Happy Birthday, Bernard Hoffer

Composer Bernard Hoffer (b. )
Composer Bernard Hoffer (b. 1934)

The Swiss-born American composer Bernard Hoffer turns 81 today.

You may not recognize Hoffer’s name, but chances are good that you’ve heard his music, especially if you’re a longtime viewer of the PBS NewsHour. The NewsHour‘s theme music (originally written in 1975 and, at one point, nominated for an Emmy) has undergone several iterations over the years, but Hoffer’s catchy six-note musical branding logo has remained.

For years, the broadcast opened with that familiar solo trumpet, layered strings rising with exuberance, an emphatic, “no nonsense” resolution, and then a strange, unresolved chord which faded into the headlines, as if to say, “News is never resolved. It’s always about what happens next…” (Listen here). Those rising strings have always reminded me of a vaguely similar passage from the opening of Jupiter, The Bringer of Jolity from Gustav Holst’s 1916 suite, The Planets. (Listen and see if you agree).

Hoffer’s memorable closing music for The NewsHour has the buoyancy, elegance and sense of motion of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. Listen carefully to everything that’s happening in this music, from the pizzicato bass line, to the fun rhythmic counter-currents, to the effortless sequence from one key area to another. Not bad for music which is intended to be purely utilitarian and commercial.

Hoffer’s MacNeil/Lehrer Variations liberate this made-for-TV music. The familiar motives are allowed to abandon their assigned roles and freely play and develop. Fittingly, the piece ends with that fading, unresolved chord, only this time Hoffer has a surprise up his sleeve…

This album, released in 2012 and featuring the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra includes three additional works: the Elegy for a Friend, and Elegy for Violin and String Orchestra, music Hoffer wrote following the passing of friends and loved ones, and Symphony “Pousette-Dart,” inspired by the work of New York abstract expressionist painter, Richard Pousette-Dart.

A graduate of the Eastman School of Music, Bernard Hoffer’s other memorable scores include cartoon music for Thundercats and Silverhawks.

The Yings Play Beethoven

The Ying Quartet (ying4.com)
The Ying Quartet (ying4.com)

 

The finest professional string quartets exhibit an almost scary sense of chemistry. This cohesiveness, almost like a sixth sense, develops when the right combination of people spend hours a day performing together. The Ying Quartet, formed at the Eastman School of Music in 1988, enjoys an additional advantage: the founding members are siblings. Only the first violin position has changed in recent years with the departure of Timothy Ying in 2009. Beginning next season, Robin Scott will join the group, replacing current first violinist, Ayano Ninomiya.

Here are the Yings performing two Beethoven quartets in 2012. String Quartet No. 4 in C minor, Op. 18 is one of Beethoven’s earliest string quartets, composed around 1801. We hear some of the “C minor fire” that I wrote about in my previous post, Beethoven and the Turbulence of C Minor. With the string quartet, Beethoven expanded on a form already developed by Haydn and Mozart. But the stormy drama and continuous surprises in this music must have been a shock to audiences at the time:

  1. Allegro ma non tanto 0:00
  2. Scherzo. Andante scherzoso quasi Allegretto 8:53
  3. Menuetto. Allegretto 15:27
  4. Allegro 19:08

With String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132, we enter the strange world of late Beethoven. Beethoven’s music often plunges us into Romanticism. At moments, this quartet sounds as if it could have been written in the twentieth century. But the most unusual aspect of this music is the way it seems to take us beyond time and style. Occasionally, the music seems suspended in time. This is especially evident in the third movement, which Beethoven subtitled, Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode. 

This quartet was written after the Ninth Symphony in 1825, two years before Beethoven’s death. Just before the final movement begins, we hear a strange, passionate opera recitative without words. Similar allusions to opera occur in the final movement of the Ninth Symphony.

  1. Assai sostenuto – Allegro 0:00
  2. Allegro ma non tanto 9:56
  3. Molto adagio 18:38
  4. Alla marcia, assai vivace 34:19
  5. Allegro appassionato 36:33

Frank Huang Headed to New York

violinist Frank Huang
violinist Frank Huang

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 RowHe is joined by cellist Sophie Shao and pianist Adam Golka.

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

Valentine’s Day with Mandolins

The Mandolin Dance from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Ballet
The Dance with Mandolins from a Royal Ballet production of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.

 

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.

