Raymond Yiu’s Symphony, a sort of Mahlerian song-cycle, which received its first performance on the Prom on August 25 by counter-tenor Andrew Watts and the BBC Symphony conducted by Edward Gardner, is a big piece, ambitiously conceived and handsomely realized. It is some indication of its success that most of the criticism one might have of the piece have to do with appealing aspects of it which one wants more of. It is well timed and beautifully orchestrated and consistently engaging, and, in its final moments particularly beautiful and rather moving, and it very successfully sustains an arc of 26 minutes length. There is some indirection about the relationship of its texts to each other and to the ostensible subject of the whole, which is AIDS. Exactly what about AIDS is a little hard to determine–one ends up with having to say that it has something to do with AIDS, but without being able to say exactly what. The introductory first movement’s Whitman text proclaims strong music that celebrates victors and “conquer’d and slain” alike. The second, instrumental scherzo’s title ‘Strong With Cadence Multiply Song” is a line from Basil Bunting (which the program notes says was significant for the whole work, somehow, but it’s hard to tell exactly how, since we were never given it, or an explanation for its significance), the third movement sets a poem by Cavafy which invokes “beloved sensation,” aka sex, presumably. The fourth and longest movement sets a poem by Thom Gunn describing an encounter of the poet with two other men in a gay bar, combining thoughts and deeds of death and the sexual, and drugs. The final serene movement, setting Donne, celebrates the triumph of love and fidelity over destruction and decay. So the texts highlight different aspects of the subject, as it were throwing light on it from different angles at the periphery , without having a single sustained argument. There are evocations in the second and fourth movements of pop music of the seventies. Whether the fourth movement could really be said to be a “seventies-style disco song”, as Yiu described it, is debatable, but it probably comes close enough; it is in this movement that the use of the counter-tenor to reference such falsetto pop singers as Barry Gibb, Jackie Jackson, and Sylvester is most apparent. For this listener, as strong as the piece is, it would have been even more successful and more moving had it had more grit in it–a little more harshness now and then in the sound–and greater harmonic intensity in its climatic moments. The implications of the treatment of the texts at the beginning–with the singer’s stuttering drawing out of the sibliants of the words “song” and “strong” which are juggled momentaily, were never realized, since that manner of treating text is abandoned for a more traditional, and very masterly, manner of setting the words. But the reservations one might have are small in view of the work’s achievement and of the mastery involved in its execution. Both Andrew Watts’s singing and the orchestras playing was direct and vivid and had clearly been prepared with great dedication. Yiu’s Symphony was preceded on the program by Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, another serious and highly accomplished work by a composer who was around thirty. The second half included the Nielsen Flute Concerto, with Emily Benon, soloist, and the Janáček Sinfonietta, both of which were played with considerable elegance and charm. The whole concert was a great pleasure.
The Prom on August 27, presented by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton, contained two first performances. The first, preSage by Ørjan Matre, although billed as a world premier, was actually a second version of a piece originally commissioned by the Oslo Philharmonic to both commemorate the centennial of The Rite of Spring and to mark Vasily Petrenko’s becoming the orchestra’s Principal Conductor. Based on material derived from the section of the ballet called ‘The Sage,’ Matre’s work is a sort of expansion over twelve minutes of a split second before the beginning of that music, with some hints of reminisces of other places in the ballet also included. The recognizability of the material makes this effect possible. The music, which throbs and shimmers and rings many changes of instrumental color while evoking that moment of the ballet, is appealing and engaging, and would be even a little more so were it a little shorter, but it still doesn’t outstay its welcome. I would be happy to hear it again, and to hear more of Matre’s music.
The second premiere on the concert was of Bergen’s Bonfire by Alissa Firsova. Firsova is the child of two Russian composers who defected from the Soviet Union to the UK in 1991, and she grew up and was trained in England, where she has a career both as a composer and pianist. Bergen’s Bonfire is a depiction of an apocalyptic dream of the composer’s. Her retelling of the dream in her note, involving Norse mythology and the end of the old world and the birth of a new, doesn’t actually include anything about a bonfire, so the reason for the title is a little unclear. The work is about ten minutes long, in three sections, the first describing the Twilight of the Gods, with themes for the sun, the moon, and the stars; the second depicts the composer’s walk around Mount Floyen, one of the mountains surrounding Berger, and the third shows a new age of peace and happiness and is based on a piece the composer wrote when she was eight years old. The beginning of the work is very strong and compelling (and is much stronger than any of the music included in the Composer Portrait concert of her music which had been given earlier in the afternoon), and all goes well for a while, until the third section arrives. At that point things start to go badly wrong. For one thing it’s much longer than it should be in relationship to the first two sections, but in addition it slides into a music of simply astounding banality, which would make a second or third tier Hollywood composer of the 30s or 40s blush. One can believe that it was written by a precocious eight year old. Sometimes when you’re presented with somebody’s ideas of the sublime and utopian it can be like having them share their dreams or their sexual fantasies with you–just a little too much information which, when you’ve received it, you’d rather they hadn’t shared it with you to begin with, and which you can’t unhear.
The concert concluded with a remarkably wonderful performance of The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, which had enormous clarity and nuance, rock solid ensemble and rhythm, and enormous drama and character. It was moving and memorable.
Concurrent with the Proms, the BBC sponsors various workshops and events for pre-college composers under the general title of Inspire. I observed on August 21 an impressive Inspire session run by Paul Griffiths (this is not the musicologist and writer on modern music–this Paul Griffiths is a composer, improviser, and “music educationalist” on the faculty of the Guildhall School of Music) which dealt with collaborative composition. Led by Griffiths and assisting professional musicians, about two dozen performing composers created over the morning a joint composition. There is also every year a competition with a concert of the winning works. For the last several years the concert has been presented by the Aurora Orchestra and its music director and principal conductor, Nicholas Collon. This summer’s concert happened in the afternoon of August 28. The format is never quite the same: there is a varying amount of talking (over the years this has been, mercifully, reduced), and the number of works played changes. Past concerts have presented work by the winners and the highly commended composers. This year’s concert only included the five winning works, which were Fantasia for Strings by Matthew Kelley (b.1999), Mechanical Passion by Tammas Slater (b.2000), After Death by Toby Hession (b,1997), The Complications of Life in an Enclosed Space by Daniel Penney (1999) and Like the Wind by Finnlay Stafford (b.1998). All of the works were lively and interesting and were performed with serious care and understanding by the excellent performers. It seemed short; one wanted to hear at least some of works the ten highly commended composers as well.
These concerts are available for listening on the BBC iplayer: Yiu:http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06708yz (the whole concert, the Yiu only at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p030rzhk), the Matre and Firsova: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06709tq (the whole concert; Matre only http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p030yxs6, Firsova only http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p030z9md).
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One of the major themes of this year’s Proms is the commemoration of the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Jean Sibelius. The Proms on August 12 and 13 were programmed to put Boulez into a context, offering his music alongside that of his predecessors Ravel, Stravinsky, and Messiaen. The Proms concerts on August 15, 16 and 17, featuring all of the Sibelius symphonies in order over three evenings, additionally projected Sibelius’s influence forward: the only music on those three evenings not by Sibelius was the first performance of a BBC commission from Michael Finnissy.
Sibelius is a composer who would seem not to be neglected, however at the same time that his music is “popular” and certain pieces of his are performed fairly often, he doesn’t often seem to be recognized as an modernist whose methods of dealing with musical materials and building musical structures are just as novel as a number of his younger contemporaries, such as Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Janacek, and Bartok. His seven symphonies are probably his most important works. Hearing them all together, one after another, the consistency of them, both in terms of language and quality, is striking. The performances, on August 15 by the BBC Scottish Symphony, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard, on August 16 by the same orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov, and on August 17 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Osmo Vänskä, were all of a very high level, although the playing of the BBC Scottish Symphony was really memorable for the sheer beauty of its sound and the continuous presence of a certain kind of music making which one might describe as loving. In addition to the Symphonies, the first concert included the tone poem Finlandia and the second included the Violin Concerto, with Julian Rachlin as soloist.
Michael Finnissy is undoubtedly one of the major living British composers, which makes the few number of times that pieces of his have been included on the Proms something of a mystery, especially when one considers other composers whose pieces have been programmed many more times and regularly; this piece was the third work of his to be scheduled on Proms concerts. He described Janne, the title being a diminutive of Siblius’s first name, as “an imaginary portrait of Sibelius or, more exactly, a portrait of his music and its sources.” Finnissy described the work as a set of variations (“or variant explorations”) on a bit of a tune from the Finnish folk epic, the Kalevala. In fact those variations underlie a profuse fantasia of “foreign elements”, allusions to music of other composers who influenced Sibelius, Tschaikovsky and Bruckner, and “the flotsom and jetsam of 20th-century musical history (such as Futurism, Impressionism, new simplicity, new complexity)”. The variations, which surface from time to time featuring solos and small concertino groups–a single bassoon, then three horns, then viola, and later oboe and ‘cello, then a solo violin–provide a grounding structure, which along with an extraordinarily compelling harmonic trajectory, give a clear and sure progress through the span of the piece. It is striking that, while Janne, which very strongly evokes Sibelus’s language and methodology, is in a number of ways a much more conventional work, and much more conventionally skillful, dazzlingly so, than one might expect from Finnissy, it is at the same time completely personal and identifiable as the work of its composer, in its evoking and estranging of its elements, and it’s starkly contrasting “plain and more ornate, even conflicted, surfaces”. It is wonderfully convincing and satisfying, and it is just beautiful.
All of these concerts are available for listening on the BBC iplayer (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007v097/episodes/player) . The Finnissy is also available separately in a special section of new music on the Proms (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02pcr1d).
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As well as being one of the major figures in the music of the second half of the twentieth century, Pierre Boulez has had a long and important relationship with the BBC and with the Proms, so it is not surprising that the celebration of his 90th birthday would be one of the prominent strands of the programming of this year’s Proms season. The Proms concerts on August 12 and 13 presented the first performance at the Proms of a major orchestral work of Boulez’s and placed it in a context of musical and orchestral tradition in which it stands.
Figures-Doubles-Prismes, written in 1957-8, and revised in the later 1960s, is a product of the heyday of post World War II European zero-hour modernism, but it is also, more personally, Boulez’s response to Stockhausen’s Gruppen, whose first performance he had participated in as one of the three conductors. Like Gruppen, Boulez’s work is for three orchestral groups, but deployed on one platform rather than spatially around the audience. As its title implies, the work’s constructive methodology involves a series of ideas of varying lengths which are presented (figure), varied (double), and extended and refracted in various ways (prisme), whose various statements and progresses are cross cut and proliferate over and through the three instrumental units. The result is a kaleidoscopic succession of textures of greatly varying densities and a wide array of different orchestral sonorities, many of which are strikingly and beautifully calculated, presented in a state of harmonic stasis. The command of all these elements and the brilliance of the orchestral writing is fearsome and impressive. The performance by The BBC Symmphony, which looked very cramped on the stage of the Albert Hall, conducted by François-Xavier Roth. was a model of clarity and probably got the right combination of beauty of sound and emotional coolness.
The August 12 concert made the connection between Boulez’s music and that of the second generation before him, Stravinsky and Ravel, which, if it wasn’t important to his compositional career (and I think it was), was certainly a major aspect of his career as a conductor. The most explicit connection was represented by Boulez’s orchestration of Ravel’s Frontisipice, a very short (two minute long) piece which Ravel wrote in 1918 as a frontispiece to the publication of an extract of S. P. 503: Le poème du Vardar by the Italian poet Ricciotto Canudo which concerned the author’s experiences during the First World War (S. P. 503 was the postal code of Canudo’s unit). Ravel’s score of the work is on five staves; it seems to have been intended for two pianos, five hands, or possibly for pianola. Boulez, in one of his Domaine Musical concerts in 1954, presented what is thought to be the first public performance of the piece; he later orchestrated it for a small orchestra in 1987, and then for full orchestra twenty years later. This concert also included Ravel’s Concerto for Left Hand, played with enormous brilliance and beauty by Marc-André Hamelin (he also played very beautifully, with both hands, as an encore Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau). The concert ended with the complete Firebird ballet of Stravinsky. As a whole The Firebird has a good number of stretches of brilliant orchestration of not much of musical interest, but in the bits that ended up in the suites there’s a lot of power, and certain places, most especially the beginning of the finale, are down right thrilling. This performance realized all of its virtues.
The Proms of August 13, presented by the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Juanjo Mena, included a major work of Boulez’s teacher Olivier Messiaen, The Taurangalîla Symphony. It’s hard to know where to start in describing or discussing Taurangalîla. It’s excessive and completely over the top and it’s brilliant in its orchestral writing and it’s quite long (75 minutes, according to the program) and it has a lot of the vigor and liveliness of complete tastelessness (although taste is not any kind of valid standard for judging it) and it’s very complex rhythmically and musically inventive. It’s also very static harmonically (once again, no valid standard–it’s probably part of its appeal). It’s one of those pieces that convinces me that Messiaen had no sense of humor whatsoever. The performance of this ecstatically excessive piece was completely go for broke and it was very effective, although somehow less fun that I’ve found other performances of the piece I’ve heard to be. The playing of the pianist, Steven Osbourne, was always gorgeous–with lots of color and always with very very beautiful sound. From where I was sitting, since her back was to me, and the speakers of the instrument faced in some other direction, I don’t think I every heard much of Valérie Hartmann-Claverie, who played the Ondes Martinot, ostensibly the other solo instrument. I did seem to notice (or at least get the impression), though, that everything the OndesMartenot does is doubled somewhere in the orchestra.
This program began with John Foulds Three Mantras. There was, of course, no connection between Foulds and Boulez, but it was connected thematically with Sanskit/Hindu elements of the Messiaen. Foulds lived from 1880 to 1939, making him part of the same generation as Holst (who also had a lot of interest in Hindu religious philosophy) and Vaughan Williams. The Mantras, apparently part of an unrealized projected ‘Sanskrit opera’, Avatara, were written between 1919 and 1930. They call for a large orchestra, including a wordless female chorus, and sound a little something like parts of The Planets. Iin terms of the orchestral writing, the Mantras are pretty impressive. Although it was less interesting, at least to me, than Holst’s music usually is, it was still not at all uninteresting or unpleasant to listen to, and I was glad to have run across them, even if I probably won’t go out of my way to hear them more.
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On August 27, the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Myung-Whun Chung, in its first appearance at the Proms, included, along with Debussy’s La Mer and the Tschaikovsky Sixth Symphony, Šu, a concerto for Sheng and orchestra by their compatriot Unsuk Chin, with soloist Wu Wei. The sound of the sheng, which is ethereal, if not down right ineffable, dominates the work. Not only does the soloist plays almost continually throughout the work, but the orchestra’s music grows out of the music of the sheng, expanding and amplifying it. Šu, whose title comes from the name of the ancient Egyptian god of air, begins with high motionless clusters of notes, which expand and move downward in register, developing tremors and vibrations as the work progresses. The whirring motion of these slowly moving harmonies eventually develops into genuinely fast music and then a short sort of thumping dance-like section, which evaporates, leaving reminisces of the beginning, literally echoed by instruments in the back of the hall (or in the case of the Albert Hall, from somewhere in the upper tier of the boxes). The delicacy and beauty of the sound of Šu and the profound mastery of the instrumental writing is remarkable and the impression of the work lasts long in this listener’s memory. Ms. Chin apparently had avoiding writing for Asian instruments until she encountered Wu Wei’s playing, and one can easily understand why the encounter changed her mind. His playing combines overwhelmingly virtuoso playing with irresistibly compelling musical expressiveness. I’ve been trying not to use the word “astounding,” to describe it, but…
On August 20, The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, presented a concert which largely had a Spanish connection, albeit in a rather roundabout way. The concert began with the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, set in Seville, and its second half consisted of pieces by Ravel which are contributions, as the program said, to the rich repertoire of Spanish music by Frenchmen, Rhapsodie espagnole, Alborad del gracioso, Pavane pour une infante défunte, and Boléro. The orchestra’s playing in all of this music was elegant, stylish, polished, and just about perfect. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this concert, and more closely allied with the goals of the enterprise which the orchestra is, though, was the bulk of its first half, which included works by the Israeli composer Ayal Adler and the Syrian-American composer Kareem Roustom, both receiving their first UK performances. Adler’s Resonating Sounds presents, across its two movements, the first slower and the second faster and more intense, different realizations of the image evoked by its title: sometimes simple echoes of loud and forcefully jabbing chords, and alternatively immense motionless and rather ominous clusters succeeded by lightly swirling and shimmering textures of micro-polyphony. The title of Roustom’s work, Ramal, is the name of the pre-Islamic arabic poetic metre on which its rhythm is based. The irregular and jagged rhythm underlies a driving and intensely dramatic music which occupies the bulk of the work’s durations is occasionally broken by slower uneasy brooding moments. Although not overtly programmatic, Roustom intended it to suggest “the unsettled state of the world, specifically the devastating current situation in Syria.” Both of these pieces received intensely vivid and rhythmically vibrant performances on the same level as those of the Ravel pieces that followed.
On the ninth of August, the Hallé Orchestra, conducted by Mark Elder, included, along with performances of works of Berlioz, Elgar, and Beethoven, the first London performance of Near Midnight by Helen Grimes. In a mood suggested by a poem of D. H. Lawrence, Near Midnight consists of an initial assertive clanging music whose echoes dominate and roll through the succeeding three sections, finally dying out at its end. The piece is thoroughly expertly written and orchestrated with spit and polish, in a thoroughly British manner heavily indebted to and reminiscent of Britten and Knussen.
Late in the afternoon of August 20, preceding the concert of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the Aurora Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Collon, performed works written by the winners and the highly commended contestants of the BBC’s Inspire competition for pre-college composers, chosen by a panel of judges including composers Stuart MacRae, Anna Meredith, Martin Suckling, Fraser Trainer, Judith Weir,and Radio 3 Editor Jeremy Evans. The pieces were written for ensembles ranging from duos (La Trahison des Images, for ‘cello and piano, by Harry Castle, and Dithyramb, for bassoon and piano, by Mattew Kitteringham) to chamber orchestra (Mirror, Mirror by Matthew Jackson, Study in Anarchy by Rob Durnin, and Dis-pulsed by Harry Johnstone), with other varied instrumentation in between (Two Cells, for flute, oboe, and bassoon, by Nathaniel Coxon, Underneath for vocals and beat boxer, by Anna Disley-Simpson, The Unteachable Lesson for string quartet, by Edward Percival, Furu Ike Ya? For timpani and tape by Electra Perivolaris, and Two of Three Pieces for pierrot ensemble and percussion by Thomas Carling). There was also one family affair, since among the winners were Pilgrimage, for harp and two percussionists, by Thomas Sparkes, and The Throstle, for soprano, flute, cello, and piano by his older sister Sophie Sparkes, which set a text by their father, Edward Sparkes. The works were given serious and respectful attention and highly polished and eloquent performances. The concert also included the first performance of Darkened Dreams, commissioned by the BBC from Tom Harrold, an alumnus of the Inspire program and a current graduate student at the Royal Northern College of Music. The work, for instruments with a tape part whose source sounds were submitted by listeners of Radio 4’s PM program; it was in fact broadcast immediately on Radio 4. The other performances were recorded for later broadcast on Radio 3, along with works by Jacob Davies, Tammas Slater, Toby Hession, and Kieran Timbrell, which were recorded for the broadcast, but not performed on this concert.
That broadcast, along with the other concerts can be heard at http://www.bbc.co.uk/ programmes/b007v097/episodes/player
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The birthdays of Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies, both of whom turn 80 in 2014, is one of the major focuses of this year’s Proms. Each has a complete Proms Portrait matinee concerts in Cadogan Hall dedicated to their music on August 30 (Davies) and September 6 (Birtwistle), and Davies’s birthday, on September 8, is marked with a late night Prom in the Albert Hall. Unfortunately I will not be around for any of those concerts, but I have heard other concerts marking the birthdays.
On August 9, in Cadogan Hall on a Saturday matinee concert combined the birthday strand with another theme of this summer’s Proms, presenting orchestras new to the festival and from far afield. The Lapland Chamber Orchestra, conducted by John Storgårds, presented a concert which included Birtwistle’s Endless Parade, with Håkan Hardenberger as the trumpet solo, and Davies’s Sinfonia. The Birtwistle, for trumpet with vibraphone and strings, written in 1987 for Hardenberger, was intended by Birtwistle, who had, he said in the short discussion before the performance, cubism on his mind, as a study in discontinuity, cross cutting six kinds of music, with different tempi, figuration, and textures, in disconnected and apparently illogical ways. Birtwistle also apparently had Stan Kenton on his mind, and there is from time to time a sort of whiff of jazziness in the music, although that may be as much an effect of the sound of the vibraphone as the actual notes.
The Davies Sinfonia was written in 1962, after he had studied in Italy with Petrassi, but before he had gone to Princeton to study with Sessions and before he had begun work on Taverner, the central work of his early career. It was written under the influence of the Monteverdi Vespers and makes use of procedures from that work. The work is in Davies’s earlier, post-Webernesque Euoprean modernist style, but nonetheless has in it the beginnings of the isorythmic cantus firmus procedures that one recognizes in slightly later and possibly more characteristic piece such as Antechrist.
Both of these works received very strong, very strongly characterized, and highly persuasive performances. The concert began with a Symphony by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and also offered, between the Birtwistle and Davies, Honegger’s Pastorale d’été, and ended with Rakastava by Sibelius, a very beautiful piece for strings and percussion, of whose existence prior to this concert I had been completely unaware.
Storgårds conducted the BBC Philharmonic on August 14 in Proms concert at Albert Hall that featured Davies’s Fifth Symphony, along with works of Sibelius (Finlandia and the Second Symphony) and Frank Bridge (Oration for ‘cello and orchestra, with Leonard Elschenbroich as the soloist). Written in 1994, when Davies performing career had moved from working with The Fires of London to conducting orchestras, mainly the BBC Philharmonic and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Symphony is in one movement and reflects Davies’s involvement at the time with the Sibelius Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, which had figured in his repertory. The Symphony which at first seems to be in discontinuous shards, consists of the braiding of a fast music with increasing intensity and emphaticness and an equally impassioned and forward moving slow music with a motionless music providing moments of stasis in the overall progress, which in certain respects resembles the arc of the Sibelius Seventh Symphony. It is a highly dramatic piece and it received a very dramatic and impassioned, although somewhat under-shaped performance. This Prom was preceded by a Composer Portrait concert at the Royal College of Music in which Davies talked to Andrew McGregor about his chamber works Antechrist, Runes from a Holy Island, and Six Sorano Variants, which were given excellent performances by Musicians of the London Sinfonietta Academy.
Two nights earlier The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Thomas Søndergård, presented the suite from the second act of Davies’s ballet Caroline Mathilde, along with the Violin Concerto of William Walton and more music of Sibelius, The Swan of Tuonela and the Fifth Symphony. Walton’s rather elegant and glamorous concerto is just the sort of piece that one would have written for Heifetz, who, in fact, commissioned it and gave its first performance, and it received a suitably luxurious performance from James Ehnes. Davies’s ballet is about the misadventures and eventual downfall of the title character, the sister of George III of England who, at the age of 15, was married to the Danish king Christian VII and who became the lover of his person physician, with attendant unfortunate personal and political consequences. The music from the ballet is, compared to more austere and abstract works such as the Fifth Symphony, relatively easy listening and depicts fairly clearly the story line of the choreography. The performance mirrored the clarity and sonorous beauty of the orchestral writing.
Davies’s birthday is also being celebrated by other festivals. The North York Moors Chamber Music Festival in North Yorkshire between August 24 and August 30 features a work by him on each of their concerts. I heard the concert on August 25 in the beautiful Victorian Gothic Church of St. Helen’s and All Saint’s, in Wykeham, in which the Quartetto di Cremona began the concert with the Beethoven Quartet, Op. 74 and ended it with Davies’s 6th Naxos Quartet. In the between another quartet, consisting of Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, Simone Brown, Meghan Cassidy, and Jaimie Walton played the Berg Lyric Suite. The 6th Naxos Quartet is a big, thirty minute long, impassioned piece which interpolates into a fairly traditional four movement layout, two short “arrangements” of plainsong hymns for the third Sunday of Advent and for Christmas Day, the day the piece was finished. All of the performances on this concert were outstanding.
The Proms was also marking the 80th birthday of the British born American composer Bernard Rands with the first UK performance of his Piano Concerto performed by Jonathan Biss and the BBC Scottish Orchestra, conducted by Markus Stenz. The Concerto is an imposing work which presents the soloist as a predominant member of the ensemble rather than, as Paul Conway’s program note said, “a protagonist striving heroically for supremacy over massed accompanying forces.” After a bright and lively first movement, entitled Fantasia, the second and third movements, were not clearly enough differentiated, especially in terms of tempo, as opposed to speed of figuration, to remain as separate impressions on this listeners memory.
On August 17, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Andrew Manze presented a concert entitled “Lest We Forget,” to commemorate the centennial of the First World War. The first half consisted of works written by composers who died in the war. The German composer Rudi Stephan (1887-1915), who died in the trenches of Galicia on the eastern front, was represented by Music For Orchestra from 1912, which was steeped in the language of late German romantics particularly Strauss. The Elegy for Strings in memoriam Rupert Brooke (who had himself died in the Navy in the war) by Frederick Kelly (1881-1916), who died in the last phase of the battle of the Somme, reflects more of the language of Debussy. Both of these works were indications of great potential as yet unrealized, especially the Stephan. A much stronger and more personal impression was made by the Six Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’ by George Butterworth (1885-1916), who also died on the Somme. He was a more fully developed composer, and several of his works, including these songs, which he wrote with piano accompaniment, but were performed here in a orchestration by Phillip Brookes, are fairly well known and not infrequently performed. Two of them, Loveliest of Trees, and The Lads In Their Hundreds, are, I think, particularly good. They were sung, more of less perfectly, by the baritone Roderick Williams, with a beautiful sound and perfect British English diction; it is hard to imagine anyone ever doing them better. The concert ended with the Vaughan Williams Third Symphony, written after the war, but formed by his experiences as an ambulance driver in France during the conflict. I was very excited to hear this piece, which I’ve know since I was in high school, but had never heard live. The performance was all that one could wish for. There were a number of other Vaughan Williams pieces on the Prom presented by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sakari Oramo, on August 13: The Overture to the Wasps, The Lark Ascending, and his big ballet (or as he called it ‘a masque for dancing’) Job. These performances were rather less radiant than that of the Symphony, but they did bring to mind what a very good composer Vaughan Williams was, and, especially in pieces like Job, people often don’t remember, a modernist.
All of the Proms concerts can be heard at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007v097/episodes/player
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Not only is it hard to describe Benedict Mason’s Meld, which was given it’s first performance on the late night Prom given by the Aurora Orchestra and the choral group Chantage, conducted by Nicholas Collon, on August 16, it’s hard even beginning to think about how to describe it. All of the advance notices of the concert were particularly, and unusually, vague about the details of the work, and even the program claimed to be not at liberty to divulge much information about it. In the concert itself, which began with the Mozart 40th Symphony (played from memory) and also included Dobrinka Tabakova’s Spinning a Yarn, a short and very attractive piece for violin and hurdy-gurdy, played (also from memory) from the organ loft by Alexandra Wood and Stevie Wishart, the fact that something was up was indicated by the emptiness of the arena and gallery of the Albert Hall, the domain of the promenaders. One noticed a number of people who are continually there as promenaders in very good seats in the stalls.
Once it was underway it was clear that Meld was going to use all of the Albert Hall, up, down, inside, and out. It began with a mysterious and halting throbbing music coming from some place outside of the hall which turned into a march for a parade of players across the gallery at the top of the hall. Suddenly there were four bass players in the lower tier of boxes, echoing a group of ‘cellos and basses in the gallery, and then, suddenly without one having noticed their getting there at all, the entire upper tier of boxes was filled with pairs of players and singers, who sent volleys of pizzicato notes ricocheting around the hall, succeeded by skittering and scurrying flurries of notes. After a period of time when different kinds of groups with different instrumentation would seem to simply appear in lots of different places, a bevy of horns started moving over the arena area and the stage, and eventually through the audience, followed by other people, playing various percussion instruments, sometimes moving very fast, pursuing, as the poet says, urgent voluntary errands. Then there were some small groups of players in the arena, seemingly menaced (I’m not sure if there’s another word for it) by one or two people wearing some kind of stoles of clacking blocks. The sequence of events is somewhat hazy in the memory, although the events themselves were striking and memorable. During all of this, the music–the actual notes being played–which had a fairly high level of complexity, was always full of detail and held one’s interest.
After a while the delight and excitement about what would happen next began to ebb somewhat, but not so much that anything ever got, for lack of a better word, boring. I found myself, though, wondering about what the shape of the piece being presented in this all enveloping environment and its structural argument might be. I was reminded of a place in the final scene of The Years by Virginia Woolf where one of the characters asks herself whether, if one could get far enough above life, one might be able to see a pattern in it. After a while longer I found myself thinking of another Woolf and wondering if Meld wasn’t a pageant, in some ways like the pageant in Between the Acts, including in its outlining some kind of (unspecified–in the case of the Mason) loosely historical progression. Pageants are a series of more or less static and not necessarily closely connected tableaux whose larger scale succession, thematic in some way, but not plot based, rather than the immediate flow of the individual moments give the work’s structure and continuity. At some points in Meld we seemed to be in fact offered some kind of excerpts of a pageant, in the bit with the clacking stoles, and also in a segment where most of the chorus and some players coalesced in the arena, first rolling balls of some kind and appearing to play some kind of game (cricket?), then formed several small groups doing what appeared to be some kind of folk dancing, and then made one big ring around the perimeter, before forming two groups that then sat for a few moments in seats in opposite sides of the stalls, muttering. At a certain point one began to wonder when and how it was all going to end, and eventually it did, but I can’t remember how, although I think it was more with a whimper than a bang.
There was never any point in this almost hour long work which was not engaging or at which the material, musical or otherwise, seemed anything less than first class. The performance, by 93 players and 49 singers, was astounding–completely committed and assured. They were playing without music, although everybody seemed to have receivers and earphones, and some of them seemed to be wearing cameras, so its hard to know exactly what information they were getting from that. The program listed a person responsible for staging and choreography (Mason), a movement director (Chris Tutor), and two people who did a click-track (Felix Bastian Dreher and Griff Hewis). The work involved in planning and executing the whole effort must have been mammoth, and it was brilliantly accomplished.
The recording of this Prom is available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04dqbhv.
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For sixteen years now the BBC, as one of its many activities connected with the Proms, has run a program which it calls Inspire, comprising of a competition and several workshops for composers between the ages of 12 and 18. On this last Sunday, composer Fraser Trainer, who chaired the committee of judges for the competition, led a workshop for about two dozen young composers whose activities were related to the works on that night’s Prom, which was presented by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. Trainer was joined by six artist instrumentalists, violinist Anna Smith, saxophone player Simon Haram, double bass player Ben Markland, trumpeter Bruce Nockles, percussionist Hugh Wilkinson, and flutist Rosanna Ter-Berg, who began the day as colleagues of the participants and by the end of the day were performers of works that had been written for them in the afternoon. The day began with the whole group, extemporaneously working out elements of a short piece which they performed with clapping, stomping, and finger snapping, followed by smaller groups, this time using instruments, devising works more specifically focused. In the afternoon each of the composer wrote a short duo for some combination of the artists performers which were read at the end of the day. The level of musical sophistication of the participants was impressive, as was the quality of music played at the end of the day, which they had produced in very little time. There are two other workshops to follow focused on electo-acoustic music and popular music arranging, each also connected to a Proms concert. There is also a concert of the competition winners on the August 20.
In the time between the two sessions of the Inspire day, at King’s Place, at another end of central London, Jane Manning was conducting another kind of workshop, billed as Jane’s Contemporary Clinic, as part of the annual festival of Tete a Tete Opera Festival, during the course of which she sight read excerpts of operatic and vocal works which had been submitted that morning. She was assisted by the composer and pianist James Young. Manning read music of fearsome complexity both of pitch and of rhythm with the unflappable ease and performance-ready accuracy of someone who regularly does six impossible things before breakfast, offering comments of great intelligence, insight, and common sense with down-to-earth simplicity, and displaying a simply astounding technical command and beauty of sound.
That night the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, conducted by Edward Gardner, presented a concert including Petrushka by Stravinsky (in the original version) and the Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra, which along with Sonance Severance 2000 by Harrision Birtwistle, some of whose compositional issues had provided the focus for the earlier Inspire workshop. The orchestra, as many youth orchestras tend to be, was enormous, and seemed to have twice as many of everything as scores called for. The sound they made was large and rich and beautiful and in the final tableau of the Stravinsky was enough to bring tears of joy (which the music does anyway). The number of players, though, was no impediment to realizing either the accuracy of the playing or the intricacy or clarity of ensemble work.
There must have been a good reason for putting the Birtwistle piece at the beginning of the second half of the concert, rather than at the very beginning where it belonged, but it’s not clear what it might be. Commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra for the reopening of their home, Severance Hall in January of 2000, it is a three minute elaborate flourish, conceived of by Birtwistle as a sort of call to arms, or sonance, for consisting of a series of waves of sound welling up through the orchestra, with abrupt halts (or severance) of the sound, most especially at the very end, where after a big crash, prolonged by a tam-tam, is followed by a four note trumpet call.
The Lutoslawski, written in the earlier years Poland’s post war communist government and in the wake of the banning of his First Symphony on the grounds of its ‘formalism,’ is an imposing bravura display piece, both for the orchestra and the composer, steeped in Polish folk music and clearly modeled after the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. It has a structure of considerable intricacy, so one wonders if it was merely the folky melodic qualities that kept it from being declared formalistic. Earlier in the concert the orchestra was joined with Louis Schwizgebel in a performance of the Prokfiev First Piano Concerto.
Earlier in the week another Youth Orchestra, the European Union Youth Orchestra, conducted by Vasily Petrenko, persented a concert consisting of the Berio Sinfonia and the Shostakovich Fourth Symphony. This orchestra is a very fine group and has a very high technical level. One couldn’t fault their playing at all. However the performance of the Berio was a great disappointment. The Berio is undoubtedly the archetypal 60s piece and is a sort of rock star among pieces, and, for me, at least, its quality and glamor and importance and breath-taking beauty are undiminished. This performance has several aspects which mitigated its full effect, though. First of all the amplification of the voices was too high. The idea seemed to be to try to make all the words audible all of the time, as opposed to the voices being a part of the general texture with occasional words and phrases coming through to the surface. In the second movement, the jabbed notes were not sufficiently loud enough and different enough from the rest of the music to make the texture clear, so its effect was of a certain aimlessness. The performance of the third movement, on its immediate surface didn’t have the swing and liveliness that one would hope for in a performance of the Mahler which is its shell. On top of the there was the balance problem with the voices, and there seemed to be no recognition of, and certainly no attempt to bring out, the various quotations that flow through it. So basically what one got was a sort of not terribly energetic, not terrible well differentiated mush. The Shostakovich, which is a much more traditional piece, got a more satisfactory performance, but still lacked the clarity of texture and desperate life and death intensity of dynamics and general affect to make it really memorable. In all of this the level of playing was never anything other than first rate. I think the fault was in our Petrenko.
The Proms concerts are available for listening at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b043b491/clips
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Like everybody else, I was stunned to hear that Lee Hyla had died. I first met Lee in the spring of 1973; I was a senior at New England Conservatory and he was a freshman, I think. That year he was studying with my teacher, Malcolm Peyton, but the previous year he had been a special student and studied with John Heiss. During that earlier year he was taking piano lessons with Irma Wolpe, who I also studied with. My recollections of her are that she was the second most unpleasant person I ever met in my life, but Lee got along well with her. She had a way of stopping you just as soon as you touched the piano and telling you what you’d done wrong, which I found completely maddening and disabling–the one thing I learned from her–through negative example–was to let people play through things before starting to talk to them about what they did. Lee didn’t have that problem with her. He said that the first piece he played in his first lesson was the Webern Variations. He had play the first dyad when she stopped him, but he just turned around to her and said “Wait. There’s More.” She let him play through the whole piece then and never stopped him before he’d finished playing through a piece after that. Mike (aka Conrad) Pope and I ran a concert series of new music at the Museum of Fine Arts, and we included a piece of Lee’s, White Man on Snow Shoes, on one of our concerts. Over that year I got to know Lee, and he introduced me to Monty Python (via their first record, Another Monty Python Record–which was responsible for making a connection in my mind between “Mary, Queen of Scots” and the first movement break in the Carter first quartet), Cecil Taylor, Duke Ellington, and Captain Beefheart, so he was a major contributor to my education. I saw Lee all the time before he moved to New York, but after that saw less of him. When he moved back to Boston, to teach at NEC, he was on a higher level than me, and the relationship became more complicated.
In Virgil Thomson’s autobiography, he wrote about his encounter with the Copland Organ Symphony: “Nadia Boulanger came to American that year for giving organ recitals and some lectures. In New York and in Boston she played the solo organ part in Aaron Copland’s First Symphony, a work composed especially for her. When she asked me how I liked it, I replied that I had wept. ‘But the important thing,’ she said, ‘is why you wept.’ ‘Because I had not written it myself,’ I answered.
I have only felt that way when first hearing a piece by somebody who was more or less my age twice. One of those times was when I first heard Lee’s Third Quartet.
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Irving Fine was a Boston boy through and through. Born on December 3, 1914, in East Boston to Latvian Jewish immigrants, he grew up in Winthrop and went to Harvard. The Boston in which Fine grew up was, through the influence of the Boston Symphony and its conductors Pierre Monteux and Serge Koussevitzy and the Harvard Music Department and its composition professors Edward Burlingame Hill and Walter Piston, among other factors, a world center of new music (or at least francophile new music) activity, and the work of Harvard’s choral conductor Archibald T. Davison at Harvard also made it the center and exemplar of serious music education and choral training in the United States. Possibly the high water mark of this importance was when, during the time Fine was a graduate students at Harvard, Igor Stravinsky came to Boston as Harvard’s Charles Elliot Norton Professor of Poetics; Fine was designated as a minder for Stravinsky, and was also assigned to help with the initial translation of his lectures, which became The Poetics of Music. In 1940 Fine joined the faculty of the Harvard Music Department as a teaching fellow; in 1942 he was appointed an instructor, a position he held until 1948.
From the beginning Fine’s association with Harvard was intertwined with Anti-Semitism. He was one of two students at Winthrop High School to apply to Harvard; the grades of the other student, who was not Jewish, were less good, but he and not Fine was accepted. (All of the Ivy-League colleges had quotas of the percentage of Jews they would admit.) After a “post-graduate” fifth year of high school at the Boston Latin School, where he met Leonard Bernstein, who became a life-long friend, Fine applied again to Harvard and was admitted. When as the vice-president of the Harvard Glee Club, Fine applied for membership to the Boston Harvard Club, which, although not directed affiliated with the university, had a policy that all officers of Harvard clubs were entitled to membership, he was informed that “his kind” were not accepted. Later, when he was on the faculty at Harvard, he was nominated for membership in the Harvard Musical Association, a private club unaffiliated with the university, but maintaining a close relationship with the music department; he was blackballed because he was Jewish. When Fine was not accepted for membership in the HMA, all of the members of the Harvard music faculty except the musicologist Tillman Merritt, resigned from the club in protest. In 1948 Fine was denied tenure at Harvard, which ended his teaching career there. Since Merritt and the composer Randall Thompson, two of the most powerful professors in the Harvard Music Department, were openly anti-Semitic, Fine’s being Jewish was almost certainly a factor in the decision, even though there was also a certain amount of friction between Fine and Merritt regarding the proper role of performance in the department, and Merritt apparently distrusted Fine, who he considered an empire-builder.
Fortuitously, just as Fine’s career at Harvard was ending, he was invited to join the faculty of the Brandeis University, in Waltham, Massachusetts, newly founded in order to provide a university education of the highest quality for Jewish students who were kept out of the Ivy League universities due to quotas. Entrusted with the task of building the university’s music department, he immediately enlisted his life long friends Harold Shapero, Arthur Berger, both of whom he had met at Harvard. He also enlisted the assistance of another Harvard friend, Bernstein, to help with fund raising and to establish the Brandeis Fesitval of the Creative Arts. Between 1952 and 1957, Fine and Bernstein organized and brilliantly executed four festivals, which garnered great acclaim and notoriety. That notoriety and the great distinction of the music department’s faculty quickly made it one of the most important in the United States, especially at the graduate level.
Fine, Berger, and Shapero, and to a lesser extent, Bernstein and Lukas Foss, were allied by common aesthetic aims and influences and by their friendships with Stravinsky and Aaron Copland, and their devotion to their music. They are certainly the most important of the American Neo-Classic composers, and were sometime referred to as the Boston School or the Boston group. The sunniness of their situation about the time of the founding of Brandeis was increasingly clouded by a spectre. It had several names, but using the common short hand, one could call it “twelve tone music”.
In The Dyer’s Hand, W. H. Auden writes about Utopian visions, “our dream pictures of the Happy Place,” of which he says there are two, which he names Eden and The New Jerusalem. “Eden is a place where its inhabitants may do whatever they like to do; the motto over the gate is, ‘Do what you wilt is here the Law.’ New Jerusalem is a place where its inhabitants like to do whatever they ought to do, and its motto is, ‘In His will is our peace.’” For better or for worse, I think this describes the situation of American composers in general, and Fine, Berger, and Shapero in particular, starting sometime after the Second World War and lasting sometime into the late 1970s and early 1980s. It seems that for many composers, especially those in the neoclassic camp, whose music, generally positive and sunny, albeit serious, often consciously intended to sound “American,” informed by the love of certain composers: Haydn, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Copland, existed in a sort of Eden. At a certain point they felt a sort of irresistible moral pressure, undefined and from an undefined source, to write another kind of music, even though they regarded it with a certain amount of distrust if not down right hostility. Writing this different music seems to have represented a sort of submission which they ought to make, and the ensuing effort and struggle was the cause of something between vexation and anguish. Most composers seemed to accept the historical inevitability of twelve tone music; it doesn’t seem to have occurred to many of them that they didn’t need to write it if they didn’t want to do.
Fine, Berger, and Shapero each approached this situation in his own way. Berger, at the age of eighteen, had been overwhelmed by his encounter with Schoenberg’s Die glückliche Hand, which was the companion piece in the concert at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in which Leopold Stokowski and Martha Graham presented the first New York staged performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and for a while attempted to write music in Schoenberg’s manner. Unable to imagine how he could write such music which was free from the German aesthetic, which he found distasteful, and which would satisfy the demands of his radical politics for music which would appeal to the masses, he put composition aside to study musicology with Hugo Leichtentritt and music theory with Walter Piston at Harvard. Eventually the path to composition was reopened to him by the neoclassic music of Stravinsky. But the post-war rise of interest in twelve tone music was for him a return to the preoccupations of his youth. Shapero’s attitude was one of rejection of what he considered anti-music. Shapero’s daughter Hannah told me that after his death she had found in his papers a cartoon imitating Da Vinci’s The Last Supper with pictures of his cohort’s faces pasted in (Lukas Foss was in the position of Jesus); the caption was “One of you will betray me,” the betrayal being a turn to twelve tone music. For a considerable time he was mostly silent as a composer, although like Berger he continued to teach at Brandeis until he retired.
For Fine grappling with twelve tone music was indeed the source of great anguish. The composer Malcolm Peyton was a student of Fine’s at Tanglewood, and remembers a series of lectures Fine gave that summer on neoclassic music. He began by talking about works that he really loved, including the Stravinsky Octet; as the lectures went on they became progressively darker and dispirited. At the end he announced that this was all over, more or less saying “The twelve tone boys have beat us.” Fine continued to produce works in the neoclassic style, alternating with twelve tone works (such as his String Quartet of 1952) but he considered them to be trifles. Feeling unable to write satisfactory large serious works of substance in the stylistic language he felt was required, he developed a writer’s block and he went into analysis, against Shapero’s recommendation, to deal with his problem (his psychiatrist eventually began to tell him that his friendship with Shapero was the problem). But he also discussed twelve tone theory thoroughly with another friend, Milton Babbitt, during the summers that they taught together at Tanglewood.
In 1962 Fine finished his Symphony. Commissioned by the Boston Symphony, it was performed by them, conducted by Charles Munch, at Symphony Hall in Boston. In the following summer they repeated the work at Tanglewood. After suffering an angina attack, Munch withdrew from the concert; Fine conducted his work on August 12. Eleven days later Fine died from at heart attack at the age of 47. The Symphony is an intense, expansive, muscular piece, clearly a major work. Under the circumstances it is hard to think of it as anything other than the culmination of Fine’s career; how that career might have continued and what place the Symphony might have had in that continued career–maybe as a breakthrough into a newly liberated language and manner– is unimaginable.
On May 16 in Jordan Hall, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project joined with the Fine Family, the Irving Fine Society, and Brandeis University to present A Fine Centennial, a celebration not only of Fine, at the centennial of his birth, but of his music and that of his friends Harold Shapero and Arthur Berger, and of their joint aesthetic vision. The program opened with two of Fine’s later trifles, Blue Towers, which was originally intended by Fine as the official Brandeis University fight song, and Diversions for Orchestra, four piano pieces which Fine orchestrated for a children’s program of the Boston Pops. All of these pieces were expertly and elegantly done and pretty forgettable, the one exception being The Red Queen’s Gavotte which has some of the vitality and charm of Fine’s Alice In Wonderland chorus pieces.
Harold Shapero’s Serenade for String Orchestra, from 1945, is a beautiful and graceful work It is also ferociously difficult–intricate in texture and harmony, complex rhythmically, technically difficult for the instruments, treacherously exposed, and thirty-five minutes long. Just about the only music contemporary to the Serenade of equal difficulty and complexity is that of Milton Babbitt (to whose music Shapero had a great antipathy). Nonetheless, just as Babbitt once wrote that Berger’s ‘Cello Duo could be described as white note Webern, the Serenade might be called diatonic Babbitt. Berger’s Prelude, Aria, and Waltz for String Orchestra was originally Three Pieces for String Quartet, amplified for orchestra at the suggestion of his friend Bernard Hermann; they were further revised in 1982. The performances of both these pieces reflected great understanding and sympathy with the music and were technically sure. The Shapero was cautious, with good reason, but had great grace and clarity and sweetness, even if is was lacking in the ease and élan that more rehearsal time would have afforded.
Fine’s Symphony is a dramatic and noble piece and Rose and the orchestra performed it with enormous drama and passion, making it a moving experience. As soon as the Symphony was over, the person I was sitting with said, “That piece killed him. No wonder he died. It’s full of death.” For Fine coming to terms with the stylistic crisis of the time was a life and death matter. I was struck by how much commonality it had with the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements, particularly in its second movement. So just as with the time the similarities between with the Shapero and Babbitt, which seemed inconceivable when it was written, with time the “serial” aspects of the Fine are less striking than its simple reflection of Fine’s personality in all his music and of the music that he loved.
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This article points up a very serious and potentially catastrophic, it seems to me, situation which everybody should know about. There is a very possibility that the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, which is clearly one of the preeminent summer music programs for pre-college students (and a very important program for pre-college composers) in the United States, may not exist NEXT YEAR. Tell all your friends….
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