and conductor Martin Pearlman, ushering in 2014 with a live all-Bach concert at Sanders Theatre we’re sharing live with the nation via PRI.  Hard to believe that it’s my last radio production for the foreseeable future, so had to snap some “stage-side” shows to mark the occasion.    The audio for the entire program may be found below, thanks to the wizardry of online producer (and broadcast co-host) Brian McCreath, engineer Antonio Oliart Ros, and producer Alan McLellan.  Thanks, friends….let’s hope this great tradition continues!

Violinist Christina Day Martinson and recorder player Aldo Abreu are the soloists with Martin Pearlman leading Boston Baroque
Violinist Christina Day Martinson and recorder players Christopher Krueger and Aldo Abreu are the soloists in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 with Martin Pearlman leading Boston Baroque

 

Bows for conductor and soloists...

Post-Brandenburg bows for conductor and soloists …

WCRB's Cathy Fuller chats live with Martin Pearlman

WCRB’s Cathy Fuller chats live with Martin Pearlman

Holiday Leftovers: The Royal Tube and Missing the Parade


Sitting around the table on an overcast (what else?) North Norfolk afternoon, I got to witness a UK holiday tradition for the very first time: The Queen’s Annual Christmas Day Message. In a nice touch, the broadcast began and ended with excerpts from her very first Royal Christmas Message was delivered 25 years earlier – in 1932, by Elizabeth’s grandfather George V).

But – no slouch she – this was not a mere exercise in nostalgia for the Queen: She began her speech by saying, “One of the features of growing old is a heightened awareness of change,” and indeed the message marked the launch of The Royal Channel (or, “One’sTube” as the Telegraph headlined it), which you can find on your favorite video portal.

The hit count so far? 866,000 for t. Next time I heard a performing-arts organization whine and bleat about how they can’t keep up with new technology and new media opportunities, I’ll remind them of the fashion-forward oh-so-trendy Royals….

That’s a lesson that was seemingly lost on the editors of Parade magazine, who on Sunday ran a present-tense interview with Benazhir Bhutto, maintaining it was “too late” to change the over and the interview was “too important” to drop.

Fair point on the latter point; regarding the former, Are You Kidding? Parade’s cover went to bed on Dec. 21. Bhutto was assassinated on Dec. 27.

The cover appeared on Jan. 6th, with no explainer, no “box,” no nothing. All in the present tense. Shocking, surprising, and dismaying legions of the Sunday mag’s millions of readers.

Oh, they issued an online explainer:

After her assassination, PARADE immediately posted the entire interview online, and [author Gai] lSheehy appeared on network and cable TV news shows to discuss her face-to-face conversations with Bhutto.


Fine, but what about in your own magazine? Ten days between event and cover, and do you really, truly, believe that the magazine was absolutely powerless to change things? If that’s so, then print-reliant publications like Parade truly are wooly mammoths making their last footprints on Earth.

For the record, the mag’s readers aren’t buying that excuse. Check out the 400+ comments at the end of the Bhutto interview, ironically titled “A Wrong Must Be Righted.”

And there’s Dan Fratello’s column in the Huffington Post: Snarky, but amusing nonetheless:

Sources indicate this isn’t the last time Parade will get a black eye in 2008. Consider these cover stories already in the queue at Parade, and coming to your Sunday brunch soon:


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Avant Gershwin

WASHINGTON – The reason I’m posting from downtown D.C. this morning has to do with the lady on the left — jazz vocalist Patti Austin, who helped to usher in the New Year with a dynamic all-Gershwin concert at the Kennedy Center last night. Patti’s two-set show, backed by a crackerjack octet (piano, guitar, bass, drums, sax, trumpet, ‘bone) was part of Toast of the Nation, NPR’s annual all-night New Year’s Eve jazz party. Yr Hmble Srvnt was on hand to produce the show for the net.

In my previous life coordinating this production was Tension City; the logistics of pulling off six live shows through multiple timezones is only dizzying when it’s not downright frightening. By comparison, spending a day backstage at the KenCen with old friends and terrific musiciains, old pros all, was pure pleasure.

That’s not to say there weren’t the usual hiccups and anxieties that arise anytime you’re producing live radio. To be sure, there were. But it was all redeemed by the music on stage: some really interesting arrangements of Gershwin standards, mostly drawn from Austin’s recent CD called Avant-Gershwin. The disc has been getting a lot of buzz — a pair of Grammy nominations, and USA Today critic Elyse Gardner even had it down as her Top Album of the Year, edging out Junior Senior and Springsteen’s Magic. — and if we didn’t get the memo, Patti was there to remind us. (As a veteran showbiz producer, she’s not the type to let these PR moments pass…..)

But the praise is hard-won and well-deserved. Her voice was in top form, and the arrangements by Michael Abene are clever, quirky, and swing. You can check out a couple of the CD cuts (recorded with the excellent WDR Big Band) here. The Kennedy Center show was the first time that Austin has taken the show on the road with a pared-down octet, and the results were pretty impressive, particularly for the second set that we broadcast live to the nation. Though I have to say that my lasting memory was a haunting version of But Not For Me, featuring just Patti and pianist Mike Ricchiutti.

But don’t take my word for it: check out the whole concert on the new NPR Music site.

Update 1/2/2008: Critic Mike Joyce talks about Patti’s “Star Jones Moment” in his review of the concert in today’s Washpost. You can read the review here.