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Update September 2017


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Update by Natrakorn Paewsoongnern
 
 
 

Classical Connections By Colin Kaye

 

Update September 23, 2017

Sounds of the new century

Charles Wuorinen (right) with author Salman Rushdie (Photo/Susan Johann)

A couple of months ago, one of my friends was raving about a book by Alex Ross, an American music critic who has been on the staff of The New Yorker magazine since 1996 before which time he was music critic for The New York Times.  The book is called The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.  I bought the book a week or two ago and it was instantly downloaded to my secondhand Kindle, a splendid device that I coming to rely on increasingly as time goes by.  Incidentally, you may have observed that the book title is a clever twist on Hamlet’s dying words, “the rest is silence”.

Ross is a splendid writer who drives the book along with a tremendous sense of pace.  The progress of musical development through the century is seen largely through composers and their music.  Ross unearths all sorts of fascinating facts.  For example, I already knew that Britten had visited Japan and Indonesia in the 1950s and transcribed gamelan music into notation.  However, I hadn’t realised that he was a friend of the Canadian composer Colin McPhee, who acquired a profound knowledge of Balinese music by going to live there.  I have since bought McPhee’s beautifully written 1944 book entitled A House in Bali and yes, it’s also for the Kindle.

But now the twentieth century has gone for good.  What will the new century bring musically?  I suspect that the dissonant and unforgiving “modern” music of the seventies and eighties has probably had its day and we have moved on towards different musical landscapes which tend to be described in music circles as “post modern”.  This is vague to say the least but in a sense it has to be.  The new century is only seventeen years old and we have no way of knowing which directions music will take.  So this week, I invite you to sample a couple of works by living composers whose lives – and whose music -couldn’t be more different.

Charles Wuorinen (b. 1938): Flying to Kahani. Anne-Marie McDermott (pno), Orchestra of the League of Composers cond. Charles Wuorinen (Duration: 11:37; Video: 1080p HD)

The composer Arnold Schoenberg famously wrote that “there is still much good music that can be written in C major”.  Charles Wuorinen may well dispute that statement for he is known to be somewhat dismissive of composers who still use “old-fashioned” tonality.  Nevertheless, with well over two hundred compositions to his name Charles Wuorinen (WOR-rih-nunn) is highly regarded among America’s senior composers.  He began writing music at the age of five and during his life has won many awards for his compositions. 

This evocatively-titled work is virtually a small piano concerto, derived from Wuorinen’s 2004 opera Haroun and the Sea of Stories.  If this sounds vaguely familiar, it comes from Salman Rushdie’s 1990 children’s book of the same name.  Kahani is Earth’s undiscovered second moon.  The eleven-year-old hero of the story Haroun Khalifa and his companion fly there with the assistance of a mechanical bird.  On Kahani they arrive at a vast sea called the Ocean of the Streams of Story, the place from which all stories originate.  It’s all magical stuff and to my ears at least, there’s magic in Wuorinen’s music too.

If at first you find the musical language a bit daunting, stay with it and you might find that it becomes more approachable as the work gradually unfolds.  Incidentally, Charles Wuorinen’s third opera was based on the short story Brokeback Mountain by the American author and Pulitzer prizewinner Annie Proulx.  As you might recall, the story was made into the tremendously successful 2005 movie by Taiwanese film director Ang Lee.  Wuorinen’s opera of the same name was premiered in Madrid in 2014.

PÁteris Vasks (b. 1946): Quartet for violin, viola, cello and piano (2001). iPalpiti Soloists (Duration: 37:35; Video: 480p HD)

The music of Latvian composer PÁteris Vasks is often associated with his country’s struggle for independence.  His early music showed the influence of Polish composers Witold Lutoslawski and Krzysztof Penderecki and the American composer George Crumb but in more recent years he has found a more personal voice, rooted in the folk traditions of Latvia which date back over a thousand years.  Often his music has a kind of northern gritty earthiness and seems to reflect echoes of a bygone age.  Sometimes Vasks makes extensive use of minimalist techniques, but he has never become attached to any particular composing method.

One of his most recent successes was the remarkably beautiful choral piece The Fruit of Silence composed in 2013.  This quartet is a powerful work and offers a wonderfully compelling musical experience.  Beginning with fragments of melody hovering around D minor the music takes the listener on an eventful and dramatic journey.  The music is in six sections which move lead though wildly contrasting musical landscapes, sometimes with relentless pounding rhythms, sometimes with moments of aching lyrical beauty.


Update September 16, 2017

Winds of change

Howard Hanson.

Down at the drinking trough the other night, someone carped that I never write about band music and to be honest, he was probably right.  It’s not that I have anything against bands, you understand.  Long ago back in the Old Country I used to conduct several bands but on the grounds of national security I cannot reveal their names.

I’ve noticed that these days, the word “band” is often applied to a group of two or three pop singers, which always strikes me as downright silly.  But even in musical circles the word “band” is somewhat vague.  Large ensembles used to be called “concert bands” but this expression seems to have fallen out of favour, perhaps because of its vague showbiz connotations.

While some bands are content to be called simply wind bands, others have adopted more grandiose titles to add a bit more gravitas and perhaps also to reflect their style of repertoire. Look through the YouTube pages and you’ll find wind orchestras, symphonic winds, symphonic bands, symphonic wind ensembles and many other variations.  In one sense they all boil down to the same thing in that they’re made up entirely of wind instruments, invariably with added percussion.  Sometimes a string bass is used to add extra depth to the sound and many modern scores call for pianos and harps for added colour.

The history of wind ensembles can be traced into antiquity but the large wind bands of today have their origins in the military bands of the nineteenth century.  They were used largely for ceremonial and festive occasions and the repertoire consisted of marches and other rousing pieces.  John Philip Sousa became famous for his marches, most of which were written in the 1890s and early part of the twentieth century.  Few other notable composers wrote for band until Gustav Holst composed his First Suite in E-Flat in 1909.  It remains a corner-stone of the symphonic band repertoire.

In the following years dozens of other composers wrote for band, thus providing material for the ever-increasing number of wind ensembles.  The American style marching band caught on worldwide but it has become more synonymous with “shows” in which the music usually plays a subordinate role to elaborate visual displays.

Howard Hanson (1896 -1981): Chorale & Alleluia. Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra cond. Frederick Fennell (Duration: 07:21; Video: 720p)

For forty years, Hanson was the Director of Music at New York’s Eastman School of Music, founded in 1921 by George Eastman, he of Kodak fame.  During his tenure, Hanson transformed the school into the finest of its kind in America. 

Composed in January 1954, Chorale and Alleluia was Hanson’s first work for band.  This finely crafted music strikes me as quintessentially “American” in the same sense that Copland seemed to capture something of old American pioneering spirit and a prairie-like sense of space.  There are profound and sonorous passages in the opening chorale, deliciously rich harmonies and an increasing sense of intensity.  Listen for the magic moment at 05:01 when the bustling music gives way to majestic chords from the brass.

The Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra was established in 1960.  It’s a professional ensemble and along with the Dallas Wind Symphony considered to be one of the best in the world.  This performance is conducted by the 86-year-old Frederick Fennell, an internationally recognised conductor and one of the most influential figures in the development of the symphonic band movement in the USA.  In his New York Times obituary, Jerry F. Junkin wrote that Fennell was “the most famous band conductor since John Philip Sousa”.

David Maslanka (1942-2017): Symphony No. 4 University of Michigan Symphony Band cond. Michael Haithcock (Duration: 30:05; Video: 720p HD)

David Maslanka was best known for his music for wind ensemble.  He published well over a hundred works including nine symphonies, most of which were written for band.  His musical style is typical late 20th century American band music: rhythmically complex, melody-orientated and tonal in nature.

This highly approachable work, completed on 5th November 1993, differs from a conventional symphony in that it comes in a single movement with six clearly-defined sections.  The composer wrote that “the central driving force is the spontaneous rise of the impulse to shout for the joy of life.  I feel it is the powerful voice of the Earth that comes to me from my adopted western Montana, and the high plains and mountains of central Idaho.”

Listening to this vigorous music you can see what he means.  Perhaps it’s a bit repetitive at times but there are some heroic Hollywood-like moments of grandeur contrasted with solemn hymn melodies which form the backbone of the work.  Towards the end (at 23:28) we hear the melody of “The Old Hundredth” thundered out by the trombones while the flutes and clarinets seem to be imitating flocks of wheeling birds high above Maslanka’s “high plains and mountains of central Idaho”.


Update September 9, 2017

The Boy King

  

Prince Edward in 1546 aged nine – the year he was crowned King of England.

In an attempt to improve my slender knowledge of science, I’ve just waded through Stephen Hawking’s book The Grand Design, an introduction to the esoteric world of quantum mechanics.  Perhaps I should add that quantum mechanics are not, as some might imagine, people who repair quantums.  It’s a branch of physics which explores the behaviour of the tiniest particles in existence and it’s fascinating.

Although Hawking and his co-writer Leonard Mlodinow do a decent job explaining an incredibly difficult subject, I found some parts of the book a bit heavy going, especially when it comes to the supposed curvature of time.  So to provide some light relief from the quarks, hadrons and leptons, I turned to Mark Twain’s delightful novel The Prince and the Pauper, published in the early 1880s and subtitled A Tale for Young People of All Ages.

This enthralling story mixes real people with fictional characters and it’s set in the first couple of months of the year 1547.  The central character in the book is the real-life Edward Tudor, Prince of Wales and later King Edward VI.  You may recall the plot in which, as a prank, the nine-year-old prince swaps roles with an identical looking boy from a poor family in East London.  Mark Twain gives a fascinating glimpse of the social customs and moral values in sixteenth-century London.  But he drives the plot along with tremendous pace and makes the book irresistible.  I got through it one afternoon and evening.

On 20 February1547, Edward was crowned King of England at the age of nine.  He was the son of King Henry VIII who had died the previous month.  Henry was a talented composer and played various instruments of which he had a large collection, including seventy-eight recorders.  He would certainly have encouraged his son, who was an extremely intelligent boy to become involved in music.  We know that Edward learned to play the lute and the virginals, a keyboard instrument a bit like a small harpsichord.  Reading Twain’s novel, I began to wonder what music Edward would have heard, for it was central to the life of the royal court.

Christopher Tye (c. 1505-1572): Three In Nomines.
Consortium5 Recorder Consort (Duration: 06:55; Video: 720p HD)

Christopher Tye knew Edward personally both as prince and king.  He worked closely with him and appears to have been a personal friend.  Tye was one of the most influential English composers of his day and he acted as a kind of musical adviser to the royal court.

During the sixteenth century, the expression In Nomine (in NOM-in-ay) was a general-purpose title used extensively for short instrumental pieces.  They were usually written for a consort of four or five instruments, typically viols or recorders.  Tye wrote twenty-four In Nomines and Edward would undoubtedly have been familiar with some of them.  He might have even have played them too if he had, as likely as not, inherited his father’s skills on the recorder.

We tend to associate the recorder with that ghostly hooting sound made by elementary school children, but during the early sixteenth century the recorder was one of the most important wind instruments.  The instrument was made in several different sizes and a recorder consort usually contained a variety of instruments ranging from the high-pitched sopranino to the somewhat unwieldy bass recorder.

Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585):  The Lamentations of Jeremiah I. The Queen’s Six (Duration: 07:37; Video: 1080p HD)

Tallis is ranked among England’s greatest composers and his name has become synonymous with choral music.  Edward would have been familiar with the music of Tallis and would certainly have met him, for the composer became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1543 at which he composed and performed for both Henry VIII and Edward.

In the sixteenth century following prevailing fashions in Europe, it became customary for composers to set various texts from the Book of Jeremiah.  Tallis set the first lesson sometime between 1560 and 1569.  This rich, powerful and beautifully-crafted music is typical of Tallis and much the sort of musical style Edward would have heard in the Royal Chapel.  Sadly, the young king didn’t live long enough to relish this particular work.  With a promising life ahead of him, he tragically died on 6th July 1553 at the age of sixteen, thus missing out on the great flowering of English renaissance music that was yet to come.

However, to end on a slightly merrier note, if you have one of those amazingly useful Kindle devices for reading books, you can go to Amazon online and order an instantaneous download of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper for less than a dollar.  So if you haven’t already done so, there’s no excuse for not reading it. 


