Friday, September 22, 2017

Summer's-End-Pieces - Yehudi Wyner's Exeunt

Yeah, yeah, Summer technically ended yesterday, but as it's still a nice day, and the weekend is starting, there's no problem with one more article, right?  I may also have made the premiere recording of today's work, so that probably counts for something.

Yehudi Wyner has been chugging along as a stately Boston professional for some time now - his career stretches from the 1950's until today, and while he'll probably never burst into the popular consciousness there are a number of his works I'm quite fond of, especially the Three Short Fantasies for piano from 1963, performed here by Wyner himself:

Perhaps the reason I've never talked about him before is that none of his works jump up and down too much, though I did have the privilege of reviewing a work of his for actual money as part of a concert review I had published in the British periodical Tempo.  I may talk about the Fantasies at length in the future, but today we're covering one of his earliest works, published in this sumptuous collection:

(Now THAT is a pretty sweet cover)

This 1980 anthology collects quite a few excellent songs, from stone classics, such as two of Elliott Carter's Three Poems of Robert Frost, to remarkable obscurities, such as "A patch of old snow" and "Fire and Ice" by William Ames, two songs I hope to cover in the future.  O'Neal took the offer of making an anthology on behalf of Associated Music as a challenge, and opportunity to spotlight songs he loved that hadn't gotten a fair shake in the market, especially considering that at that point nobody bought one-sheets of classical songs anymore.  It's this spirit that brought this ditty to my attention:

Written one year after he snagged a Masters in Music from Yale, Exeunt sets a wry poem by Richard Wilbur with clarity and style.  The feel is almost Neo-Baroque, the sleepy counterpoint reminiscent of a Bach-era recitative, though with open-voiced Modernism informing the harmonies.  I appreciate music that can depict the feel of Summer's heavy, thick heat, those times when you don't feel like breathing too much, and the long, enveloping lines of this song do that just fine.  All fast movement is the murmur of insects, aside from a bit of a "bridge" at the bottom of the first page where time and pacing is thrown into surprising variation - it's not too often one sees an 11/8 bar like that.  However eerie things get, though, Wyner has the sentimentality to have the last two "anchor" notes in the bass make a IV-I resolution, even with a neat major third at the full stop.  It's a small gem of a song, a fine companion to other heavy death songs, such as Ives's dour classic "Like A Sick Eagle".  Too bad there's no studio recording of it, though I was able to make due with my own means.

It's good to get back to business.  C-ya,


Thursday, September 21, 2017

Summer's-End-Pieces - Ned Rorem's The End of Summer

In my last article I had mentioned that Hugo Weisgall walked a bit of a tightrope in achieving great success as an opera composer while sticking to his atonal guns, and today's composer, Ned Rorem, also has some serious tightrope-walkin' and gun-stickin' to his name.  One of the most famous American composers I've covered here, Rorem has spent his 70-year career producing a vast body of work that consolidated American and French attempts at modal harmony, great attention to textural detail, and a great balance of poignancy and seriousness.  He is arguably America's greatest composer of art songs next to Ives, writing so many of them, and of such high quality, that his achievements with them have overshadowed a remarkably large body of instrumental music, including 3 symphonies, several concerti, and dozens of other orchestral, chamber and solo works, all possessing his unique musical voice.  One could argue that his works since the late 1970's have largely been rearrangements of the same material, but I'd also argue that after a certain point he was an old man and his ability to continually compose at his age is remarkable in its own right, and the pieces sounded great, anyways.  It's one of these later works that we're looking at today, one of many of his works to get excellent recordings this century as part of Naxos's American Classics series.

I did a bit of writing on Rorem's earlier songs in my Forgotten Leaves article on two Walt Whitman settings of his, so check it out for context on where he came from.  He debuted during a time when modal and polytonal harmonies were all the rage in America, and as the 60's rolled through and academic music took a hard right turn into Darmstadt-ville he too shook things up, though not in the same way as his contemporaries.  First, here's an early song of his:

There's obviously lots to like here - simultaneous familiarity and creativity, establishing a musical world that unfurls in variation.  While his works display a full range of emotions, of course, his harmonic language and Francophonic soul wrapped the listener in a warm quilt.  By 1985, however, he'd been through the looking glass - a decade before, in response to Vietnam he'd written one of his most chilling works, his War Scenes:

That's about as atonal as Rorem works get, so 1985 Rorem was able to relax a bit and write slightly more "normal" music while retaining his newfound edge.  That said edge:

This blistering recording of today's work, The End of Summer for clarinet, violin and piano, comes courtesy of the fine folks in Fibonacci Sequence, recorded alongside Rorem's Book of Hours for flute and harp and Bright Music for larger ensemble.  Considering how great The End of Summer is it may come off a bit goofy for me to say that it's the least of the three works on the disc, but only by a bit.

