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Archive for July, 2009

Jeannette Sorrell
Jeannette Sorrell (WKSU)

Jeannette Sorrell’s background as a dancer has served her well in her role as founder and director of Cleveland’s historically informed performance band, Apollo’s Fire. Her deep understanding of the partnership between music and movement has unquestionably shaped her interpretation of the rhythms in early music.

Steven Player
Steven Player


Audio clip: Steven Player in Mediterranean Nights (2005)

At times, she’s also added literal dance to the group’s programs. This coming season (2009-10), two of Apollo’s Fire’s concerts will feature movement.

In late October and early November, guitarist, dancer, and high-energy showman Steven Player will join Apollo’s Fire as they present a revised version of their popular 2005 program Mediterranean Nights. Cool Cleveland’s Kelly Ferjutz said that the earlier Mediterranean Nights at St Paul’s Episcopal Church was "a treat that will not soon be forgotten." Of a Harp Consort program featuring Player, the Adelaide Review said, "Steven Player was worth the price of admission by himself."

In March, the Cleveland Baroque Orchestra will bring dance to Severance Hall as they perform Mozart’s ballet music for Idomeneo, as part of an all-Mozart program. Apollo’s Fire last played this Mozart work three years ago, in October of 2006, and Sorrell also conducted a well-received Akron Symphony Orchestra performance of it in 2007. In 2009, for the first time with Apollo’s Fire, the performance will have the element of movement which Mozart intended. In addition to Severance Hall, the Mozart Celebration will be presented in Akron, and at Oberlin’s Finney Chapel.

For the 2009-10 season, the ensemble expands their repertoire with a new concert featuring excerpts from Bach’s B-minor mass and Vivaldi’s Gloria. Gloria will open the Apollo’s Fire season in October (on the 1st through the 4th of the month) in Cleveland Heights, Akron, and Rocky River.

Christmas Vespers
Apollo’s Musettes


Audio clip: Puer Natus from Christmas Vespers (2005)

Two other audience favorites from the past will round out the series of five concerts. In early December, Apollo’s Fire will present a reprise of Christmas Vespers. This program of Advent and Christmas works by early Baroque composer Michael Praetorius sold out and generated highly positive reviews in 2005 and 2007. In February, the group will perform an updated program of concertos by J S Bach and his sons.

Although their regular season is one concert shorter for 2009-10 (5 concerts rather than 6), Apollo’s Fire will present a separately-ticketed bonus event to help make up the difference. In January the young French countertenor, Philippe Jaroussky, will perform a French art song recital with piano accompaniment at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Jaroussky will appear with Apollo’s Fire during the 2010-2011 season.

Further reading:

2009-2010 Season at Apollo’s Fire

Philippe Jaroussky at Bach Cantatas

Further listening:

Amazon, Arkiv Music, and HB Direct offer Apollo’s Fire’s Christmas Vespers on CD

Note: The vendor links above are provided solely for your information. WKSU doesn’t endorse these suppliers, nor does it receive any financial benefit from your use of the links.

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Jean Sibelius
Jean Sibelius (Wikimedia Commons)

Much of Finland’s history is the story of dominance by one country or another, mostly Sweden and Russia. In fact Finland wasn’t a truly independent entity until 1992, in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Russia controlled Finland for the better part of the 19th century, but for most of that time they were a relatively docile master. After the Finnish Diet accepted Tsar Alexander’s authority, Russia granted Finland grand duchy status and promised to respect Finnish law.

But nationalism continued to grow in Finland, with the spreading conversion of the elementary education system to the Finnish language, and the publication of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala.

In 1899, Tsar Nicholas II decided he’d had enough of these upstart Finns. He abrogated the earlier agreement to respect Finnish law and instituted new restrictions, notably on freedom of the press.

Here composer Jean Sibelius enters the picture. Sibelius was asked to create incidental music for a historical tableau. Ostensibly the performance of this pageant was to benefit the press pension fund, but in reality it was economic and moral support for the beleaguered newspapers and freedom of the press.

The finale was called Finland Awakes, representing — well, exactly what you’d expect. This selection quickly became a separate (and very popular) concert work. The following year, Sibelius revised it and renamed it Finlandia.

Given Finland’s craving for independence it’s no surprise that Finlandia became something of a rallying cry, and that Sibelius came to be considered a nationalist composer. This view was only reinforced when Sibelius was among the first to sign a petition protesting Russia’s plan to dissolve the Finnish army.

Still, as patriotic as he may have been, Sibelius wasn’t keen to have his music pigeonholed this way.

The year after Finland Awakes became Finlandia, Sibelius, on holiday in Italy, began creating the musical ideas which would eventually become his second symphony. He premiered the work in Helsenki on 8 March 1902 to widespread acclaim. Sibelius’s Symphony #2 quickly found conductors in other nations who championed it, too.

Conductor Robert Kajanus, for years one of Sibelius’s most ardent proponents, immediately suggested a fairly explicit nationalistic program for the second symphony. To him, the andante section was a "protest against all the injustice," the scherzo a "picture of frenzied preparation," and the finale "lighter and confident prospects for the future." With Finlandia so fresh in the Finnish public’s mind, it’s no surprise that Kajanus’s idea sat rather well with them.

Sibelius would have none of it. He denied any such associations. He wanted the symphony taken at face value — as absolute music, without any meaning beyond the notes on the page and in the ear.

And in fact there is nothing anywhere in the recorded history of Sibelius’s work on the second symphony that supports any of Kajanus’s ideas. Indeed one could make as much of a case — which is to say, a weak one — for the second symphony representing Italy, thanks to Sibelius’s holiday there. What’s more, he recycled some of the symphony’s musical material from an abandoned tone poem inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, which of course has nothing to do with Finland’s independence.

Sibelius’s international musical capital suffered something of a decline in the mid-20th century. This was thanks in no small part to American composer Virgil Thomson’s bully pulpit, which he occupied at the New York Herald Tribune. It was Thomson who penned that famous, witheringly vituperative assessment labeling the second symphony "vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial."

History doesn’t record Sibelius’s opinions of Virgil Thomson’s music. But from the perspective of the 21st century’s first decade, it isn’t too tough to judge which of the two was the more significant composer. Today the Symphony #2 remains Sibelius’s best known symphony, and indeed one of the 20th century’s most frequently programmed symphonies.

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Edward Downes
Edward Downes (classicalarchives.com)

The former conductor of the BBC Philharmonic and Netherlands Radio Orchestra has died at age 85.

Sir Edward Thomas Downes, CBE and his wife Joan, who was terminally ill, traveled to Switzerland where, according to a statement released by the conductor’s family, they "died peacefully, and under circumstances of their own choosing."

The arrangements were made though the Swiss assisted suicide group Dignitas.

Unlike his wife, Sir Downes was not terminally ill, but his daughter described him as "almost blind and increasingly deaf."

Friends of the conductor said that they weren’t surprised by his action. According to BBC Philharmonic general manager Richard Wigley, "Ted was completely rational, so I can well imagine him saying, ‘It’s been great, so let’s end our lives together.’"

Downes had also served as associate music director of the Royal Opera and as music director of the Australian Opera. He was knighted in 1991.

Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, but not in Britain. The deaths are being investigated by Greenwich CID. In the cases of 115 other British citizens who have traveled to Switzerland to die in a similar manner, no friends or family members who accompanied or collaborated with them have been prosecuted. However, some UK officials have expressed concern over the fact that Downes was not himself terminally ill.

Further reading:

Conductor Dies in Assisted Suicide at BBC

With Help, Conductor and Wife Ended Lives at New York Times (registration may be required)

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Alfred Brendel (Photo: Philips Benjamin Ealovega)

In January of 2009 (on the 5th), pianist Alfred Brendel celebrated his 78th birthday. He did not celebrate by playing in public. It’s official: Brendel has retired — and in the view of many, at the height of his career. Late last year, Brendel gave his final bow 90 miles and 60 years from where his career had begun.

Brendel was born in 1931 in what is now the Czech Republic. His family wasn’t particularly musical. His father was an architect who gave up his profession to move to a resort area of Yugoslavia and run a hotel. The young Alfred amused guests by singing along to opera records on the hotel’s phonograph.

From there the family moved to Zagreb to manage a cinema. There, at the age of 6, Alfred began taking piano — more because it was the thing for kids to do than because his parents thought he had any particular talent.

Five years on, though, it was already clear that Alfred Brendel was no ordinary kid when it came to music.

The Brendels moved again, this time to Graz, Austria. Brendel continued his study at the Graz Academy of Music. He graduated in 1947. The following year he gave his first public recital in Graz, playing Bach, Brahms and Liszt. Brendel was only 17 years old.

He won a difficult and prestigious competition two years later, but that didn’t fill seats at Brendel’s performances. This was still the era of the showy virtuoso. Audiences flocked to see pianists who put on grand shows, and stamped the works they played with their own highly individual interpretations. That wasn’t for Brendel. Instead, he saw himself as a conduit for the composer’s musical intent.

It took decades, but finally the value of his approach as a “thinking pianist” gained him recognition and admiration. Over those years Brendel never gave up playing in public as Glenn Gould did — far from it — but he did find great rewards in making recordings.

Brendel was the first to record all of Beethoven’s piano music (for Vox, in the early 1960s; many of these recordings, including the sonatas, are still available to this day). He revisited these works as his interpretations (and recording technology) matured. In the mid-1990s Brendel became the only pianist to record the complete piano works of Beethoven three times. Brendel is also highly regarded for his interpretations of Haydn and Mozart, and for his efforts in reawakening interest in the sonatas of Franz Schubert.

Brendel moved to London in 1972. Since then he’s been more selective in his teaching, but four of his best pupils heard him play his last concert.

It was on the 18th of December (2008), not in London, but in Vienna’s glittering Musikverein. Another noted Mozart interpreter, Sir Charles Mackerras, was there to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic as Brendel played a Mozart concerto.

Did he go out with the 27th, Mozart’s last? Not on your life. Perhaps the 77 year old Brendel had a twinkle in his eye as he played the concerto Mozart composed as a 21 year old, the 9th, the one nicknamed “Jeunehomme” — “The Young Man.”

And when he had finished, Brendel smiled and gestured toward Kit Armstrong, Imogen Cooper, Till Fellner, and Paul Lewis — his most noted students, all there in the Musikverein, there for his farewell. Perhaps he was saying to them, “Now it’s your turn.”

Further reading:

Brendel bows out with a shrug and a smile in Vienna in The Guardian

Alfred Brendel’s Biography in Musicians’ Guide

This article was originally published on 5 January 2009.

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Severance Mobile
Could this be in Severance Hall’s future?
(Severance photo: Richard Scheinin; composite by the author)

Once upon a time, success in classical music, as in business, was pretty straightforward. If an orchestra played good music well, and infused it with commitment and emotional involvement, people came to their concerts.

A few ads in the newspaper, on the radio, and maybe (if the ensemble were well-heeled) on television, sufficed to remind folks of their previous good experiences in concerts, and keep them returning. Now and then the ads reminded somebody that he or she used to like concerts, say, back in college; or even persuaded a neophyte to give classical a try. The classical audience expanded. Success!

When these listeners decided that they liked the way the orchestra played most of the time, they became subscribers. Then the orchestra could assume that they’d attend most of the concerts, and count on their yearly payment as part of the budget.

Most orchestras had modest PR staffs (staves?). The folks on the artistic side of the operation spent their time between concerts researching history and interpretation, preparing the score, practicing, and rehearsing. Now and then, they took time out for an interview in the newspaper, or on the local classical radio station.

Life was pretty good.

Along came the world wide web, and soon every well-connected orchestra had to have a website.

Nearly instant information about programs surely made it easier for concertgoers to make last-minute decisions about which concerts to attend and which to skip. Online ticket sales made impulse purchases easier: you’re suddenly free tonight? Why not go to a concert? It worked that way for me, and still does. I can’t help but think that this may have had a hand in the trend away from subscriptions and toward a la carte concert attendance. (So did hectic lives and personal schedules.)

That first generation of the web brought us a flood of information. As "Web 2.0" arose in the early 2000s, the internet evolved from a chaotic public library to an equally chaotic two-way communication medium. Blogging became the thing to do, and the savvy orchestras joined in. Following the example of their kid brothers, the rock bands, they posted audio and video clips.

In this interactive, nearly-universal-access medium, orchestras’ management, and even the music director and musicians, now can be — in some cases, almost have to be — "accessible." That means at least blogging about upcoming concerts, posting on events in the music world, and responding to the inevitable comments and questions. Some have become podcasters.

Now the interactive buzz is moving from blogs to social networks. These make it even easier for "friends" to respond. The Chicago Symphony, to name just one, is on Facebook. So is the Cleveland Orchestra, though they’re not as active as Chicago. During their recent US tour, members of the London Symphony kept fans at home apprised via Twitter. British conductor Ivor Bolton "tweets" about his recording sessions.

I don’t think anybody doubts that this new, more direct involvement gives concertgoers (and potential concertgoers) a more solid connection with orchestras. But the downside is that it takes chunks of budget to pay for web development, produce audio and video, and handle rights issues. It takes orchestra staff time to do all the writing. If musicians join in the fray (and if I were an orchestra player I’d be sorely tempted), every hour they spend typing or recording is an hour they can’t spend on rehearsal, practice, program preparation, and research.

