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Archive for April, 2008

I’m sitting in a darkened concert hall at a recent performance by one of our outstanding regional orchestras, listening and marveling once again at how the musicians respond to the nuances the conductor communicates through the baton.

And then I notice that there’s a little extra action going on a few seats away.

No, not that kind of action. No, we have an audience conductor in our row.

Quietly, not-quite-subtly, just visibly in the subdued light, his right hand is tracing much the same pattern as the conductor’s.

Of course, I have never done such a thing myself. No, no, not at all.

I remembered this when I read a recent news release from the Cleveland Orchestra. Their season sponsor is the international financial services firm UBS, who also support the Verbier Festival Orchestra in Switzerland. UBS is interested in music. VERY interested, enough so that they funded development of Virtual Maestro. I’d call Virtual Maestro a conducting video game, but you might say it’s Guitar Hero for classical music.

Virtual Maestro lets you conduct an orchestra – well, more or less. What you actually conduct is a video recording of an orchestra – the Verbier Festival Orchestra, in fact – shown on a big plasma screen. The repertoire’s a bit limited, but you’re fine as long as you’re keen to conduct Rossini’s William Tell Overture and a few bits snipped from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth.

You mount the podium, sort of, and raise your baton game machine controller. The musicians raise their instruments. Wave your WII remote and they start to play. The faster you beat time, the faster they play. The more violent your movements, the louder they play.

Now, granted, the expressive variety is a little lacking. Cueing individual musicians and sections is pretty much futile. It’s tough to catch the musicians’ eyes. And your most dramatic Bernstein-style podium acrobatics aren’t going to have any effect. But, by golly, you sure do have a grip on the ppp, fff, largo, and presto of the performance. That’s certainly more response than my fellow concert-goer got from his audience conducting.

If you want to try out your skills at orchestra piloting, you’ll have your chance before and after Cleveland Orchestra concerts, during intermissions, and prior to other Severance Hall concerts and events – for a few weeks. The UBS Virtual Maestro will be at Severance Hall from the 4th through the 25th of May; then it continues its tour of other American orchestras.

To find out when you can have your turn at the podium, see the orchestra’s event calendar.

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Ivan Hewett wrote recently in the Telegraph (UK) that “the worlds of classical and folk music could meet and mingle.”

Could?! They’ve been doing precisely that on WKSU for years – and that’s just another chapter in a long and deeply respectful association.

From at least Renaissance times, “art” music has drawn inspiration from folk music.

Take Telemann, for example. He used to lurk in the shadowy corners of the country inns, nursing his ale and stealing ideas from the fiddlers. “One could learn enough from them in a week to last a lifetime,” he said.

Centuries before, Renaissance composers had used pop tunes – sometimes bawdy ones! – as cantus firmi of masses. Heading the other way on the timeline, although the themes Beethoven used in his symphonies are original, he arranged groups of Irish, Scottish, and Welsh songs for soloist, chorus, and chamber ensemble.

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This piece, Mikhail Glinka’s Kamarinskaya, was based on Russian folk tunes (a dance and a wedding song). It was a manifesto of sorts, a guidepost for the Russian musical nationalism that later took hold in the works of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and others. Tchakovsky called Kamarinskaya the acorn from which the mighty oak of Russian music grew. That oak was rooted in Russian folk music.

Antonin Dvorak loved his homeland and its music, but during his stateside stint, he absorbed spirituals and Native American themes. Their rhythms and melodic contours added local color to his American Quartet and Suite, and to the famed New World Symphony. Back home, Smetana infused his Czech dances with the rhythms of – guess what.

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Stravinsky thought this little motif was a folksong, but it turned out to be a French popular tune, and he got into legal hot water for quoting it in his ballet Petroushka. In the end, he had to pay for the rights.

Bela Bartok hauled an early recording phonograph out to the countryside to take down folksongs as they were actually sung. He did so mostly to document Hungary’s musical heritage before it faded away. However, he also folded many of the dances and songs into his rollicking (and sometimes rather pungent) piano works. If you got far enough in your piano lessons, maybe you played some of them.

Vaughan Williams, Holst, and Grainger all dug deeply into Cecil Sharp’s folksong collections, among others. Copland evoked the echoes of the US West’s singing cowboys even if he didn’t quote them. From France, Ravel and Milhaud caught the spirit of jazz. I could go on for pages, but you get the idea.

Musical ideas also flowed the other way. Early- to mid-20th century American popular song composers unabashedly reaped inspiration and themes from classical music.

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The musical Kismet, for example, was practically pure Borodin. Robert Wright and George Forrest lifted the melody of this selection, He’s In Love, straight out of the Polovtsian Dances. (On a Telarc CD, Leonard Slatkin translates Kismet‘s borrowed themes into an orchestral suite – harvesting the harvest, as it were.)

