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Update January 2018

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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Saturday, January 20, 2018 - January 26, 2018

Are you listening?


Aaron Copland (left) and Leonard Bernstein, c.1960.

In 1939 the American composer Aaron Copland published the first edition of his book What to Listen for in Music.  In it, Copland described how music could be listened to at three levels which he described as the sensuous, the expressive, and the purely musical.  He also felt that an astute listener is “constantly moving from one level to another as the musical work unfolds”.

The sensuous level is the most basic: a simple pleasurable experience which requires the least amount of mental processing.  It’s a bit like being pleasantly aware of background music.  Copland’s expressive level (the second one) requires some concentration and might involve sensing some kind of emotion or expressiveness in the music which we may not be able to articulate, but we know it’s there. 

Copland felt that most people do not reach the musical level (the third one) in their listening because this is the level at which most musicians operate.  It’s about the notes of the music, how they interact with each other and about understanding the internal mechanics of the music. Professional musicians, composers and arrangers always listen at this level.  However, I suspect that Copland was simplifying things.  It seems to me that there is a missing level between levels two and three.  But I’ll leave you to ponder that at leisure.

Let’s try to unpack Copland’s idea.  Imagine the sound of an unaccompanied voice singing a wordless melody.  At the first level you’d be simply hearing the song without giving it any thought: you’d be pleasantly aware of it, but that’s about all.

At the second level, you would be listening more carefully, hearing the quality of the voice and noticing the character of the song.  Perhaps you might feel some kind of expressive quality within the music.

At the third level, the purely musical one, a whole new world of sound opens.  You’d be aware of the tonality - whether the song is in a major or minor key or whether it’s modal.  You’d notice the individual notes of the melody, how they relate to each other and how the elements of tension and relaxation are created within the melodic line.  You’d notice the exact intervals between the notes, the rhythms in the melody and the inherent harmony, the changing tone colours of the voice, the length and difference between the musical phrases and the changes in dynamics.  You’d probably also notice the overall structure of the melody.

This third level of listening clearly requires more mental activity on the part of the listener as well as a technical understanding of music.  It’s sometimes called active listening and it means giving the music your undivided attention.  This doesn’t mean that listening becomes a chore: it becomes more of an enriching experience.  As Copland suggested, the listener often switches from one level to another, sometimes just to appreciate the sheer beauty of the music.  The implication for music education is perfectly clear.  

Aaron Copland (1900-1990): Piano Concerto. Aaron Copland (pno), New York Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Leonard Bernstein (Duration: 18:35; Video: 480p)

Here’s a treat, if ever there was one.  This spiky little concerto which Copland described as “the slow blues and the snappy number” predates his popular “big-country” musical style of the 1930s and 1940s.  He wrote the concerto when he was 26 and it’s a jazz-influenced piece which was common enough in the 1920s.  Of course, it isn’t actually jazz, nor does it pretend to be.  Copland simply drew on ideas from the popular music of the time into his own emerging musical style.

The concerto remained unknown for many years after its premiere until the composer brought it back into the limelight in a recording with Leonard Bernstein in 1962.  This film was made at a New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concert in February 1964 and the performance is introduced by Bernstein.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990): Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story”. Simón Bolivar Orchestra cond. Gustavo Dudamel (Duration: 23:04; Video: 480p)

In 1961 Bernstein prepared a suite of orchestral music from the hugely successful show.  The orchestration is partly the work of the composer’s colleagues which was common practice on Broadway.  These dances are therefore the product of many different orchestrators with a final editing done by the composer.  There’s some lovely orchestration too.  Listen out for the magic moment when the song There’s a Place for Us emerges at 04:20.  It’s a breath-taking few bars, delicately and transparently scored.  Bernstein and his orchestrators used colourful instrumental combinations and a huge percussion section.

This is a stunningly good performance by the celebrated Venezuelan orchestra.  Notice that as always, Gustavo Dudamel conducts without a score, for he has a phenomenal memory.  He is probably one of those rare people who listens at what would be Copland’s fourth level and therefore far ahead of the rest of us.

Update Saturday, January 13, 2018 - January 19, 2018

The big pictures


Wolf-Ferrari, c.1906.

One day back in the 1970s, I made one of my regular visits to London’s Tate Gallery, an imposing building that sits on the north bank of the River Thames only a mile or so down the road from the Palace of Westminster.  At the time, there was a mild controversy over some paintings by Mark Rothko which had been acquired by the gallery and I wanted to see them for myself.  They had been commissioned in1958 by the American beverage company Joseph Seagram and Sons, to adorn their new luxury restaurant in New York, the Four Seasons.

Despite the fact that Rothko had received the commission of a lifetime, for various convoluted reasons he suddenly changed his mind at the last moment.  He gave nine of the paintings to the Tate Gallery with precise instructions as to how they should be exhibited.  Rothko, you might recall was best known for his large abstract works which tended to feature out-of-focus blocks of colour.  The Seagram Paintings as they have become known are especially bleak and enigmatic.

I can vividly recall my first encounter with these iconic works, which were hung reverently in a low-lit cavernous room with grey walls.  At first sight, they really are breath-taking.  I was surprised by the sheer size of the paintings, for they are enormous.  Although the browns and reds are warm and rich there is a compelling sense of alien beauty about them.  It was like coming to face-to-face with another intelligence and ever-so-slightly unnerving.  No one can fail to look at them without some kind of reaction, if even only a slight shudder.  But that, it turned out is exactly what Rothko wanted.

Like Rothko, the composer Morton Feldman was also of Russian-Jewish descent and his music reminds me so often of Rothko’s vast paintings.  Also like Rothko, Feldman began to explore a style that had no relation to traditional practices.  He was breaking new ground and exploring territories as yet unknown.  He experimented with his own forms of musical notation, sometimes specifying how many notes should be played at a certain time, but not exactly which ones.  He was pioneer of the so-called indeterminate music.

Morton Feldman (1926-1987): Rothko Chapel. SWR Vokalensemble cond. Marcus Creed (Duration: 24:50; Video: 1080p HD)

Feldman, who incidentally was born on 12th January, was a major figure in American twentieth century music.  He was close to the key players in the arts and was also friends with Rothko.  In its own way his music is as distinctive as Rothko’s paintings are.  Quietness dominates.  There’s a sense of slowly evolving organic growth and the musical ideas seem to float lazily in his softly unfocussed sound world.  There’s a sense of free rhythm and a feeling of timelessness.

In some of his later works, Feldman started exploring extremes of duration.  His String Quartet II for example which dates from 1983 is over six hours long.  It doesn’t get performed very often.  In contrast, Rothko Chapel lasts a fleeting twenty five minutes.

Feldman composed this work in 1971 inspired by his visit to the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas.  The building - as you might expect - contains paintings by Rothko.  This sparse, sombre and reflective music uses soft and delicate sounds which often fade into silence.  It’s scored for soprano, alto, viola, mixed chorus and celesta with an impressive array of percussion instruments.

Perhaps the best way to hear this enigmatic work is by using headphones in a quiet, darkened room without distraction.  This haunting music might not perhaps be your cup of tea, but do give it a try.  I find the work captivating, partly because it evokes the unworldly spirit of those Rothko paintings I first encountered so long ago.

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948):  Sinfonia da camara in B flat, Op 8. OSG Sinfonietta cond. José Trigueros (Duration: 37:27; Video: 1080p HD)

Wolf-Ferrari was also born on 12th January and this chamber symphony is an immensely enjoyable work.  In case you’re wondering, his surname was originally plain old Wolf, but when he was nineteen he cunningly added his mother’s maiden name.  It instantly made his name more appealing but perhaps he did it to avoid confusion with the well-known Austrian composer and song-writer Hugo Wolf.

Although Wolf-Ferrari studied piano from an early age, he wanted to be a painter like his father and even began studying at art school.  But he eventually decided to concentrate on music and later became known for his immensely successful comic operas.  He certainly had the gift of good melody writing.  Just listen to the gorgeous melody that emerges at 10:23 a few moments before the end of the first movement.  The lyrical second movement (10:57) has some haunting melodies too.  There are many other magic moments in this expansive and delightful work.  But if you don’t mind, I’ll leave you to discover them for yourself. I’m going for a gin and tonic.

Update Saturday, Jan. 6 - Jan. 12, 2018

The Harp that Once…


Alberto Ginastera and his cat.

“Through Tara’s halls” I hear you murmur.  Or perhaps I don’t, if you’re not familiar with the writings of that Irish poet, singer and songwriter Thomas Moore - not to be confused with Sir Thomas More, the English statesman who was eventually venerated in Catholicism as Saint Thomas More. 

The song has certainly been around for long enough; since 1821 to be exact, when it was first published in a collection of Irish popular songs.  The Irish Thomas Moore was born nine years after Beethoven and he’s best remembered for the lyrics of The Minstrel Boy, The Last Rose of Summer and other timeless songs.  Tara, as you might (or might not) recall was the ancient seat of power in Ireland in prehistoric and early medieval times.

The harp is the traditional musical instrument of Ireland and symbolizes the Irish people and their culture.  If you’ve ever tasted that splendid Irish dry stout called Guinness, you may have noticed the trade-mark image of a Celtic harp on every bottle. The harp is also the national instrument of Wales with a history that can be traced back at least to the eleventh century.  It’s one of the oldest musical instruments in the world and simple harps, based loosely on the shape of a hunter’s bow were in use as early as 3500 BC.  The large harp you see in orchestras today dates from the eighteenth century.  It’s technically known as the pedal harp and has forty-seven strings covering a range of six-and-a-half octaves and weighs about eighty pounds.

An old chestnut among harp players is that harps are like old people; they’re unforgiving and difficult to get in and out of cars.  As the name implies, the pedal harp has a set of pedals (seven, since you asked) which are connected to an ingenious internal mechanism which alters the pitch of the strings. Harps don’t come cheap.  You can buy a student model for about $15,000 but a professional instrument could set you back over $100,000.  You’ll also need to buy a big van to cart the thing around.

The harp is popular in Mexico, the Andes, Venezuela and Paraguay and although these instruments have slightly different designs, they have a common ancestor: the Baroque harps brought from Spain during the colonial period.  Many classical composers have been attracted to the unique sound of the harp and there are perhaps surprisingly, a large number of harp concertos.

Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983): Harp Concerto Op 25. Remy van Kesteren (hp), National Youth Orchestra of the Netherlands (NJO) cond. Clark Rundell (Duration: 23:35; Video: 360p)

Alberto Ginastera (jee-nah-STEHR-ah) was the most influential composer of Argentine classical music.  His music can be challenging, percussive, thrilling, thought-provoking and sometimes even downright scary. 

This three movement concerto is a brilliant virtuosic work and it’s full of Ginastera’s musical trade-marks.  The churning rhythms punctuated by thumps on the timpani at around 04:05 sound as though the passage has been lifted straight out of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.  Now I come to think about it, Stravinsky himself once remarked that “Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.”

The frenetic music gradually transforms into the kind of mysterious musical landscape that Ginastera paints so well.  The slow second movement takes the listener into a haunting sound-world of rich dark sonorities and strange angular melodies.  The last movement (at 14:20) begins unusually with a cadenza which leads into a folk-like dance with sparkling rhythmic vivacity and catchy fragmented melodies.  Driving rhythms lead the music into a thundering climax.  It’s thrilling stuff and given a superb performance by both soloist and orchestra.   

Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799): Harp Concerto in A major. Rosa Díaz Cotán (hp), Neubrandenburger Philharmonie cond. Daniel Stratievsky (Duration: 21:04; Video: 1080p HD)

Nothing could be more different to the unbuttoned Ginestera concerto than this delightful work by one of the most prolific composers of the classical period.  The Austrian composer Carl Dittersdorf wrote over two hundred symphonies, although some of them have not been authenticated.  He wrote dozens of concertos, chamber works, oratorios, masses and operas: enough music to fill a small library.  He was friends with Haydn and Mozart and with the composer Johann Baptist Wanhal they often played string quartets together.  Dittersdorf’s three-movement Harp Concerto is a lovely work and exemplifies the classical ideals of form, elegance, grace and charm.

Harps have been the target for musicians’ jokes ever since the instrument appeared in the symphony orchestra.  Unlike pianists, who expect the services of a piano tuner, harpists are expected to tune the instrument themselves.  However, it quickly gets out of tune especially if there are temperature variations at the concert venue.  The problem is summed up in a well-known orchestral joke, “How long does it take to tune a harp?”  The answer is that nobody knows.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Are you listening?

The big pictures

The Harp that Once…



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