As we mark the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, here are the soulfully defiant sounds of the New Orleans-based Treme Brass Band. This is music that proudly proclaims, “we’re still here!” It’s the same sense of spirit that emerges from the solemn jazz funeral procession that suddenly turns into an uplifting street celebration.
I heard the Treme band when I was in New Orleans, earlier in the summer. Here is Jesus on the Main Line from their 1995 album, Gimme My Money Back!
Jazz music is America’s past and its potential, summed up and sanctified and accessible to anybody who learns to listen to, feel, and understand it. The music can connect us to our earlier selves and to our better selves-to-come. It can remind us of where we fit on the time line of human achievement, an ultimate value of art.
Tomorrow, Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to be named a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater, will begin a two week stint on Broadway. Copeland will join the cast of the latest production of On the Town, playing the role of Ivy Smith.Here is a preview and here is Terry Teachout’s review of the production.
In the world of ballet, Misty Copeland is a ground breaker, redefining long-held views regarding the ideal body type of a star ballerina (she is muscular and five-foot-two and a half). Her celebrity status seems to be building bridges to new potential audiences. This interview provides some background on her extraordinary career.
On the Town, which originally opened on Broadway in 1944 with music by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, has roots in ballet. It was inspired by Fancy Free, the 1944 Ballet Theater collaboration between Bernstein and Jerome Robbins. At moments Bernstein’s score for Fancy Free may remind you of Stravinsky (5:07), or the bluesy sounds of Gershwin. This impetuous music is far from the blocky, squarely symmetrical phrases of traditional eighteenth and nineteenth century ballet music. Listen for all the fun, irregular, rhythmic surprises and sudden meter changes that continually catch us off guard. Sometimes the music seems to be on the verge of spinning out of control, but, miraculously, it always works itself out.
Here is Bernstein’s 1944 recording with the Ballet Theater orchestra (predecessor to the American Ballet Theater):
On the Town contains the same delirious, off balance, jazzy energy that we hear in Fancy Free. It’s an idealized snapshot of an optimistic, larger-than-life New York of dizzying vitality, and slender, exuberant skyscrapers. In this carefree dreamscape, a group of sailors are on a 24-hour shore leave during wartime 1944. Nothing seems to matter except the present.
The 1960 studio cast recording, conducted by Leonard Bernstein (excerpts below), showcases the virtuosic panache of New York theater musicians in the golden age of the Broadway pit orchestra.The show’s opening explodes with the frenetic hustle and bustle of New York, New York. Bernstein’s score is filled with subtle, but sophisticated details that you wouldn’t find in the average Broadway song. Listen to the repeating bass line of New York, New York and you’ll hear the first four notes of the melody (2:02, 3:09, and 3:59). Then there’s the downbeat defying, canonic madness of the dance music beginning at 4:45 with its irregular meter changes. Later in the excerpt, Bernstein can’t resist sneaking in allusions to Prokofiev (beginning around 7:00) and Shostakovich (9:15):
Three Dance Episodes from On the Town: Bernstein’s concert suite is made up of significant dance music from the show: Dance of the Great Lover (from the Dream Ballet, Act 2), Pas de Deux(from the “Lonely Town” Ballet, Act 1), Times Square: 1944(Finale, Act 1). “I believe this is the first Broadway show ever to have as many as seven or eight dance episodes in the space of two acts; and, as a result, the essence of the whole production is contained in these dances,” wrote Bernstein.
News of the devastating earthquake in Nepal has captured global attention this week. On Monday, Drew McManus, author of the popular orchestra business blog, Adaptistration, published a post encouraging donations to the Unatti Foundation, a non-profit organization serving orphaned and underprivileged children in Nepal. In 2010, McManus and cellist Lynn Harrell traveled to Nepal and worked at the Unatti Home, just east of Kathmandu.
