David Bowie Meets Philip Glass

Philip Glass and David Bowie

The groundbreaking work of David Bowie, who passed away earlier this week, left a profound mark on the world of rock music. But Bowie also influenced some of the twentieth century’s most important minimalist and experimental composers, and in some cases he was influenced by their work.

In 1976, Bowie attended the European premiere of Steve Reich’s monumental Music for 18 MusiciansYou can hear the circular, pulsating, mallet-driven patterns and rhythmic groove of Music for 18 Musicians in Bowie’s Weeping Wall, an instrumental track from his Low album, released in 1977. Both works seem to go in slightly different directions, while exploring sounds that were “in the air” at the time:

Later, Reich’s early phase piece Clapping Music was combined with Bowie’s Love is Lost in James Murphy’s 2013 remix.

In 1992, Philip Glass paid homage to the work of David Bowie and Brian Eno with his “Low” Symphony No. 1, based on music from the Low album. Each of the Symphony’s three movements (Subterraneans, Some Are, and Warszawa) uses music from the album as a jumping off point for something new. Bowie and Glass discuss their collaboration here. In his program notes for the piece, Glass discusses the Low album’s influence:

 The record consisted of a number of songs and instrumentals and used techniques which were similar to procedures used by composers working in new and experimental music. As such, this record was widely appreciated by musicians working both in the field of “pop” music and in experimental music and was a landmark work of that period.

David Bowie’s Heroes album, released in 1977, inspired Glass’s Symphony No. 4 “Heroes,” completed in 1996. Let’s listen to V-2 Schneider, an instrumental track from the Heroes album. (There are highly distorted vocals, but here they function as yet another instrument). This is music which celebrates modern electronic sounds and elevates the mixing and processing of the recording studio to high art.

Now listen to Philip Glass’ take on the same music. Glass’ music is never more exhilarating (or dizzying) than when multiple conflicting rhythmic grooves pile on top of one another, often in three against two. We hear this about halfway through the excerpt. Also notice the rising and falling scales in the bass line. These delightfully irregular scales (never lining up on the “correct” note) resurface in the film score for Kundun, which Glass was writing around the same time.

Peter and the Wolf

David Bowie’s talents extended beyond music to include painting and acting. Here is his legendary 1978 narration of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The recording, released on the RCA Red Seal label, reached number 136 on the US Pop Albums chart.

Your 2015 Christmas Playlist

Christmas tree

It’s that time of year again…time for the annual Listeners’ Club Christmas playlist. As with last year’s post, this is a collection of music guaranteed to get you in the holiday spirit. Pour some eggnog, light the tree and listen:

Thomas Tallis: Christmas Mass

We’ll start with music written for an important political occasion. The Christmas Mass by English composer Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585) may have been written for Christmas Day, 1554 when Phillip II of Spain was in England to wed Queen Mary. Here is the opening Gloria:

J.S. Bach: Christmas Oratorio

J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was written for Christmas Day, 1734. This quiet, pastoral Sinfonia opens the second of the six parts. (Listen to the entire piece here). There’s an incredible intimacy to this music. Listen to the way the strings establish the atmosphere and then fade away, leaving us with the sound of shepherds in a calm pasture:

Rimsky-Korsakov: Christmas Eve

Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov created this orchestral suite with music from his 1895 opera, Christmas Eve. The opera’s plot is based on Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, a collection of short stories by Nikolai Gogol. The suite is in five movements: Christmas NightBallet of the Stars, Witches’ Sabbath and Ride on the Devil’s Back, Polonaise, and Vakula and the Slippers.

Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the most imaginative and colorful orchestrators. Just listen to the way the tone colors shift and change subtly in the opening chords, evoking a sense of mystery. This music glistens with bright Christmas lights in a way which might remind you of a Hollywood film score. If you’re familiar with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade or Russian Easter Overture, you’ll be reminded of those pieces. But there’s also one moment which, for me, suggests a surprising link between Rimsky-Korsakov and Sergei Prokofiev. (Prokofiev studied orchestration briefly with Rimsky-Korsakov). This melody, with its unpredictable harmonic turns and off-balance rhythm, feels as if it stepped out of one of Prokofiev’s ballet scores.

Prokofiev: Troika from “Lieutenant Kije”

The Troika movement from Sergei Prokofiev’s score to the 1934 film, Lieutenant Kije has long been associated with Christmas. A troika is a Russian horse-drawn sleigh. You could call this a “short ride in an equestrian machine.”

Sir David Willcocks: Sussex Carol

Let’s finish where we started back in England. Here is Sir David Willcocks’ arrangement of Sussex Carol. Willcocks, who passed away in September, was the longtime director of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

  • Find Thomas Tallis’ Christmas Mass at iTunes, Amazon. The recording above is performed by the Tallis Scholars.
  • Find J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve at iTunes, Amazon. The recording above features Neeme Järvi and the Scottish National Orchestra.
  • Find Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Sir David Willcocks’ arrangement of Sussex Carol at iTunes, Amazon.

On the Town with Misty Copeland

Ballet star Misty Copeland heads to Broadway.
Ballet star Misty Copeland heads to Broadway.

 

Tomorrow, Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to be named a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater, will begin a two week stint on Broadway. Copeland will join the cast of the latest production of On the Town, playing the role of Ivy Smith. Here is a preview and here is Terry Teachout’s review of the production.

In the world of ballet, Misty Copeland is a ground breaker, redefining long-held views regarding the ideal body type of a star ballerina (she is muscular and five-foot-two and a half). Her celebrity status seems to be building bridges to new potential audiences. This interview provides some background on her extraordinary career.

On the Town, which originally opened on Broadway in 1944 with music by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, has roots in ballet. It was inspired by Fancy Free, the 1944 Ballet Theater collaboration between Bernstein and Jerome Robbins. At moments Bernstein’s score for Fancy Free may remind you of Stravinsky (5:07), or the bluesy sounds of Gershwin. This impetuous music is far from the blocky, squarely symmetrical phrases of traditional eighteenth and nineteenth century ballet music. Listen for all the fun, irregular, rhythmic surprises and sudden meter changes that continually catch us off guard. Sometimes the music seems to be on the verge of spinning out of control, but, miraculously, it always works itself out.

Here is Bernstein’s 1944 recording with the Ballet Theater orchestra (predecessor to the American Ballet Theater):

On the Town contains the same delirious, off balance, jazzy energy that we hear in Fancy Free. It’s an idealized snapshot of an optimistic, larger-than-life New York of dizzying vitality, and slender, exuberant skyscrapers. In this carefree dreamscape, a group of sailors are on a 24-hour shore leave during wartime 1944. Nothing seems to matter except the present.

The 1960 studio cast recording, conducted by Leonard Bernstein (excerpts below), showcases the virtuosic panache of New York theater musicians in the golden age of the Broadway pit orchestra. The show’s opening explodes with the frenetic hustle and bustle of New York, New York. Bernstein’s score is filled with subtle, but sophisticated details that you wouldn’t find in the average Broadway song. Listen to the repeating bass line of New York, New York and you’ll hear the first four notes of the melody (2:02, 3:09, and 3:59). Then there’s the downbeat defying, canonic madness of the dance music beginning at 4:45 with its irregular meter changes. Later in the excerpt, Bernstein can’t resist sneaking in allusions to Prokofiev (beginning around 7:00) and Shostakovich (9:15):

 Additional Listening

  • Three Dance Episodes from On the Town: Bernstein’s concert suite is made up of significant dance music from the show: Dance of the Great Lover (from the Dream Ballet, Act 2), Pas de Deux (from the “Lonely Town” Ballet, Act 1), Times Square: 1944 (Finale, Act 1). “I believe this is the first Broadway show ever to have as many as seven or eight dance episodes in the space of two acts; and, as a result, the essence of the whole production is contained in these dances,” wrote Bernstein.
  • Lucky to Be Me is from near the end of Act 1.
  • Some Other Timethe final song in Act 2, hints at the blues with its lowered seventh.
  • Find the 1960 studio cast recording on iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Fancy Free on iTunes, Amazon.

Remembering Walter Weller

conductor Walter Weller (1939-2015)
conductor Walter Weller (1939-2015)

 

Austrian conductor and violinist Walter Weller passed away last Sunday at the age of 75. Weller was one of the last links to a Viennese musical tradition rooted in the nineteenth century.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Walter Weller joined the Vienna Philharmonic at the age of 17, eventually becoming one of its concertmasters. In addition, he performed as first violinist of the Weller Quartet. In 1966 he was asked to fill in on short notice for the conductor Karl Böhm. This launched a conducting career that included regular appearances at Vienna State Opera and Volksoper and principal conductor posts with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the Scottish National Orchestra. In an article in Glasgow’s Herald Scotland, music critic Michael Tumelty said that Weller

had a seminal influence on the sound of [the RSNO] that extends to this day. He brought a depth and richness of sound that nobody else ever has.

Conductor Kenneth Woods offered this description in 2007.

Walter Weller leaves behind an extensive discography, ranging from music of Martinu and Suk to the complete symphonies of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Prokofiev. Here is his 2004 recording of Mendelssohn’s overture, The Hebrides, Op. 26, “Fingal’s Cave” with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Throughout the overture, we hear the windswept mystery of the remote Scottish islands Mendelssohn visited around 1829…the play of light and shadow on the water and the rugged cliffs surround Fingal’s Cave. This sense of mystery remains unresolved in the final chords. Weller’s performance comes to life with fiery excitement and also with incredibly soft moments of introspection:

Here is Walter Weller’s 2006 recording with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra of Beethoven’s overture, The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43. The overture opened Beethoven’s 1801 ballet score.

Here is the final movement from Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony No. 1 from a 1975 recording with the London Symphony Orchestra. It’s hard to imagine a more exciting performance. Listen carefully to the little interjections throughout this joyful whirlwind of a movement:

The Joy of Wrong Notes

broken-piano-keysThe element of surprise is an important ingredient in every great melody. Each note of a melody sets up expectations which are either fulfilled or delightfully challenged. Often subconsciously, we enjoy the unexpected “wrong” notes that take a melody in a bold new direction. We listen closely to hear how the disruption will work itself out.

For an example, listen to the jarring appoggiaturas in the second movement of Mozart’s otherwise serene Piano Concerto No. 21, K. 467. Or listen to the Richard Rodgers song, In My Own Little Corner from the 1957 television musical, Cinderella. On the words, “own little chair” Rodgers veers unexpectedly to the “wrong” note and then quickly corrects it with the note we expected. The bridge section of the song moves even further afield before quickly and skillfully sliding back into the chorus. “Oh yes, that’s where we’re supposed to be.” The familiar chorus suddenly feels fresh and new because of where we’ve been in the bridge.

The examples above are relatively subtle. But once in a while the “wrong” notes begin to really step out of line and take over the piece. Here are eight pieces where “wrong” notes move beyond subtle into the realm of shocking:

Haydn: The Creation

Franz Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, completed in 1798, is based on the Book of Genesis and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The opening Overture is a musical depiction of chaos. It’s filled with harsh dissonances and cadences which avoid a clear resolution, elements which audiences at the time would have found particularly shocking. There’s a hint of the revolutionary fire of Beethoven, who was about to begin his first string quartets in 1797 as Haydn began working on The Creation. At moments the music is so chromatic that it feels as if we’ve stepped into some unwritten Wagner prelude:

Mozart’s “Dissonance” Quartet

Listen to the opening of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 19 in C major and you’ll understand why it earned the nickname “Dissonance.” Completed in 1785, the work was dedicated to Haydn.

Chopin’s “Wrong Note” Etude

Frederic Chopin’s Etude No. 25, No. 5 in E minor is known as the “Wrong Note” Etude because of its dissonant minor seconds.

