Russian composer/theosophist/sensualist Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) spent a lot of his life dreaming of a kind of sensory extravaganza, pieces that would submerge the audience in swirling sound, dance, colored light, heady aromas… Yeah, kind of like the 60s, but a little more Old-World refined. One result of Scriabin’s musical synasthesia was that he held very specific views on which colors were inextricably tied to each key and note. As Wiki tells it:
In his autobiographical Recollections, Sergei Rachmaninoff recorded a conversation he had had with Scriabin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov about Scriabin’s association of colour and music. Rachmaninoff was surprised to find that Rimsky-Korsakov agreed with Scriabin on associations of musical keys with colors; himself skeptical, Rachmaninoff made the obvious objection that the two composers did not always agree on the colours involved. Both maintained that the key of D major was golden-brown; but Scriabin linked E-flat major with red-purple, while Rimsky-Korsakov favored blue. However, Rimsky-Korsakov protested that a passage in Rachmaninoff’s opera The Miserly Knight supported their view: the scene in which the Old Baron opens treasure chests to reveal gold and jewels glittering in torchlight is written in D major. Scriabin told Rachmaninoff that “your intuition has unconsciously followed the laws whose very existence you have tried to deny.”
Scriabin’s grand schemes barely came to fruition during his life, but that’s never stopped later generations from debating, analyzing or even attempting realizations of his ambitious vision. One such attempt is in store for New Yorkers this coming Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 25th and 26th., at the Jerome Robbins Theater (located within the Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th Street). Georgian pianist Eteri Andjaparidze and lighting designer/Macarthur Grant “genius” Jennifer Tipton will be mowing through a wide swath of Scriabin’s piano music, all accompanied by lighting inspired by his ideas on musical colors. More information on time and tix here; And to warm up your ears here’s a recording of Vladimir Sofronitsky playing Scriabin’s Sonata No.4, which will be on the concert:
[Ed. note — Our long-time contributor Steve Hicken is usually to be found helping out in the CD review section of S21. But a recent shipment of a number of band music CDs prompted Steve to group them together as a larger essay, and we thought it should end up here on the main page. Recordings discussed in this essay: BARNES: Symphonic Overture; Fantasy Variations on a Theme by Nicolo Paganini; GERSHWIN: Rhapsody in Blue (Hunsberger, arr.); Overture on Themes from Porgy and Bess (Barnes, arr.); REED: Ballade. Raimonds Petrauskis, p; Oskars Petrauskis, a sax; RIGA Professional Symphonic Band/Andris Poga. PPOR-CD002 — GRAINGER: Band Music. Dallas Wind Symphony/Jerry Junkin. Reference 117 — GRAINGER: Transcriptions for Wind Orchestra. Ivan Hovorun, p; Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra/Clark Rundell. Chandos 10455 — CORIGLIANO: Circus Maximus; Gazebo Dances. University of Texas Wind Ensemble/Jerry Junkin. Naxos 8.559601]
Tragic but true: when the smoke had cleared, the new music wars had been won not by towners up or down or coasters east or left, but by a rear guard of trained symphonic band composers from big state universities in the middle of the country. — Daniel Wolf
According to the American Bandmasters Association (ABA), there are some 40,000 bands in the United States.1 Almost every high school, most junior high or middle schools, and many elementary schools have at least one band. On the college level, the situation is one of even more abundance—just about every college has more than one band, and the big public institutions have a handful or more. In addition, many municipalities have amateur bands, and some larger cities have professional wind orchestras.
Given these numbers and the exceptional quality of USA wind and percussion playing, you would expect that bands would be at the center of concert music in America. In reality, band music runs on a parallel track to the rest of concert music, and it has for a long time.2 There are stars in the world of band music, just as there are in the rest of concert music. These stars tend to be the conductors of the top bands at the big public universities of the Big 10, Texas, the west coast, and a few places in the Southeast, and composers at most of the same institutions, as well as a handful of composers making a living as freelancers. More about these composers later.
The music played by these bands falls into three very broad categories:
Marches! — To a very great extent, the wind band began as a military unit, designed to play music for armies to march to. There is evidence of ensembles consisting of what we call brass instruments and drums playing martial music in ancient civilizations in both the east and the west. Much of the music played by these groups was in reality signals, such as “charge”, “reveille”, etc. By the seventeenth century the instrumentation of what we now consider the standard military band had begun to settle, with the development of the position of the “drum major” whose function was to keep the soldiers marching in time.
As the instrumentation became fairly standard, more and more music was written for these bands to play. And most of this music was for marching. Tempos are within a certain range (mostly quick), phrases are clear, melodies stirring and carried, for the most part, by the flutes and clarinets. The march tradition is so deeply ingrained in the band world that many band directors wouldn’t dream of beginning a concert program with anything but a march.
Transcriptions or arrangements — A transcription is a note-for-note translation of a piece from one kind of instrumentation to another. In the case of band transcriptions, the vast majority of these are orchestra-to-band transcriptions. In these pieces, flutes, clarinets, and sometimes oboes, substitute for violins, and lower woodwinds for the lower strings. Solo instruments from these same choirs take the same roles as their orchestral counterparts, and the brass and percussion tend to have the same roles as they do in the original compositions.
A sizable number of orchestral works that have been transcribed for bands comes from the late Romantic period through the early part of the 20th century. From Dvorak to Shostakovich, symphonies and other orchestral works have provided grist for the transcriber’s mill. An important reason for this is that the winds in the original works (like Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony) had important roles and recasting this music for winds is not as radical a change as it would be in most, for example, Beethoven. Arrangements consist in taking pre-existing pieces of music (usually popular or Broadway tunes) and orchestrating them for the available forces (in this case, a band), usually as a medley, with newly-composed connecting material. There isn’t a rigorous line between transcriptions and arrangements, but it seems to me that the adding of this connecting material is a crucial distinction.
The third large category is that of original compositions.3 Igor Stravinsky, Gustav Holst, Arnold Schoenberg, and Paul Hindemith were among the many major early 20th-century composers who wrote music for band. As the century progressed, however, band composition came to be a specialty — people that wrote band music tended to write little else, and people who were not band composers never touched the medium.
There’s yet another new music series here in San Diego: Connections Chamber Music. I reported earlier this year on their concert featuring Reich, John Adams, Daugherty, and Matthew Tommasini (the series director). For their last concert, they programmed the Quartet for the End of Time. Before I went to the concert, I marvelled at how I’ve heard the Quartet more frequently than plenty of 19th century chamber works just as great such as Beethoven’s op. 132. And–well, read my thoughts and review of the concert here.
For the past eight years, Graham Parker has been the Executive Director of Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Now, he’s going to work for New York’s classical music radio station.
It was announced today that Parker will be the new Vice President of Classical WQXR 105.9 FM and WQXR online. It appears that he’s been tasked with helping the station to develop its brand identity. For those who aren’t “New Yawkers,” this may require some explanation.
In 2009, New York’s National Public Radio Station WNYC acquired WQXR from the New York Times. WQXR’s frequency, 96.3 FM, was in turn traded to Univision’s WCAA, moving the classical station further up the bandwidth to 105.9. For those of us out in the ‘burbs, this has made it more difficult in many areas to get the station. Coverage routinely goes in and out on my commute down to Princeton as I get further from the city.
While signal weakness has been a concern for many listeners, there have been other growing pains associated with the move as well. Some of the music programming previously on WNYC, which was considered the station for more cutting edge fare, has been moved over to WQXR. Some longtime DJs from WQXR were kept on; others were let go to make room for their counterparts on WNYC. As a public radio station, WQXR also jettisoned commercials and religious programs.
The marriage of mainstream classical and public radio’s eclecticism has been a challenging balance to negotiate. The station’s 2009-’10 programming doubtless left a number of longtime WQXR listeners unhappy at the increased incorporation of new music into its mainstream broadcasts. WNYC listeners who hoped for the eclectic and innovative types of music heard on programs such as Soundcheck and New Sounds to be writ large on the rest of the schedule have probably been bummed out too. They’ve been subjected to far more Vivaldi and Telemann than they consider healthy!
A bright spot has been the station’s online new music programing at Q2. This week, they’re spotlighting the music of Xenakis. While one understands that this probably isn’t their best bet for “drive-time” fare, its too bad that more of Q2 hasn’t infiltrated the airwaves.
One hopes that enlisting Mr. Parker helps the station to find its footing and reassert the importance of classical radio – contemporary music and repertory favorites alike – in New York.
So, Sequenza 21 readers, its your turn. What should Parker focus on to make WQXR a better station?
A) Better signal quality/range/accessibility.
B) A more coherent vision for music programming.
C) Local identity and live events.
D) Limiting the amount of Vivaldi bassoon concerti played during any given four-hour period to no more than three.
Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Deutsche Grammophon CD
True, Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps is a watershed work. It serves as many a classical listener’s jumping off point when first exploring Twentieth Century repertoire. But can a work, no matter how seminal, have too many recordings? Can it get programmed so often on concerts that it loses its zing?
I have several recordings of the piece myself, but I’d begun to wonder in the past couple years whether the Rite was in danger of being overexposed. And I’m not the only one…
Enter young conductor Gustavo Dudamel and his even younger colleagues from the Simon Bolivar Youth Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. Their version of the Rite is viscerally powerful, rhythmically muscular, and impressively wide in its dynamic range. After getting a bit burnt out by the piece and its attendant folklore, I’m refreshed by hearing Dudamel’s rendition.
In a clever programming touch, the Stravinsky is paired with Silvestre Revueltas’ La Noche de los Mayas. Originally a 1939 film score, a concert suite of the work was only fashioned some two decades after Revueltas’ death. Latin dance signatures and melodic inflections are offset by virtuosic percussion writing, including some cadenzas that help to make evident the musical kinship between Rite of Spring and La Noche de los Mayas.
The sociocultural resonances are obvious as well. It might seem gruesome to pair works based on their common interest in human sacrifice, but Rite restores the vitality and bite of early modernism’s interest in still-earlier primitivism.
One of my two favorite young conductors, Brad Lubman (the other is Alan Pearson) is leading the large ensemble Signal in the American premier of The Corridor by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, one of the most prominent figures in European contemporary music, at Merkin on May 27. A 40-minute scena, The Corridor is scored for two voices, soprano and tenor, and an ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, and a harp functioning as an Orphic lyre.
The highlight of the evening, however, is apparently the world premiere of Stabat Mater by the seemingly inevitable Nico Muhly.
Which leads to this week’s rude question:is Nico Muhly a) the dreams and prayers of a grateful music world or b) not so much? Discuss.
For those who think that DG’s days of deluxe packaging are over, one only need check out one of today’s releases, Osvaldo Golijov’s La Pasión segun San Marcos to realize that, given the right project, the imprint is up for going all out. The box includes the debut 2xCD studio recording of a revised edition of the work alongside a handsomely filmed semi-staged version on DVD. (A trailer for the film is below).
Premiered in 2000 (a live recording was released by Haenssler), La Pasión is an ebulliently eclectic composition. Golijov blends a number of styles: Latin American, Afro-Cuban, and postmodern contemporary classical. Catholic iconography, liturgical dance, and Yoruba rituals all play a role in the work’s visual and aural melange.
Composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900, of Gilbert & Sullivan fame) happened to be one of the earliest voices captured, in 1888, by Thomas Edison’s then-new wax-cylinder recording machine. Invited to dinner at Edison’s London outpost, Little Menlo, Sullivan recorded this small but prescient speech (which you can hear thanks to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park):
” . . . For myself, I can only say that I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the results of this evening’s experiment — astonished at the wonderful power you have developed, and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music may be put on record forever. ”
[Thanks to wonderful pianist Seda Röder for the tip. The complete Edison archive can be found here.]
Our own Lawrence Dillon’s The Infinite Sphere will be given its World Premiere performances by the Daedalus Quartet tonight, Friday, January 15 – 8 PM as part of the Discovery Series at The Barns at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia and on Saturday, 7:30 PM at Watson Chamber Music Hall of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem.
Commissioned by the Daedalus Quartet in conjunction with the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts, Dillon’s fourth quartet takes Pascal’s reference to “an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” as the inspiration for a virtuosic wheels-within-wheels journey.
The fourth quartet in Dillon’s Invisible Cities String Quartet Cycle — a set of six quartets that explore connections between Classical forms and contemporary experience — The Infinite Sphere not only takes the form of a Classical rondo, it also adopts the rondo spirit, using popular dance music as material.
Winner of the 2007 Guarneri String Quartet Award from Chamber Music America, the Daedalus String Quartet is the resident quartet for the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University.
Lawrence is Composer in Residence at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and currently has commissions from the Emerson String Quartet, the Mansfield Symphony, the Boise Philharmonic, the Salt Lake City Symphony, the Daedalus String Quartet, the University of Utah Philharmonia and the Idyllwild Symphony Orchestra.
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