Mr. Noseda Goes to Washington

Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda has been named Music Director of the National Symphony.
Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda has been named Music Director of the National Symphony. (photo from the Washington Post)

 

The National Symphony Orchestra has announced that Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda will succeed Christoph Eschenbach as its seventh music director. Noseda has developed a reputation as one of the world’s finest opera conductors. Early in his career, he was the first foreign-born principal guest conductor of the Mariinsky Theatre. Currently, he serves as principal guest conductor of the Israel Philharmonic and music director of the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy. Between 2002 and 2011 he was music director of the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester (UK).

The National Symphony, the resident orchestra at Washington’s Kennedy Center, has yet to meet its full potential in terms of visibility on the national stage. It will be interesting to see what Noseda’s tenure brings.

Here are a few of Gianandrea Noseda’s recordings:

Overture to The Marriage of Figaro

Let’s start off with a sparkling and energetic live concert performance of Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, K. 492. This recording features Spain’s Orquestra de Cadaqués. Noseda has been the chamber orchestra’s principal conductor since 1994.

Overture to The Bartered Bride

Here is Czech composer Bedřich Smetana’s (1824-1884) overture to the comic opera, The Bartered Bride, performed by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Listen to the vibrant, hushed energy of the overture’s opening and notice the dialogue between voices. The opera is full of Bohemian folk influences. At moments you might be reminded of the music of another Czech composer, Antonín Dvořák (about twenty years Smetana’s junior).

A successful opera overture grabs our attention and draws us into the impending drama. By the final note, we should be in a different state of mind than when we entered the theater. Smetanta’s overture seems to do that, spectacularly.

Two Korngold Opera Excerpts

We’ll finish with two seldom heard opera excerpts by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). (If you want to hear more of Korngold’s music, visit past Listeners’ Club posts here and here). The first is an achingly beautiful lament: Ich soll ihn niemals, niemals mehr sehn from the 1937 three-act opera, Die Kathrin, Op. 28. Its scheduled premiere in Vienna in 1938 was cancelled by the Nazis due to Korngold’s Jewish ancestry. The second excerpt is the haunting Ich ging zu ihm from the three-act Das Wunder der Heliane, written in 1927.

Renée Fleming is accompanied by Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra:

  • Find Gianandrea Noseda’s recordings at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Watch Noseda rehearse Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead with the Gothenburg Symphony.

Mozart’s Last Piano Concerto

250px-Croce-Mozart-DetailLast week we stepped into the strange, mysterious world of Beethoven’s Late string quartets, music which stylistically leaves behind everything that came before and offers up profound and timeless revelations.

In its own way, Mozart’s last piano concerto (No. 27 in B flat major, KV 595) makes a similar, if more subtle departure. It still sounds like the Mozart we know, but listen carefully and you may notice something different about this music…perhaps an occasional hint of wistful sadness and even wrenching pain.

Concerto No. 27 was first performed in early 1791, the year of Mozart’s death, at a concert that may have marked Mozart’s final public appearance on the concert stage. By this time, Mozart’s performing career was already winding down. His wife, Constanze was ill and he was deeply in debt. He was treated with contempt by the new Emperor, Leopold II. The publisher, Hoffmeister, refused to continue to publish Mozart’s music unless the composer turned out simpler and more popular works, to which Mozart replied, “Then I can make no more by my pen, and I had better starve, and go to destruction at once.” But the sizable amount of music Mozart wrote in 1791 (which included a piece for glass harmonica, a string quartet, the Clarinet ConcertoThe Magic Flute, and the Requiem) transcended all of this.

Concerto No. 27 opens with a wordless conversation between two contrasting opera characters. The strings make a quietly passionate opening statement amid playfully comic interjections by the winds. At the 0:37 mark, the final movement of the “Jupiter” Symphony (completed three years earlier in 1788) briefly surfaces. (Listen here for a comparison). Similar to Jupiter, Mozart’s final concerto is filled with counterpoint (multiple musical lines happening at the same time). As you listen, notice all of the musical voices surrounding the piano line: the way they weave together, move apart, and converse. From the violins to the flute, oboe, and bassoon, each voice has a distinct persona and something to say. You can hear this in the passage beginning around 4:00, with the entrance of the flute. Or listen a few moments later when the piano and strings fade into a solitary woodwind line. Notice the way the line grows and changes shape, as the oboe, flute, and piano trade places.

