Appalachian Spring: Bernstein and the LA Phil

R-4004737-1412008444-8505.jpegAaron Copland’s 1944 ballet score, Appalachian Spring, has already been the subject of two Listeners’ Club posts (here and here). But let’s return to this American masterwork once more and listen to Leonard Bernstein’s 1982 Deutsche Grammophon recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. You would be hard pressed to find a more exciting and soulful interpretation of the Appalachian Spring Suite, including Copland’s own rendition and Bernstein’s slightly faster “definitive” 1961 recording with the New York Philharmonic.

Appalachian Spring begins and ends with two overlapping chords which blend into hazy pandiatonic harmony. It’s a sound which seems to emerge from the American landscape: expansive, fundamental, and eternal. Time seems suspended. But then a new, blindingly bright voice suddenly enters, jolting us out of our daydreams (3:09).

Bernstein’s performance is infused with a sense of dance, rhythmic intensity, and sparkle. We hear this towards the end, around 20:13, as Simple Gifts develops into a sparkling rhythmic motor. There are also moments of sensuous repose. Listen to the way the music takes us into new, distant territory around 17:20. A few moments later, we turn a corner and suddenly find ourselves back at the opening. But this time, there’s a sense that the opening pandiatonic chords are reawakening and trying to remember. After the final climax of the piece subsides, we’re left with a moment of veiled introspection (22:24).

These are a few of the details which place this performance a few notches above so many other excellent recordings of Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Take a few minutes and listen. Then, if you feel inspired, leave a comment in the thread below and share your own thoughts.

  • Find this recording at iTunes, Amazon
  • Hear a live performance of the complete ballet score with Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony.

Remembering Conductor Jerzy Semkow

Polish-born conductor Jerzy  Semkow (1928-2014)
Jerzy Semkow (1928-2014)

Polish-born conductor Jerzy Semkow passed away last week at the age of 86. A longtime French citizen who resided in Paris, Semkow served as principal conductor of the National Opera in Warsaw (1959-1962), the Royal Danish Opera and Orchestra in Copenhagen (1966 to 1976), and as Music Director of the Orchestra of Radio-Televisione Italiana (RAI) in Rome. Between 1975 and 1979 he was Music Director of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. Semkow enjoyed long associations as a regular guest conductor with American orchestras, including the Detroit Symphony and the Rochester Philharmonic. His mentors included Erich Kleiber, Bruno Walter and Tullio Serafin.

As a teenager, I heard the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra perform numerous times under Jerzy Semkow. His concerts left a powerful and lasting impression. Even after many years, I can still vividly recall the music which was performed on each program. His interpretations of Mahler and Bruckner seemed to come alive with an almost supernatural power. He brought a unique warmth and purity to Mozart. It’s likely that he left a subtle imprint on the sound and musicianship of the orchestra which remained beyond his guest conducting appearances.

Audience members and musicians will remember Jerzy Semkow’s slightly eccentric and aristocratic stage presence. Following the orchestra’s tuning, minutes would often elapse before Semkow appeared onstage, wielding his enormously long baton. During the final applause for a large orchestral work, he would often walk throughout the orchestra, acknowledging each section.

Semkow’s deep and inspiring musical vision became apparent in rehearsals. On one occasion, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra offered a solid first reading of the opening of the final movement of Brahms’ Second Symphony, a hushed passage which requires great control. Semkow called attention to the first note, which he found to be lacking in warmth and buoyancy. Immediately, the sound of the orchestra was transformed and the entire movement took shape.

The Detroit Free Press offers this tribute. Also, read comments by Leonard Slatkin, William Wolfram, Peter Donohoe and others at Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped DiscSubmit your own memories of Jerzy Semkow in the comment thread below.

Highlights from Jerzy Semkow’s Recordings

Schumann’s Third Symphony “Rhenish” performed by the Saint Louis Symphony:

Listen to the second, thirdfourth and fifth movements.

