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Archive for April, 2011

If you’re a book geek and library lover, you’d be in heaven in an orchestra’s library. It’s scores by the score (and parts too), on shelf after shelf.

The accumulated musical thoughts of the centuries are simultaneously inspiring and sobering. They also have an alluring aroma all their own. It’s as good as (but a bit different from) what you breathe in when you prowl the stacks of a good, well established public library.

Somebody has to take care of all that wisdom. Go to the website of any orchestra, large or small, and check out their list of musicians. Somewhere in there, among the violists and horn players, you’ll find a category for librarians.

Orchestra librarians are the folks who look after all these semibreves, crochets, and quavers (whole notes, quarter notes, and eighth notes).

But their job isn’t just handing parts out before rehearsals begin, and collecting them after the concert. Orchestra librarians have crucial behind-the-scenes roles before rehearsal can even begin. Here’s one example from the San Diego Symphony – complete with "bad attitude."

Courtesy of NBC San Diego

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Matt Haimovitz
Matt Haimovitz

Cellist Matt Haimovitz has something of a reputation in the classical music world. He’s a champion of new music, but probably he’s best known for playing in unorthodox places, including clubs where you’d normally expect to hear jazz or alternative music.

But when Haimovitz arrives in Cleveland on 17 May (2011), he’ll perform in a half-dozen area churches – not exactly known as unconventional spaces for classical music – and he’ll be playing works of Beethoven, Brahms, and Anton Arensky.

City Music Cleveland is sponsoring the series of six concerts, and some of their musicians will join Haimovitz and guest violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama. The program comprises Arensky’s second quartet, the Brahms sextet #1, and Beethoven’s opus 20 septet.

Performances are Tuesday 17 May through Sunday 22 May:

  • Tue: Fairmount Presbyterian Church, 2757 Fairmount Boulevard, Cleveland Heights
  • Wed: Mary Queen of Peace Church, 4423 Pearl Road
  • Thu: St Noel Church, 35200 Chardon Road, Willoughby Hills
  • Fri: St Ignatius of Antioch, 10205 Lorain Avenue
  • Sat: Shrine Church of St Stanislaus Church, 3649 East 65th Street
  • Sun: St Mary Church, 320 Middle Avenue, Elyria

The Tuesday through Saturday concerts are at 7:30pm, and the Sunday concert is at 2:30pm. Dinner reservations are available for the Thursday and Saturday concerts, and free child care is available on Tuesday and Thursday.

More information here.

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Philadelphia Orchestra
Philadelphia Orchestra (Ryan Donnell / Philadelphia Orch)

Many nonprofit organizations have been working through lean times since the crunch of 2008. Some orchestras have had to program carefully to limit costs for soloists, music licensing, and supplemental personnel. They’ve cancelled tours and recording projects, taken pay cuts, laid off staff. They’ve reduced their number of concerts.

The Philadelphia Orchestra has gone farther. On Saturday they played Mahler’s Fourth just hours after their board had voted to send the orchestra to bankruptcy court. According to board chair Richard Worley, "We’re running low on cash, we’re running a deficit, and we have to put ourselves in a position to attract investment funds to help us."

The decision wasn’t unanimous. Several board members abstained, and all five musicians on the board voted against the resolution. Some of the musicians believe that the move is partly intended to force renegotiation of their contract. Management reportedly has been considering bankruptcy for more than a year, after deciding it could no longer afford to contribute to the musicians’ pension fund.

As board members entered the offices of their law firm Saturday, musicians were waiting for them. They handed the board members leaflets encouraging a "no" vote, as a string quartet played Schubert and Mozart.

The orchestra expects 2011 income of $33m against $46m in operating costs. The orchestra has a $140m endowment, but use of those funds is restricted.

Some observers blame simple mismanagement, but surely the causes are many. Attendance has been off, and in fact there were reportedly quite a few empty seats at Saturday’s concert. Critics have blasted the orchestra’s 9 year old home, the Kimmel Center, as visually rewarding but sonically cold. The orchestra’s board indicated that they’d be reviewing the rental fees for Kimmel as they try to emerge from bankruptcy later this year.

Although some smaller orchestras have had to seek shelter from creditors, to my knowledge, Philadelphia is the first major American orchestra to take this step. "We’re in a state of shock, really," said principal oboist Richard Woodhams. "I think it’s a very, very sad day for culture in the United States and the world."

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Estates Theatre, Prague
Estates Theatre, Prague, where Mozart conducted Figaro in 1787 (Wikimedia Commons)

Much has been written about Leopold Mozart’s anxiety about his family’s financial security – and his own, as he aged. Leopold was unrelenting in his pressure on Wolfgang to find a permanent position. This, as much as anything else, may have precipitated Mozart’s split with home and hearth. In 1781, he cast off Archbishop Colloredo’s hated livery and shook Salzburg’s dust from his boots. Mozart would make his fortune as a freelance musician in Vienna, or so he believed.

There, at first, Mozart had all the concert and lesson business anyone could want. Five years on, though, Vienna’s appetite for Mozart’s keyboard virtuosity had already begun to wane. Increasingly, he saw opera as his future; but even there, the response was cooler than he had hoped. The Vienna premiere of Le nozze di Figaro in May of 1786 went well. However, after only nine performances that year, Figaro faded from the repertory.

In December of 1786 Figaro opened in Prague – and there it did not fade. Quite to the contrary.

In spite of his wide travels, Mozart had never visited Prague; there were more musical and financial attractions in other cities. But his music had led the way four years before, when a traveling company had first introduced the Prague public to Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

The Figaro premiere literally ignited a new musical sprit in the city. A month later, Mozart was invited to Prague to conduct a performance of the opera at the Nostic Theatre (now the Estates Theatre).

Given Vienna’s growing indifference, the adulation Mozart encountered in Prague must have been deeply satisfying. In a letter to his student Baron Gottfried von Jacquin, Mozart marveled, "Here they speak of nothing but Figaro. Nothing is played, sung, or whistled but Figaro. Nothing draws like Figaro."

Figaro was to be the main course for Prague, but Mozart also planned dessert – a symphony. Symphonies had been among his concert staples in earlier years, but since then Mozart’s symphonic output had fallen drastically (in 1773 alone he had turned out a half-dozen – as many as he composed in his entire ten Vienna years from 1781). In fact, there’s evidence that he initially planned to simply recycle the Paris Symphony (K300a) for Prague. He even composed a new finale for it. But for some reason he set that work aside, and made a fresh start. Mozart wrote the date on his newly-finished Prague symphony: 6 December 1786.

This was a somewhat uncharacteristically punctual finish for Mozart – he wasn’t due to leave for Prague until the 8th of January. Thus, some historians speculate that Mozart didn’t really compose K504 for Prague, but rather meant it for a Vienna premiere which never took place. Others argue against this, pointing out that the Viennese expected their symphonies to have four movements, and K504 has only three.

The missing minuet gives K504 its other (seldom used) nickname – "Ohne Menuett." And of course it provides yet another source of speculation for the music historians.

Some of them characterize the Prague Symphony as a throwback to Mozart’s earlier Italian-style 3-movement symphonies. This is a little tough to swallow, though, when hardly anything else about this symphony suggests those earlier works.

Mozart expert Alfred Einstein declared in the 1940s that K504 is "a full scale Viennese symphony which happens to lack a minuet simply because it says everything it has to say in 3 movements." Maybe so, but this strikes me as somehow more in line with Schumann’s ethos, or even Beethoven’s, than with Mozart’s.

One recent writer has even declared that by dispensing with the "aristocratic" minuet, Mozart was indulging his pro-Enlightenment persuasions. This isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem on first glance. Prague wasn’t too keen on Vienna’s political machinations, and one reason for their enthusiasm about Figaro was the opera’s rather daring political tone.

Or perhaps the experts are all thinking too hard. Seven years before, in his K338 symphony, Mozart had swapped the andante and minuet for no apparent reason. So maybe it’s just as valid to suggest that Mozart dumped the minuet in K504 because he felt sure that Prague’s musically canny audiences would let him get away with a bit of creative tinkering.

Nor was this the only example. Mozart began with a slow introduction, only the second time he had done so in a symphony (though Joseph Haydn had shown the way fully 25 years before). After the first 36 bars, Mozart dispelled the dark clouds with an energetic theme. He developed this theme in ways that no doubt raised a few eyebrows among his more knowledgable listeners.

A pastoral andante leads to the fleet-footed finale. Here Mozart gave Prague concertgoers a treat by including one of those Figaro themes that they were all playing, singing, and whistling.

Both the Figaro performance and the symphony were rousing successes for Mozart. Twenty-one years later, Mozart’s biographer Franz Xaver Niemetschek was able to report that this and the K543 symphonies "are still favorites of the Prague public, although they have been played at least a hundred times."

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Library of Congress Packard Campus
Library of Congress Packard Campus

Each year, the US Library of Congress adds 25 significant audio recordings to the National Recording Registry, housed in the Library’s Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Virginia. These recordings can be of almost anything – speech, natural sound, and all kinds of music.

This week (the week of 4 April 2011) the LoC announced their selections for 2011, and they include two significant classical recordings – one of music from the Renaissance, one of music from the 20th century.

In 1545, Pope Marcellus responded to the Protestant Reformation with the Council of Trent. Over a period of 18 years, the Council met for a total of 25 sessions. Their findings were sweeping. Included were serious condemnations of church music.

Briefly, the Council suggested that liturgical music had become so complex that its structure obscured the text, defeating the music’s purpose as a form of teaching and worship.

Legend has it that Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina composed the Pope Marcellus mass in 1562 to demonstrate that sacred works could be both artistically and liturgically satisfying, and thus "saved church music."

Roger Wagner Chorale on a European Tour, 1953
Roger Wagner Chorale on a European Tour, 1953

Choral director Roger Wagner founded his chorale in 1947, initially as a group of 12 madrigal singers.

In 1951, the growing Roger Wagner Chorale recorded Palestrina’s Pope Marcellus Mass. In selecting this recording for the National Recording Registry, Librarian of Congress James H Billington cited the Roger Wagner Chorale’s "rhythmic precision and tonal opulence."

The year 1954 brought with it the establishment of a record label dedicated not to maximizing profit, but to expanding the reach of newly composed music. Composers Recordings Inc (CRI), founded by Otto Luening, Douglas Moore and Oliver Daniel, devoted its full attention to modern music by American composers.

George Crumb was born in Charleston, West Virginia in 1929. From 1965 until his retirement in 1995, he taught composition at the University of Pennsylvania. His early years there were some of his most creative ones.

George Crumb (Sabine Matthes)
George Crumb (Sabine Matthes)

Crumb was profoundly affected by America’s military activity overseas. In 1970, this inspired Black Angels (Thirteen Images from the Dark Land), a work for amplified string quartet with added percussion and vocalizations by the musicians. Richard Steinitz has called Black Angels a "strikingly dramatic, surreal allegory of the Vietnam War."

Two years after its composition, the New York String Quartet recorded Black Angels for CRI. This week, the Library of Congress selected this recording for their National Recording Registry.

Other additions this year include Edward Meeker’s Take Me Out to the Ballgame; Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man; a 1955 unauthorized recording of Mort Sahl’s At Sunset, considered the first recording of modern stand-up comedy; Voice of America broadcasts by jazz producer Willis Conover; the parlance of the last Yahi Indian in 1915; the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in 1944; and a recording from 1853 believed to be the first sounds ever captured. The Registry also added performances by Nat "King" Cole, Les Paul, Lydia Mendoza, Blind Willie Johnson, The Sons of the Pioneers, the Boswell Sisters, John Fahey, Steely Dan and De La Soul.

Works for the Registry are nominated by the Library of Congress’s National Recording Preservation Board, and by members of the public online.

Further Reading and Listening:

Roger Wagner at Wikipedia

The Roger Wagner Chorale’s official website

Palestrina’s Pope Marcellus Mass in the Roger Wagner Chorale’s 1951 recording, from Arkivmusic

George Crumb’s Black Angels at Wikipedia

Black Angels at George Crumb dot net

Black Angels as performed by the New York String Quartet in 1972, from New World Records

Black Angels in a performance by the Kronos Quartet, from Nonesuch and Arkivmusic

Black Angels Part 1 performed by an unknown ensemble at Youtube

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