More recently, Paul Simon got his American Tune from Bach’s St Matthew Passion; Bach in turn had borrowed it from a Lutheran chorale.

At least three popular songs have been derived from Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto – Buddy Kaye’s Full Moon and Empty Arms, Eric Carmen’s All By Myself, and Muse’s Space Dementia. Wikipedia lists no fewer than nineteen rock and pop tunes based on Johann Pachelbel’s Canon. This should come as no surprise: if you want to make your tune successful, it helps to start with a successful tune.

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Make that twenty. A couple of years ago the South Korean pop group Redsox also borrowed the Canon, nearly note for note, giving it a title which translates as Sweet Dream (MV). Johann’s not around to make a fuss. I’m not at all sure he would, even if he were.

So while such ideas as contemporary music festivals with Alpine themes may be somewhat new, the fundamental notion of merging classical and folk music is not.

At WKSU folk and classical music share a CD library – and once in a while, we even share CDs, composers, and musicians. Jim Blum plays some of the same Renaissance pieces and some of the same early music ensembles that we do. He also includes folk-flavored versions of classical pieces, especially shorter ones, from time to time. Bach a la Bela Fleck, anyone?

From the other side of the wall between the Folk and Classical offices, we play quite a few folk-inspired works beyond the usual Vaughan Williams Folk Song Suite and Bartok’s Roumanian Folk Dances.

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William Grant Still’s Miniatures (the clip is an excerpt from his adaptation of I Ride an Old Paint) and Robert Beaser’s Mountain Songs bring us home to American folk music.

Our classical programs also sometimes include works that most people would consider 100% classical, yet they’re signed by musicians most people would call folk composers. They range from Turlough O’Carolan to Edgar Meyer. We don’t make a huge deal of this. If it’s good enough for us to play, the music is its own justification.

Hewitt writes of “folk musicians ‘aspiring up’” and “classical composers delving down.” Here at WKSU, there’s no up or down involved. Folk and classical music live right across from one another. We don’t sweat the difference. It’s all just good music.

Broken links in this article were updated on 14 November 2013.

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60 Minutes El Sistema

The reason we do this.

César Auguste Jean Guillaume Hubert Franck

César Franck was first and foremost a brilliant organist. If he had never composed a note of music, we still might know him as one of the best organists of the 19th century. Here is a photograph (I think slightly re-touched as they did then) of him at the organ, and he looks all in command.

Emmanuel Chabrier

Emmanuel Chabrier was employed by the government of France for about 20 years in the Ministry of Interior, basically as a lawyer. But in that time, he realized he could not socialize with fellow workers. He was friends with the likes of the poet Paul Verlaine, and the composers Gabriel Fauré, Ernest Chausson, and Vincent d’Indy. But wait, we’re not done. He was also close to painters such as Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, and Édouard Manet. As a matter of fact, Manet literally died in his arms. I have a painting of Chabrier by his friend Manet that I put in Quicklinks, under Classical.

David Oistrakh on the tube

A television appearence by David Oistrakh in 1962, accompanied by Frieda Bauer. They play Debussy’s Claire de lune.

Mussorgsky at the end of his losing battle with alcoholism

The famous portrait of Mussorgsky by Ilya Repin was painted literally just a few days before the composer died. It says a lot about Mussorgsky’s condition, completely overtaken by alcoholism. You will even see that he is wearing a robe – after having a rough night.

J. S. Bach

Bach looked a lot like this before we knew it. In other words, I’ll bet you won’t be surprised when you see this – he looks a lot like the paintings we’ve seen of the man for over 250 years.

Lots and lots of Berlioz photographs

Just a bunch of black and whites or sepia tone photos of one of the most colorful musicians who lived in the 19th century…Hector Berlioz

Ravel and Gershwin together

I found a photo in Wikipedia and stuffed it here for you to see. It was taken when Maurice Ravel was on a tour of America in 1928 (the exact date of the photo was March 7th). He’s the one with the cigarette, playing the piano. Sitting next to him was Éva Gauthier, the famous Canadian mezzo-soprano of the time. But there was someone else in that photo who was then perhaps more famous than even Ravel. Among the 8 people standing behind them, almost unnoticeable, is George Gershwin. He was the one on the very right. It’s in WKSU.org.

A photo of Gioacchino Rossini late in life

He started composing early, but ended early as well, retiring at the age of 37. When he died at the age of 76 in 1868, he was the most famous person in most of the western world (except for maybe the US because we were still remembering Abraham Lincoln), even though he had been retired for 39 years! In this photo, the way he spent his retirement is obvious. Rossini loved to cook and eat, and his doctor was worried about his obesity.

Clara Schumann late in life

A series of photos of Clara Schumann (and her husband, Robert)

Folk song from Somerset: Sheep-Shearing Song

Text to the folksong also known as Rosebud in June, collected in Somerset by Cecil Sharp. Holst used its tune in his Somerset Rhapsody.

Claude Debussy at the piano

Debussy is playing the piano surrounded by some admirers, including Ernest Chausson. Chausson is the one with the grey beard sitting almost behind him.

The only photo of Glinka I have ever seen

Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka lived from 1804 to 1857, and though the science of photography had been around for a good two decades, until December, 2007, I had never seen a photo of the man. I thought he had missed his chance to pose in front of the camera.

Historical tunings

You may have read that Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier was written for an instrument in equal temperament. That’s not quite accurate. This document explains the difference, and what “well tempered” really means.

La Folia

The history of La Folia, widely used as a theme for variations by generations of composers from the 17th century to the present.

The Kangaroo Pouch Free Music Machine

Percy Grainger was one of the most brilliant people ever to compose music, with many interests beyond music. One was the “Kangaroo Pouch Free Music Machine.” Read what led to this invention and see a detailed diagram of the machine here.

Grieg’s Tomb

If you want to see something rather out of the ordinary, this is it. It’s a photo of Edvard Grieg’s tomb and it’s cut out of the side of a stone mountain, seemingly by itself. It fits with his last words when he died in 1907 at the age of 64. Supposedly he said, “Well, if it must be so.”

Sibelius Monument

When someone once asked Jean Sibelius what he should do if a critic was particularly malicious in an attack toward his music, Sibelius said, “Pay no attention to what critics say. No statue has ever been put up to a critic.” Here is a Sibelius “statue” of sorts.

Simone Dinnerstein’s 2005 Goldberg Variations recital

A New York Times review of Dinnerstein’s November 2005 New York recital in which she played the Bach Goldberg Variations. Note: Free registration required to view article.

Telarc Releases Simone Dinnerstein’s Goldbergs Recording

Simone Dinnerstein recorded the Bach Goldberg Variations over 2 years ago. She did it on her own, without any recording contract, covering the $15,000 cost with the help of friends. In a development unusual for artists and for the company, Telarc has licensed the recording and recently released it.

Dinnerstein’s path to this stage in her career has been atypical, to say the least.

Her start was a bit rocky. At 4, she wanted piano lessons; her parents gave her a recorder. When she was 15, they refused to let her study in London. They made her turn down a chance to attend the Curtis Institute.

Yet, in the long run, her muse has prevailed.

This New York Times article traces the path from her childhood dreams to the Goldberg recording – and a full engagement calendar. Note: free registration is required to view the article.

Anton Weidinger’s Keyed Trumpet

The natural trumpet could play only the harmonic series in its lowest register. In the highest register it could play other notes of the scale, but only the most capable players could reliably produce these notes. Even then, the pitch and timbre were inconsistent. Composers had to “write around” the natural trumpet’s limitations.

Already by the late renaissance, the cornetto had provided some of the trumpet’s timbre with the versatility of fingered notes. But although it used a small trumpet-like mouthpiece, the cornetto was made of leather covered wood and didn’t have the same effect as the brass trumpet.

Thus, some 18th century instrument makers tried to improve the brass trumpet’s flexibility and consistency of tone by adding keywork. Here‘s the story of the most famous and successful attempt, the instrument for which the Haydn and Hummel concertos were composed.

Controversy over the themes Dvorak used in his Hussite Overture

Medieval reformer Jan Hus used Ye who are God’s warriors as his battle hymn. Dvorak took phrases from it as themes in his Hussite Overture, and also used the chorale St Wenceslaus. He thought of them as patriotic emblems of his nation’s history. Religious partisans saw it differently. Scroll to the bottom of this page for more information.

Vysehrad, the old fortress of Prague

Here are some pictures and a bit of history of Vysehrad, the 10th century castle which inspired Smetana’s tone poem of the same name.

Interview with Tatty Theo, director of the Brook Street Band

Theo discusses the founding of the Brook Street Band, playing the cello in Baroque music, her interest in Handel, and her introduction to the Oxford Water Music.

Scandinavia’s Summer Solstice Celebration

Hugo Alfven’s Swedish Rhapsody bears the subtitle “Midsommarvaka” – usually translated as “Midsummer Night Vigil,” but probably more accurately rendered as “Midsummer All-Nighter.” Here’s a brief description of the ways Scandiavia celebrates the longest day of the year – on which, for them, daylight lasts until 3am!

Carmina Burana Manuscript

The first page of the 13th century manuscript from the Benediktbeuern Monastery, from which Carl Orff took his texts for the scenic cantata Carmina Burana. The Canton Symphony performed Carmina Burana during In Performance, Sunday 13 May 2007.

The Baroque Chromatic Triple Harp

The modern orchestral harp has a mechanical lever action to create the sharps and flats of the chromatic scale. The 17th century harp builders used a different approach – they added more rows of strings. Here’s a description and photo of a Baroque chromatic triple harp.

Bach’s Chaconne

A brief analysis of one of Bach’s most heartfelt compositions, the final movement from his d minor violin partita, S1004.

Joshua Bell: Pearls Before Breakfast

JOSH BELL, BUSKER – Noted violinist Joshua Bell plays a 45 minute mini-concert in a DC subway station. How much of a crowd does he draw? (From Washington Post Magazine – registration may be required)

Brahms’s Lullaby lyrics

Have you ever wanted to know the real words to Brahms’s famous lullaby? Here they are.

Édouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

A painting that Emmanuel Chabrier bought from his dearest friend, Édouard Manet, when it was newly painted, just before Manet died. Manet actually died in Chabrier’s arms.

Hugo Alfven paintings

Many composers at least dabbled in painting, from Arnold Schoenberg to Mendelssohn. One of the most talented was Hugo Alfven. Here are some samples of his work.

Alfred Brendel

A very well done personal website for a great performer.

The REAL Pictures at an Exhibition

In 1874 Modest Mussorgsky lost a friend and was deeply moved. The painter and architect Victor Hartmann left behind a small body of works. They were to be viewed in a show, and Mussorgsky composed Pictures at an Exhibition to accompany the viewing. Sadly, most of the paintings or drawings that inpired Mussorgsky are now lost. Here are the images that still exist.

Malcolm Arnold’s web page

A very well thought out web page about one of the twentieth-century’s best-known British composers.

Courtly Love

An introduction to the medieval concept of l’amour courtois.

A photo of Georges Sand

Georges Sand, famous for her relationships with Franz Liszt and Frédéric Chopin, was a feminist before the term was invented. In a day when it was unthinkable, she proudly wore men’s clothes, because they were more comfortable. (And, yes, maybe she enjoyed shocking men and women of polite Parisian society.) This photo shows her as she was seen on more formal occasions.

The MacDowell Colony

A dream come true for artists who want to grow and need a nurturing environment. The Colony was founded by Edward MacDowell not long before he passed away, and has existed for nearly a century because of support from those committed to the arts.

Sunrise…an Impression

Claude Debussy was called an Impressionist, after a style of painting made famous by Renoir, Cezanne and others. The name came from Monet’s painting, Sunrise – an Impression. An art critic of the time thought the Monet work appeared sketchy and unfinished. Maybe that’s one of the reasons Debussy hated being called an impressionist. Here is a photo of Monet’s painting.

Bach’s Art of Fugue

In 1747 J S Bach, by then old and in deteriorating health, paid a visit to Frederick the Great of Prussia. The result of that visit was The Art of Fugue. Many tales have been spun of his meeting with the flute-playing monarch. This page tries to determine what’s verifiable fact and what’s legend.

James Whistler’s painting, Nocturne in Blue and Green

George Gershwin was going to call his new piece American Rhapsody. However, his brother Ira suggested Rhapsody in Blue after seeing an exhibtion of Whistler’s paintings, with such titles as Harmony in Gray and Green and Nocturne in Blue and Green.

Mozart’s Musical Game

On top of everything else, Mozart was an inventor of sorts, creating a musical dice game in 1787. By throwing the dice and correlating the numbers with the notes they represented, one could actually compose a piece of music. The little game was published in London several years after he died, and was a hit. You can play it now by clicking on this link.

The Sackbut or sacbutt

The top picture shows a sackbut. It looks very much like a modern trombone.

In Nomine

In the late Renaissance and early Baroque, many composers created works called “In Nomine.” This page explains the origins of the form and its name.

The Finnish Civil War of 1917

The chaos in Helsinki in 1917 greatly affected Jean Sibelius, who was working on at least 2 and probably 3 of his symphonies at the time. This page describes the background of the conflict.

Origins of Haydn’s

How and when Haydn composed the tune which became the Austrian (and later German) national anthem. It’s the theme he used for the second movement of his “Emperor” quartet (Opus 76 #3). From Vienna Online.

A Handel on everything.

Maybe the best web page I have ever seen on Handel.

Fingal’s Cave

The history of Fingal’s Cave, and photos of the landmark that inspired the Mendelssohn work.

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