John La Montaine has died. An interview on New Music Box here. La Montaine has surely become one of the least familiar Pulitzer Prize winning composers in history, but the music deserves to be better known. Give a listen to the Elegy movement of the piece that won the 1959 Pulitzer, his Piano Concerto. Jorge Bolet is the soloist.
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Tags: John La Montaine
Tags: BBC, MIttwoch aus Licht, Stockhausen
In the latest idiotic example of failing to mention a composer when writing about his composition, the BBC reports on a production of Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht that won an award from the Royal Philharmonic Society. Besides giving the false impression that the entire opera consisted of the famous sequence involving a string quartet played in helicopters, the article completely omits the name of the composer, referring to the piece as “Birmingham Opera Company’s Mittwoch aus Licht”. See more examples of composers gone missing here, here, here, and here. I think these things sometimes happen because pop music’s emphasis on the performer, often assuming the performer and the composer are one and the same, is getting carried over into the classical realm.
Tags: Carla Hale, Catholic Church, gay rights
Tags: Albany Symphony, Carnegie Hall, David Alan Miller, George Gershwin, John Harbison, Morton Gould, Spring for Music
Last night I was at the first of two important Harbisonian Gatsby performances happening within a few days of each other (the other being this). The Albany Symphony’s appearance at the Carnegie Hall “Spring for Music” festival offered a program of Morton Gould’s Third Symphony, the Gershwin Second Rhapsody (with pianist Kevin Cole), and The Great Gatsby Suite. Harbison writes that he avoided including in the Suite music from the opera’s overture or its six principal arias, preferring to rely instead on the instrumental interludes and the stage and radio band sequences. The result is not just a succession of tunes, but a newly shaped musical narrative, freed from the narrative depicted on stage in the opera while retaining its DNA. The piece remains a suite, but this sense of a new narrative, plus the fact that it plays continuously save for a single break, means it has something of a symphonic flavor.
David Alan Miller, Albany’s music director, believes strongly in the Morton Gould Third, and to a great extent he is right to do so, for there are remarkable pages here of harmonic beauty and rhythmic verve. It’s a big-boned four-movement piece, of its time in its neo-classicism, dissonanted tonal vocabulary, and jazzy gestures. The seven beat funeral march in the first movement and the polychords in the strings in the last movement were only a few of the striking moments. I found a fair bit of Shostakovich in the piece, though with many more meter changes and other rhythmic asymmetries. The ending struck me as a miscalculation, the few pages that return to the quick tempo unconvincing after the soulful dissonances that provide what would have been a sufficient cap to the piece.
Throughout the evening, the orchestra sounded terrific with a fine command of the jazz aspects of all three pieces. It remains a mystery as to how Albany can do such important and polished work on a budget that is not just a shoestring budget, but a broken shoestring budget – the short portion of the string.
My photo above shows Maestro Miller on the left with composer Harbison after the concert.
Tags: Albany Symphony, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, Emmanuel Music, John Harbison, Richard Dyer, Ryan Turner, Spring for Music
Go here for a substantial set of videos featuring Emmanuel Music’s Ryan Turner, along with John Harbison and Richard Dyer discussing John’s The Great Gatsby, to be performed by Emmanuel in Boston’s Jordan Hall this coming Sunday, May 12. Of particular interest in the videos are segments where John and Ryan perform excerpts from the piece, illustrating how the same motives and harmonies can be heard in both the synthetic period pop songs and in the main body of the work.
The Albany Symphony’s performance of a suite from The Great Gatsby as part of Carnegie Hall’s Spring for Music festival is tomorrow night, May 7 – tickets here.
Tags: Charles Rosen, Christopher Dingle, David Schiff, Do the Math, Elliott Carter, Ethan Iverson, George Walker, Joseph Kerman, Olivier Messiaen
I’ve been concentrating on getting the score of Sacred Songs and Meditations ready for the recording sessions and concert in July at the National Cathedral. (The concert isn’t showing up on their schedule of events just yet – it is set for Monday, July 8.) But you can’t copy edit all day, (well, you can, but the deadline isn’t quite here yet) so I have been doing a little reading.