-William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

In celebration of Valentine’s Day, here is the quirky Dance with Mandolins from Act II of Sergei Prokofiev’s 1935 ballet score, Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64. Given this ballet’s multitude of powerful, dramatic music, this excerpt may seem slightly off the beaten path. But the Dance with Mandolins is so wacky, irrepressible, and fun that, in a strange way, it becomes sublime.

Growing up, I heard this music every Saturday morning during my hour-long commute to the Eastman School of Music, where I studied violin. For years, it was the unlikely opening theme for Simon Pontin’s classical radio show, Salmagundi, on WXXI-FM in Rochester, New York.

Oleh Krysa Plays Solo Bach

violinist Oleh Krysa
violinist Oleh Krysa

A few days ago, I was excited to run across this rare, old recording of J.S. Bach’s Sonata No. 1 for solo violin, performed by my former teacher, Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa. A student of David Oistrakh, Krysa currently teaches at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. He was awarded first prize at the 1963 Paganini Competition. Between 1977 and 1990, he served as first violinist of the Beethoven Quartet, founded at the Moscow Conservatory. He has maintained an international solo career.

Although this recording does not appear to be commercially available, you can find Oleh Krysa’s extensive discography here and here.

The violin must sing! And the violin can sing with the help of the right hand. No matter whether you are playing cantilena or passages, the technique must “sound,” it must be melodious and always esthetically meaningful.

-Oleh Krysa (from an interview in “The Way They Play,” Book 14, by Samuel Applebaum and Mark Zilberquit)

1. Adagio:

2. Fuga Allegro:

3. Siciliano:

4. Presto:

Rita Shane Sings The Queen of the Night

dramatic coloratura soprano Rita Shane (1940-2014)
dramatic coloratura soprano Rita Shane (1936-2014)

Dramatic coloratura soprano Rita Shane passed away last thursday at the age of 78. Following her 1973 Metropolitan Opera debut as the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, she appeared regularly at the Met in a total of 71 productions. In 1989, Shane joined the faculty of the Eastman School of Music.

You can get a sense of Rita Shane’s brilliance and extensive vocal range in these short excerpts: Ah! Si j’étais coquette (“Ah! if I were flirtatious”) from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots and O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn (“Tremble not, my dear son”) from Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

The most famous example from The Magic Flute is the “Vengeance Aria” from Act II. The enraged Queen of the Night gives her daughter a knife and implores her to kill Sarastro (Read the synopsis and hear more music from the opera here). Shane brings more than technique to this gruesome aria (below). She captures the ferocious passion of the character.

The role of the Queen of the Night was first performed by Mozart’s sister-in-law, Josepha Hofer, who was known for her wide vocal range. The aria’s high “F” (above high “C”) reaches nearly the upper limit of a soprano’s range.

Here is a translation of the libretto:

Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart;
Death and despair blaze around me!
If Sarastro does not feel the pain of death because of you,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.

Disowned be forever,
Forsaken be forever,
Shattered be forever
All the bonds of nature
If Sarastro does not turn pale [in death] because of you!
Hear, hear, hear, gods of vengeance, hear the mother’s oath!

Howard Hanson and the Sounds of the Wide Open Prairie

The wide open spaces of the Nebraska prairie.
The wide open spaces of the Nebraska prairie.

More than any other composer, Aaron Copland is credited with establishing the virtual soundtrack of the American West. Listening to Copland ballet scores such as Rodeo and Billy the Kidor his music for the film The Red Pony, instantly evokes images of wide open prairie spaces and the rough and tumble adventure of a mythical frontier. These associations have been re-enforced by countless film scores which generously borrowed Copland’s sound (the opening of Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Magnificent Seven is one small example). In reality, Copland grew up in Brooklyn and never saw the West. But his music still embodies something big, bold, and uniquely American.

Copland wasn’t the only American composer to draw upon inspiration from the prairie. Occasionally, cinematic sonic landscapes can also be heard in the music of Howard Hanson (1896-1981). Born in Wahoo, Nebraska to Swedish immigrant parents, Hanson was director of the Eastman School of Music for forty years. In my earlier post we heard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 and music from the opera, Merry Mount. 

Hanson’s music has more than a few layers of Scandinavian influence, but underneath all of that, I hear the majestic sound of the Great Plains. Listen to the second movement (Andante tranquillo) of Hanson’s Third Symphony and see if you agree.

This is Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony:

The long, sustained chords in the trombones and tuba under the sweeping string lines create a feeling of endless, expansive vistas and suggest the noble, eternal beauty of the land. John Barry used the same sound for the film score of Dances With Wolves (listen here, here and here for comparison).