Samuel Barber’s Twelfth Night

Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

 

The promise of spring amid the darkest, gloomiest depths of winter…that’s the Christmas metaphor of cyclic rejuvenation found in Laurence “Laurie” Lee’s poem, Twelfth Night.

American composer Samuel Barber had fallen into his own personal depths of depression when he created this chilling setting in December 1968. His second opera, Antony and Cleopatra, commissioned for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera house at New York’s brand new Lincoln Center, had been poorly received by critics. (Listen to a haunting excerpt here).

Twelfth Night‘s principal motive shares some interesting similarities with the opening motive of Barber’s Second Essay for Orchestra, completed in 1942. Both motives include close, singing lines and a wide leap. Throughout the setting, we hear close, tense harmony, with voices frequently imitating each other. Listen to the way the final chord suddenly takes us into new, open, ambiguous territory.

Here is the text:

 

No night could be darker than this night, no cold so cold,
as the blood snaps like a wire
and the heart’s sap stills,

and the year seems defeated.

O never again, it seems, can green things run, or sky birds fly,
or the grass exhale its humming breath powdered with pimpernels,

from this dark lung of winter.

Yet here are lessons from the final mile of pilgrim kings;
the mile still left when all have reached their tether’s end: that mile

where the Child lies hid.

For see, beneath the hand, the earth already warms and glows;
for men with shepherd’s eyes there are signs in the dark, the turning stars,

the lamb’s returning time.

Out of this utter death he’s born again,
his birth our Saviour;
from terror’s equinox, he climbs and grows, drawing his finger’s light across our blood— the sun of heaven and the son of God.

-Laurie Lee, My Many-coated Man (1955)

Here is a performance by the Birmingham, UK-based vocal ensemble, Ex Cathedra. This comes from their 2012 recording, Christmas Music by Candlelight:

Remembering Joseph Silverstein

Joseph Silverstein (1932-2015)
Joseph Silverstein (1932-2015)

 

Legendary violinist, conductor, and teacher Joseph Silverstein passed away yesterday in Boston. He was 83.

Born in Detroit, the son of a public school music educator, Silverstein studied with Efrem Zimbalist, William Primrose, Josef Gingold, and Mischa Mischakoff. He served as concertmaster of the Boston Symphony for 22 years, beginning in 1962. In 1971 he was appointed assistant conductor of the BSO. He was music director of the Utah Symphony between 1983 and 1998. Silverstein was on the faculty of New England Conservatory and the Curtis Institute. He was also a member of the Suzuki Association of the Americas Honorary Board.

In this informal interview from last December, Joseph Silverstein shares thoughts on violin playing, the role of the concertmaster, auditions, stage fright, and much more. He remembers performing concertos with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra and accompanying Jascha Heifetz with the Boston Symphony. He recommends that students aspire to “a life in music,” celebrating all aspects of playing (solo, chamber music, orchestral), as well as teaching. The interview provides a hint of Silverstein’s famously gruff and uncompromising teaching style, which underlies intense conviction. Silverstein demonstrated a great love for the violin. When the student interviewers asked why he continued to practice rigorously (including scales) at his stature, he answered “I want to get better.”

In his 1983 book, Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz wrote,

Whenever I hear Joseph Silverstein, I am convinced that there is no more fastidious violinist around. His playing is so finely chiseled, his tone so warm, his interpretation in such good taste, that he has few rivals.

Early on, Silverstein played a 1773 J.B. Guadagnini which had been owned by Arthur Grumiaux. For most of his career he played the 1742 “ex-Camilla Urso” Guarnerius del Gesù.

Here is a sampling of Joseph Silverstein’s numerous recordings:

Concertmaster Solo from Swan Lake

Here is solo from the Danse russe from the third act of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet score. It was recorded with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony in 1978:

Barber Violin Concerto

Here is the first movement of the Samuel Barber Violin Concerto, recorded in 1985 with the Utah Symphony:

Stravinsky Violin Concerto

Silverstein’s recording with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony, released in 1965:

J.S. Bach Partita No. 3

Here is the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s Partita No. 3 for solo violin:

Debussy Sonata

Claude Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, recorded in 1975. Michael Tilson Thomas is playing the piano.

  • Find Joseph Silverstein’s recordings at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Excerpts from a violin masterclass with Silverstein
  • Frank Almond’s tribute

Over the Rainbow with Anne Akiko Meyers

violinist Anne Akiko Meyers
violinist Anne Akiko Meyers

 

Earlier in the week, I had the pleasure of accompanying violinist Anne Akiko Meyers in the Samuel Barber Violin Concerto. Meyers performed with the Williamsburg Symphonia, a chamber orchestra based in Williamburg, Virginia. You can hear her interpretation of the Barber on this recording, released in 2000. (She is accompanied by conductor Christopher Seaman and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Listen to the second movement here).

Anne Akiko Meyers’ family joined her in Virginia. As an encore, she performed a solo rendition of When You Wish upon a Star as a softly soothing lullaby for her two young daughters in the audience. The song, first heard in Disney’s 1940 film, Pinocchio, was included in a recording Meyers just released last month called Serenade: The Love Album. (Listen to excerpts here, here, and here).

Here is another small gem from an earlier CD (Smile, released in 2009). Anne Akiko Meyers and pianist Anton Nel perform Makoto Ozone’s arrangement of the Harold Arlen ballad, Over the Rainbow at WGBH studios in Boston:

Christopher Rouse’s First Symphony

composer Christopher Rouse
American composer Christopher Rouse (b. 1949)

From the first, haunting strands of its spine-chilling opening, Christopher Rouse’s Symphony No. 1 inhabits a world of darkness and terror. Its titanic forces rise out of, and then sink back into, an atmosphere of seemingly perpetual gloom. It shows us the strange beauty embodied in brooding darkness, hopelessness and despair, and concludes without delivering the kind of reassurance we would like.

Completed in the summer of 1986, the work was written for the Baltimore Symphony and conductor David Zinman. Like Samuel Barber’s First Symphony and Sibelius’ Seventh, Rouse’s symphony unfolds in one movement, although it’s divided into sections which resemble traditional symphonic movements. If you’re not offended by the limitations of labels, you can put Christopher Rouse, who has served on the faculties of both the Eastman and Juilliard schools, into the neo-Romantic camp. His music alternates between tonality and atonality, occasionally hinting at the rebellious sounds of rock mixed with Mahler. A year before the First Symphony, Rouse wrote Bump, a piece inspired by a dream in which the Boston Pops was playing a tour concert in Hell and demons formed a Konga line.

Symphony No. 1 is filled with ghosts from the past. As Rouse explains:

In my Symphony No. 1 I have attempted to pay conscious homage to many of those I especially admire as composers of adagios — Shostakovich, Sibelius, Hartmann, Pettersson, and Schuman, for example — but only one is recognizably quoted (the famous opening theme from the second movement of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7, played both in the original and here by a quartet of Wagner Tubas). The work is scored for two flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), two oboes (2nd doubling both oboe d’amore and English horn), two clarinets (2nd doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), four horns (all doubling Wagner Tubas), three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (3 players), and strings. It is dedicated to my friend, John Harbison.

A few months ago, we listened to Anton Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. You can hear the majestic theme of the Adagio, which Rouse quotes, here. The short quote occurs towards the end.

Here is the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Alan Gilbert:

While Symphony No. 1 directly quotes Bruckner at 22:19 (indirect references also sneak in at moments like 2:04), the spirit of Shostakovich is never far away. Notice that the fugue beginning at 5:48 is built on the famous motive which outlines Shostakovich’s initials. There’s also the mournful flute solo at 2:54, which inverts and develops the half-step motive from the opening. Like Shostakovich, Rouse’s music seems to continually strive for an elusive goal; and, like most symphonies, it’s always looking for a way forward…a new door to open.

Notice the simple, repeated four note motive (E-G-G-E) which begins around 7:30. As this motive progresses, it morphs into three obsessively repeated notes. It feels dangerous and ominous, like a time bomb waiting to go off. The motive, which starts quietly, grows until it seems unmanageable, exploding into cacophony.

Then, in the middle of the piece, we suddenly enter a completely different world (12:22). The searching half steps of the opening are replaced with reassuring whole steps (14:27 in the bass). This music, built on triads and open fifths, seems to float, providing a dreamlike respite from earlier darkness. But it’s only temporary. Soon, the spirit of the opening angrily re-asserts itself (17:46) and we’re plunged back into darkness and confusion. At 22:31, listen to the trance-like repetition of those three notes we heard earlier, this time in the percussion. A solemn minor chord provides a backdrop throughout the symphony, and it’s present at the end, momentarily obscured by layers of passing dissonance (24:49). The hopeful E-G-G-E motive is heard as the symphony fades away into eternal gloom.

The Atlanta Symphony: A Tradition in Jeopardy

Unknown-3You could almost hear the classical music world’s collective groan on Sunday as the Atlanta Symphony became the latest orchestra to impose a lockout on its musicians. The lockout went into effect after both sides were unable to agree to a contract by an 11:59 Saturday deadline. This follows last year’s fifteen month long Minnesota Orchestra lockout, which resulted in the departure of the music director, executive director and numerous musicians.

At Adaptistration, Drew McManus provides excellent analysis of the situation, as well as some of the background:

In 2012, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) musicians were locked out after refusing to accept sharply concessionary terms. Approximately one month later, the musicians ostensibly caved and agreed to large reductions in wages, number of musicians employed, and a decline in weeks from 52 to 41. Two years later, that agreement has expired and the musicians have refused to accept an agreement that is, yet again, filled with additional concessionary terms even though the orchestra’s parent organization, Woodruff Arts Center (WAC), surpassed their most recent annual fundraising campaign and the ASO has trumpeted fundraising success to the tune of $5.5 million in corporate and anonymous donations since 2012.

Last week a leaked e mail, jointly written by Atlanta Symphony Music Director Robert Spano and Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles, warned that the organization’s world-class artistic standing is in jeopardy. A tradition which took many years to build can be destroyed quickly. Leadership in past generations did not build the current great orchestra with a visionless, “bean counting” approach.

It’s easy to see the Atlanta situation in a broader context of fading local power and investment and the rise of a faceless globalism which guts communities and promotes private rather than public good…a world of consumers rather than citizens. Where is the equivalent of George Eastman in our current order? Atlanta, an “alpha-world city“, boasts the fourth largest concentration of Fortune 500 headquarters in the country. It is wealthy beyond measure. It will be incumbent upon the citizens of the Atlanta area to take ownership of their orchestra and demand that its proud tradition continues.

Atlanta’s Recorded History:

In 1967 Robert Shaw, founder of the lauded Robert Shaw Chorale, became music director of the Atlanta Symphony. His many recordings include the Faure and Durufle Requiems and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Here he leads the orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony Chorus in an excerpt of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem. Here is Brahms’ Schicksalslied, Op. 54 (Song of Destiny):

In the 1990s music director Yoel Levi made many excellent recordings with the Atlanta Symphony. Here is Samuel Barber’s Essay for Orchestra, No. 2, Op.17:

Here is Christopher Theofanidis’ Rainbow Body with current Music Director, Robert Spano:

Medea’s Dance of Vengeance

Jason and Medea, Carl Van Loo, 1759
Jason and Medea, Carl Van Loo, 1759

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between Greek mythology and a modern-day soap opera plot. A perfect example is the story of Medea and Jason, recounted in a play by Euripides from 431 BC. Jason marries Media, but leaves her for Glauce, daughter of Creon, the King of Corinth. Medea gruesomely avenges Jason’s betrayal by killing their children.

This story was the subject of American composer Samuel Barber’s 1946 ballet score for Martha Graham. Graham’s company had premiered Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring two years earlier. Listen to Barber’s complete score here.

Barber explains that the ballet went beyond the story to reflect the underlying timeless emotions:

[quote]Neither Miss Graham nor the composer wished to use the Medea-Jason legend literally in the ballet. These mythical figures served rather to project psychological states of jealousy and vengeance which are timeless. The choreography and music were conceived, as it were, on two time levels, the ancient mythical and the contemporary…As the tension and conflict between them increases, they step out of their legendary roles from time to time and become the modern man and woman, caught in the nets of jealousy and destructive love.[/quote]

Later, Barber adapted music from the ballet for Medea’s Dance of Vengeance, Op.23a. He wrote a short introduction in the score:

[quote] The present version, rescored for large orchestra in 1955, is in one continuous movement and is based on material from the ballet which is directly related to the central character, Medea. Tracing her emotions from her tender feelings towards her children, through her mounting suspicions and anguish at her husband’s betrayal and her decision to avenge herself, the piece increases in intensity to close in the frenzied Dance of Vengeance of Medea, the Sorceress descended from the Sun God. [/quote]

Let’s listen to a recording by Marin Alsop and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra:

Find on iTunes Find on Amazon

There’s something almost cinematic about the opening of this piece. It immediately establishes a distinct mood in the way a film score would underscore an opening scene. Beginning at 0:59, consider each solo voice’s unique persona, from the flute, clarinet and oboe to the string interjections. Can you hear a sense of anxiety slowly creeping into this virtual movie soundtrack? Does the music conjure up specific images or just feelings?

At 8:20, listen to the obsessive furry of the repeated piano line. Notice how this deranged line falls in on itself rhythmically at 9:40. The piece ends in a frenzy of madness. At what point do passion and love cross the line to insanity?

[quote]Medea: “Look, my soft eyes have suddenly filled with tears:
O children, how ready to cry I am, how full of foreboding!
Jason wrongs me, though I have never injured him.
He has taken a wife to his house, supplanting me…
Now I am in the full force of the storm of hate.
I will make dead bodies of three of my enemies–
father, the girl and my husband!
Come, Medea, whose father was noble,
Whose grandfather God of the sun,
Go forward to the dreadful act.”[/quote]

-Euripides