Entering the first movement’s development section, we’re suddenly confronted with one of those hints of sadness I mentioned earlier. This once assured music gradually begins to falter and fade into silent pauses. When the piano enters, we’re in a new and different world. And do you remember those playful woodwind interjections from the movement’s opening? Now they are transformed into a shockingly stern interruption in the wrong key. A moment later, the piano picks up the “interruption” motive and the oboe takes the singing piano melody. Listen for all of this here and then notice the way we return safely home at the recapitulation.

The second movement is a quietly introspective aria. Amid the simple perfection of the opening melody, perhaps a lonely, solemn march, there’s a sense of lingering sadness. Again, notice the way the voices interact: the three distinct voices in the strings, joined by the singing woodwind line in this passage, the oboe joining the bassoon in a single, sustained pitch here, the winds interjecting with a repeated chord a few moments into this excerpt.

The opening melody’s final statement occurs as a shadowy whisper, the piano, flute and violins sharing the melody and creating an almost ghostly sonority. In the final moments of the second movement, there’s a sense that the music doesn’t want to let go as it shifts to a series of deceptive cadences to avoid an ultimate resolution. In the final bars, seven distinct contrapuntal voices can be heard.

The frolicking final movement dances with playful, comic interruptions. The cadenzas in the first and final movements (often improvised by the performer) were written by Mozart. At the end of this final cadenza, the solo piano pauses for a moment of brief introspection. In the final bars, the main motive is tossed around the orchestra as the piano erupts in joyful, bubbling arpeggios.

Nine days after completing Concerto No. 27, Mozart incorporated the final movement’s theme into the song, Sehnsucht nach den Frühlinge:

Come, sweet May, and turn
The trees green again,
And make the little violets
Bloom for me by the brook!

Now that we’ve touched on a few details, let’s listen to the entire piece without interruption. Here is an exceptional performance with Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, conducted by Trevor Pinnock:

  • Find Maria João Pires’ recording of Mozart’s Concerto No. 27 with Claudio Abbado and Orchestra Mozart at iTunes, Amazon.

Gabriela Montero’s New Recording: Rachmaninov and “Ex Patria”

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Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero is reinvigorating an old tradition: She performs all of the standard repertoire, yet she’s equally dedicated to improvising and performing her own compositions. She infuses her concerts with a refreshing sense of excitement and spontaneity, frequently improvising on melodies volunteered by the audience. The subjects of her improvisations have run the gamut from the theme from Harry Potter  and “Happy Birthday” to J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, improvisation and a blurring of the line between composer and performer were common. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt were all masters of improvisation. It was only in the twentieth century (with isolated exceptions like Sergei Rachmaninov) that a gulf grew between those who created and interpreted music.

In June, Gabriela Montero released a recording of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, as well as her own composition, Ex Patria, and three improvisations. On the CD, she’s joined by conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto  and the YOA Orchestra of the Americas, an orchestra made up of 18-30-year-old musicians from countries throughout the Western Hemisphere. Recently, Montero talked about the recording with Richmond Public Radio’s Mike Goldberg. You can hear her thoughtful and dramatic interpretation here:

Ex Patria grew out of the human rights struggle in Montero’s native Venezuela. In a recent interview, she described the piece this way:

Ex Patria I wrote in 2011 to honor the 19,336 victims of homicide that year in Venezuela. Now, to put it in perspective, that number — 19,336 — that was in 2011. Last year, there were 25,000 murders in Venezuela. So, Ex Patria was meant to be a vehicle to express all of this. I wanted people to feel what we feel as a society, a collapsed society. There is no law, there is no justice. Ninety-five percent of crimes go unresolved or unpunished. And I not only wanted to speak of numbers with my audiences but also to write a piece that would emotionally convey the message that they would be attached to. So when they left the concert hall or listened to the recording, it would be in them, it would be an experience that they could identify with. It’s very violent but also very beautiful. And it’s really a photograph of Venezuela in the last 16 years.

The three improvisations which round out this CD draw together elements from the preceding music. Montero describes the first improvisation as Baroque in nature, the second evokes Rachmaninov, and the third is an aural snapshot of Venezuela.

Bruckner’s Organ

Bruckner's organ at Abby of Saint Florian in Upper Austria.
The organ Anton Bruckner played at Abbey of Saint Florian in Upper Austria.

 

Imagine that you could travel back in time to observe key moments in music history. Maybe you would drop in on Handel as he was preparing the Music for the Royal Fireworks, hear a handful of lost works by J.S. Bach, or attend the first performance of The Marriage of Figaro. 

Anton Bruckner’s legendary organ improvisations would rate high on my personal “musical time machine” top ten list. Bruckner spent many years as organist at the monastic Abbey of Saint Florian in Upper Austria. Additionally, he performed virtuoso and mostly improvisatory organ recitals throughout Europe. Subjects of Bruckner’s expansive improvisations often included the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah, the Austrian National Anthem, music of J.S. Bach and Mendelssohn, themes from Wagner’s operas, and themes from Bruckner’s own symphonies. This February 1937 Musical Times article describes these memorable musical events.

A Viennese review described a Bruckner organ recital this way:

Has no church been built for him and is there no chair vacant for him? We have experienced many times how he mastered the organ. Yesterday, again he sat down at the organ and freely developed a theme. Oh for the vigor and the abundance that flowed through the chapel! There‘s scarcely one around to challenge Mr. Bruckner in his virtuoso treatment of the pedal; he has really gained some dexterity with the feet. And this corresponds admirably with his agility on the manuals, an agility which is hardly ever confined by difficulties.

It’s ironic that Bruckner, a composer who endlessly revised the music he wrote down and occasionally fell victim to paralyzing self-doubt, simultaneously embraced the ultimate “in the moment” music making. We’ll never know exactly how Bruckner’s organ improvisations sounded. But here is his short Prelude in C Major, written in 1884. Augustinus Franz Kropfreiter is performing on the organ Bruckner played at Saint Florian. The composer is buried in the Abbey’s crypt, just below the organ.

The Prelude is technically in C major, but its dizzying chromatic harmony is constantly pulling us away from the home key to unexpected places:

Bruckner’s symphonies often turn the orchestra into a virtual pipe organ. There’s a sense of effortless modulation and orchestration that often doesn’t mix the woodwinds, strings, and brass, but instead celebrates the purity of their unique voices. Organist Erwin Horn writes,

He was accustomed in his improvisations to using themes drawn from the symphonies on which he was working. […] As soon as he would realise the same idea both on the organ and in the orchestra, there would be an interaction between the improvised fantasies and the symphonies with their systematic layout. The sounds of Bruckner‘s symphonies, structurally, were foreshadowed by those of the organ.

The Finale of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony is built on a chorale which becomes interwoven with a complex double fugue, the sort of contrapuntal fireworks we would expect in organ improvisation. In the movement’s coda, the chorale theme soars to exhilarating new heights as the first movement’s first theme returns.

Here is the the final coda of Bruckner’s Fifth from a live 1986 performance by Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by the noted Bruckner interpreter Eugen Jochum. Jochum, who was in ill health and passed away the following year, reportedly conducted the symphony seated, but stood for this final coda, a climax which suggests the majestic power of a large pipe organ:

Here is the complete Fifth Symphony.

  • Find Erwin Horn’s recording of Bruckner organ music at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Hear five recorded versions of the Bruckner Fifth Symphony Finale’s coda here.

The Mozart of Modernism

The Millau Viaduct in Southern France, designed by Sir Norman Foster.
The Millau Viaduct in Southern France, designed by Sir Norman Foster.

 

It’s been estimated that 3,000 performance majors graduate from American music schools and conservatories each year, while there are only 150 to 269 yearly openings in full-time professional orchestras. To that end, recent advice from internationally renowned British architect Sir Norman Foster seems relevant, not only to music students but to all of us:

Foster captured attention in the 1980s with his innovative design for the HSBC Building in Hong Kong, a 47-story modular design that features a sunlight-filled, cathedral-like interior which echoes (on a much larger scale) Frank Lloyd Wright’s now demolished Larkin Building in Buffalo, New York. Other prominent Foster designs include the glass-domed restoration of Berlin’s Reichstag, the cylindrical “Gherkin” tower in London, and the 1,125 foot tall Millau Viaduct in France, the world’s tallest bridge, completed in 2004. Architecture critic Paul Goldberger has pointed out that there are few man-made structures that actually improve their natural setting. San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge may be one example, and the serene Millau Viaduct is surely another.

Elegance, beauty, economy, and soul lie at the heart of all of these designs. There’s no waste in the unseen hand of nature (think trees, bird’s nests and spider webs). The same is true in great music, art, literature, architecture, and beyond. Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower in New York, a design which requires 20% less structural steel because of the inherent strength of its triangular diagrid design, inspired Paul Goldberger to dub Foster “the Mozart of modernism” in a 2005 article in the New Yorker:

Norman Foster is the Mozart of modernism. He is nimble and prolific, and his buildings are marked by lightness and grace. He works very hard, but his designs don’t show the effort. He brings an air of unnerving aplomb to everything he creates—from skyscrapers to airports, research laboratories to art galleries, chairs to doorknobs.

The Hearst Building
The Hearst Building

 

Sublime Background Music

It’s so famous and catchy that we almost don’t notice it anymore. And that’s probably what Mozart intended. Eine kleine Nachtmusik is far from Mozart’s most “serious” music. It was written as functional party music. Yet, like everything else Mozart wrote, it’s so great that we can’t get enough of it. As you listen, consider the parallels Goldberger draws with the 21st century architecture of Norman Foster.

Here is a live concert performance by the Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra:

Beauty in Simplicity: A Schubert Sanctus

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Sometimes the most profound musical statements flow out of simplicity. Rooted in song, the music of Franz Schubert often seems to say a lot with a few, seemingly effortless notes. The Sanctus from Schubert’s Deutsche Messe, D. 872 (German Mass) is a good example. 

In the traditional Latin liturgical text, Sanctus sounds like a stirring proclamation, “Holy, Holy, Holy, God of power and might.” These lines have inspired composers from Mozart and Verdi to John Rutter to write soaring, contrapuntal music. By contrast, Schubert’s Sanctus is a simple, introspective chorale. 

Written in 1827, near the end of Schubert’s short life, the German Mass is set to poems by Johann Philipp Neumann rather than the traditional Latin text. Neumann commissioned Schubert to write simple, homophonic music that would be easy for an entire congregation to sing. Although intended for a Catholic service, the work was banned because it was an “unauthorized” German translation of the Mass. You can listen to the entire German Mass here.

Listen carefully to the inner voices. Schubert sets up our expectation and then throws in some thrilling harmonic surprises:

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.

Zukerman on the Poetry of Tuning

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Violinist and violist Pinchas Zukerman shares some interesting thoughts about tuning in this excerpt from a masterclass. For Zukerman, tuning is more than a necessary mechanical process. It’s the merging of two contrasting elements: the bow, representing the “practical,” and the violin, representing the “emotional.” Most importantly, tuning and warming up should be approached musically.

Zukerman’s insights are a great reminder that violin playing starts in the mind. Tone production is about attitude and focused energy as the bow connects to the string and releases. “Technique is conception” was a favorite mantra of the late, legendary violinist and teacher, Zvi Zeitlin.

Here is Pinchas Zukerman performing Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3, K. 216 with the Ottawa, Canada-based National Arts Centre Orchestra: