Classical Music Has Long Been at Home on Sesame Street

Isaac Stern with Elmo
Isaac Stern plays a duet with Elmo

In August came the surprise announcement that the popular children’s television program Sesame Street will be moving to HBO. (Reruns will still appear on PBS). The show’s nonprofit producers reached a five-year agreement with HBO. For 45 years Sesame Street has been freely available to the community on Public Broadcasting.

Sesame Street‘s controversial move has raised broader questions about the commodification and privatization of the arts and education at the expense of the public realm. The effect on future programming remains to be seen. But a quick glance back shows that classical music has long been at home on Sesame Street, perhaps giving some children their only exposure to the art form.

Here is a sampling of some of the prominent musicians who have appeared on Sesame Street over the years. Many of these skits involve wacky and unsophisticated comedy. (When Isaac Stern asked for “an A” as a tuning note, he was presented with the letter A). The muppets seem to be asking the questions children might ask if they were there.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

The Kronos Quartet

Renée Fleming

Gustavo Dudamel

Wynton Marsalis

Lang Lang

Yo-Yo Ma

Seiji Ozawa

Itzhak Perlman

Kleinhans Music Hall Turns 75

Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo
Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo, New York

 

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the opening of Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo, New York.

Home of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Kleinhans is considered one of the world’s most acoustically perfect concert halls. It’s also one of Buffalo’s most significant architectural landmarks. Located in a leafy residential neighborhood just north of the city’s downtown, it anchors majestic Symphony Circle, part of Frederick Law Olmsted’s extensive parkway system which runs throughout the city. The Main Auditorium, featuring rich primavera flexwood walls and striking recessed lighting, has a seating capacity of around 2,800. A smaller multi-purpose hall seats 800. The lobby is a smoothly curving 40-by-185 foot Winona travertine arc.

The history of Kleinhans is a story of community-minded public investment. In the 1930s, Edward and Mary Seaton Kleinhans, who made their fortune from a high-end men’s clothing store which opened in Buffalo in 1893, specified that their estate be used “to erect a suitable music hall…for the use, enjoyment and benefit of the people of the City of Buffalo.” Additional funding came from the Works Progress Administration. The Buffalo Philharmonic and conductor Franco Autori performed the opening concert on October 12, 1940.

Kleinhans’ sleek, timeless design was created by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen and his son, Eero Saarinen (who went on to design the iconic Gateway Arch in Saint Louis and the TWA Terminal at JFK Airport, along with some of the twentieth century’s most enduring furniture). Buffalo architects F.J. and William Kidd were also involved. Eliel Saarinen’s objective was to create “an architectural atmosphere…so as to tune the performers and the public alike into a proper mood of performance and receptiveness, respectively.”

Megan Prokes, a member of the Buffalo Philharmonic first violin section, shares a uniquely personal perspective on what it’s like to go to work at Kleinhans Music Hall:

Kleinhans Music Hall has always been an important part of my life in music. My parents moved to Buffalo not long before I was born, my father having acquired a job with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Both of my parents are professional musicians, so it was only natural that as my younger sister and I grew up, we spent a lot of time at Kleinhans. My earliest memories of the hall are snapshots; the cacophony of instrumentalists warming up onstage before tuning, the broad staircases up to the balcony, the seemingly endless tunnels backstage and downstairs that lead to the music library, the musician locker areas, and out into the lobby through almost-hidden doors. Though it may sound strange, my most vivid and longest-held memory of Kleinhans is the scent of it, which has never changed. Familiar and comforting, I’d know blindfolded exactly where I was within a few seconds of entering the building.

When I think back on my childhood and early adulthood in Buffalo, and about my progress as a violinist, I see it mirrored in my relationship with Kleinhans. When I was little my mother would take my sister and me to the Discovery Concert series and I would look for my father, watch him as he came onstage. As I got older and more serious about music and the violin, I began to attend Classics concerts. I would sit impatiently, waiting for soloists like Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Gil Shaham and many others to take the stage and teach me about passion, technique, dedication, and artistry. Backstage at every age, I would look forward to saying hello to all of my parents’ friends, my heroes, those who had taken their love of music and their instrument and made it their life. They always inquired after what I was working on, making me feel like a part of their world.
 
Now, as an adult and a three-season member of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra myself, I look forward to working and performing in Kleinhans every day. The acoustics are everything that everyone says; rich, warm, well-balanced. While some say there’s no such thing as a “best seat in the house”, my favorite place to sit is front and center of the balcony. However, it is the entirety of what Kleinhans means to me, the representation of music and family, that makes it so special. My passion has become my lifestyle, my heroes have become my colleagues, and Kleinhans has become my second home.
 
interior view
interior view

 

BPO History Through Recordings

The 75th anniversary of Kleinhans Music Hall provides a great opportunity to celebrate the rich musical tradition of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and to consider the ways an orchestra’s sound and style of playing are shaped by its hall. From the beginning, new innovative programming seems to have been one of the orchestra’s hallmarks.

Here is the orchestra’s first recording, made in 1946 at a newly-opened Kleinhans. In this excerpt, William Steinberg conducts Shostakovich’s Symphony 7 “Leningrad,” which at that time was a five-year-old work. Steinberg served as the BPO’s music director between 1945 and 1952:

Austrian conductor and violinist Josef Krips was music director between 1954 and 1963. In this live concert performance at Kleinhans on November 19, 1957, Krips leads the BPO in Mahler’s First Symphony:

American composer, pianist, and conductor Lukas Foss brought new, highly adventurous music to the Kleinhans stage during his tenure as music director between 1963 and 1971. His first concert with the BPO included the orchestra’s debut performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Buffalo audiences were less than enthusiastic about Foss’ avant-garde programming, but he continued to push the envelop, saying, “To take refuge in the past is to play safe. Safety lurks wherever we turn. Show me dangerous music.”

Foss’ GEOD, written in 1969, features amplification and strange collage techniques which might remind you of sounds The Beatles were creating around the same time. The music floats through a mysterious, gradually changing landscape. As fragments of folk songs emerge and disappear, the spirit of Charles Ives seems to be lurking in the background.

Michael Tilson Thomas, music director between 1971 and 1979, continued Buffalo’s tradition of innovative programming. Here is Sun Treader by American composer Carl Ruggles (1876-1971):

Current Music Director JoAnn Falletta has extended the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s discography with numerous releases on the Naxos label. One of her most interesting projects has lifted the music of Marcel Tyberg, a composer who perished at Auschwitz, out of obscurity. Falletta tells the amazing story of how Tyberg’s scores survived and ended up in Buffalo.

Here is Marcel Tyberg’s Symphony No. 3 in D minor:

Remembering Walter Weller

conductor Walter Weller (1939-2015)
conductor Walter Weller (1939-2015)

 

Austrian conductor and violinist Walter Weller passed away last Sunday at the age of 75. Weller was one of the last links to a Viennese musical tradition rooted in the nineteenth century.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Walter Weller joined the Vienna Philharmonic at the age of 17, eventually becoming one of its concertmasters. In addition, he performed as first violinist of the Weller Quartet. In 1966 he was asked to fill in on short notice for the conductor Karl Böhm. This launched a conducting career that included regular appearances at Vienna State Opera and Volksoper and principal conductor posts with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the Scottish National Orchestra. In an article in Glasgow’s Herald Scotland, music critic Michael Tumelty said that Weller

had a seminal influence on the sound of [the RSNO] that extends to this day. He brought a depth and richness of sound that nobody else ever has.

Conductor Kenneth Woods offered this description in 2007.

Walter Weller leaves behind an extensive discography, ranging from music of Martinu and Suk to the complete symphonies of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Prokofiev. Here is his 2004 recording of Mendelssohn’s overture, The Hebrides, Op. 26, “Fingal’s Cave” with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Throughout the overture, we hear the windswept mystery of the remote Scottish islands Mendelssohn visited around 1829…the play of light and shadow on the water and the rugged cliffs surround Fingal’s Cave. This sense of mystery remains unresolved in the final chords. Weller’s performance comes to life with fiery excitement and also with incredibly soft moments of introspection:

Here is Walter Weller’s 2006 recording with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra of Beethoven’s overture, The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43. The overture opened Beethoven’s 1801 ballet score.

Here is the final movement from Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony No. 1 from a 1975 recording with the London Symphony Orchestra. It’s hard to imagine a more exciting performance. Listen carefully to the little interjections throughout this joyful whirlwind of a movement:

Bring on the Wascally Wabbit

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The Richmond Symphony season is winding down. But this weekend we’ll be busy performing the popular touring show, Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II with conductor George Daugherty. The show is a tribute to the music of classic Warner Brothers’ cartoons. Generations of viewers gained an exposure to classical music through these zany cartoons, which included:

Schoenberg Meets Looney Tunes

Cartoons had an interesting influence on John Adams’ Chamber Symphony, written in 1992. Here is an excerpt from the composer’s website:

I originally set out to write a children’s piece, and my intentions were to sample the voices of children and work them into a fabric of acoustic and electronic instruments. But before I began that project I had another one of those strange interludes that often lead to a new piece. This one involved a brief moment of what Melville called “the shock of recognition”: I was sitting in my studio, studying the score to Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, and as I was doing so I became aware that my seven year old son Sam was in the adjacent room watching cartoons (good cartoons, old ones from the ’50’s). The hyperactive, insistently aggressive and acrobatic scores for the cartoons mixed in my head with the Schoenberg music, itself hyperactive, acrobatic and not a little aggressive, and I realized suddenly how much these two traditions had in common.

The witty, spare instrumentation of Adams’ Chamber Symphony is a direct reference to Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, Op. 9, written in 1906. Listen to Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 and you’ll hear what happens when you push the chromaticism of Richard Strauss’ music just a little further and over the edge into atonality.

Beyond the instrumentation, Adams’ Chamber Symphony, “infected” with its cartoon-inspired elements, goes in a slightly different direction. Its outer movements drive forward with an unrelenting pulse as exhilarating musical volleys fly by. At moments it’s Stravinsky with a drum set. The wandering trombone solo in the second movement seems to have taken a wrong turn from some unwritten chorale line in Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler (1934).

We hear a host of outrageous and indestructible characters. Despite crazy, fast-paced adventures, collisions, explosions and other mishaps, the beat goes on. And in each movement, one of the most interesting aspects of this piece is what happens around this steady and undisrupted pulse.

Here is the Aurora Orchestra’s performance from their recording, Road Trip, released last year:

1. Mongrel Airs:

2. Aria with Walking Bass:

3. Roadrunner:

What did you think of John Adams’ Chamber Symphony? It’s a piece that can inspire strong emotions. Regardless of whether you loved or hated the music, take a moment and tell us about your experience in the thread below, as well as any other thoughts on music and cartoons.

A La Bohème Masterclass

51af882584fdd556b9e8dc86894435dcOpera, with its rich blend of music, drama and staging, is one of the most complex art forms on the planet. If you’ve ever been curious about the myriad of subtle details that singers encounter as they bring an opera scene to life, watch the clip below from a young artists’ workshop at London’s Royal Opera House. Conductor Sir Mark Elder coaches soprano Susana Gaspar and tenor Michel de Souza in Marcello and Mimì’s duet from Act 3 of Puccini’s lushly romantic La Bohème. Along the way, we gain insight into Puccini’s music.

La Bohème doesn’t open with an overture. Instead, a sudden, exhilarating burst of energy launches us into the first scene set in Marcello and Rodolfo’s modest and chilly flat. As Elder mentions, this music originated in Puccini’s student composition (and Milan Conservatory thesis), Capriccio sinfonicoThe first Act culminates with the intimate duet, O soave fanciulla, sung here by Teresa Stratas and José Carreras in a 1982 Met production.

Watching great singers up close is a reminder that opera singing, by nature, is an athletic endeavor. A tremendous physical effort is made to look easy. In this respect, there’s a side of opera that is pure sport. But, in this masterclass, Mark Elder takes us beyond the mechanics and challenges us to hear the small details that make the drama of La Bohème come alive:

Walter Piston’s Second Symphony: A Neglected Mid-Century Gem

Walter Piston’s Second Symphony, written in 1943, is one of those mid-twentieth century American musical gems that deserves to be heard more often. Following its National Symphony Orchestra premiere in March, 1944, conductor Hans Kindler declared that the symphony,

is without even the shadow of a doubt one of the half dozen great works written during the last ten years. It sings forever in my heart and in my consciousness, and it does not want to leave me.

American composer Walter Piston (1894-1976)
American composer Walter Piston (1894-1976)

A year later, the work was performed by the Boston Symphony, NBC Symphony and New York Philharmonic. But, with the exception of a few recordings, it has fallen largely off the radar.

The unfair perception of Walter Piston as a dry, Ivy League academic and later a twelve tone composer (as heard in his Eighth Symphony) may be partly to blame. Born in Rockland, Maine in 1894, Piston served for many years on the faculty of Harvard University. His students included Leroy Anderson, Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, John Harbison, and Daniel Pinkham. As a music theorist he is remembered as the author of a series of respected textbooks: Principles of Harmonic Analysis, CounterpointOrchestration, and Harmony. Aaron Copland described Piston as, “one of the most expert craftsmen American music can boast.” But as conductor Gerard Schwarz noted, with the advantage of hindsight, Piston’s music goes beyond craft:

In some ways Piston was the dean of American music. But as a result of his intellect and his association with the university environment, he was considered to be a somewhat dull, academic composer. For anyone familiar with Piston’s music, it is clear that he is neither dull nor academic, but incredibly imaginative and innovative. It is true that he uses classic forms, but with his own language. I have studied most of his output and I have come to realize that he was a master, an inspired composer.

Beyond a neoclassical structural purity, the Second Symphony doesn’t conform easily to any distinct stylistic category. At moments it may remind you of the sonorous chorale-like orchestration of Piston’s German contemporary, Paul Hindemith. As with Hindemith, who could play almost every instrument and wrote a wide array of sonatas, Piston had a deep understanding of orchestration. “I’ve always composed music from the point of view of the performers” he said. As the second symphony unfolds, it’s easy to sense the instruments coming to life, suggesting distinct personas. At times, they engage in a soulful conversation (as in the second movement’s lamenting dialogue between the clarinet and flute).

As Carol J. Oja points out in this article, Piston was an “internationalist” who did not actively seek to develop a distinctly “American” musical style. But there are moments in the Second Symphony when it’s easy to catch a hint of the blues. Additionally, there’s a feeling of Ragtime swing in the spunky melody that pops up around the 2:00 mark in the first movement. The fugal counterpoint that follows sparkles with a fresh, innocent mid-century American vibe. Despite these lighthearted adventures, the first movement ends with a solemn brass chorale, sinking back into the atmosphere the music seemed to be trying to escape in the opening.

The second movement emerges out of a single horn tone. A lonely bassoon line spins into a short canon in thirds with the low strings. By the time the clarinet begins its soulful, extended statement, we already have a sense that the music is striving, reaching higher towards some unknown goal. The flute picks up where the clarinet leaves off, taking the conversation to a new level of intensity. The movement alternates between collective anguish and serene beauty (listen to the glistening violin entrance at 15:30).

Here is Gerard Schwarz’s recording with the Seattle Symphony, originally released on the Delos Records label in 1992:

  1. Moderato 0:00
  2. Adagio 10:07
  3. Allegro 21:51

Additional Links

  • View the New York Philharmonic’s score to Piston’s Symphony No. 2 with Leonard Bernstein’s markings.
  • Listen to the Seattle Symphony’s recordings of Walter Piston’s Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies.

1965 Clip: Solti Conducts Wagner

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The young Sir Georg Solti’s interpretive power is on display in this electrifying performance of Siegfried’s Funeral March from Richard Wagner’s opera, Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods). The excerpt was apparently taken from a 1965 recording session with the Vienna Philharmonic. There’s a raw passion and edge-of-your-seat intensity in this playing that we rarely hear today.

I grew up listening to many of Sir Georg Solti’s excellent recordings with the Chicago Symphony. Solti’s performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with the Eastman Philharmonia was a memorable childhood concert experience. In his youth, the Hungarian-born conductor studied piano with Béla Bartók. Solti served as music director of the Chicago Symphony between 1969 and 1991 and remained the orchestra’s “Music Director Laureate” until his death in 1997. Over the course of his career, he won thirty-one Grammy Awards, more than any other recording artist.

As this clip demonstrates, a strict sense of rhythm and attention to the relationship of tempo to style seem to have been essential ingredients in Solti’s artistry. Solti’s interpretations were never fussy and always allowed the music to develop honestly.

To learn more about Georg Solti, watch this excerpt from Dudley Moore’s Orchestra! series and this documentary.

Additional Listening

Schumann’s First Violin Sonata: Passionate, Tempestuous

schumann

Last week the exceptionally talented, young conductor, Tito Muñoz led the Richmond Symphony in a memorable concert which included Robert Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. Returning to this symphony, I was reminded of the subtle sense of schizophrenia that often inhabits Schumann’s music. For example, in the first theme of the Fourth Symphony’s opening movement, listen to the way the music develops through obsessive rhythmic repetition. The restless eight-note motive that makes up this theme haunts the entire first movement, twisting and evolving throughout the development section. It resurfaces in the bridge to the final movement (a nod to Beethoven’s Fifth), as if to say, “You can’t escape me…I’m still here!”

Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor, op. 105 develops with a similarly stormy, obsessive intensity. For the first movement, rather than a standard tempo marking like “Allegro,” Schumann provides the words, Mit leidenschaftlichem Ausdruck (with passionate expression). The opening motive begins in the depths of the violin amid tempestuous piano arpeggios. It reaches tentatively, falls back and reaches again before soaring higher. Listen to the conversation between the violin and piano as the motive is passed back and forth. This is a persistent conversation which becomes increasingly intense (listen to the piano at 1:02). There’s a strong sense of striving, and by the end of the exposition a few hints of sunlight have appeared (1:58). But then we get pulled back into the depths. One of my favorite moments in this first movement is the way we return from the development to the recapitulation (5:40).

Listen for the stormy, obsessive development of the opening motive and enjoy the incredible drama which unfolds in this first movement. Here are Japanese violinist Shoji Sayaka and pianist Itamar Golan in recital at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall in 2005:

Here are the second and third movements. In the second movement (Allegretto), the musical conversation seems to end frequently in a question. You may hear passages which anticipate Johannes Brahms’ violin sonatas.

The A minor Violin Sonata was first performed publicly by Clara Schumann and the German violinist Ferdinand David in March, 1852. David worked closely with Felix Mendelssohn, influencing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

Recordings

  • Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich: find on iTunes, find at Amazon, listen to a sample
  • Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt: a new recording, released in 2013. Find on iTunes
  • Carolin Widmann and Denes Varjon: find at Amazon
  • Ilya Kaler and Boris Slutsky: find at Naxos
  • Augustin Hadelich and Akira Eguchi perform the first movement: youtube