Update September 2, 2017

September Songs

 

William Alwyn in 1960
(Photo: Wolfgang Suschitzky)

It is hard to believe that September is upon us once again.  Marking the end of summer and the start of autumn (at least in Northern parts), it has always struck me as a rather melancholy month though not as melancholy as November, which in the northern hemisphere can be downright depressing.

September is the start of the academic year in many countries, in which children and teachers traipse sometimes unwillingly, back to school after the long summer holidays.  The month derives its name from the Latin word septem (seven) and so it should really be the seventh month rather than the ninth.  And of course it originally was, until the Romans decided to add January and February to the start of the calendar thus confusing everyone including themselves.  Before then, the first month of the year had been March.

In Charlemagne’s calendar September was called “harvest month” and in most northern hemisphere vineyards, grapes are harvested throughout September.  The month used to have a similar name (Herbstmonat) in Switzerland and the Anglo-Saxons called it Gerstmonath (barley month) because barley was their main crop.

This year, 1st September will bring a close visit of an asteroid charmingly known as Florence.  It’s almost three miles in diameter and its path is only four million miles away.  This sounds uncomfortably close but don’t be alarmed because that is eighteen times the distance from the earth to the moon.  So we should be alright - in theory, at least.  And yes since you asked, the asteroid was named after Florence Nightingale.  It would have added a pleasing symmetry to tell you that she was born in September, but she wasn’t.  And for that matter, neither was I.

Neither was the German composer Kurt Weill who wrote September Song which first appeared in the 1938 Broadway musical production Knickerbocker Holiday.  The song, which laments the passing of youth, appeared again in the 1950 film September Affair and has since become a popular standard.  Oddly enough, few classical composers wrote music inspired by September.  The only work I can dredge up at this stage of the week is Richard Strauss’s hauntingly beautiful September from his “Four Last Songs”.  But perhaps you have a better memory than me. 

Joseph Kosma (1905-1969): Autumn Leaves, arr. Toru Takemitsu. …bŤne String Quartet (Duration: 05:28; Video: 480p)

The Hungarian-French composer Joseph Kosma is little-known these days but he was something of a child prodigy who wrote his first opera at the age of eleven.  As an adult during the occupation of France in World War II, Kosma was placed under house arrest and for some reason was banned from composition.  Despite this setback, he managed to covertly write the music for many movies during the fifties. 

One of his best-known popular songs is Les feuilles mortes (Autumn Leaves) which dates from 1945 but rose to fame five years later in the eponymous 1956 film starring Joan Crawford.  It has become a classic of the genre.  This version is especially interesting because the song has been arranged by the celebrated classical Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu.

Takemitsu seemed to have a natural ability to manipulate instrumental and orchestral timbres and was greatly influenced by the French composers Debussy and Messiaen.  In Takemitsu’s beautiful and imaginative arrangement for string quartet, you can clearly hear Debussy’s influence.  Takemitsu weaves threads of melody and gradually the song emerges from the rich harmonic sonorities.  He has virtually created a new composition in which there’s a telling sense of melancholy.

William Alwyn (1905-1985): Autumn Legend. Rebecca Van de Ven (cor anglais) Sewanee Summer Music Festival Chamber Ensemble. (Duration: 13:21; Video: 720p HD)

William Alwyn (AHL-winn) has sadly become one of England’s forgotten composers though with his legacy of fine music he could just be waiting to be re-discovered.  He studied flute and composition at London’s Royal Academy of Music and later returned there as a professor of composition, a position which he held for nearly thirty years.  He was also a flautist in the London Symphony Orchestra but he’s especially associated with film music because during his lifetime he wrote nearly two hundred film music scores.

Few people realise that Alwyn also wrote five symphonies and four operas along with several concertos and string quartets.  As if that weren’t enough, he was also a poet and an artist.  He couldn’t have had much spare time on his hands. 

Autumn Legend dates from 1954 and is scored for cor anglais and small string orchestra.  This expressive work also has a Debussy-like impressionist feel to it and the dark, plaintive tone-colour of the cor anglais, superbly played by Rebecca Van de Ven, brings to mind that other evocative but somewhat gloomy work by Sibelius, The Swan of Tuonela.  And in case you’re wondering, Sibelius wasn’t born in September either.


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Sounds of the new century

Winds of change

The Boy King

September Songs
 

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