Snow Day Miscellany

The white stuff is not coming down that hard in Philadelphia – yet. But my day job has shut down for today, and I have a moment to catch up on a few things in this post.

– I want to add my voice to the chorus of praise for the Met’s Elektra, which I saw on March 9. Christine Goerke (known on Twitter as @heldenmommy), Elza van den Heever, and Michaela Schuster were all fabulous in the principal roles, and the Met Orchestra was comparably superb under Yannick. I don’t know why Elektra never clicked for me until the past few years; I preferred Rosenkavalier. Lately, Ochs is a stumbling block for me in the latter, and the intensities of Elektra hold me. My inner jury is still out on Salome.

– recent listening: Reading a review of Dudamel conducting the Vienna Phil in the Ives 2nd made me pull the Philadelphia Orchestra recording of the piece off the shelf. It had struck me as terribly unlikely that the Vienna would play Ives, but the 2nd is not that forbidding, wide-ranging materials and final splat notwithstanding. The polished sound of the Philadelphia, under Ormandy, certainly makes a good case for the piece simply as an attractive late romantic work. Far more interesting, of course, is the 4th, on the same CD in a performance by the London Philharmonic under José Serebrier. This is truly one of the greatest American symphonies, and listening to it again I found the piece deeply touching, especially in the first and last movements.

The other disc I’ve been listening to lately is a new collection of music by Charles Wuorinen. This Bridge release features brilliant performances of some fiercely challenging music, with two substantial vocal works framing Wuorinen’s most recent piano sonata.  Loadbang performs  Ashbery Alphabetical, a piece that weaves together settings of four John Ashbery poems with instrumental sections into a continuous whole. The piece’s beauties are more austere than those of the album’s other vocal work, It Happens Like This, a big (39-minute) setting of James Tate’s funny and disturbing poetry for four singers and a chamber orchestra of 12 players. Anne-Marie McDermott’s virtuosity and (in Wuorinen’s words) “demonic intensity” serve the Fourth Piano Sonata dazzlingly well.

– I recently finished my contribution to the upcoming Network for New Music tribute concert for retiring artistic director Linda Reichert, scheduled for April 29. It’s an honor to be part of that program, not just for the chance to celebrate Linda, but to be part of a roster of contributing composers that includes Andrea Clearfield, John Harbison, Jennifer Higdon, Bernard Rands, August Read Thomas, Melinda Wagner, Richard Wernick and Maurice Wright. Two Sketches is scored for Pierrot instrumentation; I’ll play the piano part myself at the premiere. Here is my program note:

Two Sketches

  1. Riddle
  2. Circles (Little Variations)

Program Note

Two Sketches was composed on a commission from Network for New Music in honor of its long-time artistic director, Linda Reichert on her retirement. Linda’s extraordinary record of advocacy for a wide range of composers, taking the form of excellent performances, commissions, recordings and more, has made a tremendous contribution to our musical life in Philadelphia and beyond.

For a visual artist, a sketch can be a memorandum, a way of keeping eye and mind and hand limber, a place of experimentation, or simply a work employing a certain modesty of means. All of these attributes were at play for me in writing these musical sketches.

The riddle of the opening movement resides in the mysterious chorale-like passage first sounded by the clarinet and cello, and later repeated in the flute, violin and clarinet. The third repetition explodes. Hypnotic repeated figuration in the piano ponders the question, but offers no answers.

The theme of the second movement’s variations is a pattern known to musicians as the circle of fifths. The moods of the short variations shift quickly, including gently lilting passages and cryptic mutterings. The last variation sounds fragments of the previous sections over widely-spaced, ringing piano writing.

 

Ives, Upshaw, Kalish

It was a fantastic concert tonight, presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society: an all-Ives program with Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish. On the first half Dawn showed off the immense variety of the Ives songbook, including a number of pieces familiar from Gil’s performances and recordings of them with the late Jan DeGaetani. “Tom Sails Away” was especially touching; “Serenity” created its silver aura of stillness; “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” was visionary.  Dawn very much still has it – the beauty of sound is there, if a bit darker than it once was. She retains that transparency where there seems to be no distance between the song and the listener.

For the second half, Gil played the Concord Sonata. I can’t claim to having made a comprehensive survey, but of the five or so I have heard, Gil’s recording for Nonesuch remains my favorite, in part simply for the sheer gorgeousness of his piano sound. That sound was present tonight, as was Gil’s ability to clarify the various strata of Ives’ textures and to shape even the most rambunctious moments. A small example: the build-up to the fusillade of fast clusters in the Hawthorne movement was carefully shaded, rather than getting too loud too soon. I remember as a student at Tanglewood observing a rehearsal that Gil was coaching, hearing him exhort the pianist in the ensemble to “Phrase!” What we heard tonight was eloquent phrasing, meaningful contours springing organically from the Ives’s transcendental (and Transcendentalist) piano writing.

Ives’ Organic Birthday

My friend (and fine composer) Daniel Dorff has let met know about an upcoming event celebrating Charles Ives on the occasion of a new Theodore Presser Co. publication. Danny writes:

I’m writing to invite you to celebrate Charles Ives’s birthday, Saturday October 20, 2012 by joining the worldwide Ives Complete Organ Music Birthday Bash (ICOMBB), also celebrating the new publication of his COMPLETE ORGAN MUSIC. The book includes many unfamiliar Ives organ works, as well as critical editions of Variations on “America” in both the original 1892 version and the familiar 1949 E. Power Biggs edition.

To participate, simply ask your organist-friends to get a copy of the book when it comes out in mid-September, and schedule a performance of part or all of the book on Ives’s birthday. We plan to make lots of noise on this special day, so please forward this invitation to your friends, colleagues, and make internet announcements, to help the party go viral.

Please feel free to publicize your events and everyone else’s, upload to YouTube, and let us know concert info c/o ddorff@presser.com and the complete list will be publicized to the media and available for all other organizations to share and announce.

There are no rules or protocols, just a global birthday party celebrating Ives and his organ music.

More info on the book since it’s not out yet – Charles Ives COMPLETE ORGAN MUSIC contains 62 pages of music and 16 pages of historical and critical notes. Organists already familiar with Variations on “America” will be able to learn the other works during the time between the book’s release and the birthday event. The publication will be available from the shopping cart at http://www.presser.com as soon as we receive it, and from your favorite dealer as soon as they order it (443-41003, $29.95).

You can go here to see sample pages from the book. It looks fascinating. I had no idea the familiar version of the Variations on “America” was an edition prepared by Biggs, and it will be interesting to compare it with the original. And who could resist a piece called Burlesque Harmonizations of “London Bridge”? (Probably not that kind of burlesque, but still…)

There are a number of options for the Variations on YouTube, but I especially liked this performance by young organist Tom Trenney:

Ives Variants

Extremely interesting post at Post-Classic in which Kyle Gann discusses variants in the Concord Sonata of Ives. Let me repeat here what I said in a comment there: it is a shame people don’t seem to be interested in preparing critical editions of scores anymore – you would think such an edition of the greatest American composition for piano would be pretty important, wouldn’t you?

Update: In a reply to my comment, Kyle Gann rightly pointed out that the Charles Ives Society has done, and is doing a lot of work on critical editions of Ives. I didn’t mean to overlook this important work – but the fashion in musicology these days is away from doing critical editions, and it seems 20th century music gets overlooked. Glad the folks working on Ives are bucking that trend.