Finnish composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen has been an enthusiastic fan of Apple products for a while. In 2012 he helped develop the Orchestra app, designed as an exciting resource to demystify classical music for a new, tech-savy generation. Now he is featured in Apple’s new “Your Verse” iPad campaign. This website shows how the iPad has become an important tool for Salonen as a composer and performer.
Alex Ross talks about the cultural significance of the campaign:
The very phrase “classical music,” implying an art devoted exclusively to the past, banishes it into limbo. But I imagine that many composers will be pleased at the sight of Salonen’s mass-market breakthrough. Very simply, it says: We exist.
Apple, a company rooted in beautiful design, has created a visually stunning ad which cleverly depicts the birth and development of a musical motive. The music is part of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto, written for Leila Josefowicz and premiered in 2009 in Los Angeles. A new recording of the concerto has just been released to coincide with the campaign.
Here is the ad:
You can listen to the complete Violin Concerto here. From the virtuosic opening, it embraces the violin’s ethnic fiddle tradition. Splashes of color blend with occasional rock drum elements. Esa-Pekka Salonen discusses the piece here.
Another interesting Salonen piece I’ve been listening to this week is Nyx (2010). The title refers to the shadowy goddess of the night from Greek mythology. You might hear echoes of Sibelius, Bartók, Mahler and Strauss mixed with the atmospheric sounds of a movie soundtrack.
To develop the material takes time. Is this a beginning, end or middle? The best moments are the ones where I realize that the piece wants to go into a certain direction and perhaps it was a direction I wasn’t even aware of.
A recent University of Maryland School of Music student performance of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring is gaining well deserved attention. The performance was unique because it defied almost all of the conventions of the typical concert experience. There were no chairs or music stands onstage and there was no conductor. Instead, the 25-minute-long work was performed by memory and the musicians not only played, but incorporated elements of dance and motion created by Baltimore choreographer Liz Lerman. The Washington Post critic called it, “one of the standout performances of my many years in Washington.”
In 2012 the school offered a similar performance with Debussy’s sensuous Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The concept is similar to recent Broadway theater productions of shows such as Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, in which actors on stage also played instruments.
In this piece, the Washington Post’s Anne Midgette suggests that visual elements are an important ingredient to building new audiences:
What part does movement have in musical performance? Musicians seem uncertain — or unaware. On the one hand, it’s a new truism that classical music concerts “need” a visual element to captivate new audiences (“Classical music must, in order to survive, introduce visual elements into its presentation,” wrote Patricia Handy in her program notes for Augustin Hadelich’s ostensibly theatrical “Tango, Song and Dance” program at the Terrace Theater last week).
But how much truth is there in Midgette’s “new truism?” Statements such as these, part of a constant and often assumption-based media drumbeat that “classical music is dying”, seem dubious. Copland’s Appalachian Spring and other great music, when performed well, will always have an audience. The expressive power of music lies in the fact that it’s fundamentally about listening, not watching. Audience members who lack the attention span to really listen will miss the true experience. It’s the challenge of music education to teach audiences how to listen. Exposure to music at an early age is an important part of this education.
The University of Maryland’s exciting and heartfelt performance is interesting for what it is: a creative way to blend dance and music into a new kind of performance art. In this case, it may be especially successful because Appalachian Spring was written as a ballet. For the students, who gained a deeper understanding of the way the piece fits together and experienced it as chamber music, there is also value.
Here is the complete performance:
Ballet for Martha
Premiering in 1944, Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring was written for choreographer Martha Graham, who danced the leading role. It was originally scored for a chamber orchestra of 13 instruments. Listen to the original version here. Copland gave the piece the simple working title, Ballet for Martha. Later, after the music had been written, Graham suggested Appalachian Spring, a reference to Hart Crane’s poem, The Bridge:
O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge; Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends And northward reaches in that violet wedge Of Adirondacks!
From its opening pandiatonic chords, Appalachian Spring embodies a distinctly “American” sound. Rob Kapilow offers fascinating insights about the way the piece develops out of these chords and why they evoke the wide open spaces of the American frontier. The incorporation of variations on the Shaker melody, Simple Gifts, suggests a nationalism similar to the use of Russian folk songs in Stravinsky’s ballet music.
In this rare recording of Copland rehearsing Appalachian Spring with an unknown orchestra, we hear the composer urge musicians to play passages with less sentimentality, finding a more honest, “American” sound. The clip offers valuable insights into what Copland had in mind in terms of tone color, articulation and balance.
If you’re looking for a great recording of this piece, I recommend Leonard Bernstein’s 1983 recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Listen closely to Charles Ives’ Decoration Day and you may hear the lament of the dead.* The piece evokes ghosts of the battlefield and the distant echoes of small town New England observances of Decoration Day, the solemn American holiday of remembrance, started in the aftermath of the Civil War. It’s the holiday we now know as Memorial Day.
Decoration Day is the second movement of Ives’ four movement Holidays Symphony, written between 1897 and 1913. Ives intended each movement to function effectively as a stand-alone piece, and that is how it’s often programmed. The music is rooted in the mysterious power of memory-specifically Ives’ childhood memories of holiday celebrations. Fragments of folk songs, Civil War melodies, and hymns such as Adeste Fideles are layered, blending into a dreamlike atmosphere. Listen for the solitary trumpet call, Taps, the sounds of a marching band in a small town parade, and the concluding plagal cadence, used in the “Amen” of protestant hymns.
In the relative isolation of early twentieth century New England, Ives was pushing the boundaries of tonality in shocking ways, mirroring and in some cases anticipating similar developments in Europe. At times, Decoration Day sounds like a late Mahler adagio in terms of its orchestration as well as its disintegrating tonality.
Here is a recent recording by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony:
In the early morning the gardens and woods around the village are the meeting places of those who, with tender memories and devoted hands, gather the flowers for the Day’s Memorial. During the forenoon as the people join each other on the Green there is felt, at times, a fervency and intensity–a shadow perhaps of the fanatical harshness–reflecting old Abolitionist days. It is a day as Thoreau suggests, when there is a pervading consciousness of “Nature’s kinship with the lower order-man.”
After the Town Hall is filled with the Spring’s harvest of lilacs, daisies, and peonies, the parade is slowly formed on Main Street. First come the three Marshals on plough horses (going sideways), then the Warden and Burgesses in carriages, the Village Cornet Band, the G.A.R., two by two, the Militia (Company G), while the volunteer Fire Brigade, drawing a decorated hose-cart, with its jangling bells, brings up the rear-the inevitable swarm of small boys following. The march to Wooster Cemetery is a thing a boy never forgets. The roll of the muffled drums and “Adestes Fideles” answer for the dirge. A little girl on a fencepost waves to her father and wonders if he looked like that at Gettysburg.
After the last grave is decorated, Taps sounds out through the pines and hickories, while a last hymn is sung. The ranks are formed again, and “we all march to town” to a Yankee stimulant-Reeves inspiring Second Regiment Quickstep-though, to many a soldier, the sombre thoughts of the day underlie the tunes of the band. The march stops-and in the silence of the shadow of the early morning flower-song rises over the Town, and the sunset behind the West Mountain breathes its benediction upon the Day.
For more on Ives’ Holiday’s Symphony, watch this episode of Keeping Score with Michael Tilson Thomas. Listen to the final movement of the symphony, Thanksgiving Day, in my previous post.
*See the recently published book, Lament of the Dead: Psychology After Jung’s Red Book by James Hillman and Sonu Shamdasani.
David Lang’s Sweet Air (1999) is like a musical mosaic. Small fragments, combined in interesting ways, sparkle and shimmer, playing tricks on the ear. The piece suggests an altered sense of reality and time. Here is Lang’s description:
During a trip to the dentist my oldest son Isaac was given laughing gas. The dentist called it sweet air, a gentle name to take the fear out of having a cavity filled. It worked. My son experienced something—a drug—so comforting that it made him ignore all signs of unpleasantness. This seemed somehow musical to me. One of music’s traditional roles has always been to soothe the uneasy. I must say I have never been that interested in exploring this role. It is much easier to comfort the listener than to show why the listener might need to be comforted. My piece ”sweet air” tries to show a little bit of both. In ”sweet air,” simple, gentle musical fragments float by, leaving a faint haze of dissonance in their wake.
Pay attention to the way the parts fit together. How is the music flowing and developing? Does the atmosphere of the piece suggest something soothing, troubling, or a mix of both?
“God is in the details,” said Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), one of the most significant architects of the twentieth century. Mies followed a modernist “less is more” aesthetic, which eliminated decoration and stripped architecture down to fundamental elements of structure and proportion. The results were serenely powerful and soulful monuments such as New York’s Seagram Building.
Mies, whose father was a master mason and stonecutter, found beauty in materials. Bronze, travertine, marble and glass were used in the Seagram Building, making it the most expensive skyscraper ever built at the time of its completion in 1958. The building was set back from the street in the middle of a large plaza, providing a satisfying visual break from the relentless New York grid and reinforcing the contrast with surrounding pre-war masonry structures. Mies paid attention to the way the carefully spaced window panels and vertical bronze mullions related to the lines of the plaza. To preserve the crisp geometry, window shades could be operated in three positions: fully open, halfway open/closed, or fully closed.
As other architects began following Mies’ lead throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, sleek, boxy skyscrapers began popping up in cities across the country. Unfortunately, many of the imitations lacked the elegance and sense of proportion which made Mies’ buildings come alive.
Recently, I began thinking about the importance of attention to detail in music. How can I move from one note to the next in a way which allows the music to flow? How should a phrase be shaped? How can I convey the structure of a piece? What sound quality and tonal colors are appropriate to the emotion of the music? Playing the right note at the right time is often a challenge, but it’s just the beginning. Musicianship is about how the notes are played. It’s a combination of thought and intuition. Listening is essential.
The physical motions of violin playing can be broken down into parts. If a technical element seems difficult, it’s probably the result of lack of attention to a specific detail. For beginning students, it’s essential to slowly and carefully build a foundation and then allow the structure to rise, one step at a time. This is the key to a lifetime of effortless, injury-free playing. In music and architecture, God truly is in the details.
Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together. There it begins.
True education is concerned not only with practical goals but also with values. Our aims assure us of our material life, our values make possible our spiritual life.
I don’t want to be interesting. I want to be good.
After 34 years as concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, Glenn Dicterow will be stepping down at the end of this season. A native of Southern California, Dicterow has accepted a position as professor of violin at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. The New York Philharmonic has been honoring his service throughout the season.
As Dicterow explains, the concertmaster’s varied role goes beyond playing occasional orchestral violin solos. Within the violin section, the concertmaster determines bowings and helps to establish a uniform style of playing, based on the conductor’s musical vision. For section players, the peripheral sightline to the concertmaster is an essential part of playing cohesively. Additionally, concertmasters serve as an important link between the conductor and the orchestra. Under the best circumstances, a mysterious and instantaneous transfer of energy occurs between the conductor and the orchestra and between sections of the orchestra, resulting in chamber music on a large scale.
From my experience, the most successful concertmasters leave their egos at the door, are professional in demeanor, lead with a clear and unifying sense of rhythm, and foster an atmosphere of teamwork, mutual respect and cooperation.
Tradition and Renewal
Glenn Dicterow’s retirement comes during a period of unusually high turnover for the New York Philharmonic. A much needed renovation of Avery Fisher Hall also promises to bring significant change in the next few years. The lifeblood of any successful organization seems to be a healthy balance between tradition and renewal. Great conductors from Bernstein and Toscanini to Gustav Mahler have left their imprint on the sound of the New York Philharmonic over time. It will be exciting to see where the organization goes from here.
Dicterow Plays Brahms
While serving as concertmaster, Glenn Dicterow has remained active as a soloist and chamber musician. Through the years he has performed violin solos on movie soundtracks such as Beauty and the Beast(listen around the 0:45 second mark). Here is a live performance of Brahms’ Trio No. 1 in B Major, Op. 8. Dicterow is joined by cellist James Kreger and pianist Craig Sheppard:
In a previous post, I suggested that many of the greatest composers experienced a mysterious, heightened sense of musical insight in their final years, leading to some of the most profound and visionary music. Franz Schubert (1797-1828), who died at the tragically young age of 31, tapped into this sense of revelation at the end of his life. Following a series of charmingly tuneful classical symphonies, Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major (“The Great”)rose to the heroic, Romantic heights of Beethoven’s symphonies, although it differed from Beethoven in temperament and was rooted in melody rather than motive.
Equally profound is Schubert’s String Quintet in C major, D. 956, completed just two months before his death. In this piece, the addition of a second cello to the traditional string quartet brings a new dimension to the sound, creating an almost symphonic quality. This contrasts Mozart’s addition of a second viola in his quintets.
One interesting aspect of Schubert’s writing is his ability to draw upon the emotional significance of keys and their relationships. Listen for sudden modulations and harmonic surprises, like the turn to E-flat major (1:56). Consider how this new key, a third away, feels completely different.
The second movement features a contrast between the ethereal, almost time altering opening in E major and the turbulent second theme in a distant F minor. Listen to the way Schubert sums up this dichotomy at the end of the movement (34:00-34:37).
Pay attention to the way the the inner voices and cello pizzicati shape the way the music flows.
Here is a 1994 Naxos recording by the Villa Musica Ensemble:
“Fun” may be the best way to describe a Rossini opera overture. Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) was a master of long, expectation-building crescendos, sparkling, virtuosic woodwind solos and musical jokes, which included sudden, loud, out of place chords. These operas would have been considered popular entertainment-drama mixed with sports, in the form of the vocal acrobatics of the singers.
Recently, I ran across this exciting 1990 Metropolitan Opera performance of Rossini’s Semiramide Overture. As you listen, pay attention to the great sense of style in the playing and consider what elements make this music so much fun. Can you hear musical conversations taking place? Do the melodies and the sounds of the instruments suggest characters, distinct personas or dramatic situations?
Read the history and synopsis of the two act opera, based on a Voltaire tragedy, here.