Let’s listen to some music from this ancient and isolated land, surrounded by the Himalayas. Ful ko Thunga is performed by the Nepalese folk band, Kutumba, which uses traditional instruments including the Bamboo Flute, Sarangi (a string instrument), Madal (a hand drum), Tungna, Dhol, and Jhyamta. This is music that emerges out of a drone and develops slowly through repeating patterns and a strong rhythmic groove.
The Gurung people live in the foothills of the Annapurna mountains, a range of the Himalayas in Nepal. Their villages, tightly clustered like medieval towns, dot the slopes, surrounded by cascades of terraced fields…The people with whom I lived sometimes mentioned that though their lives were full of toil and hardship, they were fortunate to live in a place with ramrod haw a-pani, literally “good wind and water,” which in Nepali means a wholesome or pleasant climate. This phrase evokes not just a sense of good weather, but of a landscape that is kind and bountiful and creates propitious conditions for life. Although people in the village spoke of how loss and misfortune were inevitable in existence, a view shared by most Buddhists, what they stressed above all was the importance of living with grace, kindness, and generosity in the midst of suffering, and of cultivating appreciation and equanimity (a good climate, as it were) in one’s being, regardless of circumstances. The climate in the village was largely one of graciousness and good-humer, with the sorrows of life making its joys more poignant and amplifying the value of human connection.
Forget about the guitar or the banjo. The music of Kentucky-born singer-songwriter Ben Sollee (b. 1983) centers around an unlikely instrument: the cello. Sollee’s songs are an eclectic mix of bluegrass, folk, rhythm and blues and more. He approaches the cello as if there are no limitations. Listen to the colorful array of sounds he creates in this TED clip.
Touring on a bicycle, Ben Sollee has been an outspoken advocate for a series of social and environmental issues, including protesting Appalachian mountaintop removal. The Lincoln Memorial provided a backdrop for A Few Honest Words.
Sollee’s latest work, Steeples Part One, is a collection of three songs, released last month:
On Wednesday, the New York Philharmonic announced that violinist Frank Huang will become its new concertmaster, succeeding Glenn Dicterow who stepped down last June after 34 seasons.
The 36-year-old Huang is currently concertmaster of the Houston Symphony. He has held that position since 2010. Before joining the Houston Symphony, he briefly served as first violinist of the Ying Quartet and professor of violin and chamber music at the Eastman School of Music. He was a student of Donald Weilerstein at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Frank Huang was born in China. When he was 7 years old, his family relocated from Beijing to the Houston suburbs.
Frank Huang’s solo career was launched after he won first prize in the 2000 Hannover International Violin Competition and the 2003 Walter W. Naumburg Foundation’s Violin Competition. A 2003 recording released on the Naxos label features this performance of Franz Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie.
Here is Huang performing the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 11 for Houston Public Radio’s The Front Row. He is joined by cellist Sophie Shao and pianist Adam Golka.
This week a gloomy story came out in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette following a $100,000 audience development study conducted by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Taken at face value, the study seems to have uncovered some troubling community perceptions. Despite having one of the world’s greatest orchestras in their backyard, the focus group of non-ticket buyers perceived PSO concerts as “boring” and “stuffy.” At least one commentator is pointing out the study’s limitations and attempting to delve deeper into the data.
Regardless, the idea that orchestras must fundamentally change in order to attract new audiences has become a cliche. In some cases, orchestras have resorted to common sense-defying gimmicks in the name of “innovation.” It’s important to acknowledge that classical music exists on a different plane from mass media culture. A similar focus group might find Shakespeare “boring,” but in the long arc of time, Shakespeare endures as pop culture fades. There will always be an audience for great music.
For audience development and community engagement built on passion and sincerity, look no further than Holly Mulcahy, concertmaster of the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera. Read Holly’s blog, Neo Classicaland you begin to get a sense of the power of personal connections. Last week, Holly generated excitement with her performance of Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto with the Chattanooga Symphony. The concert seems to have attracted both young and old audience members. In anticipation of the performance, which was attended by the composer, a local bartender developed a special “Higdon cocktail.” It’s not every day that a contemporary piece is met with so much excitement. If Holly Mulcahy’s success can be taken as a model, personal interaction and passion for the community are essential ingredients for twenty-first century audience development.
Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto
Jennifer Higdon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Violin Concerto was written in 2008 and premiered by Hilary Hahn. The first movement is named 1726, the address of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia (1726 Locust Street). Higdon is on the faculty of Curtis. In the first movement, I hear echoes of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto (1:49-2:00).
Here is Hilary Hahn’s 2010 recording with Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko:
Here is the second movement, Chaconni. The barn-burning third movement, Fly Forwardwas inspired by visions of an Olympic race.
They say (quoting Goethe) that architecture is “frozen music;” so it seems appropriate to mark the sudden passing of one of the giants of American architecture. Michael Graves passed away yesterday at age of 80 at his home, “The Warehouse,” in Princeton, New Jersey. A member of “The New York Five,” he rose to prominence in the 1980s as one of the leading Postmodern architects. In keeping with postmodernism, Graves’ sometimes controversial architecture defied the formal purity and austerity of modernism and openly drew upon historical precedent. For example, the Denver Public Library (above) brought whimsical turreted towers to downtown Denver. Dignified columns lining the facade suggest the monumentality of ancient Rome.
Michael Graves’ buildings often exhibit cheerfully exuberant colors. Occasionally they play tricks with our sense of scale. The crown of Louisville’s 26-story Humana Building (below) evokes the bridges of the nearby Ohio River. The base of the building echoes adjacent historic storefronts, but at a blown-up scale. The base’s large windows and wacky proportions make the entire composition seem smaller than it actually is, and less overbearing to its neighbors. Simultaneously, it pays respect to history without copying it, creating something exciting and new. Unfortunately, aspects of Graves’ style were quickly (and less artfully) copied in strip malls across the country.
In conjunction with Alessi, Michael Graves was also influential in product design. For years his designs, ranging from tea kettles to clocks, were bestsellers at Target stores. Following a spinal chord infection in 2003, which left him paralyzed from the waist down, Graves developed a passion for improving hospitals and other facilities for the disabled.
There are some key differences and similarities between music and architecture: Music is pure art, while architecture is a mix of art and utility. A bad piece of music is avoidable and short-lived. An architectural mistake is there for a long time, and as Frank lloyd Wright pointed out, planting vines may be the only way to solve the problem. At their best, both music and architecture are “of the spirit.” Elegant solutions seem to flow out of limitations. Ideas emerge in a flash and then develop. From the inner ear of the composer to the architect’s pencil sketch, the same mysterious creative process is at work.
In a previous post we explored the similarities between architectural and musical postmodernism. For me, Michael Torke’s music embodies the same playful postmodern spirit we see in Michael Graves’ buildings. Listen to Javelin (1994) and see if you agree:
And here is Run (1992), a piece in which one exuberant motive finds continuous musical adventure. Listen to the way this motive slowly takes shape in the opening. Torke seems to make an almost cartoonish reference to Steve Reich’s additive process (gradual change by adding one note at at time).
Torke describes the piece saying,
Though this music is not meant to be programmatic, one could imagine the moving panorama and feeling of uplift in a morning jogger breathing in the still fresh urban air.
Yesterday, CBS News’ 60 Minutes aired a profile of James Levine, the conductor credited with building the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra into one of the best ensembles of its kind in the world. The interview details Levine’s return to conducting after two seasons spent recovering from injury. This was Bob Simon’s last interview before his tragic death in a car accident last month. If you missed The Maestro: James Levine, you can watch it here.
Every established conductor was once a student. This short clip shows a young Levine studying with George Szell, the legendary Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra between 1946 and 1970. Szell would later invite Levine to be his assistant in Cleveland.
Here’s the Overture from Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri from a 1986 Metropolitan Opera production with Levine conducting: