At Naxos, we are fortunate to have a very eclectic group! Our National Business Developer, Sean Hickey is a very talented composer. Here he recounts his experience with his first Russian recording.
In late 2007, I was commissioned to write a concertante work for cello and orchestra by the brilliant cellist Dmitry Kouzov, in collaboration with Vladimir Lande, principal guest conductor of the St. Petersburg Symphony. I completed the three-movement concerto in 2008, working very closely with the soloist in New York, particularly in the cadenzas, and dedicated it to the spectacular artistry of Dmitry. Composing this work in this degree of collaboration was new for me and I think I gained a lot from it.
In May, Maestro Lande led the Chamber Orchestra of Southern Maryland in two performances (in two different towns) of the work with Kouzov as soloist. Though the semi-professional orchestra clearly had difficulties with the score, it allowed all of us – composer, conductor, soloist – to address the hurdles in the work before taking it to St. Petersburg for its official world premiere. That concert took place on June 21st, 2009, in the Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace, one of the many palatial residences Catherine the Great built for her lovers in St. Petersburg.
Never traveling to Russia before but knowing a good handful of St. Petersburg musicians based in the States meant that this would be an interesting trip in a lot of ways. I would be staying with Dmitry and his parents on the Moika Embankment. Dima and I had organized a series of chamber music concerts in New York over the previous six months to raise money for the recording of my concerto. We were helped along by a couple of generous donations from individuals who have supported my work over the years.
Dima picked me up in a newly-purchased but old-as-dirt Soviet Lada, which required two strong hands on the glass in order to roll up the passenger window. Driving up the broad Moskova Prospekt, we sped through Soviet history: a statue of Lenin high on a pedestal in front of a hammer and sickle bas relief; the spot where the Nazis stopped in their siege of Leningrad, now a memorial dedicated to the defenders of the city; rows of Soviet housing estates, most of them looking like they could be toppled by a light breeze. At Dima’s comfortable flat, his mother served us an array of Russian delicacies and we set out to explore the city at night. St. Pete’s is the world’s northernmost city with more than a million people. In fact, nearly 5 million people call it home and it’s easy to see why in June. During this time of White Nights, the sun sets for about an hour and a half. It’s only truly dark for about an hour, around 2:30 AM. Most Petersburgers don’t seem to go to bed at all and I wouldn’t sleep much either.
Entering Palace Square, with the Alexander Column in the center, the massive Hermitage surrounding, and the Admiralty and St. Isaac’s in the near distance, was an unforgettable experience. Dima and I walked around extensively, along the broad Neva and across the exquisite bridges that bisect the many canals and rivers of the city: Fontanka, Moika, Griboeveda. Summer time usually means dinner around midnight, and most restaurants on the Nevsky Prospekt – Russia’s most famous street – make accommodation for diners at all hours. Amazing to think of this city built on islands and swamps, made to order by Peter the Great in the 18th century and where some 200,000 people perished in its construction, is actually younger than New York.
Next morning Dima and I drove to the pink and graceful Palace of Beloselsky-Belozersky on the banks of the Fontanka. The grand staircase was opulent, the enormous rooms of the palace sumptuous in their rococo detail. We ascended staircase after staircase to reach the smallest room on the whole place: the rehearsal space for the St. Petersburg Symphony. All composers feel anxiety in rehearsal and I’m certainly no exception. As soon as Vladimir gave the downbeat, the strings struggled with intonation, the nicely-dovetailed chorale-like wind passages weren’t so in tune or chorale-like and the overloud percussion sounded as if they were playing instruments manufactured in the Stone Age. My greatest fear, of course, was errors in parts, much of which was ameliorated in the Maryland performances. I was confident everything was proofed and reproofed. Alas, it was not quite. A xylophone part went mysteriously missing and though I had my files on disc, we couldn’t find a copy shop or hotel to read the files. Dima later bought some manuscript paper and I stayed up late the second night rewriting the part from score. Rosemary, a great friend from Ireland, came with me to the first rehearsal and after lunch the two of us headed to the impossibly opulent Church of the Saviour of the Spilled Blood. With more mosaics than any church in Europe, the place is almost too extreme in its color and detail. Inside, the stones where anarchists assassinated Tsar Alexander II in 1881 form the centerpiece opposite the altar. The church’s setting on the banks of the Griboedov makes it one of the most photographed places in Russia.
Alas, I’m getting carried away. I used to do a lot of travel writing but this is supposed to be about my musical experience. We had some late-night discussions with Vladimir before the next morning’s rehearsal. Dima played like a demon and the orchestra had improved, though not to any great degree. I was worried and Dima was clearly tense. Alexander Titov, music director of the orchestra and a well-known conductor, gave a few pointers and tried to rally the orchestra to concentrate. We were two days away from our concert, which also happened to feature another concerto premiere, the Violin Concerto of James Aikman, performed by an extraordinary violinist, Charles Wetherbee. Two American premieres in one concert! To the disbelief of the non-Russians present, the orchestra was recording this work the day after mine. In fact, between rehearsals, concerts and recordings, the orchestra worked some ten days straight, in many cases for 8-10 hours at a time. Their calm and quiet determination was astonishing.
The contrast between the opulent, wedding-cake facades and behind-the-scenes areas is shocking throughout St. Petersburg. Dima dragged me to the stage door of the Large Hall of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic where a friend was waiting. She led us through a cavernous catacomb of dripping light bulbs, rusty pipes and exposed wiring. Then up a few flights of crumbling stairs and through a musician’s lounge of cigarette butts and chessboards, through another long hallway where she then parted a heavy velvet curtain. In an instant we were on stage with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic – mid-concert mind you – in the most sumptuous hall, replete with glittering chandeliers. We sat close enough behind the basses to read their parts of Prokofiev’s L’enfant Prodigue.
I commented to Sasha, Dima’s dad, how their television always seemed to be showing scenes from WWII, or the Great Patriotic War, as it’s considered by Russians. As I was reading Antony Beevor’s book on Stalingrad, I should have known that my premiere would take place on the very anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Russia. In my concerto’s second movement, there’s a not so thinly-veiled quote from Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony “Leningrad”, first in the flutes, then in the bass clarinet. The musicians picked up on it in the second rehearsal. Talking to Sasha over a couple of scotches, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the very fact that the two of us could talk about growing up in our respective countries; he, born in Leningrad during the siege where family members starved or later disappeared during the Stalin purges; me, growing up safe but with a Cold War suspicion and even hatred of anything Russian, helped by Reagan’s endless rhetoric. The truth was that the two of us could not have had this discussion even fifteen years earlier.
This week Naxos of America’s new e-marketing manager, Taylor Vick, weighs in on the revolution taking place in the way we consume music.
Run! The sky is falling!
Or at least, that’s what most of the media would tell you when it comes to classical music. But there is a classical revolution happening right in our back yard. As the older, traditional ways of performing classical music inspire less and less audience participation and subscription, newbies to the scene are bringing classical music to the masses. And not in conventional ways.
Take for example a great article on WBEZ. Lynette Kalsnes interviewed a group called Classical Revolution and asked them all sorts of questions about playing chamber music in bars and pubs in Chicago. One of my favorite quotes is from Mike Muszynsk, the group’s bassoon player,
“I remember the first time I played, there was some guys watching the Hawks game and they were getting pretty hammered. At the end of every movement that we played, they were the loudest people in the bar, showing their praise for us.”
Classical Revolution isn’t the only classical group bringing their music to the masses. Classical music is also beginning to dominate the New York Club scene. Take for example, Le Poisson Rouge. One of our Naxos artists, Ge Gan-Ru, performed there last night. And, another Naxos artist, Philippe Quint, had an wildly successful CD Release party at Le Poisson Rouge last month, primarily because of all his fans! There are tons of these small, intensely loyal classical music communities bubbling up in major metropolitan areas in the US as well as in the UK. In fact, one of my favorite classical newsletters comes from the UK: DilettanteMusic.
So my Top 5 Reasons for digging the classical revolution taking place in the US are:
Combining 2 of my favorite past times: Drinking adult beverages & listening to great music
Hanging out with people who also dig classical music in a relaxed environment
Clapping, whistling and generally carrying on when a musician does something extraordinary
Watching friends faces as it dawns on them that classical music is cool
Meeting the musicians afterward and congratulating them on great performances!
Have you gone to any of these kinds of performances before? What was your impression? Would you go again? Who’s been your favorite performer to watch?
I think opening up classical music to the masses and making it accessible can almost be synonymous with making the Bible available in languages other than Latin. Exposing my friends and family to all the great classical musicians and composers is a great first step, but I’m hoping to turn them into lifelong devotees! Well, at least expand their horizons…for now.
For anyone not familiar with this wonderful composer, you can meet him and hear his music performed by ModernWorks at Le Poisson Rougeon Wednesday, July 8 at 9:30 PM.
Born in 1954, the young Ge Gan-ru studied the violin until the onset of the Cultural Revolution, during which he was sent to a labor camp to plant rice. When the Shanghai Conservatory reopened at the end of the Revolution in 1974, Ge matriculated as a violin student, but, three years later, he shifted his focus to composition, studying with Chen Gang. During this time, he became familiar with scores by 20th-century Western composers including Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Cage, and Crumb, as well as music by the Japanese composer Takemitsu. In 1980, when British composer Alexander Goehr became the first Western composer to visit China after the Revolution, Ge was among the few students to receive lessons from him. Upon his graduation in 1981, Ge was appointed assistant professor of composition at the Conservatory. At that time, Chinese composers were still basing new works on traditional Western styles. The controversial 1983 Shanghai premiere of Ge’s Yi Feng (Lost Style; 1982)-a work for “radically detuned” solo cello-served as the “opening salvo” in what was to become the Chinese musical avant-garde movement.
In 1983, Ge began work on his String Quartet No. 1 – Fu (Prose-Poem), but before he could complete it, he relocated to New York City, recruited by Chou Wen-chung at Columbia University. While supporting himself as a restaurant deliveryman, Ge managed to complete the piece, and the Kronos Quartet-celebrated for its commitment to new music-soon made it part of their repertoire. Fu and Yi Feng are both milestones in Ge’s canon, as they represent the development of his individual style: “They are the first of their kind in China, exploring individualism and the essence of Chinese music characteristics while avoiding sentimental melodies then prevalent in China ”¦ Fu in Chinese refers to descriptive prose interspersed with verse. In this piece, I tried to express some of the most basic aesthetic feelings typical of Chinese classical poetry and calligraphy, such as subtlety, free form, and masterly strokes.”
The interval of the minor second figures prominently in Fu and generates much of its musical content. Unorthodox means of tone production dominate this work (though instruments are conventionally tuned), including snap pizzicato, harmonics, glissandi, tremolos, and various combinations of these techniques. Moreover, throughout the work, unmeasured, rhythmic passages alternate with more regularly-patterned music.
Some of the same sounds from Fu are prominent in the introductory measures of Angel Suite – String Quartet No. 4 (1998). And, interestingly, the minor second also figures significantly in its second, third and fourth movements. The composer writes: “Of all my works, this piece is the closest to the Western classical music tradition, and it offers a contrast to my other music … The title comes from my interest in Christianity ”¦ In this work, I try to express my curiosity in, and observation of, various aspects of Christianity. The titles of the movements (Cherub, Gnomes, Prayer, and Angel’s March) refer to the subjects that I wanted to represent musically. For instance, in the first movement, the harmonic glissando represents a cherub; the second movement focuses on dance rhythm ”¦ In the prayer movement, I use contrasting consonant and dissonant chords to draw out feelings of purity and sincerity in praying. In the middle section, I also use the beginning few notes from Schubert’s Ave Maria. For the last movement I chose to write a march, as I always imagine an angel as young and vibrant.”
Fall of Baghdad – String Quartet No. 5 is at once a tribute to George Crumb’s Black Angels for electric string quartet (1970) and an expression of the composer’s own feelings about the war in Iraq. Like Crumb’s work before it, the music comprises three long sections divided into thirteen shorter ones. “Hair-raising squeals” produced by “applying pressure to the strings behind the bridge to create a scraping sound of indefinite pitch” open the work. In this quartet, Ge uses extended techniques neither as cultural relics, as in Fu, nor as suggestions of ethereal spirits, as in Angel Suite, Instead, he uses his unique musical language to symbolize the devastation and despair associated with war. (For contrast and relief, the middle section, “Music from Heaven,” incorporates light percussion; the “Heaven” to which this movement refers, incidentally, is a different paradise than the one Ge depicts in Angel Suite.) Ge employs microtonal inflections to suggest Middle Eastern music (which shares some of its idioms with the music of his native country) and also makes use of (as he explains): “glissandi and distorted sound to create the ”˜hellish’ effects; playing col legno (striking the strings with the [wooden part of the] bow) both in front of and behind the bridge for the Caliph’s drum and using extreme high notes on low strings for ”˜moaning’ sounds.”
This week composer Sean Hickey, Naxos’ National Sales and Business Development Manager, weighs in on the growing trend in alternative performance venues, a subject which has been covered at length in The New York Times and many other publications including the June issue of Gramophone.Â On May 18 at 8 PM in Alice Tully Hall, [...]
An Interview with Magnar Åm
In May, Naxos of America begins distribution of 2L, a Norwegian label known for releasing the world’s first audio-only Blu-Ray recording, Divertimenti, which subsequently received three Grammy® nominations. Founded in 2001 by Morten Lindberg, 2L’s mission is to achieve state-of-the-art sound and packaging within all future formats of classical music. “What [...]
When I was a child, Blackglama® Mink used to run ads on TV and in all the fashion magazines featuring movie stars, models, and famous men and women from all walks of life all bedecked in luxurious mink coats, paired with the simple caption: “What Becomes a Legend Most? … Blackglama® Mink.” The ads were [...]
This week Naxos of Americaâ€™s Collin Rae weights in on Italian movie soundtrack music of the 1960s and 1970s:
So much has already been written about Italian movie soundtrack music of the 1960â€™s and 70â€™s that I certainly wonâ€™t shed any new light on this subject, instead I will simply highlight some of the wonderful [...]
Collin Rae, Naxos of America’s Marketing and Special Projects Manager, recently started a series of email discussions with composers, which have been posted on PMS #286 Appreciation Society, the Naxos of America blog. This discussion with composer David Lang yielded some interesting answers— including one heck of a 15-track music compilation!
In February of this year [...]
One of my favorite bloggers, the publicist Amanda Ameer, recently made these comments on her Artsjournal blog Life’s a Pitch:
I have found that the Grammies are a point of reference for the “outside world” about classical artists, that is, a way to let people who haven’t heard of a certain artist know he or she [...]
As many Sequenza21 readers know, Opus Arte (distributed by Naxos of America in the U.S. and in Canada) is releasing a DVD performance of John Adams‘Doctor Atomic on September 30 (OA0998D).
Needless to say, everyone is very excited about this release and my inbox has been flooded with requests. For all of us who have been following the press and productions since the opera’s premiere in San Francisco in 2005, this DVD performance is a must-have.
This particular production is from the Het Musietheater in Amsterdam in June 2007 and is directed for television by its librettist/director and Erasmus Prize-winner Peter Sellars. The cast features the superb Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, who created the role and has made it his signature. Soprano Jessica Rivera–who is superb–performs the role of Kitty Oppenheimer, a part originally conceived for the late mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. As most of you know, John Adams rewrote the role for soprano for the Chicago Lyric production, adding additional music. Other cast members include Eric Owens, Richard Paul Fink, James Maddalena, Thomas Glenn, Jay Hunter Morris, and Ellen Rabiner.
With the MET mounting a new production of the Adams opera, (which opens on Tuesday, October 13, 2008), this release is particularly timely. Additionally, there are performances of Doctor Atomic scheduled for the Atlanta Symphony in November.