But what can the orchestras do? The media din is getting denser. They have to shout louder, and more effectively, if they want to be heard.

Are the new media really working for orchestras? Does all this activity bring in more listeners? Has it really made a significant proportion of their audiences more satisfied, more connected? Putting it in blunt economic terms, has the investment returned measurable and attributable increases in attendance, ticket sales, and subscription renewals?

I obviously don’t work in an orchestra’s office, but my impression is that trying to answer these questions isn’t easy — and like the new media effort itself, it doesn’t come free. It means yet more labor hours, more software, more surveys, and more contracted services. That represents still more resources that aren’t going to the core business of making music — but it seems to me that, even in the best of times, well-managed arts organizations have to be sure they’re using their limited resources effectively.

Meanwhile, the commmunication revolution continues apace at the other end. No longer are the consumers of all these tweets, blogs, and podcasts — the listeners, we hope — tethered to their desktop and notebook computers. Now they can interact with "content providers" anywhere, thanks to smartphones and wireless PDAs.

And here is where I get uneasy.

It used to be that listeners moved by a concert would talk about it with their companions on the way home, and with their friends the next week. But who needs friends and companions when the whole online world is hanging on your moment-by-moment responses, delivered wirelessly via Twitter as the orchestra plays?

When orchestras were merely diverting resources from making music to making PR, the most dedicated music lovers might have worried about declining musical standards (or not, depending on how well the orchestra handled the logistics). But how many are going to sit still while some cretin three seats over clicks the keys on his smartphone during a pianissimo passage?

You don’t think it will happen? It already has in rock concerts. Increasingly, bands find themselves playing to cameras, while the fans chat on their mobile phones and wirelessly tweet about the concert. Worse, this trend seems to be headed our way.

To my astonishment, our own Cleveland Orchestra is, in a sense, actually encouraging this.

They’ve just announced "Trivia Challenge." You don’t even need a smartphone or wireless PDA; an ordinary mobile phone will do. Take it to their community concert at Public Square in Cleveland on Thursday (2 July 2009) and "text" (when did that noun become a verb?) the word BLOSSOM to the phone number the orchestra provides. During the concert — yes, while the orchestra is playing — you’ll get to answer trivia questions about the orchestra via your phone. "Every participant will be a winner," they say. The prizes? Tickets to Blossom concerts, where I fervently hope they will NOT use their mobile phones.

(UPDATE: The folks at the Cleveland Orchestra contacted me Thursday (2 July, the day of the concert) to say that despite what the news release said — "Fans can play the trivia game on their mobile phones throughout the Festival and Concert" — they didn’t really mean to suggest that listeners in the Public Square audience should answer these questions during the performance. However, they say they think it’s OK for folks listening live on the radio to do so. Presumably they submit the questions to the different groups at different times, though they didn’t say how that works. I’m not familiar with the system they’re using, so I emailed them for clarification. When I hear back, I’ll post it.)

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m all for anything that expands the audience for classical music. I’m all for increasing attendance at Cleveland Orchestra concerts, and for listening to listeners. (I have to admit, I was impressed at the caliber of the audience dialogue that I saw on the Chicago Symphony’s Facebook page.) And to be fair, the Public Square concert is after all a very casual setting, far removed from the elevated mood of Severance Hall.

But I wonder what their core audience will think of this. These are the folks who attend concert after concert, year after year, because they know they can expect outstanding interpretations of great music. Many ante up something close to (or in) the three-figure range for a pair of Severance Hall seats. How will they react to someone nearby clicking keys, or engrossed in a brightly glowing screen? Just as importantly, how much of the concert is that tweeter really hearing?

Maybe I’m concerned about nothing here. Maybe this experiment is a one-time deal. Maybe it won’t encourage more concert distractions. Maybe the response won’t be strong enough to make it worth pursuing.

Maybe it’ll even lead to positive uses for this technology — for example, transmitting program notes, translations of sung texts, even bar-by-bar interpretive guides, to listeners’ wireless devices. Now that would be a good use of new media.

Still, it seems to me that when the folks at the Cleveland Orchestra suggest that their listeners need to stay busy with gadgets while they perform, they’re not exactly demonstrating confidence in the power and value of the music. If they don’t, will their listeners?

Further reading:

Orchestras and New Media: A Complete Guide at Dutch Perspective

Detroit Symphony Unmasked at the League of American Orchestras

Are Cellphones Ruining the Concert Experience? at the Dallas Morning News

Horns Up, Bows Ready, Cellphones On at New York Times (registration may be required)

Chicago Symphony at Facebook

Cleveland Orchestra at Facebook

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