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:

Paganini’s Catchy Tune

Niccolò Paganini
Niccolò Paganini

It’s a simple and catchy melody…so memorable and ripe for development that, for over 200 years, composers haven’t been able to stop using it as the inspiration for an unending stream of variations. Set in A minor, the theme of Niccolò Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 bounces between tonic and dominant (scale degrees I and V), before entering a downward sequence which brings the melody home. A series of variations follow, which almost push the violin, and the violinist, to their limit. 

With Paganini, the age of the dazzling virtuoso rock star was born. Soloists such as Paganini and Franz Liszt became larger-than-life heroes, mesmerizing audiences in Europe’s new public concert halls. Written between 1805 and 1809, Paganini’s 24 Caprices are a series of short, unaccompanied virtuoso miniatures. Each caprice features a unique technical challenge, from flying ricochet bowing, to left hand pizzicato, to fingered octaves and multiple stops. Caprice No. 24 is the collection’s electrifying finale.

Let’s start by listening to the catchy theme and variations which have inspired so many composers. Notice how many far-reaching variations spring from Paganini’s theme and the distinct atmosphere created by each variation. Consider the uniquely fun spirit surrounding a musical theme and variations. It’s as if the composer is saying, “Look what I can do!” Each musical adventure seems to eclipse the last, while, like jazz, it’s all based on the same blueprint or musical DNA.

Here is Caprice No. 24 played by Ilya Kaler:

Liszt’s Grandes études de Paganini

While Paganini expanded the technical capabilities of the violin, Franz Liszt set out to revolutionize piano technique. In 1838 he published a collection of “studies” based on Paganini Caprices. Beyond the obvious virtuoso fireworks, the music exhibits a striking harmonic inventiveness. Listen to the almost demonic fifth variation (1:55), which would sound at home in a contemporary film soundtrack.

Here is Etude No. 6 performed by Jerome Rose:

Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Paganini

In 1863 Johannes Brahms wrote his own Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 35. Like Liszt, Brahms intended these variations to be “studies,” focusing on a variety of aspects of piano technique. He presented them in two books.

One of Brahms’ favorite compositional techniques is to shift our perception of the downbeat, causing us to become momentarily “lost”. Listen carefully and you’ll hear fairly shocking examples of this rhythmic complexity (3:31). Brahms also begins to move away from Paganini’s established harmonic blueprint into increasingly adventurous territory (4:55, 7:28, 8:47, 15:11, 20:09). The original motives are fragmented, turned upside down and re-harmonized. Suddenly new and strikingly different melodies and harmonies emerge.

Brahms achieves an amazing sense of drama in this piece. At times, it’s easy to hear distinct characters coming to life in the voices. Listen for conversations which take place between these voices, low and high.

Here is Andrea Bonatta:

Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

The most famous piece inspired by Caprice No. 24 is Sergei Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, written in 1934. Rachmaninov was the piano soloist at the premiere in Baltimore in November, 1934. The Philadelphia Orchestra was conducted by Leopold Stokowski. You can hear Rachmaninov’s 1934 recording here.

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is a musical romp, incorporating all of the fun and virtuosity associated with a theme and variations, but also evoking a wide range of expression. The piece exudes a spirit of humor, from the simultaneously ferocious and comic opening bars, to the sly musical wink at the end. Rachmaninov throws us off guard, first presenting the first variation, a bare bones outline of the theme with the melody stripped away, and then Paganini’s original theme in the violins. In Variation VII the Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”) chant from the medieval Mass of the Dead emerges (3:29). Composers from Berlioz and Mahler to George Crumb have quoted the Dies Irae, but it seems to have had special significance for Rachmaninov, who returned to it in several compositions.

The famous 18th variation (15:05), which inverts the original theme and transposes it to D-flat major, is one of the piece’s most significant moments. As a musical event, it is set up by the two preceding variations, which gradually take us into a tunnel of darkness and anticipation. Listen carefully to the tension and drama in the inner voices, under the 18 variation’s melody line.

Here is a recording with Nikolai Lugansky and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra:

Coda

There are many other pieces inspired by Paganini’s Caprice No. 24. Violinists from Eugene Ysaye to Nathan Milstein have put their own stamp on the music. In addition, listen to variations by Witold Lutoslawski, Benny GoodmanAndrew Lloyd Webber and a recent jazzy composition by Fazil Say.

Adolf Busch: The Violinist Who Stood Up to Fascism

German violinist, Adolf Busch (1891-1952)
German violinist Adolf Busch (1891-1952)

Tully Potter’s collection of books and CD’s, Adolf Busch- The Life of an Honest Musician, published in 2010, tells the remarkable story of one of the twentieth century’s greatest violinists. In the years leading up to the Second World War, Adolf Busch toured Europe as an exponent of the classic German style of violin playing, which had been associated with Joseph Joachim. The leader of the Busch Quartet, as well as a chamber orchestra, Busch’s approach to violin playing favored musicianship over dazzling displays of virtuosity.

The rise of Hitler in the late 1920s tested the eternally political and backbiting classical music profession. Musicians such as Wilhelm Furtwängler and Richard Strauss reportedly didn’t approve of the Third Reich (neither joined the Nazi Party), but both tolerated Hitler, motivated by career preservation. As Potter’s book recounts, the Busch Quartet arrived in Berlin on April 1, 1933, the day the Nazis began a targeted assault on Jewish businesses. Following the evening’s concert, Busch, who was not Jewish, cancelled his entire German tour. He settled in Switzerland and watched as fascism spread throughout Europe. Hitler’s efforts to lure back “the world’s greatest German violinist” fell on deaf ears. 

Eventually, Busch emigrated to the United States. He never regained the reputation he had enjoyed in Europe. American audiences were enthralled with younger, flashier artists such as Jascha Heifetz and Busch’s style of playing may have seemed out of date. Listening now, it’s easier to recognize Busch’s artistry. The recording below showcases a deep and mature musicianship, a straightforward and honest sense of timing and a beautifully pure sound.

Yehudi Menuhin hinted at similar attributes as he remembered lessons with Adolf Busch:

Busch’s teaching was…musical rather than violinistic. If he didn’t have Enesco’s flair or glamour, as a musician he was extremely serious and deep, a passionate fundamentalist who ate, breathed, and slept Bach and Beethoven. He played the violin cleanly and beautifully, if with no Russian or Gypsy touch.*

Here is a 1930s recording of Busch and pianist Rudolf Serkin playing Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 100. The duo founded the Marlboro Music School and Festival in 1951.

Here are the second and third movements. Also listen to the Busch Quartet’s dramatic and fiery reading of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” String Quartet. 

Adolf Busch was also active as a composer. Listen to his Violin Concerto here. Read this review and watch this video to learn more.

*Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz (pg. 327)

Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F Minor

Brahms Piano QuintetA ferocious, restless energy characterizes Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34. It’s music which is constantly developing and evolving from the smallest motivic seed.

At first Brahms wrestled to find the right instrumentation. The music started out as a string quartet, developed into a sonata for two pianos and then, on the recommendation of Clara Schumann, found its true form as a marriage of piano and strings. This evolution is similar to the compositional process of the First Piano Concerto, which was originally intended to be a symphony. It’s almost as if the piece was telling Brahms what it wanted to be as he composed.

Brahms completed the Piano Quintet in 1864, when he was in his early 30sListen for complex rhythmic shifts-moments where you might lose track of the downbeat. Also, listen for the reference to Beethoven’s Late String Quartets in the opening of the last movement.

Here is a classic 1968 recording with pianist Christoph Eschenbach and the Amadeus Quartet:

  1. Allegro non troppo 00:00
  2. Andante, un poco Adagio 14:44
  3. Scherzo. Allegro – Trio 23:37
  4. Finale. Poco sostenuto – Allegro non troppo 31:51

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Glenn Dicterow’s Long Goodbye

Glenn Dicterow
Glenn Dicterow

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:

Here are the secondthird and fourth movements.

Developing Motives

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Like Beethoven, Johannes Brahms approached music motivically. Listen to Brahms’s Intermezzo in A Major, Op. 118, No. 2 and pay attention to the first three notes. The entire piece develops organically from this small, seemingly insignificant musical cell. These three notes and the underlying harmony set up a musical question in search of an answer…a problem to be resolved. The next three notes reach further, heightening expectation. Can you sense an evolving process working itself out as the music searches for just the right note? Where is each phrase, or musical sentence leading? Consider these questions and get a general sense of the piece as you listen to this performance by pianist, Radu Lupu:

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Think about the emotions you felt as you listened. Did you sense something majestic, dreamlike, maybe a touch of sadness? The power of this music lies in its ability to communicate all of these emotions and more, in a way that goes beyond words.

Now, let’s go back and listen again. Pay close attention to the harmony in the opening six notes. When these six notes return at 0:13, notice that Brahms gives us a completely new harmony. How does harmony effect the emotional meaning of the music? Why does it feel different the second time? You probably noticed other examples of this throughout the piece. (Listen at 0:46, 1:41-1:56 and 2:49-3:13). In each case, the same handful of notes are harmonized in different and unexpected ways, leading to different emotional connotations.

Focus on all voices within the texture. At 1:17 notice the opening motive popping up down in the lowest voice of the pianist’s left hand. Listen to the imitative counterpoint between voices at 2:15.

This piece is an example of Binary form, meaning that it has two distinct sections. The “B” section begins at 2:13. How does this section contrast what came before? Listen to the magical moment when the “A” section returns (3:41-3:58). It’s as if the music is trying to “remember” the opening motive after all of the adventures of the “B” section.

The more you listen to this piece, the more you’ll hear. I’ve started you off by pointing out a few details in the music, but I hope you will also listen freely and allow the music to wash over you. Have fun as you continue to listen and leave a comment in the thread below with your thoughts.