I picked up George Walker’s memoirs, on the advice of Do the Math, and I agree with Ethan Iverson that the book is fascinating. Few artists of any kind are sufficiently valued, and the appreciation gap is especially large for composers. With an African-American composer like Walker you begin with that baseline lack of appreciation, but you have to add on the racism of America in general and that of the world of American classical music in particular. Walker has a right to be a good deal more angry than his courtly, measured prose conveys. The catalog of slights is endless – unsupportive teachers, performers who don’t follow up - but there is no full-fledged rage here. On the other hand, he is quick to be critical, even dismissive of big names, startlingly so at times – Iverson speaks of the “forest of barbs”.
There are times when the book reminded me of George Rochberg’s memoir, because in neither book is there much discussion of peers or influences, but in the interview on Do the Math, Walker does cite a number of pieces that he finds attractive. There are no surprises here, but also no unqualified enthusiasms. As Walker says in the interview in reference to a list of famous pianists, “I am not a devotee of any of them.”
I had not been aware of Walker’s stature as a pianist, that Serkin took him on as a student, for example. Here are two passages I’ve been quoting to my students:
In my first meeting with Serkin at Curtis, he asked me to prepare for my lesson the following week the Bach Prelude and Fugue in B Minor from book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Les Adieux Sonata of Beethoven, and three Chopin études: C-sharp minor, op. 10, F minor; and D-flat major, op. 25.
I had memorized all of the assigned work for my first lesson.
Now, it is unlikely that this music was totally new to Walker, but still, that’s a pretty good week’s work.
I need to get to know Walker’s music better. My sense in reading through the piano sonatas is, unsurprisingly, that this is the work of someone who really knows his way around the piano. I was struck, in the 4th Sonata, at how Walker carefully deploys contrasting registers of the piano, sometimes using octave doublings, sometimes what you might call “inexact doublings”, a term associated with the sevenths and ninths that dominate some of Messiaen’s birdsong textures, though in Walker’s piece the dissonances are part of a more orchestral type of piano texture.
Speaking of Messiaen, also on my current reading list is Messiaen’s Final Works by Christopher Dingle. I certainly know a good bit more about Messiaen’s harmony than I did before opening this book. Previously, my superficial understanding was simply that it was in some undefined way derived from the composer’s “modes of limited transposition”, but there are specific chords that recur much more than I realized. Much of the book is devoted to an analysis of Messiaen’s last completed work, Éclairs sur l’Au-Dela. It is odd to read about the premiere of this piece as an historical event, given that I was present for the premiere in November, 1992 with the New York Philharmonic. But I guess I have become an historical event myself…
I have also been recently re-reading parts of The Classical Style in honor of its recently deceased author, Charles Rosen. Could such a book be published in this way today, packed with specially prepared and nicely engraved musical examples throughout? That is the case with the Dingle book, but consider from several years ago the ineptly engraved examples for the second edition of David Schiff’s book on Carter*, or compare Joseph Kerman’s Concerto Conversations, where the musical examples have been hidden in the back of the book, along with the notes – I shouldn’t have to use three bookmarks to get around a book. Supposedly the score excerpts are off-putting to the non-scholarly reader, though why you can’t just skip over them is inexplicable to me. I also wonder, with so much technical discussion, could The Classical Style win a National Book Award today?
Okay, enough, I better get back to work, especially since I plan to go to NYC for the Albany Symphony this coming Tuesday. Will report on that later this week.
* This is an odd case – Schiff’s actual writing is a tremendous contribution, but not only are some of the musical examples badly engraved, there are in some copies photographs mentioned on the dust jacket as being included in the book that are missing, and the headings over the descriptions of individual works are inconsistently edited. Was the book rushed into print for Carter’s 90th birthday?
Tags: Do the Math, Elliott Carter, Ethan Iverson
@James: Thanks for your comment. I’m sure many other smart classical musicians agree with you. I will let the matter rest there except to note that the “big polyrhythm” lurking in the background of any of my comparisons between jazz and classical is race.
Which I take to mean that smart jazz musicians would not agree with me. But agree or disagree about what? I am not sure what part of my comment he is referring to. My guess is that the thing that smart jazz musicians would disagree with is the question of whether some classical musicians – a tiny minority – might also have professional level jazz abilities – whether they have any grasp of what Iverson refers to as the “folk music” aspect of jazz practice. Maybe the problem is what “professional” means – that what I am thinking of as sufficiently competent to be called professional is far from professional in the judgement of a smart jazz musician. But I still think at least some musicians today are able to engage with a variety of musical practices competently, whether their primary practice is classical or jazz. I haven’t heard Iverson play classical solo piano, but I expect he does a great job.