Here is a live 1978 performance of Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto with pianist Jorge Bolet and the Cleveland Orchestra:

Listen to the second, third and fourth movements.

A complete recording of Borodin’s opera, Prince Igor with the National Opera Theatre of Sofia:

A young Jerzy Semkow accompanies legendary French violinist Zino Francescatti in Mozart’s Fourth Violin Concerto:

Listen to the second and third movements.

Explore the TAFTO Archive

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For many professional orchestra musicians and audience members, August offers a rare period of downtime and a chance for contemplation. Summer seasons and festivals are beginning to wind down, while subscription seasons remain just around the corner. There couldn’t be a better time to explore the newly updated Take a Friend to the Orchestra (TAFTO) resource website, created by Drew McManus, arts consultant and author of the popular blog, Adaptistration

Take a Friend to the Orchestra is a series of fun and inspiring essays about how patrons can introduce their friends to the powerful, mysterious and even cathartic experience of a live orchestra concert. TAFTO tears down common stereotypes which may discourage some people from ever entering a concert hall. It reaffirms the idea that going to an orchestra concert should be fun, and should be an occasion which defies perceived rules about dressing up and knowing when to clap. Like sports teams, orchestras are cultural institutions which belong to the entire community. A wide range of viewpoints are represented, including, “critics, bloggers, musicians, classical music enthusiasts, and administrators.” Back in 2006 I was honored to contribute an article to the series. Other contributors include Alex Ross, Sam Bergman, Lynn Harrell, Leonard Slatkin, Gerard Schwartz and Henry Fogel. Drew talks about the series in this interview

Reading these essays, you won’t find gimmicky ideas or overhype about the need to re-invent the wheel in order to remain “relevant.” Instead, you’ll sense passion and enthusiasm for the magic of live orchestra concerts. In the next few weeks, explore the archive and then consider accepting this exciting grassroots challenge and take a friend to your local orchestra.

New Electronic Sound Worlds

composer, Mason Bates
composer Mason Bates

Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers will join the Richmond Symphony in March to perform a brand new violin concerto by Mason Bates. Born in 1977, Bates, who happens to be a Richmond native, is currently composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony. The Violin Concerto, written for Meyers, was recently premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony. Learn more about the concerto here and here.

One of the most interesting aspects of Bates’s music is the way he uses the new, electronic sounds of the twenty-first century. Composers have always been inspired by the sounds around them. In the Classical period inspiration came from the sounds of nature…bird songs and brooks. With the industrial revolution the orchestra got louder and more dissonant. In Bates’s music we hear the influence of Techno, Ambient, film scores, John Adams and more, all mixed together in a shimmering sonic stew. This is the musical vocabulary we hear around us every day.

Listen to Mason Bates’s The B-Sides for Orchestra and Electronica, written in 2009. You’ll see Bates, who has developed a second career as a dance club DJ, hunched over a laptop and drum pad in the percussion section. Also notice the use of a broom and the sound it creates. The piece is in five movements. The third movement features samples of NASA radio transmissions from the 1965 Gemini IV space flight. In the final movement, the earthy thud of a Techno beat propels us through a series of almost cinematic musical adventures. Don’t worry about what the piece is “about” on the first listening. Just enjoy the colors, rhythm and flow and see where the music takes you. Here is a live performance with Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra:

  1. Broom of the System (0:13)
  2. Aerosol Melody (Hanalei) (4:22)
  3. Gemini in the Solar Wind (8:47)
  4. Temescal Noir (14:56)
  5. Warehouse Medicine (17:43)

Now that you’ve heard The B-Sides, here is Mason Bates’s description of the piece. He has some interesting additional thoughts in this interview. Bates talks about the use of electronic sounds in the orchestra here.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Michael Gordon’s “Industry”[/typography]

Mason Bates joins a long line of composers who have been inspired by electronic sounds. Karlheinz Stockhausen influenced the development of electronic music in the twentieth century. Here is his “Studie II” (Elektronische Musik) (1954). Edgar Varese’s Poème électronique (1958) was written for the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair. American composer George Crumb’s string quartet, Black Angels (1970), uses a variety of new, amplified sounds as well as percussive instrument tapping and bow scraping.

Here is Industry (1992), a piece for solo cello by Michael Gordon (b. 1956). The use of distortion draws upon techniques associated with rock music. Listen to the way the piece gradually develops out of a repetitive opening motive:

Here is what Michael Gordon says about the piece:

[quote]When I wrote Industry in 1992, I was thinking about the Industrial Revolution, technology, how instruments are tools and how Industry has crept up on us and is all of a sudden overwhelming. I had this vision of a 100-foot cello made out of steel suspended from the sky, a cello the size of a football field, and, in the piece, the cello becomes a hugely distorted sound. I wrote this piece for Maya Beyser, and it was an incredible process. I would fax her the music and she’d play it to me over the phone. We did this maybe ten times, trying things out. She was constantly teaching me about the cello, and I was making her play things that were really awkward and dark.[/quote]

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]What do you think?[/typography]

What experience do you have as you listen to this new music? How do these sounds reflect our modern world? What impact will electronic sounds and pop influences have in the future? In an age of computers and the prospect of increasing artificial intelligence, are electronic sounds somehow less “human” or are they a natural extension of the orchestra, as Mason Bates suggests? If you feel inspired, share your thoughts in the thread below.

Five Great CDs for Your Holiday Gift Bag

Whether you’re looking for the perfect gift or you want to expand your CD collection for the new year, here are five recordings which I highly recommend:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Offering Alexandra Adkins, violin

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Alexandra Adkins is a member of the Houston Symphony violin section.  Last December she released this CD which includes sonatas by Handel, Leclair, Corelli and two movements from Bach’s Partita in d minor.  For the Handel and Corelli she is accompanied by guitar, providing a unique twist.  Also included are three contemporary tracks featuring hymn tunes and a song written by Adkins. Listen to this interview to learn more about Offering.  This is a fun and diverse CD that celebrates the idea that great music transcends categories.

 

 

 

 

Brahms: The Violin Sonatas Oleh Krysa, violin and Tatiana Tchekina, piano

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This is my former teacher’s rare and inspiring recording of the three Brahms Violin Sonatas.  While there are many recordings of this music, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect interpretation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mahler Symphony No. 1 Eugene Ormandy, conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra

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If you’re not familiar with the dramatic and deeply psychological music of the late Romantic composer Gustav Mahler, this recording will be a great introduction.  If you’re already a Mahler fan you will enjoy hearing the original second movement Blumine (flower piece) which Mahler later cut from the Symphony.

This recording was first released in 1969.  You will notice the legendary, lush and perfectly blended string sound that the Philadelphia Orchestra was known for at that time.  One of the most striking examples of this occurs in the dreamy middle section of the Fourth Movement where the strings emerge with a velvety, veiled sound.

Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer are included on the disk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

La Boheme The Metropolitan Opera with Teresa Stratas, Renata Scotto, Jose Carreras, Richard Stilwell, Allan Monk, James Morris, James Levine, conductor, Franco Zeffirelli, producer

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If you’re new to opera this DVD is a great place to start.  Puccini’s La Boheme has a great story and features one beautiful melody after another.  English subtitles are provided.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Howard Hanson: Symphony No. 2 “Romantic”, Samuel Barber: Violin Concerto Elmar Oliveira, violin Leonard Slatkin, conductor with the Saint Louis Symphony

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This 1990 Grammy nominated CD features music by two twentieth century American composers.  There have been many recordings of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto since this came out, but Elmar Oliveira’s interpretation still endures.  Some violinists overly schmalz this already Romantic music.  Oliveira goes for something deeper and more profound and captures the true essence of the piece.

Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 might remind you of a lush movie score and the wide open plains.  There is another good recording of this piece by Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony.  I prefer the slightly slower and more thoughtful tempos that Slatkin takes in this recording, especially in the Second Movement.