Gearing up for the UCI in RVA

3cc13374fc7262dcc3cfb69815daa912My hometown, Richmond, Virginia, is gearing up to host the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) Road World Championships bike race. The event begins this Saturday, September 19 and concludes on the 27th. On Friday at 6:30, the Richmond Symphony will be playing for a crowd of 10,000-plus spectators at the opening ceremonies on Brown’s Island, near the James River in downtown Richmond.

In celebration of the UCI World Championships, here is a historical curiosity: Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two), the 1892 popular song, performed by Max Mathews, one of the pioneers of computer music. This 1962 recording, produced in the Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, was one of the earliest experiments in speech synthesis and digitally reproduced sound. The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke visited the lab around the time this music was produced and incorporated it into the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The HAL 9000 computer sings it as it is being shut down.

This work, revolutionary when it was first developed and now taken for granted, opened the door for everything from John Adams’ Hoodoo Zephyr  to the “expressive” auto-tuning of Cher’s 1998 song, Believe

…and here is the soaring “flying bicycle” music from John Williams’ film score to E.T (1982). Notice the way the theme reaches increasingly higher, giving us a visceral sense of upward lift:

If you can think of more examples of bicycle-inspired music, share them in the thread below.

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.

Highlights from La Traviata

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The Richmond Symphony in the opera pit before Saturday night’s performance.

 

This month, the Richmond Symphony has been spending a lot of time in the orchestra pit performing La Traviata with Virginia Opera. Beyond the obvious vocal acrobatics, Giuseppe Verdi’s score is full of musical drama and characterization. The introspective orchestral Prelude to Act 1 foreshadows the tragedy which follows. Soon after the curtain goes up, we hear one of opera’s most recognizable drinking songs, Libiam ne lieti calici.  

The plot of La Traviata centers around the emotionally lost Violetta, a courtesan who is recovering from illness. The young nobleman, Alfredo falls in love with Violetta, but his father Giorgio attempts to prevent the relationship. In the final scene, as Violetta is dying of tuberculosis, Giorgio realizes his error in judgement, but it’s too late.

Here is the final scene, sung by Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazón, and Thomas Hampson in a 2005 performance at the Salzburg Festival. At 2:02:18 Violetta furiously laments the unfairness of her impending early death. At 2:05:47 we hear an ominous funeral march:

Schumann’s First Violin Sonata: Passionate, Tempestuous

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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

Music Beyond the Holocaust

Berlin's Holocaust Memorial
Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial

 

Yesterday was the seventieth anniversary of the allied liberation of Auschwitz at the end of the Second World War. Orchestras around the world, including the Richmond Symphony, commemorated the event by playing often neglected music by Jewish composers who were affected by Nazi atrocities.

Music was performed frequently in the concentration camps. At Terezin, near Prague, prisoners defiantly performed Verdi’s Requiem sixteen times as a veiled condemnation of the Nazis. The conductor Raphael Schächter taught his fellow prisoners the music by rote, using a single score. As prisoners were moved to other camps, Schächter painstakingly began the process again.

In 1936, Jewish Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman founded the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (now the Israel Philharmonic). Huberman helped nearly 1,000 Jewish musicians flee the Third Reich. He is often credited with helping to preserve the Jewish musical tradition.

Violins of Hope by James A. Grymes examines the importance of the violin in Jewish culture.

Erwin Schulhoff’s String Quartet No. 1

Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff (b. 1894-1942) was mentored by Antonín Dvořák and later studied with Claude Debussy. You can hear both Czech folk music and the wispy sounds of Impressionism in his brief but powerful String Quartet No. 1. Schulhoff died of tuberculosis at the Wülzburg concentration camp on August 18, 1942.

This piece contains ghostly and ethereal voices. Listen to the way the final movement fades into eternity.

Here is a performance by the Kocian Quartet:

  1. Presto con fuoco (0:00)
  2. Allegretto con moto e con malinconia grotesca (2:15)
  3. Allegro giocoso alla Slovacca (5:53)
  4. Andante molto sostenuto (8:50)

Korngold and the “Hollywood Sound”

We thought of ourselves as Viennese; Hitler made us Jewish.

-Erich Wolfgang Korngold

In one of the great ironies of music history, Hitler was partly responsible for the lush, colorful sound we associate with the golden age of Hollywood film scores. Jewish composers, including Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin, and Miklós Rózsa emigrated to the United States as the film industry was blossoming. Had these composers been free to remain in Europe, many of the greatest film scores would likely have become symphonies.

Korngold created film scores for movies like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Sea Hawk (1940), and Kings Row (1941). The later score seems to have subconsciously (or consciously) influenced the Main Theme of John Williams’ Star Wars as well as Superman. Listen to a suite from the score and then a back-to-back comparison of the two themes here. This music can be heard as a continuation of the late Romantic tradition of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. In the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Brendan G. Carroll writes,

Treating each film as an ‘opera without singing’ (each character has his or her own leitmotif) [Korngold] created intensely romantic, richly melodic and contrapuntally intricate scores, the best of which are a cinematic paradigm for the tone poems of Richard Strauss and Franz Liszt. He intended that, when divorced from the moving image, these scores could stand alone in the concert hall. His style exerted a profound influence on modern film music.

Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35, written in 1945, draws on music from the movies Anthony Adverse (1936), Another Dawn (1937), The Prince and the Pauper (1937), and Juarez (1939). The concerto was dedicated to Alma Mahler, the widow of Gustav Mahler, who served as a childhood mentor to Korngold. There are moments where the spirit of late Mahler briefly surfaces (in the first movement at 6:44 in the recording below). Jascha Heifetz gave the premiere with the Saint Louis Symphony in 1947.

Some concertos open with a long orchestra introduction before the solo instrument is heard. By contrast, in this concerto the violin greets us from the start; the expansive, open intervals of the theme suggesting endless possibilities. Waves of colorful sound leap from every corner of the orchestra throughout the outer movements. At moments, the violin becomes a solitary voice, venturing towards the wilderness of atonality before the orchestra pulls us back.

The Romanza enters intimate new territory. Listen carefully to the subtle conflict in the second movement’s opening chord. This is an instance where one note changes everything. The music seems to be searching. We hear high, shimmering voices followed by a dark and icy low chord. Notice the splashes of color which sparkle around the violin’s lamenting melody.

Here is a performance by Hilary Hahn and the Kölner Philharmonie, conducted by Heinrich Schiff. Hahn talks about the music here.

  1. Moderato nobile (0:00)
  2. Romanze (8:36)
  3. Allegro assai vivace (16:44)

Remembering James Erb

Unknown-93James Erb, a beloved member of Richmond’s music community, passed away last week at the age of 88. He will be remembered as a composer, arranger, conductor and musicologist, who specialized in the works of Renaissance composer, Orlando de Lassus. In 1971, Dr. Erb founded the Richmond Symphony Chorus. He also served as director of choral activities at the University of Richmond.

Those who knew James Erb will remember his youthful energy and contagious love of music. It would have been easy to imagine him enthusiastically pulling a score off the shelf for study at 6:00 on a Saturday morning. Violinist Holly Mulcahy offers a tribute here.

Here is James Erb’s arrangement of the American folk song, Shenandoah:

Clementine

images-33The eclectic, Portland-based musical group, Pink Martini is the furthest you can get from the homogeneous mediocrity of slickly marketed corporate pop music. Founded in 1994, and dubbed the “little orchestra”, it’s a group where music takes precedence over category. According to their website, Pink Martini blends “genres of classical, jazz and old-fashioned pop.” I remember performing with them when they appeared with the Richmond Symphony about seven years ago.

The song Clementine comes from their 2004 album, Hang On Little Tomato, a title inspired by a 1964 Hunt’s Ketchup ad. It seems like appropriate end-of-summer listening, especially with a reference in the lyrics to “a packing up of summer clothes.”

There’s something atmospheric and slightly surreal about this song. It falls into an undefinable space between upbeat and melancholy. Pay attention to the great drum set groove and the simple expressiveness of the harmony in the piano:

Benjamin Zander in RVA

Benjamin Zander
Benjamin Zander

Charismatic conductor, educator, writer and music enthusiast Benjamin Zander is coming to Richmond. At 7:00 on April 28 he will join the Symphony Musicians of Richmond (the musicians’ association of the Richmond Symphony) for a concert/talk which will benefit the United Way. Learn more details here and listen to this radio interview with Zander.

Zander conducts the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and Youth Orchestra. He is also the author of The Art of Possibility.

As a motivational speaker, Zander’s message is enthusiastic and simple: classical music is for everyone. Almost six million people have viewed his 2008 TED talk, The Transformative Power of Classical Music: 

Here are a few quotes from The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life:

In the measurement world, you set a goal and strive for it. In the universe of possibility, you set the context and let life unfold.

Life is revealed as a place to contribute and we as contributors. Not because we have done a measurable amount of good, but because that is the story we tell.

It’s one of the characteristics of a leader that he not doubt for one moment the capacity of the people he’s leading to realize whatever he’s dreaming. Imagine if Martin Luther King had said, ‘I have a dream. Of course, I’m not sure they’ll be up to it.