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Archive for April, 2014

Bach at the Keyboard

Bach was only 22 when he landed his third church job, as organist of St Blasius in the city of Muehlhausen. His audition was on Easter Sunday of 1707 – imagine the stress! – and there’s a good chance that his audition piece was this very cantata.

If so, Bach hit a home run: the Muehlhausen city council met a month later, and no one even discussed any other musician. His second interview was on the 14th of June. The very next day, Bach signed his contract.

For this cantata, Bach used a text by Martin Luther. Unlike some of his later Easter Sunday works, it’s not a bright, joyous piece – but it’s not by any means dark. It’s celebratory, all right, but in a reserved, pensive way.

Bach opens with the chorus, the sopranos carrying the melody and the violins adding florid decorations. He keeps the mood relatively somber until the text says "des wir sollen fröhlich sein" ("thus we should be joyful"). Finally, then, he starts to open things up.

Bach was both a sensitive musician and a devout one: he wrote the letters SDG (Soli Deo Gloria, or glory only to God) at the end of every sacred manuscript. Thus he didn’t hesitate to use word-painting to illuminate the religious meaning of this cantata. He writes scales around "Menschenkinder" and "Tod," ("mankind" and "death") and assigns strong chords to the words "Recht" ("rule") and "Gewalt" ("power"). He paints the phrase "Tods Gestalt" ("death’s empty shell") in a dim, hazy light. His voices chase each other as "Tod und Leben ringen" ("death and life battled"), and "ein Tod den andern fraß" ("one death ate the other").

Then Bach drives home his point. A low part for the bass and a surprisingly dissonant orchestral part represent the Passion – and then rising scales in the violins symbolize the Resurrection. He ends with an elegantly direct setting of the gospel lesson for the day, "Christus will die Koste sein" ("Christ will be the sustenance").

Bach must have thought this cantata was effective, because he didn’t let it gather library dust forever. In his harried, overworked Leipzig days, he revived it not once, but twice – for Easter Sunday of 1724, and again on Easter of 1725.


1. Sinfonia  
2. Coro [Versus I]

Christ lag in Todesbanden
Für unsre Sünd gegeben,
Er ist wieder erstanden
Und hat uns bracht das Leben;
Des wir sollen fröhlich sein,
Gott loben und ihm dankbar sein
Und singen halleluja,
Halleluja.

2. Chorus [Verse 1]

Christ lay in the bonds of death,
For our sin was given;
He is risen again
And has brought us life;
Thus we should be joyful,
Praise God and be thankful to Him
And sing hallelujah,
Hallelujah.

3. Duetto [Versus II]

Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt
Bei allen Menschenkindern,
Das macht alles unsre Sünd,
Kein Unschuld war zu finden.
Davon kam der Tod so bald
Und nahm über uns Gewalt,
Hielt uns in seinem Reich gefangen.
Halleluja.

3. Duet [Verse 2]

Death could capture no one
Among all mankind;
[But] As a result of our sin,
There was no innocence to be found.
Thereby death quickly came,
And seized power over us,
Held us captive in his kingdom.
Hallelujah.

4. Aria [Versus III]

Jesus Christus, Gottes Sohn,
An unser Statt ist kommen
Und hat die Sünde weggetan,
Damit dem Tod genommen
All sein Recht und sein Gewalt;
Da bleibet nichts denn Tods Gestalt,
Den Stachel hat er verloren,
Halleluja.

4. Aria [Verse 3]

Jesus Christ, God’s own Son,
Has come to our abode
And has cleared away the sins,
Thereby from death is taken
All his rule and all his power;
Here nothing remains but death’s shell,
He has lost his sting.
Hallelujah.

5. Coro [Versus IV]

Es war ein wunderlicher Krieg,
Da Tod und Leben rungen,
Das Leben behielt den Sieg,
Es hat den Tod verschlungen.
Die Schrift hat verkündigt das,
Wie ein Tod den andern fraß,
Ein Spott aus dem Tod ist worden.
Halleluja.

5. Chorus [Verse 4]

It was a wondrous struggle,
When death and life battled;
Life seized the victory,
It has devoured death.
The Scripture has proclaimed,
How one death ate another;
Death has been made a mockery.
Hallelujah.

6. Aria [Versus V]

Hie ist das rechte Osterlamm,
Davon Gott hat geboten,
Das ist hoch an des Kreuzes Stamm
In heißer Lieb gebraten,
Das Blut zeichnet unser Tür,
Das hält der Glaub dem Tode für,
Der Würger kann uns nicht mehr schaden.
Halleluja.

6. Aria [Verse 5]

Here is the true Easter lamb,
Of which God has commanded;
It is high on the cross’s trunk
Burning in ardent love;
The blood makes a sign on our door,
That the faith regards as death,
The murderer can no longer harm us.
Hallelujah.

7. Aria (Duetto) [Versus VI]

So feiren wir das hohe Fest
Mit Herzensfreud und Wonne,
Das uns der Herr erscheinen läßt,
Er ist selber die Sonne,
Der durch seiner Gnaden Glanz
Erleuchtet unsre Herzen ganz,
Der Sünden Nacht ist verschwunden.
Halleluja.

7. Aria (Duet) [Verse 6]

So let us celebrate
With heartfelt joy and pleasure
the high feast the Lord lays before us;
He is himself the sun,
And through His graceful brilliance,
He fully illuminates our hearts;
The sin-filled night has vanished.
Hallelujah.

8. Choral [Versus VII]

Wir essen und leben wohl
In rechten Osterfladen,
Der alte Sauerteig nicht soll
Sein bei dem Wort der Gnaden,
Christus will die Koste sein
Und speisen die Seel allein,
Der Glaub will keins andern leben.
Halleluja.

8. Chorale [Verse 7]

We eat and thrive
On this true Easter wafer;
The old leavening shall not
Remain in the grace of the Word;
Christ will be the sustenance
He alone will feed the soul,
Faith will live on nothing else.
Hallelujah.

Translation by David Roden – may be reproduced under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY/NC/SA license
This article was first published in WKSU Classical on 8 April 2012.

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Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu
The Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu

It’s all over the news: In a recent study, Claudia Fritz of the Institut Jean le Rond d’Alembert in Paris asked 10 well known violinists to play six old Italian violins – five Stradivari and a Guarneri del Gesù – and six new violins.

Salon says the study "showed a general preference for new violins and that players were unable to reliably distinguish new violins from old."

"Violinists can’t tell new violins from old," USA Today trumpets.

The normally sober CBC posits that "new research suggests that Stradivarius violins may not deserve their legendary reputation."

Even the National Geographic gets breathless over this one, headlining their story "Stradivarius violins aren’t better than new ones."

What’s really going on here?

First of all, the study found that given a limited time with old and new violins – and not having been told which was which – a specific group of violinists showed some significant preference for two modern violins, and clearly disliked one historical Stradivarius violin. It also found that after playing an instrument for 30 seconds, musicians were able to identify it correctly as "old" or "new" only about half the time.

Note carefully how that statement compares with the headlines above.

Secondly, this study follows an earlier one which was widely criticized for its small sample size and its location – violinists were asked to play the instruments in a hotel room, not a concert hall. The study published yesterday (7 April) doubled the number of violins and gave the musicians a chance to play in a practice room and on a concert stage.

This study, unlike the previous one, identified the participants. This time the violinists evaluating the instruments were Olivier Charlier, Pierre Fouchenneret, Yi-Jia Susanne Hou, Ilya Kaler, Elmar Oliveira, Tatsuki Narita, Solenne Païdassi, Annick Roussin, Giora Schmidt, and Stéphane Tran Ngoc.

So far, so good. However, one thing doesn’t seem to have changed. Like the earlier study, this one tapped collectors for the loan of their valuable historical instruments.

This is a problem. Most collectors these days are investors, not musicians. They don’t play their violins, certainly not the way a working musician would. An instrument that isn’t played regularly will never be in top shape.

Furthermore, the researchers weren’t allowed to make any adjustments to the historical instruments. They couldn’t even change the strings. What professional musician would accept that restriction for the violin he or she plays daily?

As Steven Isserlis pointed out in discussing the earlier study in The Guardian‘s music blog, "A tiny movement of the sound-post – the little stick inside a string instrument that lies close to the bridge – can alter the tone completely. In Italian, this sound-post is called the ‘anima’ – the soul … players travel across continents to have their sound-posts moved a fraction of an inch.

"The shape, thickness and height of the bridge have to be right, too, in order for the instrument to vibrate freely. The strings have to be top quality. And then there’s the bow, which is almost as important as the instrument. Presumably the same bow was used for every violin in this test; but different bows react differently to the same instrument. It is the correct combination that matters most."

The Strads and Guarneri del Gesù in this study were effectively hobbled.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that I suspect a classic case of confirmation bias in this study.

I can’t help thinking of something that audiophiles argue about endlessly. Thirty years on, they’re still debating the sonic differences between LPs and CDs.

They can bicker all they want. My ears tell me that the very best LPs played with the very best equipment beat out the best CDs.

Now, there’s a problem with this. I would put the number of truly sonically superlative LP titles in – perhaps – the hundreds. What’s more, the equipment you need to really hear them at their best can be absurdly expensive and frustratingly finickly. If the stylus is a bit dirty or worn, or the tonearm is slightly out of adjustment – forget it. (Sound familiar? Read Steven Isserlis’s comments above about the violin’s sound-post.)

I treasure the few acoustically stunning LPs I own. But the truth is that the music I genuinely love mostly isn’t on those LPs. It’s on CDs, and the average CD on my record shelf is head and shoulders above the average LP.

My guess – and mark well, I am not a violinist – is that something akin to this is at work in the violin world. The very best historical instruments, carefully maintained and well played, are probably close to unbeatable. But in the real world of harried touring, maybe – just maybe – a well made and finely configured modern instrument can hold its own.

If that be true, let’s celebrate! That’s really good news for many thousands of musicians – the ones who will never be able to spend a 7 or 8 figure sum for the tools of their trade.

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William Blake: Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Fairies Dancing (1786)
William Blake: Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Fairies Dancing (1786)

NOTE: This week’s In Performance (Sunday 6 April 2014) will extend past the usual end time of 10pm.

HISTORY

Felix Mendelssohn might almost have been born to compose the music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Certainly his love for Shakespeare was in full bloom long before his teenage years were past.

Felix, it must be said, was no starving artist. He was the son of a wealthy banker. The family lived outside Berlin on a sumptuous estate of 10 acres. Their palatial home even included a theatre. When the weather was fair, they held concerts in their vast gardens – not outdoors, but in yet another concert hall which seated hundreds.

To get his last three symphonies performed, Mozart had to rent a casino; all the young Mendelssohn had to do to hear his music played was walk a few yards. He and his immensely talented sister Fanny were regular features on the concert stages, too.

But it was the idyllic garden itself that really captivated young Felix. He spent hours there, reading, imagining, composing. One evening in the summer of 1826, he told his English friend William Bennett, he discovered Shakespeare in that garden.

There his music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream had its first stirrings. Not even a month after falling under Puck’s spell, Mendelssohn had already composed an overture. He had also effectively invented the concert overture – a musical form that doesn’t introduce a specific opera or other theatre piece, but rather stands for a literary work. Mendelssohn’s work arguably points the way to Liszt’s symphonic poems and Strauss’s tone poems.

He was 17 years old.

By 1842 Mendelssohn’s career was fully established. He was music director of the famed Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. He was also Kapellmeister to Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia. Friedrich’s Royal Theatre was planning a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: would Mendelssohn compose the music?

In all, Mendelssohn created 12 new pieces for the play, introducing them with the atmospheric overture he’d crafted as a Shakespeare-smitten teenager. What’s remarkable about the music he composed at the age of 33 is how seamlessly it fits with what he’d written 16 years earlier.

The production’s premiere in November was a complete success. The music has never faltered since. Today the suite from Mendelssohn’s music is a beloved part of the standard orchestral repertoire, but it’s a rare treat to hear all the music Mendelssohn composed in the setting that he intended – woven into a theatrical production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (In fact today you should consider yourself fortunate to hear a live orchestra accompanying any stage production.)

Following on to last season’s collaboration with Groundworks Dance Theatre in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the Akron Symphony and music director Christopher Wilkins undertook a project at least as complex.

In early March (2014), A Midsummer Night’s Dream brought together on the E J Thomas Hall stage noted regional actors, Ballet Excel Ohio (formerly Cuyahoga Valley Youth Ballet), and the Summit Choral Society Children’s Chorus. To keep the length of the performance in line with the realities of modern classical concert practice, the play was presented in an abridged version from Murray Ross’s Theatreworks of Colorado Springs, Colorado.

SYNOPSIS

Duke Theseus and Hippolyta are preparing for their wedding. Their courtship has been – shall we say – unconventional: Hippolyta is the queen of the Amazons, whom Theseus has just defeated in battle. He is captivated by her charms. She is a captive.

Egeus arrives with his daughter Hermia. It seems that she too is involved in a somewhat complex courtship: both Lysander and Demetrius seek her hand.

The truth is that Hermia loves Lysander. However, Egeus wants her to marry Demetrius. He is here to get his wishes enforced by the duke’s iron hand. Meanwhile, Helena is in love with Demetrius. (Following this so far?)

Egeus is fabulously successful; the duke grants his wish. Hermia has a month: she must do as papa says or face death! – or at least the ascetic life of the convent.

Hermia and Lysander decide to run away. They will meet in the forest. But Hermia makes a grievous error: she tells Helena of their plans.

Remember, Helena loves Demetrius – but Demetrius doesn’t love Helena. Here is some ammunition for Helena: maybe if she spills Hermia’s secret to Demetrius, she’ll win some favor from him. So she does. Demetrius takes off in hot pursuit of the desperate couple, Helena at his heels.

In the forest, fairy king Oberon and fairy queen Titania are scrapping over which of them should have a changeling boy that Titania has stolen. Titania refuses to give him up, so Oberon exacts his revenge. He commands that his servant Puck find a rare flower, its juice a love potion. Puck drizzles the philter on Titania’s eyes as she sleeps. When she opens them, she will fall madly in love with the first creature she sees.

Demetrius, seeking Lysander and Hermia, has instead found Helena. He is not pleased. Helena’s visible anguish at his rejection softens Oberon’s heart. He directs Puck to apply his love potion to Demetrius’s eyes.

Just then Hermia and Lysander arrive on the scene. As ordered, Puck anoints the Athenian’s eyes. When he opens them, his heart surges with passion for Helena. There is, however, a bit of a problem. Puck has confused his Athenians. It is Lysander who’s fallen for Helena! He instantly abandons Hermia as if he’d never met her.

Meanwhile, players set to perform at Theseus’s and Hippolyta’s wedding have made their way to the forest to prepare their play. Puck listens nearby as Nick Bottom and Company rehearse. He can’t resist a bit of mischief, and bestows an ass’s head on poor Bottom. The actor’s comrades flee in terror. Titania awakens – and who should her lovesick eyes spy but ass-headed Bottom!

Hermia, bereft at losing Lysander, is sure that Demetrius has killed him. He denies it, so she goes to look for her beloved.

Oberon sees the tangled state of affections and realizes: this is all Puck’s fault! He orders Puck to find Helena and bring her hither. He paints Demetrius’s eyes with the love potion.

Puck brings Helena to this scene. She’s trailed by Lysander, imploring her to return his love. Just as Oberon planned, Demetrius awakes to the sight of Helena and is overtaken by passion for her. But what’s this? She’s also pursued by Lysander? Now Demetrius really will murder his rival! He and Lysander challenge each other to a duel.

Helena, utterly bemused, is certain that she must be the victim of an elaborate ruse. Hermia is simply heartbroken.

There shall be no bloodshed in this fairies’ wood. Oberon has Puck imitate Lysander’s and Demetrius’s voices, leading them on a futile chase until they fall exhausted into a deep sleep. Puck washes Lysander’s eyes with an antidote. When he awakes, he will again be in love with Hermia.

Puck declares that all will be as it should be when the lovers awaken: Lysander and Hermia will be a couple, and Demetrius will love Helena as she loves him. As act 3 gives way to intermission, all four slumber to the strains of Mendelssohn’s gentle Nocturne.

As act 4 opens, the four lovers remain asleep in the dark, magical forest. Titania, however, is still pursuing Bottom, ass head and all. Oberon, now possessed of the changeling he sought, decides Titania has suffered enough. He lifts the love spell from her. Puck relieves Bottom of his ass’s head.

Theseus and Hippolyta, on an early morning hunt, stumble onto the slumbering quartet. He wakes them with his hunting horns, and hears them out.

Theseus, his heart warmed by their tale of confusion, reverses his decree. Egeus’s desires are as nothing compared to love. Lysander and Hermia shall marry, and so shall Demetrius and Helena. In fact, they’ll join in the festivities of his own marriage.

Bottom and company return from Athens to perform at the lavish wedding feast in Theseus’s palace. Theseus asks them to present the play Pyramus and Thisbe for the lovers. All retire for the night.

All but the fairies, that is. They sing and dance. Oberon blesses all three couples.

And who has the final word? It’s impish Puck, of course: "If we shadows have offended, think but this, and all is mended: That you have but slumbered here while these visions did appear … So, good night unto you all. Give me your hands, if we be friends, and Robin shall restore amends."

CAST
 
Theseus and Oberon John Hedges
Hyppolyta and Titania Elana Kepner
Egeus A Neil Thackaberry
Lysander William John Liptak
Hermia Natalie Welch
Puck Stuart Hoffman
Nick Bottom Bob Russell
Peter Quince Terence Cranendonk
Francis Flute Andrew Knode
Snout Mark Seven
Snug Ryan Nehlen
Starveling Michele McNeal
Cobweb Marybeth Hobson
Peaseblossom and Philostrate Catie Hewitt
Moth Karla Cummins
Mustardseed Anna E White
 
The Akron Symphony Orchestra
Conductor Christopher Wilkins
Director Craig Joseph
 
Ballet Excel Ohio
Artistic director Mia Klinger
Choreographer Eric Yetter
 
Summit Choral Society Children’s Choir
Director Heather Cooper
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