The three movements of The End of Summer have a cyclical feel, loosely bookended by a typically Roremish perpetuum mobile.  The sinister racing up and down strange scales sounds great, though is horrible to play, meaning I'll probably never program this work with Cursive, but Fibonacci Sequence operates at a different level than I.  The first movement, "Capriccio", opens with a very Red Violin soliloquy before spilling musical marbles down musical marble chutes, and the nutso display is broken up by dramatic hushes (relatively) and another Rorem staple, semi-ironic Parisian café music.  The second movement, "Fantasy", allows for the most experimentation and formal variety, allowing the instruments to drift through moods and genres as if in a dream.  The closing "Mazurka" takes us back to sinister form, though never in a truly frightening way.

Sorry for the shortness of my critique - it's just that overly-explaining Rorem defeats the purpose of Rorem.  Abstrusity was never his game, and so all his technical refinements were dressed in approachable garbs, resulting in works that were as easy to program as they were to conceptually understand.  Perhaps that's why he's remained so successful for so long, even if this work isn't exactly his most memorable.  But if every piece I wrote about for a themed article series was the best thing its composer ever wrote, what kind of a world would we live in?  Huh?  Answer me that, readers!'s still a great piece.  So see you tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Summer's-End-Pieces - Hugo Weisgall's End of Summer

Note: this article features videos auto-generated by YouTube which might not be viewable outside the U.S.A.

You know what's rare?  Someone known in our time as an opera composer.  There have been a couple Americans who've managed, like Gian Carlo Menotti and Daron Hagen, but overall the lifespan of the standard new opera is a handful of contractual performances and a line on a few resumes.  This is why Hugo Weisgall is a man of noteworthiness, penning multiple operas that have gained acceptance into the second-tier American opera rep - especially considering his music is atonal.  Think about it - opera fans liking atonal music that isn't by Schoenberg or Berg.  It's a tad unthinkable, but Weisgall's operas The Tenor and The Stronger are still revived, with other shows of his like Six Characters in Search of an Author still snagging rave reviews in spite of usual seat-filler-killers like dense harmonic experimentation and dramatic unease.  Adding to this noteworthiness is that Weisgall's other works are usually excellent and worth reviewing - some time ago I talked about his Opus 1 song cycle on poems by Adelaide Crapsey, and while that was as tonal as his music ever got it still showed a creative and earnest voice refining poetic expression with great promise.  A new recording of his rich and exciting Sonata for Piano, sharing disc space with Hindemith's underheard Ludus Tonalis, was released just this year, and perhaps it'll nudge a few more of his works back into the contemporary music limelight.  Today's work is also rich and exciting, and is part of a very small, but vital, collection of works about the last days of t-shirt season - End of Summer, a song set for voice, oboe and string trio, an instrumental combination I've enjoyed (with or without voice) for years now.

End of Summer sets two poems by Po Chii-i (translated by Weisgall himself) and one by a certain George Boas (who may or may not have been a Christian writer - the ones listed certainly didn't write poetry), breaking the songs up with a pair of interludes - and I must say, you gotta love any art song set that begins on eating lunch.  The two Po Chii-i poems are part of the rich heritage of old Chinese poetry that 20th-century songwriters love to set, though Weisgall wisely avoids aping any Chinese music per se as to avoid cross-cultural embarrassment.  Throughout the set, and most of his work, he explores an individual, highly contrapuntal language of atonality, spun with easy expertness and never trying to shock the audience.  "After Lunch", the opener, displays this with a kind of sardonic humor that old Chinese poetry seems oddly good at, with the tempo marked "Aloof, and quite without expression".  The lyrics, an amusing mixture of boredom and upper-crust display, are well-matched by a sub-sprightly waltz time, lack of overt drama and slippery glissandi.  This is followed by a full-bodied interlude for solo oboe, quite espressivo and as sad as a loon who lost the mating game.  Despite it being as long as the first song the "Quasi Fantasia" fits on one page, so I'm glad to reprint it here as an illustration of Weisgall's melodic invention at work:

The second song, "Hearing Someone Sing a Poem by Yuan Chen", is prime-cut tragedy, as icy and constrained as a frozen river.  The tempo is almost unconscionably slow (63-69 to the sixteenth note!), and this sense of static horror is a perfect way to set the deep sorrow that artists feel knowing that their mentors and colleagues have passed on, never again to create new works and initiating the inevitable decline of what they made in life.  This is followed by a fitful, nervous "Scherzo", punctuating dovetailing counterpoint with sinister unisons:

"De Senectute" closes the set with great austerity and weight, blanketing the listener like humid haze.  Much like "Someone..." the tempo is awkwardly slow, forcing the musicians to think and move through a curtain of molasses.  This song in particular shows off tenor Charles Bressler's great command of pitch and assured, mature tone, doubly impressive in a song this exposed and risky.  I have to applaud Weisgall for being able to extend the dramatic tension and almost crippling sense of yearning throughout such a long song, as things could have easily descended into monotony in the hands of a lesser composer.  A lesser composer would also have had trouble pulling off a closing minute like this one, with each chord following a natural progression through atonality and proving their value and finality at the softest of dynamics, reminding me in particular of Carl Ruggles's Angels.

End of Summer, along with Weisgall's other large chamber song cycle Fancies and Inventions, was recorded in the 1970's; this recording hasn't been officially re-released except as an archival on-demand deelio, which is what you're hearing now.  In lieu of that we could encourage more performances, the only hitch being that the sheet music publisher, Theodore Presser, decided to sell the score without parts - the instrumental parts are rental only, something that is guaranteed to keep 90% of prospective performers from taking the plunge.  I guess it'll have to come down to some creative MS Paint-ing to extract parts from the full score, though you didn't hear it from me...

Till tomorrow,


Monday, September 18, 2017

Summer's-End-Pieces - Stenhammar's Sensommarnätter

It's good to dust off the old blogs every once and awhile, and in my case it's been too much of awhile - when there are no deadlines there's no angry manager staring at you waiting for the pen to stop moving.  A fine theme has presented itself to me for this week, concerning a fact that many people forget: summer isn't quite over yet.  Rather, it officially changes to Fall this Thursday, and Monday-Wednesday are de jure Summer days, and while some people can't stand the heat of Summer I am always struck with a tinge of melancholy as the rains return...well, not so much melancholy this year considering how our wildfire season went, but a bit, regardless.  As such, I can spend this week talking about a number of pieces based on a great poetic theme, the End of Summer.  I've long wanted to cover this concept, not only because of the blogworthy works that I've found based on it, but also because it's a transitional phase that means different things to different people, emotionally as well as musically.  I'm also happy for this first article because I can finally talk about a Swedish composer on Re-Composing (for my Leaf article on Hilding Rosenberg click here).

While Sweden has been very good at producing musicians of world renown, including conductors (Neeme Jarvi), trumpet players (Hakan Hardenberger) and trombonists (Christian Lindberg), its composers have never enjoyed the same level of fame, or at least "important" status.  It's not that there haven't been a number of great composers to come from the shore of Middle Fennoscandia - far from it, in fact - there's just that little matter of luck that hasn't been on their side.  It's also important to note that public taste only allowed for less than a handful of superstars to come from the Nordic countries in the first place: Mr. Grieg from Norway, Mr. Nielsen and Mr. Ruders from Denmark, and Mr. Sibelius and Mrs. Saariaho from Finland.  None of Sweden's major composers have quite risen above the fame level of Denmark's Niels Gade, a wonderful composer when you get to know him but still afflicted with the pesky syndrome of international obscurity.  With Sweden a few pieces have cracked the Hot Overseas charts:

+ Dag Wirén wrote a lovely Serenade for strings that gets a bit of radio play over here, as well as that Little Serenade by Lars-Erik Larsson
+ The strikingly progressive Liszt-era composer Franz Berwald saw a renaissance this last century, especially his Symphony no. 3, "Singulière"
+ Kurt Atterberg has a few pieces that have followings in the States, specifically his luscious Symphony no. 2

One man who hasn't gained any clout away from home, but perhaps should have, is Wilhelm Stenhammar, whose most respected pieces are his 2 finished symphonies and 6 string quartets.  I can vouch for the third string quartet possessing great craftsmanship, enchanting melodies and moments of appealing surprise, all qualities present in today's featured piece, Sensommarnätter, op. 33.  The end of Summer has a kind of special quality when one lives as far north as in Sweden, largely because Summer is more notable there, as well.  I had the privilege of visiting Sweden during the Summer and not only is the weather surprisingly pleasant but there's the entrancing effect of the Midnight Sun.  Perhaps in reflection of similar feelings the Sensommarnätter (Late Summer Nights) possess a sense of foreboding sadness that perfectly fits the change in seasons.

The work is set in five movements of alternating speeds, opening with a deeply-cast lyricism.  Appropriately enough for a nocturnal work, the first melody is in the tenor, portament-ing its way up the bass cleff so fully as to make cellists salivate.  It's hard not to like how most of the melodic material, and interior texture, of the movement is simply moving around scales, as one has to like new ways to make that sound interesting.  Much effect is also gotten by expanding the harmonic and technical scope of the left-hand material as ideas are repeated, especially the huge arpeggiated chords in the last iteration of the "B" theme.

The second movement is a kind of etude for repeated attacks with one hand, one that looks reasonable on the page but is surprisingly difficult, as most pianists will want to alternate hands instead.  As soon as you think you're tired with all that, however, Stenhammar switches it up to a sprightly "B" section with bounding arpeggios that scoop from one chord to another with humorous grace; later it's "A" business as usual.

The third movement is arguably the best of the bunch, a diffuse nocturne that alternates between lithe preciousness and deep anticipation.  Much like the opening movement there is an expert marriage of melody and harmonic ambition, and the piano technique surprises in its elaboration without becoming a chore.  One of the more remarkable moments is the great welling up in the bass of E major after the opening section nearly resolves, showing Stenhammar experimenting with planing sevenths and fourths.  It's one of four expansive figures that feel like enormous sighs, with the second and fourth phrases allowing the pedal to release as the left hand assumes material introduced in an ascending series of thirds and the right to rise into space, like Debussy's perfumes turning in the evening air.

The fourth movement is one of those sinister galloping pieces, a genre that quickly went out of fashion once Modernism got rolling along but is amply served here.  This is the most difficult of the movements to play, as there are not only very fast inverse cascades at pp but also widely-spanning motorific bits in the left hand that get tiring quickly.  Many other devilish bits abound.  I'd like to mention here that I've never tried to play this movement.

The last movement rounds the set out with another ingenious pairing of melody and harmony, this time in a kind of moderate passepied in character of those wistful early Debussy movements from the Suite Bergamasque and the Petite Suite.  Even though the material is simple on the surface there are many novel harmonic movements and small textural touches that make for a fine closer.

The whole set exudes a lively combination of charm and untroubling seriousness that make it one of Stenhammar's most appealing works.  There have been a few album-length overviews of Stenhammar's piano works, including a pair of piano sonatas, but the Sensommarnätter are my favorites and his best chance of securing a place in the international piano rep.  A couple of the movements might appear a bit too old-fashioned for modern tastes but I think their variety and invention easily overcome any creakiness.  Stay tuned this week for more late Summer delights, as things get much weirder and wilder from here...


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

An Open Letter to Groupmuse

Tomorrow, March 23rd at 8:00 pm, Tall Wind, the newest program by my chamber group Cursive, will see its one-night-only performance (deets in this link).  Cursive is a group dedicated to the ideals of this blog, shining a light on excellent classical music that has been swept under the rug by the establishment and history, though with a focus on music from the latter half of the 20th century.  This is our third program and features some of Seattle's best and most adventurous new music performers playing scarce works such as Tison Street's Variations for flute, cello and guitar and Chinary Ung's fabulous Tall Wind.  It's been a dream come true to be able to mount programs like this repeatedly and I hope all my musicians the best for tomorrow night.  I've been having a bit of trouble finding ways to use this blog to promote our cause, a risk that one takes when most of the programmed pieces lack recordings.  However, a situation presented itself just today which required my action and helped me expound on Cursive's cause.

Groupmuse is a community project that creates a framework for local chamber groups to do house concerts in any home in the greater Seattle area that signs up to host.  All the money gathered from seat sales goes to the musicians and hosts and audiences have an easy, safe way to get the chamber music experience in a comfortable and relaxed environment.  It's a great deal for everybody, especially the musicians, except for one caveat: at least half of the program has to be "standard rep".  Their reasoning (viewable here in their mission statement page) is that "standard rep" works have stood the test of time for their "substance and profundity", and that ensuring that some older works make it on to every concert keeps the artistic quality high.  For many soloists and groups they were going to perform a standard work anyways, so this isn't an issue, but it is for groups like mine, other modern groups and groups that just don't like having to make every program built around something you hear on the radio every day.  I've never considered submitting a Cursive program for their consideration because I know it'll be rejected solely based on the rep, but that doesn't mean that Groupmuse upholds this policy 100% of the time.  

The only Groupmuse performance I attended was one by Trio Pardalote wherein they performed Hans Krasa's Theme and Variations and Jean Cras's gorgeous String Trio, the latter being the reason I wanted to go.  Neither of these works is in the "standard rep" but both have what could be called cult followings.  It was a great concert but was a bit deceptive, as it gave me hope that I could make a program that was as "standard" as that and get it selected.  I made a piano recital program of British Impressionist works, pieces that were not only rarely heard but that general audiences would probably really like, and submitted it only to have it rejected multiple times.  One could argue that I'm not a big enough name to be selected, or that the videos I had of myself performing on my Groupmuse page weren't good enough, but what cheesed me off was how the rejection notice came with the suggestion that my program could have been rejected because it didn't have enough standard rep on it.

Today I got an email from Groupmuse with a link to a survey asking if we had any suggestions for changing the model.  One of the questions was if Groupmuse failed to meet any of its mission statements - my response (slightly reformatted and revised) is below, and I'd like to submit it as an open letter, not just to Groupmuse but to the music community at large.  The issues addressed here matter not just to Groupmuse but to the whole classical music industry, and I hope that it will help focus the reasons I run Cursive, and write this blog, for readers and colleagues.

An Open Letter to Groupmuse:

You asked me in your survey if there were any issues with your business model, such as if your concerts didn't meet the goals stated in your "Mission & Values" page on your website.  My main issue is with the insistence that at least half the music performed needs to be "standard rep" classics, a claim that wasn't necessarily upheld at the Groupmuse I attended.  I was at Trio Pardalote's recital where they performed the Jean Cras String Trio and the Hans Krasa Theme and Variations, both excellent pieces but neither or them "standard rep".  What is or isn't "standard rep" is subject to change, and they way that someone like myself who's well-versed in classical music and was at that last concert interprets this clause is that you're trying to make sure that at least half the program consists of work(s) old enough to have been written when the "standard rep" pieces were new(er) works.  

I fully understand why you'd want this, as works before modernism largely fit the popular image of what classical music is supposed to sound like and lack things that audiences new to modern music might find ugly or offensive, such as strange harmonies and rhythms or unpleasant thematic material.  The mission statement talks about supporting "substance and profundity", which is all well and good, but just because something was written before 1910 doesn't mean it has either of those qualities.  Plenty of vapid classical music has "stood the test of time" simply because general audiences like it, and the establishment knows this and programs those pieces anyway.  That isn't to say that more modern music can't be vapid - there have just been more composers making music with each passing year.  There will always be vapid music, profound music and stuff in between.  

What your policy does is keep groups from performing music that is possibly unpleasant, or is written by a composer whose name doesn't appear at least once during every orchestra season.  It ensures some kind of consistency in drawing an audience, as the general public hasn't been encouraged to venture any farther than that in the classical genre, but it does little to expand the possibilities of local classical performance or do justice to works that deserve play but aren't famous.  Classical performers and record labels have been doing a lot of work in the last few decades to unearth excellent works that have been forgotten by the public and classical establishment and give them a new lease on life; whole record labels and groups have been established solely for that purpose.  Doing this isn't just for the sake of the music but is also a good business strategy as per supply and demand - create demand for your product by supplying something that the public can't get anywhere else.  

This is why I came to the Trio Pardalote concert, because they were playing great works that nobody else in the area is performing.  There's so much great music out there that doesn't get performed frequently that every chamber group in the community could perform full seasons of extremely obscure music, with no overlap, and have enough left over to do the same for decades.  That doesn't mean they have any encouragement to do so or even scratch the surface of this hidden rep.  If you want to keep the music pleasant, or stylistically consistent with music more than 100 years old, that's fine, but you ought to change your "mission statement" to reflect what you're really going for.  On the other hand, if you're really looking for substance and profundity, you could aim for programming that kind of music while still leaving the door open to music that's new to audiences, both recently written and written long ago.  I was there with the audience of the Trio Pardalote concert, one that was both engaging and fulfilled the "substance and profundity" goal, and the audience loved it.  

There's so much out there that general audiences could appreciate if they were shown the way.  People need encouragement to explore the arts, both creators and consumers, and there's no reason Groupmuse can't be an open and supportive environment for exploration.  Your structure is fantastic - it's a great deal for the musicians and creates a framework for fun, relaxed concerts in otherwise unlikely venues.  Why not open the door to performers and audiences who want something more than what they hear every day on the radio, who want a concert-going experience that doesn't kowtow to what the establishment thinks is "standard", who want to make their own way through the vast and wonderful world that is classical music?


Peter Nelson-King, founder of Cursive