Although I did not bring up the issue of racism in my comment, I certainly didn’t mean to deny its importance either. Iverson’s point about unequal institutional support for classical and jazz musicians is quite correct.
Tags: David Burge, George Crumb
I was surprised to see that there was little if any commentary online on the passing of pianist and composer David Burge earlier this month. He was an extraordinary champion of 20th century music, perhaps most notably that of George Crumb, who wrote his Five Pieces for Piano and the first volume of Makrokosmos for Burge. I saw him play the second book of Makrokosmos in Cleveland in the 1970s, and can report he had a complete mastery of Crumb’s expanded piano techniques. The performance was an experience of electrifying, even terrifying intensity, as in the “Tora! Tora! Tora! (Cadenza Apocalittica)” movement. I strongly recommend his book surveying the 20th century piano repertoire for its insights and for its sheer readability. It also includes a CD of Burge performances. Burge taught at Eastman for a number of years; Marilyn Nonken was among his notable students. I imagine he must have been a great teacher on the basis of an inspiring talk I heard him give, I believe at a festival of music for the keyboard at the Hartt School in about 1980, where he spoke of the pianist as shaman, enacting rituals at the piano for the listening tribe.
There is not a great deal of Burge on YouTube, but here is his recording of Rochberg’s 12 Bagatelles. I would guess the picture above is from the time of the Crumb Five Pieces in the early sixties.
Tags: Albany Symphony, David Alan Miller, Emmanuel Music, James Levine, John Harbison, Spring for Music, The Great Gatsby
Judging from what you can hear on the trailer, you won’t be going to the upcoming film of The Great Gatsby for the music. Seekers of a musical Gatsby should be getting their tickets for the Boston premiere of John Harbison’s opera on the subject, being given by Emmanuel Music in a concert version featuring the the full orchestration.* This will take place at Jordan Hall on Sunday, May 12.
A few days before the Boston performance you can preview some of the music from the opera in a May 7 Carnegie Hall concert by the Albany Symphony, with David Alan Miller conducting. The program will include a suite from Harbison’s work, alongside music by Gershwin and Morton Gould. This is part of Carnegie’s Spring for Music festival of orchestral concerts.
It is nearly inexplicable to me that Harbison’s opera was not more universally praised on its first appearance. I say “nearly” because the tempi of conductor James Levine did make the piece lose momentum at moments, leading critics to interpret a performance flaw as a compositional one. There was certainly plenty of praise for the piece, as the quotes on G. Schirmer’s web page confirm. But apart from Bernard Holland’s despicably condescending take, most of the reviews mix admiration with niggling at details, or vague reservations. Alex Ross didn’t care of the setting of Gatsby’s first entrance, with a long note on the first word of “I’m Gatsby.” What did he want, a long note on the first syllable of “Gatsby”? You’d have something akin to the current fad of goat vocalism on YouTube. Mark Swed remarks that “Harbison may have solved too many problems.” He would prefer that the piece have unsolved problems? It’s hard to know what that means, given that Swed goes on to describe how the composer succeeds in creating a dramatic narrative. I was amused to read how Holland and Swed had precisely opposite opinions on the staging and design of the production.
Listening to the piece again on the recording issued by the Met as part of a James Levine 40th anniversary CD collection, one thing that struck me, besides Levine’s tendency to drag the pacing at moments, was how poorly the chorus sounds, singing the synthetic 20′s pop songs with an unpleasantly and totally inappropriate heavy vibrato. (I’m sure Emmanuel won’t have that problem.) Still, the performances by the all-star cast (Upshaw, Hadley, Hunt-Lieberson, Graham) make up for these deficiencies. It’s good to have the recording because repeated listenings confirm that the piece is musically substantive in a way that few post-war operas are. There is a real composer at work here, folks – maybe the problem with the reception of the piece is that listeners to contemporary opera aren’t accustomed to that.
* In an earlier version of this post, I had assumed that the chamber orchestra version (prepared for a production in San Francisco) was being done. Apologies to Emmanuel Music for the error!