Your 2014 Christmas Playlist

xmas-tree-generic

With Christmas just a few days away, here is a short collection of music guaranteed to get you in the holiday spirit. Take a break from the rush of last minute shopping, light the tree, pour some eggnog and explore the playlist:

Pérotin’s Viderunt omnes

Let’s start off with music from the late 12th century. Pérotin was part of a group of composers at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral who were influential in early polyphony (more than one voice occurring at one time). Viderunt omnes is built on Gregorian chant, which was probably used in Paris for the Christmas Day liturgy. Here is a translation of the text:

All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.
Rejoice in the Lord, all lands.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
in the sight of the heathen
he has revealed his righteousness.

The long, sustained pitches of the original chant, known as a Cantus firmus, form the foundation for the musical lines above. Consider the way the music is flowing. Does it feel linear or circular? Listen to the way the voices fit together, sometimes in canon, and the way the music alternates between pure open fifths and octaves and occasional dense, crunching dissonances.

The music of Pérotin influenced modern minimalist composers such as Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt. In Reich’s Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboardsrepeating musical patterns gradually develop over long, sustained pitches.

Here is the Hilliard Ensemble:

Handel’s Messiah

The Christmas season isn’t complete without a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Here is a 1987 performance by Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with soprano Sylvia McNair, mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson, tenor Jon Humphrey, and Baritone William Stone:

Greensleeves

Christmas texts have been set to the folk song melody, Greensleeves since at least 1686. Here is Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves:

Now listen to the way another English composer, Gustav Holst combines the Greensleeves melody with dance music in the final movement of his Second Suite in F for Military Band. In 1912 Holst adapted the same music for strings in the St. Paul Suite. 

Christmas with the Pittsburgh Symphony Brass

The Pittsburgh Symphony Brass has released at least three Christmas recordings since the ensemble was formed in 1994. The group has the sound of a brass choir rather than a quintet, with both bass trombone and tuba. Listen to the rich, powerful harmonic overtones in their playing.

Here is Ding Dong Merrily on High and I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day:

Three Nativity Carols by Stephen Paulus

This excerpt comes from a CD called Wonder Tidings: Christmas music of Stephen Paulus.

Here is The Holly and the Ivy, This Endris Night, and Wonder Tidings:

A Resolution in Atlanta

Unknown-1The Atlanta Symphony’s two-month-long lockout ended over the weekend. With the help of federal mediation, musicians ratified a four year contract. The agreement halts ASO management’s attempt to gain “flexibility” by downsizing the orchestra, ensuring a compliment of 88 full time musicians by the contract’s final year. Read this article and visit Drew McManus’ Adaptistration for background and in-depth analysis.

The lockout (the second in Atlanta in two years) has delayed the start of the orchestra’s 70th season and raised questions about the stewardship of the ASO’s parent company, the Woodruff Arts Center. As Atlanta Symphony players scattered across the country to perform as freelancers in other orchestras, the Woodruff Arts Center board remained disturbingly ambivalent about the potential destruction of a world-class orchestra. In a rare and bold move, music director Robert Spano and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles spoke out about the potential destruction of the orchestra. It will be important for the community to continue to hold the Woodruff leadership accountable.

Mahler in the Mid-90s

In an earlier post, I highlighted a few of the Atlanta Symphony’s excellent recordings. As an addition to that list, here is Yoel Levi’s 1995 recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. The Israeli-born Levi was music director of the ASO from 1988-2000.  The recording highlights the Atlanta Symphony’s trademark refinement and polish. Even in the most powerful fortissimos, the trumpets, trombones and horns remain singing and blended. In the first movement’s funeral march, the whispering strings seem to slowly awaken (1:08). The Telarc label’s microphone placement seems to capture the sound from the perspective of distance, as you would hear it if you were sitting in the hall.

  1. Trauermarsch (Funeral March). In gemessenem Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt (0:00)
  2. Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz (Moving stormily, with the greatest vehemence) (12:51)
  3. Scherzo. Kräftig, nicht zu schnell (Not too fast, strong) (27:41)
  4. Adagietto. Sehr langsam (Very slow) (45:32)
  5. Rondo-Finale. Allegro – Allegro giocoso. Frisch (Fresh) (56:37)

Remembering Composer Stephen Paulus

composer Stephen Paulus (1949-2014)
Stephen Paulus (1949-2014)

American composer Stephen Paulus passed away yesterday due to complications from a significant stroke he suffered last year. He was 65 years old.

Paulus leaves behind a wide range of works, including three violin concertos. William Preucil recorded the first concerto with conductor Yoel Levi and the Atlanta Symphony in the early 1990s. That recording also features the thrilling, eleven minute adventure for orchestra, Concertante, written in 1989 (find on iTunes).

In addition to composing, Paulus was a longstanding member of the board of directors of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers).

Choral music will be an important part of Stephen Paulus’ legacy. One of his most celebrated works is the short Pilgrims’ Hymn from his Leo Tolstoy-based opera, The Three Hermits. Take a moment and listen:

Also listen to Hymn to the Eternal Flame and this setting of the the old American hymn, The Road Home.

The Fauré Requiem, A Lullaby of Death

Unknown-3Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem in D minor, Op. 48, the choral-orchestral setting of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, offers a uniquely serene and tranquil view of death. Influenced by chant, it floats on a peaceful and sometimes modal sea, The traditional Sequence section, the hellfire of the Day of Wrath, is omitted, while the Pie Jesu and In paradisum are added.

Written between 1887 and 1890, the Requiem was not motivated by personal tragedy or sombre thoughts of mortality. Fauré said, “My Requiem wasn’t written for anything–for pleasure, if I may call it that!” He added the following description:

It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience. The music of Gounod has been criticized for its overinclination towards human tenderness. But his nature predisposed him to feel this way: religious emotion took this form inside him. Is it not necessary to accept the artist’s nature? As to my Requiem, perhaps I have also instinctively sought to escape from what is thought right and proper, after all the years of accompanying burial services on the organ! I know it all by heart. I wanted to write something different.

The Requiem emerges out of a stern D minor chord. Two contrasting lines (the dark strings and shimmering vocal lines) take tentative steps in opposite directions. We can almost feel the power of the text’s divine light (“et lux perpetual“) with each harmonic change. The passing tone in the bass at 1:11 suggests a sudden moment of terror before resolving to safety. Between 1:35 and 2:19 we hold our breath in anticipation and then arrive at an unexpected, but sublime peace.

At moments, Fauré’s harmonies drift in directions which seem to anticipate the full blown impressionism of Debussy and Ravel (listen to the string lines between 9:00 and 9:28). At 11:00, notice that the “Te / decet / hymnus” motive (first heard at 3:34) returns. We hear this motive again in the Sanctus’s violin solo. The motive is dominated by the interval of a perfect fourth, which also becomes the opening interval of the Pie Jesu.

The serenely transcendent final movement, In Paradisum, drifts away into a childlike simplicity, innocence and joy.

Here is Robert Shaw’s outstanding recording with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus:

  1. Introït et Kyrie (D minor) 0:00
  2. Offertoire (B minor) 6:24
  3. Sanctus (E-flat major) 14:36
  4. Pie Jesu (B-flat major) 18:07
  5. Agnus Dei et Lux Aeterna (F major) 21:48
  6. Libera Me (D minor) 27:55
  7. In Paradisum (D major) 32:16

The Atlanta Symphony: A Tradition in Jeopardy

Unknown-3You could almost hear the classical music world’s collective groan on Sunday as the Atlanta Symphony became the latest orchestra to impose a lockout on its musicians. The lockout went into effect after both sides were unable to agree to a contract by an 11:59 Saturday deadline. This follows last year’s fifteen month long Minnesota Orchestra lockout, which resulted in the departure of the music director, executive director and numerous musicians.

At Adaptistration, Drew McManus provides excellent analysis of the situation, as well as some of the background:

In 2012, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) musicians were locked out after refusing to accept sharply concessionary terms. Approximately one month later, the musicians ostensibly caved and agreed to large reductions in wages, number of musicians employed, and a decline in weeks from 52 to 41. Two years later, that agreement has expired and the musicians have refused to accept an agreement that is, yet again, filled with additional concessionary terms even though the orchestra’s parent organization, Woodruff Arts Center (WAC), surpassed their most recent annual fundraising campaign and the ASO has trumpeted fundraising success to the tune of $5.5 million in corporate and anonymous donations since 2012.

Last week a leaked e mail, jointly written by Atlanta Symphony Music Director Robert Spano and Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles, warned that the organization’s world-class artistic standing is in jeopardy. A tradition which took many years to build can be destroyed quickly. Leadership in past generations did not build the current great orchestra with a visionless, “bean counting” approach.

It’s easy to see the Atlanta situation in a broader context of fading local power and investment and the rise of a faceless globalism which guts communities and promotes private rather than public good…a world of consumers rather than citizens. Where is the equivalent of George Eastman in our current order? Atlanta, an “alpha-world city“, boasts the fourth largest concentration of Fortune 500 headquarters in the country. It is wealthy beyond measure. It will be incumbent upon the citizens of the Atlanta area to take ownership of their orchestra and demand that its proud tradition continues.

Atlanta’s Recorded History:

In 1967 Robert Shaw, founder of the lauded Robert Shaw Chorale, became music director of the Atlanta Symphony. His many recordings include the Faure and Durufle Requiems and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Here he leads the orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony Chorus in an excerpt of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem. Here is Brahms’ Schicksalslied, Op. 54 (Song of Destiny):

In the 1990s music director Yoel Levi made many excellent recordings with the Atlanta Symphony. Here is Samuel Barber’s Essay for Orchestra, No. 2, Op.17:

Here is Christopher Theofanidis’ Rainbow Body with current Music Director, Robert Spano: