27 May 2012

Chamber Music Repertoire for Didgeridoo?

T here are a few orchestral works that include didgeridoo (Sean O’Boyle and others), but for conservatory recital or chamber performances there are currently only about 3 dozen chamber music compositions that are readily available. Most of these are indexed at the Australian Music Centre (Duos, Quartets, Quintets, Sextets, Octets; Solo with vocal ensemble). You may also want to consider Peter Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No. 12 with didjeridu, and ‘Lorin’s Piece’ for didjeridu and voice; Neal Corwell’s ‘Aboriginal Voices’ trio for tuba, didgeridoo, and voices; Philip Glass’s ‘Voices’ for organ, didgeridoo, and narrator; and Dubravko Lapaine’s ‘Rescribi’ trio for piano, didgeridoo, and percussion.

    [50-sec clip, Dubravko Lapaine, ‘Kosmopterix’, ‘Rescribi’, 1.6MB MP3]

and ‘Putnik’:

    [50-sec clip, Dubravko Lapaine, ‘Kosmopterix’, ‘Putnik’, 1.6MB MP3]

T  he aboriginal people have a great deal to teach the western world about wind playing in general and lip reeds in particular. The trombone may seem old when compared to western orchestral instruments, but it is only a five hundred year-old baby when compared to the possible forty thousand-year-old tradition of the didjeridu.”
  — Stuart Dempster, 1979.

V irtuosic double- and triple-tonguing in the didgeridoo repertoire have parallels to ‘cursus’ in classical Latin oratory and medieval chant (see Eklund, link below), and you might consider that idea in preparing a program. Rhythm—the patterning of accents in speech or singing—establishes expectations; it entrains the listener and the speaker, phase-locking them to the pattern. Accents in Latin fall on at least one out of every three syllables. But in English and other languages the gaps are longer—you can often go for five or six syllables between accents. The didge literature tends to emphasize prosody and oratorical aspects—not only because of your vocalizations into the didge, but also because you have just the fundamental (and pedal), plus a few harmonics (‘toots’, ‘trumpets’) to work with. (Years ago, Juilliard professor Ivan Galamanian famously drew an analogy between instrumental (violin) playing and speech, in which he asserted that attacks are consonants and the sustained notes are vowels, and performers should treat them as such. The analogy is true enough for strings and other instruments, but it’s hardly even an ‘analogy’ in didgeridoo playing: given all of the tongue, jaw, and vocal tract technic involved in didge performance, the vowels-consonants assertion is a self-evident fact of how the didge sounds are produced.)

V  ocal and instrumental rhythms are sometimes direct translations of a poetic meter. In other words they may be sung or played, interchangeably. Far more often than not, however, vocal and instrumental rhythms create what we might call ‘rhythmic counterpoint’ when heard with reference to the poetic meter—the interplay among two or more rhythmic threads or voices. By continually altering the durational relationships and varieties of accent in a succession of syllables, musicians can elicit the close attention of listeners.”
  — Michael Tenzer, p. 43.

I n thinking about other instrumental repertoire that might be suitable as-is or transcribable for chamber didge recital, you might explore pieces whose articulation and accents entail sound-envelopes that are marcato ‘thrust-followed-by-decay’, an accent that resembles a plucked string instrument like a double-bass. With the didge, the decay is because the outflow of air from the cheeks that occurs while you are inhaling through the nose in circular breathing can’t be as forceful or sustained as the outflow of air when supported by the diaphragm. In general, highly rhythmic, marcato pieces in low register are likely to be feasible and stylistically coherent with didge performance practice, regardless whether they are for winds, strings, or percussion. There are pieces for tympani (for example, Daniel Jenkyn Jone’s ‘Sonata for Unaccompanied Kettledrums’) that could be performed as-is or transcribed for didgeridoo. And there are a number of chamber pieces for bass clarinet or low brass that are plausible. More links that you may find useful follow.

DSM bari sax didge standpoetry fee DSM and didj

23 May 2012

Mara Gibson’s ‘Canopy’: Arboreal/Neuronal soundscape/artscape for viola, percussion, and tape

Sydney Opera House

I  recently had the privilege to experience a new chamber music composition by Mara Gibson at the opening of a new art exhibit in Kansas City. The work was commissioned by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Premiered in April by Michael Hall, ‘Canopy’ was inspired by ‘Ferment’, Roxy Paine’s (1966-) outdoor installation in the sculpture garden at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

I n the 13-min composition, Gibson meditates on Paine’s conflation of neuronal dendritic architecture and treeness... the multiplicity of meanings of what we perceive in nature is called into question. We all are trees; we all are neurons now.

L arge-scale sculptures and exotic mixed-ensemble chamber music (viola-percussion-tape) aren’t commonly paired with each other. However, in this instance it is an inspired piece of programming, an account that plumbs the depths of the sculpture’s seeming desolation... a melancholy that stems from the constitutional rootedness of a ramifying, arborizing structure that is situated where it is with little prospect of changing its venue (you; the neurons that make up your brain and make you who you are; the tree). And yet the composition culminates in a radiant, nature-affirming performance that leaves the listener-viewer with more than solace—a sense of quiet optimism.

H all takes great care with the score’s myriad directions, resulting in an intensity and beauty that would delight any composer, as well as any audience. There is a brief pause/silent_stasis at about 07:00. The solo_viola/denuded_tree resumes with a soliloquy. Then, with a harrowing climax, the percussion and recorded track of the viola reappear with renewed vigor, and with the live viola layered on top of them—effecting a grieving voice of the solo viola answering its echo and the percussion more quietly, survivors against all odds! The micrometer-precise diminuendo from 11:00 to the end is perfectly realized—and we immediately appreciate why Gibson wrote it in this way.

H all’s technique is superb throughout and manages to sound like 5 different violas, by using combinations of diverse pressures on the bow, bowing near and far away from the bridge, etc.—pensive, taut, with some ‘extended’ viola techniques. Bob Beck’s recording and production values aptly serve the intimacy of this beautiful piece. Few recordings achieve such a level of detailed commitment from the artists and the recording engineer! (I am grateful, too, that Gibson has made digital recordings of ‘Canopy’ available for download on BandCamp.com.)

A nyone who has tried to devise a likeness of a tree—sculpting one as a kid in school, or, with more serious intent as an older person—will recognize how difficult it is to do well. The fractal character of the branch points and the Fibonacci-like decimation of the caliber of the branches as you go further and further out on the limbs is hard to emulate. It is so easy to end up with a ‘fail!’—a crude likeness that looks contrived, a caricature of a tree! But Paine achieves a high level of fractal verisimilitude—a tree representation with enough character-development and complexity and depth to be believable as a tree or as another living organism with moral standing. Gibson’s writing is not ‘representational’ as such, but with equal care and finesse achieves comparable moral weight and attractive, believable, attention-holding verisimilitude.

I n summary, Gibson’s sonic stimuli synergize nicely with Paine’s sculpture’s visual and haptic stimuli. I enjoyed being immersed in both of them at the same time. The visual and musical elements are independent and exciting in their own right and (in the case of Paine’s sculpture, ‘have already stood’ and--) will continue to stand ably on their own. But, together, the two works manifest a cohesion that is evident to listeners/viewers as they encounter the works simultaneously. It is a brilliant success as a tandem installation, and ‘Canopy’ is commendable as a commissioning project. Other galleries and museums should take note of this as an example they can replicate—commissioning companion chamber compositions to accompany major new acquisitions, and organizing gala première performances (with food and wine, as the Nelson did) to cultivate new membership and community involvement! No better way than this to dispel the ignorant museum stereotype of grey-hair elites!

H all is a former president of the Chicago Viola Society and a founding member of the Lake String Quartet. He has performed at numerous summer festivals, including the Grand Teton Festival, the National Orchestral Institute, Kneisel Hall Chamber Music School, and the Aspen Music Festival. Hall serves on the faculties of Illinois Wesleyan University, VanderCook College of Music, and the Chicago Academy for the Arts. He is a graduate of Ball State University, with graduate studies with Peter Kamnitzer and with the LaSalle and Tokyo String Quartets, at the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, and doctoral studies with Michelle LaCourse and Scott Rawls at the UNC, Greensboro.

G ibson graduated from Bennington College and completed her PhD at SUNY Buffalo. She attended London College of Music; l’École des Beaux-Arts, Fontainebleau, France; and the International Music Institute, Darmstadt. She has received grants and honors from the American Composer’s Forum, the Banff Center, Louisiana Division of the Arts, Arts KC, Meet the Composer, the Kansas Arts Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, the International Bass Society, ASCAP, and the John Henrick Memorial Foundation. She is also founder of the UMKC Composition Workshop for Young Composers and co-director/founder of ArtSounds, now in its seventh year. ArtSounds specializes in “immersive art-music fusion” experiences, similar in spirit to ‘Canopy’.

T   he greatest hindrance in the understanding of life lies in the impossibility of accounting for it by the enumeration of its properties. It must be understood as a unity. But if the organism [tree; neural network] is a unity, in what sense are its component properties its parts? Who is it, really, and why? How does this unity arise? To what extent must it be considered a property of the organization of the organism, as opposed to a property emerging [undeliberated] from its mode of life? These questions remain open....”
  — Humberto Maturana & Francisco Varela.

20 May 2012

Terry Riley’s Aleph (א): Music to Code By

Terry Riley

A  leph in Jewish mysticism represents the oneness of the Divine. The letter can been seen as being composed of an upper yud, a lower yud, and a vav leaning on a diagonal. The upper yud represents the hidden and ineffible aspects of God while the lower yud represents God’s revelation and presence in the world. The vav connects the two realms.”
  — Wikipedia.

T he 1-hour 53-min recording of Terry Riley’s solo synth performance of his composition, ‘א’, is beautiful—and precisely the sort of experience you would expect from Riley.

B ut, apart from whatever else it may be and apart from its merits as a composition and as a performance, I have found it to be especially conducive to my own productivity when working on complex math problems and coding software to solve them. For me, silence works only up to a point, after which I need minimalist music.

B ut not just any minimalist music. For example, Michael Nyman’s music interferes with concentration. La Monte Young’s music contains, for me, too many distractions. I do find Ellen Fullman’s recent work conducive, though, in the same way that Terry Riley’s ‘Aleph’ is conducive.

T he timbre of the Korg Triton Studio 88 Synth is bright like a Chinese single-reed or double-reed, but with a lot of spectral flux like a car horn... or a choir of Chinese tenor and bass suonas. Spectral flux and spectral irregularity are distinguishing features in car horns (see Lemaitre 2003, link below).

T he two-hour performance is filled with dense, organic, continually-changing textures—nimble car horns, if car horns can ever be nimble, and these are supernaturally nimble. The automaticity of preschool kids’ trying out their fingers on a keyboard, enjoying the raw pleasure of making notes and reproducing patterns and sequences... reflexive movements of their fingers and arms, yielding arpeggiation that involves just those notes that are within easy reach without stretching.

T he effect, some minutes into listening to it, evokes a freedom from intention and planning that is unknown to sober adults, and this is what facilitates my problem-solving and coding mind. The uncertain continuation of woodwind-like fingering patterns without aim, as long as they last, until superceded by some new motif... the stochastic, aleatoric innovations... Riley discounts the creative value of mind and deliberation and discounts it again, and again... the dollar-store of intellect... until the passion of meat is all that’s left, and animal instinct is restored...

O  nly connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect...”
  — E.M. Forster, ‘Howard’s End’, Ch. 22, 1910.

H ere’s a short MP3 clip.

T here is a ceremonial, magisterial, quasi-liturgical quality of ‘Aleph’ that reminds me of requiem forms. Or of chant, which can be heard as both archaic and contemporary. It is a mystical piece that unfolds at an implacable, glacial pace. The tone is largely meditative and serene, which provides space for contemplation and veneration. There are dozens-of-voices atmospheric Ligeti-like sound-fogs... fields of dissonance that convey an inhuman, infinite, primeval power—this surely is part of the Hebrew significance of Aleph; as is true also of the meaning of ‘א’ in mathematics—fitting as well in the context of requiem-writing.

I  t has been said that my ‘Requiem’ does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience. The music of Gounod has been criticized for its over-inclination towards human tenderness. But his nature predisposed him to feel this way: religious emotion took this form inside him. Is it not necessary to accept the artist’s nature? As to my ‘Requiem’, perhaps I have also instinctively sought to escape from what is thought right and proper...”
  — Gabriel Fauré, 1902.

T hroughout, the piece is prodigiously inventive, with prolific layers upon layers of rhythmic and harmonic complexity, yet all presented with what appears on the surface to be minimalistic... it embodies the best of what minimalism can be: full of latent variety that captures and nourishes the listener’s awareness. (Which is why I find it helpful to listen to when I am tackling a hard problem, and why I am writing this blogpost you are reading. If you are interested in reading more about quantitative evidence concerning music listening and work productivity, have a look at the links below, esp. the book by Vikram Kiran.)

T he seamless, cluster-like blends fan out like a spilled liquid on a flat surface—part of the organic quality of just intonation, providing a support structure for the synth suona-like parts, a Toop-style “rawness” of intonation that sustains the emotional intensity of the piece.

M ost a cappella ensembles naturally gravitate to just intonation because its ‘stability’ or ‘target-pitch predictability’ is comfortable. In that regard, maybe the spectral flux and on-again-off-again frisson of this Terry Riley recording will be of special interest to people of a vocal bent, both amateur and professional singers alike.

T his sound of synth suonas keening, synth voices keening, choir of synth car horns keening... bears some resemblance to the György Ligeti piece in ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’, ‘Lux aeterna’... A friend who was overhearing my repeated playing of the 2 Riley ‘Aleph’ CDs wondered aloud “How can you stand that!? It’s driving me nuts!” So, to be truthful I should say that this is an acquired taste, or reveals a patience borne of equanimity. It is like being transported by William Kraft’s music in the walkway between terminals underneath Chicago’s O’Hare airport. It is like listening to a choir of chainsaws in the forest at a great and comfortable distance. Or like the persistent-but-beautiful bleating and tintinnabulation of sheep in a high alpine meadow in the Swiss alps, below the Jung Frau Joch in the late mornings of mid-summer. In other words, the bleating and tintinnabulation signify tolerant, salutary, and humane qualities that are implicit in our planet’s troubled story. Children of the Universe, you (every living creature) are here, hurray. Have a good life.

I  n short, these are qualities which make humans, the sum of which could be seen in love (esp. agape, which in turn can be seen as an embodiment of the ‘idea of One’). The musical gaze cast from this sphere upon the story world is distanced, more or less withdrawn, non-judgemental, calm, quiet, and slightly melancholic, yet non-sentimental. As film music, tintinnabuli music often qualifies as an ‘against all odds’ score capable of making the complicated plot-level matters more poignant.”
  — Kaire Maimets-Volt, p. 172.

I f you were in a foreign country and experiencing the local people performing on their native instruments, a long raga, for example—you would exhibit a tolerance toward such bleatings and tintinnabulations. But if instead, like my friend, you regard it as a choir of annoying car horns—multiple car alarms being set off repeatedly by marauding kids on a street a couple of blocks away—you just want it to stop.

I n summary, playing these 2 CDs consecutively without a break induces an awareness that can facilitate productive concentration at work and lift you into a realm beyond human understanding or hearing. The music requires an audience who must be willing to accept the spirit of the work and suspend their disbelief in order to receive its many rewards.

17 May 2012

MUS-501 final exam question: Late Schumann Lieder were hip-hop anthems. Evidence? Discuss.

Schumann hip-hop, A. Menzel

I  n 1989’s ‘Fight the Power’, Public Enemy’s Chuck D spits a working definition of rhyme’s reason: ‘As the rhythm’s designed to bounce / What counts ... is that the rhyme’s / Designed to fill your mind.’ He is speaking of ‘rhyme’ here both as the practice of patterning sounds and as a name for the verse as a whole. In both meanings, rap’s rhymes have filled our minds with many things, not all of them good. But it is more than a matter of content—be it women and cars or prisons with bars; it is also a question of poetic form.”
  — Adam Bradley, p. 55.
T he prominence of dark themes in Schumann’s lieder in 1851 and later, featuring violent language and desultory circumstances and the characters’ defiant reactions to them, is strong evidence in favor of this thesis. Likewise, there is a radically different relationship between the music and the text compared to Schumann’s earlier lieder: in the late lieder there is a much stronger emphasis on syllabic stresses, on rhyme, and on systolic pulsatility of the voice strongly sync’ed to the instrumental beat. Schumann’s settings of Kullmann poems especially are, essentially, rap over music.
D  ominated by the energy of insistent repetition—from perfect rhymes to assonance and consonance—delivering on the promise... apocopated rhymes, where a one-syllable word rhymes with the stressed portion of a multisyllabic word. He matches the first line’s monosyllabic internal rhymes ‘last’ and ‘blast’ with an apocopated rhyme ‘fastball’ on the next line. He does the same thing in reverse with another rhyme as well—using ‘hit’ to rhyme with ‘splitter’. This creates a structure that binds the two lines together... almost every word is doing some kind of rhyme work... using rhyme to fashion rhythm.”
  — Adam Bradley, p. 62.
Und die mich trug im MutterarmAnd she who carried me in arms
Und die mich schwang in KissenAnd rock me in the nest
Die war ein schön, froh, braunes WeißShe was beautiful, happy, red—hot—but
Wollte nichts vom Mannsvolk wissenShe never want to mess
Sie scherzte nur und lachte laut‘Round... She only joke and laugh,
Und liess die Freier stehen.Dissin’ those who hit on her.
„Möcht’ lieber sein des Windes Braut“I’d rather be fucked by da wind
Als in die Ehe geh’n!”Than have sex with any of you!”
Da kam der Wind, da nahm der WindAnd dat wind came, and dat wind chose,
Als Buhle sie gefangen,And beat her and rape her too,
Von dem hat sie ein lustig Kind,And that how she birthed me, packin’ heat.
Jung Volker, mich, empfangen.Know dis: Jung Volker is my name.
—Eduard Mörike (1804-1875)Op. 125, No. 4 (1851)

P ianist Graham Johnson maintains that Dichterliebe (Op. 48) contains what is arguably “the nearest thing in lieder to the modern phenomenon of ‘rap’ ” (liner notes to Vol 3, Hyperion CDA67676, pp. 101-2, specifically regarding ‘Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen’, No. 11, a song about a young man’s rejection by the woman he loves). In my opinion, dubstep is the sound that Schumann was going for, instead of brostep. And a ducking ‘pump’ sound that you hear in techno and electro that comes from side-chaining. That and electro house drums. Kind of a ‘dark garage’ hip-hop dubstep with kicked-up bass. The late lieder would be great with custom Ableton controllers for that sound. Don’t get that on no Hyperion CD, though!
C  ogan’s timbral reading of a piece is informed by the words sung in the performance. In his ‘Sounds of Song’, Cogan compares spectrographs of four recordings of Robert Schumann’s ‘Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet,’ a song he describes as ‘always obsessive, but uncertain, lost — quite literally traumatic.’ ”
  — Smith Reed, Univ Pittsburgh, 2005.
Der leidige FriedenPeace make me nervous,
Hat lange gewährt—It last too long—
Wir waren geschieden,We ‘part for weeks,
Mein gutes Schwert!My blade, its song!
Derweil ich gekostetDown in the cellar
Im Keller den Wein—I drink dat wine—
Hingst du verrostetYou hanging rusty
An der Wand allein.By the wall, bidin’ your time.
Von Sorte zu SorteEach juice
Probiert’ ich den Wein—I tasted when my turn to
Indessen dorrte:Meantime, dat blood:
Das Blut dir ein.It’s dried on you.
Ist endlich entglommenBattle when you right
Der heisse Streit,Ain’t no crime—
Mein Schwert, und gekommenBlade, here comes
Ist dein Zeit.Your thirsty time.
Ich geb’ deiner Klingen,Wipe some more,
Den blanken Schliff:You bright, smooth steel:
Ich lasse dich singenI let you rap
Den Todespfiff.Your deadly spiel.
Im PulvernebelIn gunpowder haze
Die Arbeit rauscht—You slash, rip steep—
Wir haben, o Säbel,You ’n’ me, Blade,
Die Freuden getauscht.We put ’em all deep.
Im brausenden Moste,In foamin’ wine,
Mein durstiges ErzBlade thirsty and smart,
Betrinke dich, kosteDrink deep and taste
Von Herz zu Herz;From heart to heart;
Derweil du gekostetWhile you’ve been tastin’
Das rote Blut,Your crimson blood,
Is mir eingerostet,My throat—it’s parched,
Der Hals vor Glut.Waitin’ for a flood.
—Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850)Op. 117, No. 2 (1851)

O bscure poems that portray dysfunctional or oppressive gender relations, cars and money or jewels, and weapons—a throw-away objectification of people and ‘live-for-the-moment’ violent materialism—are also characteristic of these late Schumann lieder, in a fashion that presages modern hip-hop themes and postures. Braggadocio and lyrics that proclaim the singer’s greatness—these appear in Op. 117, Op. 104, and others.
W  hile rap may be new-school music, it is old-school poetry. Rather than resembling the dominant contemporary form of free verse—or even the freeform structure of its hip-hop cousin, spoken word, or slam poetry—rap bears a stronger affinity to some of poetry’s oldest forms, such as strong-stress meter of ‘Beowulf’. As in metrical verse, the lengths of rap’s lines are governed by established rhythms—in rap’s case, the rhythm of the beat itself.”
  — Adam Bradley, p. xv.
Du nennst mich armes Mädchen“Po’ ho’,” you call me;
Du irrst! Ich bin nicht arm!You full o’ shit! I’m not po’!
Entress dich, Neugier halber,Wake up, you pimp,
Einmal des Schlafes Arm und schau’from yo’ drunk-ass sleep,
Mein niedres HüttchenAn’ look at my mansion
Wenn sich die SonneWit da paradise sunrise
Hold am Morgenhimmel hebet:When da morning sun come to me:
Sein Dach ist reines Gold!Dat roof is pure gold!
Komm’ Abends, wann die Sonne,Or come in da evening when da sun,
Bereits zum Meere sinkt,Sinking in da sea,
Und sieh’ mein einzig Fenster,See only my window,
Wie’s von Topasen blinkt!Sparklin’ wit da topaz jewelz!
Du nennst mich armes Mädchen“Po’ ho’,” you call me;
Du irrst! Ich bin nicht arm!You full o’ shit! I’m not po’!
—Elisabeth Kuhlmann (1808-1824)Op. 104, No. 3 (1851)

E mblematic of all rap music is constructing an image of power through gestural cues, which may be in the words or the music or both. The cues include punched-up rhythms and phrases about money, expensive clothing, jewelry, killing and dying, and going places and doing things. Late Schumann lieder got those!

T he situational exigencies of late Schumann lieder are accessible to anyone whose mind is open, and are not dependent on exterior markers for their manifestation. Instead, they are rooted in demonstrating values in interacting with others—values such as defiance, aggression, and action; support, mutuality, and reflection—‘power over’; ‘power with’. Don’t need no fancy or subtle analysis to identify features of hip-hop in late Schumann. Jus’ need to open our minds to the sonic and textual evidence that’s right there in front of us.

T  wo hundred years ago popular music and art music were joined at the hip. Beethoven’s works and the birth of the Romantic Era coincided with the rise of the middle classes. Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann composed lieder that could be sung and played in the home by amateur musicians. At the same time that the middle classes expanded, they received a more formalized and substantial education and formulated an idea of art and music. The masses were able to sing and play music that did not require the same technical ability as music that one would find in the concert hall, but was more suited for the salon. The music was ‘attainable’, and it featured poetic verses with melodies that were relatively easy to sing.”
  — Gabe Kanengiser.

12 May 2012

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra: ‘Bach Eternal’ & Eternal Success

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

I t’s always a good sign when a music performance sends shivers down your spine… as last night’s Australian Brandenburg Orchestra program did. In fact, for the artistic director of any ensemble or presenter organization, it is, I think, vital that you program and perform works that are capable of doing this to the spines of your audience. The released endorphins, enkephalins, and other natural neuropharmacology of this primitive reflex of joy and emotion are part of what gets butts in seats and keeps money flowing in, year after year. Challenge us with new works, yes, but make sure they are ones that give us shivers down our spines!

  • Bach – Sinfonia from Cantata ‘Wir danken dir, Gott’, BWV 29
  • Bach – Chorale from Cantata ‘Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben’, BWV 147
  • Bach – Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C major, BWV 1066
  • Bach – Chorus from Cantata ‘Unser Mund sei voll Lachens’, BWV 110
  • Zelenka – Kyrie from ‘Misa Sancti Josephi’, ZWV 14
  • Telemann – Concerto for Two Horns in D major, TWV 51:D1
  • Handel – Coronation Anthem No. 2, ‘My heart is inditing’, HWV 261
  • Handel – Coronation Anthem No. 4, ‘Let thy hand be strengthened’, HWV 259

O ne aspect that is especially impressive about the ABO’s first-rate performance excellence is its personnel—a majority of the performers in ABO are part-time and are employed in other professions outside of music. This, and the fact that members hail not only from Sydney, but also from Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, and other places that are a considerable distance from ABO’s Sydney home-base. Rehearsals and logistics no doubt present challenges. With the logistical and geography issues, performing in this ensemble is more than the usual ‘labor of love’. Yet ABO, founded in 1989 by its director, harpsichordist Paul Dyer, has endured, has performed worldwide, and has 16 recordings on the ABC Classics label, including 5 ARIA Award winners for ‘Best Classical Album (1998, 2001, 2005, 2009, 2010).

Paul Dyer
P   ut another way, the provision of full-time orchestral work for graduates [would require] one quarter of Australia’s full-time orchestral musicians to retire every year. It also requires that no existing musicians, previous graduates, or overseas players apply for the positions. Even if this were to occur, four years later it will be [today’s] graduates’ turn to retire. In this context [of oversupply], part-time/seasonal orchestras rate special mention. In Australia, most part-time orchestras were founded by musicians... Most of the players in part-time orchestras come from academic institutions and from the pool of quality freelance players who engage in a number of different roles both inside and outside of music.”
  — Dawn Elizabeth Bennett, Understanding the Classical Music Profession, 2011, p. 83.

D espite challenges for the many who have day-jobs outside of music, the approximately 30 period-instrumental musicians and approximately 30 members of the choir maintain this tremendously high standard of musicianship—the technical fluency and enthusiasm and spine-tingling crispness that projected to our ears last night. They achieve warmth, joy, and musical intimacy that might plausibly and paradoxically be nourished by the challenges and part-timeness that dog their members’ hard-won individual commitments to music—á la “that which does not kill you makes you stronger”, or something like that. The Australian Chamber Orchestra and other ensembles here likewise thrive relying on part-time personnel.

C ould ABO’s music business model be replicated in the U.S. and elsewhere? The facts that ABO’s personnel come from more than one city and ABO’s performances are regional or national and not geographically bound to one city help to ensure that ABO’s sources of philanthropic financial support and corporate donors can be sought in a variety of cities and catchment areas, so that support from a small set of donors in a particular city doesn’t get tapped-out over a period of years and so that the cyclical economic ups-and-downs that disproportionately affect leading donors in one city don’t become an Achilles heel or point of latent financial instability for the organization. Each city and its donors feel strong attachment to the organization and its brand. Market diversity and de-concentration are sensible aims for any arts organization that aspires to sustainability and long-term financial success to have.

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

S uffice it to say, this wonderful ABO performance gave me quite a lot to think about besides the endorphins and shivers. Eleven ABO Board members, all effective at fund-raising, none of them ‘figurehead’ material. Fifteen experienced staff members—with development and media relations firing on all cylinders. A charismatic artistic director known for affability and bridge-building and inclusive attitude. Lessons here for all of us! A few links below, for your interest.

Australian Brandenburg OrchestraAustralian Brandenburg Orchestra

10 May 2012

Andreas Haefliger: Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 19, in Sydney

Sydney Opera House

W ithout doubt, there is something you are doing profoundly right in your interpretation as a soloist when a yellow Labrador retriever in Row 1 listens attentively, head raised and up on her/his elbows, throughout your Beethoven concerto performance. (I do not know whether the same holds true of cats, except possibly Siamese—a point about which Christopher O’Riley and other cat-owning pianists may be able to comment.) Labradors are kindly, good-natured, and take a lot of things in stride. As a breed, the Labrador is notable for being steady-tempered but does display impatience with human pretension in all its manifestations. If she finds your expressions burdensome, the Labrador will sigh or adjust her posture, clunking her bony forearms on the wood floor loudly. But Andreas Haefliger’s account of Beethoven’s second piano concerto was true enough, and the Labrador looked thoroughly pleased as Andreas took his bows. We were well pleased too. (The probity of the cellos was periodically a matter of some doubt, though.)

Sydney Opera House

T his concerto offers many dramatic moments—some Mozartian figures; some prodigious cadenzas that Beethoven only wrote down when the piano part was published in 1809, because up until that time he used the piece as a promotional vehicle for his own career as a concert pianist and did not wish other pianists to co-opt the work or eclipse him. And in that regard the interaction in this concerto between the soloist and the ensemble has been the subject of considerable scholarly writing—some authors opining that Beethoven had not by the early date of this concerto’s birth yet mastered the composerly skills of constructing the arcs that define soloist-orchestra narrative.

B ut Haefliger takes this material and masterfully does with it what can only be viewed as authentic completion of Beethoven’s meaning and intent. He knows how to take the measure of the concertmaster and first violins behind him, and gaze at the oboes as they speak, and then deliver his own lines in a manner that the others accept as truthful—an honest account to which they must respond in-kind. The brass, characters not known for tender sensibilities, wait for the completion of Haefliger’s pianissimo figure, a deep contemplation evident in the piano’s right hand, and are made visibly more humane and introspective by it. Haefliger finishes a burst of activity, leans backward, left hand falling to his side, right hand rising in a flourish, and looks earnestly to his left at the orchestra to see what their answer will be. He imparts a magisterial, conductorly relish to the meaning; to use a cinematic or theatrical phrase, he ‘pulls focus’ beautifully onto and off of himself in a way that makes the ‘character’ of the solo part believable and engaging and which enhances the overall flow of the story, including the part of it that belongs to the ensemble to tell.

T he cadenza was full of bravado; the recitative passages, aptly confessional. When the tempo is slow enough, the shorter notes were played softer, without loss of clarity... which, as I understand, is a ‘bebung’ clavichord technique that Beethoven sometimes used in his piano writing for dramatic expressive purposes. In fact, the whole performance yesterday embodied the best qualities of excellent drama and interplay between soloist and orchestra. Bravo!

Sydney Opera House
I   was consumed with sheer terror. How, how, how? How does this start? The silence lengthened, ominously. When you’re on-stage, a few seconds of silence feels like an eternity. This was considerably more than a few seconds, and I felt it pressing down on my shoulders. Finally, in panic, I had an idea: maybe if I just put my fingers up on the keyboard, they’d know what to do. I lifted my hands slowly to the keyboard. The audience was surely, by this point, deeply impressed. And, by a miracle, it worked. By themselves, on their own, my fingers found the right configuration of black and white keys, and I let them go. Before I knew it, they had jumped into the opening theme [of the third movement of Op. 19], and the orchestra soon came galloping up behind them.”
  — Leon Fleisher, p. 24.
Sydney Opera House

07 May 2012

Evgeny Sorkin & Gerard Willems: Beethoven Sonatas for Piano & Violin (& Cocktails)

Sydney Conservatorium

A   re we as performers always bound to execute Beethoven’s ornamentation as he consciously intended when we believe that there is a more convincing possibility? This is a subject to which a whole conference could be devoted, as it involves aesthetic, philosophical and even moral dilemmas. My own short answer is ‘Yes!’ There are certain works where it is obvious that a convincing manner of execution took decades to discover. It is reasonable to think that we are still today discovering it.”
  — Daniel Herscovitch, Professor of Piano, Univ Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

T he faculty recital given last night by Sydney Conservatorium faculty members Evgeny Sorkin and Gerard Willems was exciting. The program featured the ‘Spring’ Sonata (Op. 24) and the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata (Op. 47). The conservatory’s ‘Cocktail’ programs—starting at 19:30, with 65- to 80-min of performance and a snap 5-min intermission—are very popular. It is clearly a very effective marketing/programming concept… the recital hall was nearly completely filled up on this cool Fall Monday evening. Attendees seemed mainly to be 30s to 60s business people who work in Sydney’s central business district, who attend these concerts before taking the train home to the suburbs.

Abundant sturm und drang… lots of passion and gravity-defying force… yet tremendous intimacy, with both performers probing emotionally far beyond the notes. Such joy in this ‘Spring’! Really beautiful to see two artists enjoy performing together this much. Thrilling performance, plus 60 seconds of amusing historical/explanatory remarks from Gerard and Evgeny prior to beginning each piece. No ‘museum’, this!

Sydney Conservatorium Sydney Conservatorium

02 May 2012

Mozart’s Requiem Down Under

Sydney Opera House

M   ozart’s ‘Requiem’ brings a shift in mood—with the terror, the sorrow, and the sheer drama of Life … and Death.”
  — Sydney Symphony, program notes, MAY-2012.

T he performance of Mozart’s Requiem in D minor, K.626, by members of the Sydney Symphony led by [guest] conductor David Zinman challenged our patience last night. The Süssmayr completion of the Requiem is something that many ensembles perform in 57 min or longer, full of pathos. But speeding it up more than 15%, to come in at less than 49 min, is aesthetically not a great idea. Specifically, it’s not a good idea when the acoustic delay of the stage that is more than 14 meters deep from the conductor to the rearmost chorister makes the performers sound as though they are not ‘together’.

A lthough I’ve been in Australia previously, this was the first time I’d heard a performance in the Sydney Opera House… a very warm, responsive hall.

T he vocal parts were ably performed by Jennifer Welch-Babidge, soprano; Fiona Campbell, mezzo-soprano; Paul McMahon, tenor; Paul Whelan, bass; and the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs.

A nd a diverting and expansive pre-concert talk was given by singer and musicologist Natalie Shea, who cued up more than a dozen clips of recordings to illustrate the points she was making.

T o me, I hear this Dies Irae as an ‘appogiatura’ within a Lacrimosa-esque life; or Mozart saying, in full view of his own fast-approaching death, “Life is hard, and then you (and we all—) die.” In that kind of frame of mind, I’m troubled by Robert Levin’s view that Mozart scholar Simon Keefe is asserting that accurately understanding the Requiem necessarily requires an historically-informed sense of context or that late 18th-Century judgments of the work are ‘privileged’ or somehow more valid than anything we might grasp or express. It just seems that the work is more naturally accessible than that. (I do like Levin’s own completion of the Requiem, though—complete with a fugue ending of the Lacrimosa.)

U  nsanctimonious’ to the point of ‘willfulness’... like musically rendering a [personal] prayer, not a Mass.”
  — Natalie Shea, pre-concert remarks, 03-MAY-2012.

T he mystery of how much of the Requiem was Süssmayr’s and how much was Mozart’s will maybe never be resolved. But ultimately, the nature of the piece seems to me to be more individual/idiosyncratic—an individualistic expression of what it is to be mortal; a personal ‘music-of-the-soul’—than requiem-idiomatic or ‘normative’ of what a requiem should be or say.

P .S.—I’m looking forward to the release later this year of Professor Keefe’s new book, which reevaluates the nature of the incomplete manuscript and its context. Keefe covers the history of the work and extensively reviews the accumulated criticism, analysis, and performance practices that pertain to it. Keefe particularly focuses on the autograph score and on Franz Süssmayr’s 1792 completion, which is the one that the Sydney Symphony and Philharmonia Choirs performed tonight. Keefe recommends that evidence that is confined only to records of Mozart’s life and correspondence and notations in the incomplete manuscript are not enough—understanding the Requiem instead requires broader, hermeneutics-based methods of analysis.

Keefe book