Prokofiev: Cinderella

The music of Sergei Prokofiev is full of quirky “wrong” notes. This excerpt from the ballet score, Cinderella is one example:

Ives: Symphony No. 2

The final movement of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2 is an exuberant collage of American folk songs, hymns, and Civil War military songs. You might also hear hints of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. The end of the movement is like the grand finale of a brilliant fireworks display. Listen carefully. Something surprising happens on the final chord…

Shostakovich: Polka from “The Golden Age”

Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1930 ballet The Golden Age offered a satirical look at cultural and political currents in 1920s Europe. The Polka lands somewhere between humor and sarcasm:

Schnittke: Stille Nacht

Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) wrote this haunting version of Silent Night as a musical Christmas Card for violinist Gidon Kremer in 1978. Schnittke spent much of his life trapped behind the Soviet Iron Curtain. His music often evokes an atmosphere of gloom as well as biting protest. Pastiche and historical references frequently make up the ironic fabric of Schnittke’s music.

Wrong Note Rag

We’ll finish with music which perfectly sums up the joy of “wrong” notes. Here is an excerpt from the original Broadway cast recording of Leonard Bernstein’s 1953 musical Wonderful Town. The lyrics were written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green:

Share your own favorite “wrong note” pieces in the thread below.

Hilary Hahn: In 27 Pieces

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Violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Cory Smythe at the 57th annual Grammy Awards earlier this month in Los Angeles.

 

Earlier this month, violinist Hilary Hahn and accompanist Cory Smythe picked up a Grammy award for their 2013 album, In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores. The recording came in first in the Best Chamber/Small Ensemble category.

Don’t be deceived by the album’s title. This isn’t yet another CD of violin showpiece warhorses. It’s a collection of completely new music born out of an intriguingly fresh idea. Hahn noticed that, while the violin repertoire is full of short encore pieces from the past, few contemporary composers have ventured into this territory. After careful consideration, she approached twenty six composers (a process she now jokingly compares to asking someone out on a date) for commissions. A twenty-seventh composer, Jeff Myers (The Angry Birds of Kauai), was selected through an online contest. You can check out Hilary Hahn’s informal discussions with each composer at her youtube channel.

It will be exciting to see if any of this music finds its way into the standard violin repertoire. Only time will tell. In the meantime, we have a fun CD to enjoy: Jennifer Higdon’s Echo Dash sounds like its title and suggests the dense counterpoint of J.S. Bach. David Lang’s Light Moving takes us on an exciting neo-minimalist joyride. Greek-Canadian composer Christos Hatzis’ Coming To evokes a cinematic atmosphere. Lera Auerbach’s lamenting, romantic Speak, Memory suggests the twentieth century sounds of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Messiaen.

And that’s one of the more interesting aspects of this recording-the way the present meets the past. Contemporary composers seem liberated from the need to be “new” or to push forward a dogmatic idea. Ukrainian pianist and composer Valentyn Sylvestrov says,

I do not write new music. My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists…With our advanced artistic awareness, fewer and fewer texts are possible which, figuratively speaking, begin ‘at the beginning’… What this means is not the end of music as art, but the end of music, an end in which it can linger for a long time. It is very much in the area of the coda that immense life is possible.

Two Pieces by Valentyn Sylvestrov:

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.

From Russia With Love

violinist Oleh Krysa
violinist Oleh Krysa

From Russia With Love is a collection of violin and piano miniatures, recorded by violinist Oleh Krysa and pianist Tatiana Tchekina. The CD focuses on Russian composers, including Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky. Here are a few spectacular excerpts from the CD:

A transcription of Masks from Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet:

The haunting waltz from Prokofiev’s ballet, Cinderella, arranged by Mikhail Fichtenholtz:

Russian Song, transcribed from Igor Stravinsky’s opera, Mavra, by Samuel Dushkin. Listen to the almost hypnotic piano line:

Samuel Dushkin’s transcription of the Russian Dance from Stravinsky’s ballet, Petrushka: