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Monday, December 29, 2008

Dika Newlin

Dika Newlin (1923-2006), the American musicologist, composer, and pianist - was an extraordinary prodigy.

● born November 22nd, 1923 in Portland, Oregon. She was an only child. Her name “Dika” was selected by her parents in honor of an Amazon cited in the poems of Sappho.

● moved to Lansing, Michigan where her parents were teaching at a college that would later be called Michigan State.

● at the age of 3 she could read the dictionary, at the age of 6 she played the piano, and at age 7 she began composing.

● her first symphonic piece was written at the age of 11, Cradle Song, which was later performed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

● she finished elementary school in three years (from age 5 to 8), graduated high school when she was 12, and then entered Michigan State. The New York Herald Tribune reported in 1939 that Dika Newlin had the highest I.Q. score ever recorded by a Michigan State student.

● After graduating from Michigan State she moved to Los Angeles with her mother and began studies with Arnold Schoenberg at UCLA at the age of 14. She kept a diary of her studies with Schoenberg (who she referred to as “Uncle Arnold”) and published them in 1980 as Schoenberg Remembered: Diaries and Recollections (1938-76). She dazzled everyone in the class with her precociousness, and ability to play everything at sight on the piano.

● Newlin receives her M.A. from UCLA at the age of 18 and moves to NY for additional graduate studies at Columbia University.

● She graduates from Columbia at age 22 in 1945 with a PhD in musicology. Newlin’s dissertation titled Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg, is published in book form soon after.

● Newlin studies included piano with Artur Schnabel and Rudolf Serkin, composition with Roger Sessions, and musicology with Paul Henry Lang.

● She records her first compositions, among them Septet in Seven Movements and Piano Trio, Op. 2.

● Newlin pursues a career as a concert pianist performing music by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern.

● Her academic teaching career began in 1945 with a four-year residency at Western Maryland College. In 1949, she accepted a teaching position with Syracuse University, where she remained for two years. This was followed by a dozen years at Drew University (1952-1965), and then an eight-year stint at North Texas State University (1965-1973).

● Newlin became a professor in the Department of Music at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) from 1978 until her retirement in 2004.

● Her oeuvre grows to include three operas, a chamber symphony, a piano concerto, and numerous chamber, vocal, and mixed media works. While Dika's compositions from the 1930s and early 1940s are composed with extended tonality, classical forms and techniques, many of her works from the late 1940s through the 1960s exhibit the use of Schoenberg-influenced serialism.

● Among Newlin's most distinguished students are composers Roger Hannay and Michael Bates, as well as musicologist Theodore Albrecht.

● She translates several important French and German books on Schoenberg into English, and becomes recognised as one of the leading Schoenberg scholars. She writes article on Schoenberg for the Encyclopædia Britannica (1980) and edits and translates Schoenberg’s philosophical and theoretical writings – including Style and Idea.

● On the side Newlin writes concert reviews for the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia.

● Beginning in the 1960’s, she explores various forms of experimental music: multimedia, electronics, computer composition, group improvised composition, and minimalism.

● In 1999 she performed as a vocalist in a costumed performance of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire in her own English translation of the text.


What an amazing record of academic achievement.


But wait, there’s more!


Meet Dika: the Punk Rock performance artist, B-movie actress, and cult pop-culture star…





From the 1990s on Newlin became active performing with Punk and New Wave bands in the Richmond Virgina area, prowling in local clubs well into her 70s. She played in several bands, but was a regular with the local group Apocowlypso. She was easily to pick out with her glowing neon orange hair, a devilish grin, platform shoes, and black leather motorcycle jacket and pants. Newlin was their lead-singer but also played washboard, tamborine, and temple bells. Her original songs and lyrics were highly satirical, such as "Love Songs for People Who Hate Each Other" and "Murder Kitty." Her vocal style was raw and intense. She’d sing rock standards in Sprechstimme, do Elvis impersonations, and was at times influenced by the Viennese cabaret traditions of Schoenberg’s era. One critic noted “Newlin channeled her unique political perspective into lyrics far more provocative than the average twentysomething glue-sniffer might possibly muster.” With the band Apocowlypso she went on to record several albums. Ageless Icon: The Greatest Hits of Dika Newlin was released on 2Loud!Records in 2004 when she was 81.

From the fame of her punk-rock notoriety, she branched out to act lead roles in independent films, including the 1995 documentary Dika: Murder City which made her a local cult heroine. The film won awards at independent film festivals in Orlando and Chicago. In this movie she appears as an Elvis impersonator, playing on keyboards and the kazoo. Throughout one piece, she meows an entire song into the microphone like a cat. A film reviewer (Phil Hall) wrote “the film’s production flaws are easily overlooked by the mad genius of Dika Newlin, a woman who presents the façade of sincerity and intelligence during conversation, but who turns into a raving maniac whenever she steps before a microphone while the music plays.”

She played the character of a telephone psychic who encounters a malformed alien space baby in the Sci-Fi spoof B-movie Afterbirth. It was directed by her longtime creative collaborator and friend Michael D. Moore (who should not be confused with the better-known director with the same name). In Afterbirth she sings an original song, "Alien Baby." The words "alien baby" comprise the chorus, but the song begins with the Stefan George text Schoenberg used for the fourth movement of his second string quartet: Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten (I feel the air of other planets).

She can be seen in Tim Ritter's 1995 film Creep where she plays a person wearing a leather motorcycle jacket who puts poison in baby food at a supermarket.

Newlin posed for a pinup calendar when she was in her 70s. Reporters who interviewed her at home noted that a medieval suit of armor was suspended over her mattress on the floor of her bedroom.

In 2003 Newlin was featured in a People Magazine article as a counter-cultural icon and quoted as saying "I feel like a child now more than I did as a child. I try more and more to live by the day, to do something because it feels good."


Newlin spent her final years impoverished. She died on July 22nd, 2006 at the age of 82 at the Imperial Plaza Manor Care facility in Richmond Virginia. She had experienced complications from a broken arm or hip (the reports vary), and had requested that her feeding tube be removed. Newlin was survived by an elderly cousin in North Carolina and her cat Spot.

Links:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dika_Newlin
http://www.playbillarts.com/news/article/4954.html
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/28/arts/music/28newlin.html
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0233572/
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1230795/Dika-Newlin
http://www.newmusicbox.org/article.nmbx?id=4736
http://www.answers.com/topic/dika-newlin

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Friday, December 26, 2008

Looking into the future


Ten reasons why I’m optimistic about music in 2009

1) We have a new Administration that I hope will be much more supportive of the arts.

2) There appears to be a renewed interest in Modernist music as exemplified this past year by wide-scale performances of works by Elliott Carter. Audiences have come around to appreciate this genre of music.

3) The commercial music industry has found a new model to apply, since revenue from CD sales and Internet downloads is declining quickly. The idea of presenting music live in concert has reemerged as a profitable venture. This will translate into more work for musicians of all sorts, including composers.

4) The current world-wide economic crisis will require a massive injection of government stimulus. This may potentially result in new and expanded Federal arts programs similar to what occurred with the WPA in the 1930’s.

5) As the number of people who are structurally unemployed increases, it will lead to more leisure time and a public desire to experience performances of new, innovative, and experimental music within their community. The arts in general will flourish as people seek a broad-based and affordable form of cultural entertainment.

6) With the change in American political leadership, negative feelings about the value of American culture on the international stage will be diminished. American composers will find renewed interest in their work internationally – including an increase in commissions and performances across the globe.

7) By “going green” it will be discovered that acoustic instruments are more energy efficient than electronic ones, and there will be a resurgence of musicians who perform exclusively on traditional instruments. String Quartets will replace DJs and programmed synthesizers as a way to conserve precious kilowatts and the environment.

8) Although composers may age physically, it is a profession that favors decades of experience and the accumulated wisdom of the long view of history. By consistently composing new pieces each year, my music will continue to make a statement and develop. The works that I plan compose in the coming year could potentially contribute to my personal artistic legacy.

9) 2009 may prove to be an inflection point in history, and if a cultural tsunami strikes, I feel well-positioned to take advantage of new opportunities and artistic challenges as they arise. My pencils are sharpened, and I’m ready to go.

10) It’s a new calendar year, which brings with it a fresh opportunity to submit my application to an assortment of composer-related foundations and organizations (e.g. Fromm at Foundation at Harvard, American Composers Orchestra, The Composer’s Conference at Wellesley, etc). I apply annually, and retain a glimmer of hope each year that it will yield a positive result. The new cycle of 2009 grant applications begins on January 1st.
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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Across the Universe

On Christmas eve after dinner we finally got the entire family in one place at the same time, and put on a DVD from Netflix that had been sitting idle on top of the TV for weeks. I often get a little flak from my family for selecting movies on Netflix that are too "artsy" or "modernist" or "abstract" - but this one seemed to please everyone.

Across the Universe is directed by Julie Taymor. The movie dates from 2007, and was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. It tells the story of the crazy and turbulent 1960's skillfully combining 33 songs written by The Beatles and assembled into a montage. The songs are reworked and sung primarily by the young actors in the film - although there are a few rock veterans who appear on the screen in cameo.

It is a movie that certainly deserves the label of "flashback" on my blog posting, since I felt it does an amazing job of capturing the zeitgeist of that era.

I particularly liked the psychedelic and absurdest scenes, such as Eddie Izzard performing as a circus ring-leader in the surrealistic song "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite."


The set is imaginative, and the camera flashes to the circus orchestra remind me of a Picasso cubist painting.


The blue guys are cool to look at, and they can dance too! (On the DVD there is some supplemental material with out-takes of this scene which are pretty hilarious to watch).

Yet can view the "Mr. Kite" scene from this movie (and many others) on YouTube....



It was definitely a flashback to see English blues/rock singer Joe Cocker perform "Come Together" in a cameo scene where he appears as a disheveled homeless person at the bottom of a subway escalator. It was only after seeing his trademark "air guitar" hand motions that I realized it was him (or at least a ghostly image of his former self). Joe Cocker fans can view my earlier posting from September 11th, 2008 where I blogged about my 1969 Woodstock experience.



Another flashback for me was a character named Jojo (played by Martin Luther McCoy) who represents the rock star Jimi Hendrix. Much of the movie takes place in New York's Greenwich Village of the 1960's. There is a club in the film named "Cafe Huh" which is strikingly reminiscent of the real club an aspiring Jimi Hendrix performed at called "Cafe Wah?" Bob Dylan also got his start there, performing a set his first night after arriving on the NY scene in 1961.


A little known but true fact is that when I was about 13 years old, I performed myself at Cafe Wah in a rock band. I'm exaggerating slightly, since it was only an audition, but it was in front of a live audience and we were reasonably well received. My brother Larry had somehow convinced the management that my garage band from middle school should be granted a chance to audition. When the house band took their break, we quickly plugged in our instruments, and did a few numbers for the small lunch crowd. I think the audience thought we were "cute" which greatly annoyed me at the time. Doesn't anyone take 13-year olds seriously?

The original Cafe Wah? was sold in 1988 and is now a comedy club, but a new version of the historic music venue was created for tourists and can be visited at 115 MacDougal Street near 3rd Avenue in the Village today.

One of the interesting characters in the movie is a gal named Prudence (played by T.V. Carpio). A little piece of Beatles trivia: the person named Prudence that the song was written about is the sister of actor Mia Farrow. Apparently Prudence spent so much time in her room doing Transcendental Meditation, that she wouldn't venture out.

Rock star - and former UN Ambassador - Bono appears in cameo as a bizarre character named Dr. Robert (inspired by the infamous Dr. Timothy Leary perhaps?) and he sings "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" at the end of the film. (It was said in the old days that Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was code for L.S.D.)

The movie is enjoyable as a musical, and has some great dance and visual effects, but I miss hearing the original Beatles renditions of the songs. However the quality of the singing in the film comes across as somewhat uneven. As good as the movie is, it lost money. The budget was 45 million dollars, and it pulled in less than 29 million.

Across the Universe
is a movie worth seeing, especially if you are an old hippie like me.


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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Carnival of Venice - on steriods

Norwegian tubist Øystein Baadsvik plays Carnival of Venice with pianist Patti Wolf in a recital at Rice University, Moores School of Music, in Houston Texas in 2005. Øystein Baadsvik has premiered some 40 solo works by composers from the USA, Russia, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland.

The Carnival of Venice is a folk tune popularly associated with the words "My hat, it has three corners." A series of theme and variations contain virtuosic displays of double and triple tonguing in this delightful arrangement by John Fletcher.

http://www.baadsvik.com/

Tuba mirum spargens sonum

Links:

http://www.baadsvik.com/

http://www.music.uh.edu/

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Conductorless Orchestras?

I have an idea, albeit a radical one. Perhaps the glorious age of the symphonic conductor is past. We should fire them all.

It's unclear to me what conductors do. It's a mysterious profession. Once the music has been rehearsed and the hard work is done, why is there a public fixation on the bandleader in the penguin suit? Professional musicians can keep time pretty well on their own. The status of the conductor has risen enormously both in prestige and public visibility in recent decades, and it has gotten to a point where you gotta wonder if they earn their outrageous salaries. A few people are beginning to question if the tuxedo-clad jet-set maestros do little more than wave their arms as they mime carefully choreographed and scripted expressions of pathos and passion. Of course a big name will bring in an audience and sell tickets, but do we really need them, or are they simply dead weight?

There is historical precedent for doing without a conductor. In the post-revolutionary years beginning in 1922 in the USSR, a renowned conductorless symphony orchestra formed by leading musicians from Moscow thrived for a decade. It was called Persimfans (short for Pervïy Simfonicheskiy Ansambl' bez Dirizhyora or "First Conductorless Symphony Ensemble"). The musicians eschewed the dictatorial baton of a leader in favor of music by committee, and all members of the orchestra were considered equal under their Marxist ideology (Except perhaps for the violists?)

Closer to home, the long-established Grammy Award-winning Orpheus Chamber Orchestra of NY seems to do fine without a conductor - even with tricky repertory from the late-Romantic and contemporary periods. A self-governing organization, Orpheus was founded in 1972 by cellist Julian Fifer with the idea that musicians should rotate musical leadership roles for each work. Their innovation has been honored by the organization WorldBlu, Inc. which lists Orpheus among the most "Democratic Workplaces." Orpheus musicians are no stranger to new music either, commissioning works from: Elliott Carter, Jacob Druckman, Mario Davidovsky, Michael Gandolfi, Gunther Schuller, David Rakowski, and Peter Lieberson to name a few.

Other orchestras are following the "conductorless" trend, including the Australian Chamber Orchestra of Sydney and New Century Chamber Orchestra of San Francisco (although it must be said that these groups have prominent artistic directors that play within the orchestra).

There is also the question as to whether some conductors actually have fundamental musical ability. I'm serious! Gilbert Kaplan, the American businessman and self-made millionaire, has conducted the Mahler 2nd Symphony with practically every major symphony orchestra in the world. Yes, he is a Mahler fanatic and very well-healed, but are those all the credentials one needs to become a musical superstar, a maestro extraordinaire? It seems so. Yet, we are beginning to hear a soft and rational voice of protest from the professional music community. I found the following post by fellow blogger David Finlayson very interesting...

http://davidfinlayson.typepad.com/fin_notes/2008/12/some-words-about-gilbert-kaplan.html

(David Finlayson plays trombone for the New York Philharmonic, blogs, and is a photographer).

My recommendation to orchestra's around the world is to exercise good management practices: Cut the fat - Reduce overhead - Streamline operations - Flatten the management hierarchy - Improve efficiency - Balance the budget by cutting Executive compensation - Blah, Blah, Blah.

In short, throw the bums out and get back to your primary mission statement of making music.

Make it a 2009 New Year's resolution.

Cheers!

Links:

http://www.trivia-library.com/b/history-of-the-greatest-conductorless-orchestra.htm

http://www.orpheusnyc.org/

http://www.worldblu.com/scorecard/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilbert_Kaplan



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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Power Lunch

I just returned from a nice "power lunch" down the street at Panera Bread. I was meeting with an old friend who I hadn't seen for years. Eric and I go back to my first days in Boston in 1973, when he was studying composition as an undergraduate with our mutual teacher Don Martino at the New England Conservatory. I wasn't at NEC myself at that point, but I knew him tangentially from compositions that were regularly performed at student concerts. He always wore a black turtleneck, thick glasses, and a big smile.



Here is a photo of Eric at a party at my house in 1991. It was a reunion of sorts, since he, myself, and our teacher Martino had a chance to meet again and catch up.

Flash ahead 35 years... the turtleneck is gone, but he has kept the glasses and smile. Eric and I are slightly out of phase with regard to our age. He is a bit older, and served in Vietnam in the mid-1960's. That's where he took up computer programming, and was assigned to an administrative function where he punched cards to program mainframe computers in assembly language.

One day after a night of guard duty, he was called into the office of the General and asked "Have your ever heard of Robert Tucker?"

Eric replied "No Sir."

The General looked at the memo on his desk again "...err, I mean Richard Tucker."

"Yes sir! I've heard of Richard Tucker. Sir."

"Well, he needs a piano player" replied the General.


Richard Tucker (1913-1975)

Tenor at the Metropolitan Opera

In short order Eric was whisked off to travel the war-torn country as Richard Tucker's accompanist. The State Department was not real keen on Tucker making the trip, and tried to talk him out of it, but he persisted and finally got permission. It was not an officially sanctioned USO tour - not even a sideshow for Bob Hope and his troupe of dancing girls. Tucker had to pay his own way, and was not allowed to take his own accompanist to Vietnam with him. That's how Eric got the gig.

I asked Eric how many troupes attended the concerts, and he said it ranged from a dozen to a few thousand. Fortunately, they avoided getting shot at in their travels.





But the most hair-raising experience was flying to the US aircraft carrier Bon Homme Richard on a jet fighter plane to give a concert. The take-offs and landings were particularly exciting given the short runway.







Tucker's repertory for the Vietnam tour included Italian arias and some show tunes.



The following blurb in Time Magazine describes Tucker's trip...


He looks nothing like a dame, and the U.S.O. thought so little of the idea that he had to pay his own way. Even so, Metropolitan Opera Tenor Richard Tucker, 52, insists that he made almost as big a hit as a lot of the Hollywood starlets who have gone to Viet Nam to entertain the troops. Back in Manhattan after a two-week singing tour that took him from Saigon to Danang and included presiding over a couple of Passover Seders, Tucker said the boys thoroughly enjoyed the arias from Pagliacci and Tosca. "They're a very, very intelligent caliber of boys," he said—and very, very early risers too. Aboard the aircraft carrier Bon Homme Richard, he wailed, "they told me my first show would be at 8 a.m. Eight in the morning! A singer like me doesn't even spit before midday." (Time Magazine May 12th, 1967)

Tucker died in 1975 from a heart attack just before a performance (an interesting bit of trivia is that he is the only person whose funeral has been held right on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera).

Here he Tucker acting the role of Canio in Pagliacci in 1970. The tenor was approaching 60 years old at the time!




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After the Vietnam war, Eric came to Boston to study music at NEC during the exciting Gunther Schuller years. He accompanied the chorus for "Cookie" and managed the new music concert series (composer Lee Hyla wanted to mount a work calling for 12 percussionists playing on 12 timpini - each tuned to a different note of the chromatic scale. It proved impossible to find that many timpini). Eric is also known for making the piano reduction for Donald Martino's monumental operatic work Paradiso Choruses. This mammoth orchestral score was reduced to a piano-vocal edition for rehearsal purposes, and Eric could play through the thickly notated score with ease.

Strangely enough, I knew Eric better from the business world in the mid-1980's. We worked together on an electronic funds transfer application when he was a senior programmer/project manager at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, and I was working at NEACH.

But Eric has many talents aside from being a talented musician, composer, computer programmer, and fabulous pianist/sight-reader. He use to be a hardcore crossword-puzzle competitor (winning third place at Stamford) and is a former New England champion. But he hasn't competed in the crossword-puzzle circuit for more than twenty years. His current serious activity is tournament bridge, where he holds the rank of "Gold Life Master" and travels in circles that include the likes of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.

It was a very pleasant lunch, and we caught up with a lot of distant and recent history before heading off again into the cold, ice, and snow.

Links:





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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Hypermusic Prologue

This is interesting...

Lisa Randall, a leading scientist at Harvard’s Jefferson Laboratory, is not only an expert in particle physics, but has completed a libretto for an upcoming contemporary opera to be premiered in France this summer.

Professor Randall has won acclaim for her 2005 mass-market book “Warped Passages” which explains the unexplainable theory of multiple dimensions beyond the three we generally experience in every-day life.

Her opera – titled “Hypermusic Prologue: A projective opera in seven planes” - is in seven acts, spans one hour, and was developed in collaboration with a young Spanish composer named Hèctor Parra. Parra, who is relatively unknown to American audiences, has an impressive bio for someone his age:


Hèctor Parra (Barcelona, 1976) studied in the Conservatorium of Barcelona and later studied composition with David Padros, Brian Ferneyhough and Jonathan Harvey, as well as with Michael Jarrell at the Haute École de Musique in Geneva. He received a Master in Composition from the Paris-VIII University, Annual Cursus on Composition at Ircam and Post-Cursus in the CNSMD Lyon.

Hèctor Parra has received commissions from the French government, the Ircam-Centre Pompidou, the Spanish Ministry of Culture as well as the Berlin Academy of Arts, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Strasbourg Festival and Klangforum Wien among others.

Ensembles that have performed his work include The Ensemble Intercontemporain, the Arditti Quartet, Ensemble Recherche, Musikfabrik, the Philarmonic Orchestra of Liège, National Orchestra of Ile-de-France and Holland Symfonia have premiered his work at the international festivals of Lucerne, Avignon, Agora-Ircam, Stuttgart Opera House, Philharmonie Luxembourg,Strasbourg, San Sebastián and Berlin to name a few.

The opera is to debut in Paris at the Georges Pompidou Centre this summer, then travel throughout Europe in the fall. I’m sure we will be hearing more about it, since the subject matter is very intriguing.

Links:

http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2008/12/14/a_talk_with_lisa_randall/

http://www.amazon.com/Warped-Passages-Unraveling-Mysteries-Dimensions/dp/0060531096/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1229290532&sr=1-1
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Violins and Shovels

There is a general consensus amongst the majority of leading economists that the Obama Administration’s 2009 economic stimulus package must “go big.” Although the current economic crisis is to some degree brand-new territory, and the dynamics are not fully understood, there are some important lessons that were learned from the Great Depression of the 1930’s - and also from the more recent Japanese recession beginning in 2001. The current economic disaster has caught just about everyone by surprise. It’s world-wide, deeper than a barrel of molasses, and it appears that there is no quick or easy fix. An influx of jobs into the economy is needed immediately to get things rolling and to sidestep hardship, avoid massive dislocation, and avert dire poverty that American’s haven’t seen or experienced for a generation.

But are all public works programs created equal? Obama is still formulating his plan, and he mentioned roads, bridges, sewer systems, schools, mass transit, electrical grids, dams, windmills, and solar panels in a recent radio address. There is already a buzz in the art community that any massive economic stimulus package of that magnitude should also include funding for the arts. On Sunday December 14th, the Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell proposed that Obama should support a wave of new public buildings similar to the WPA building boom of the 1930’s.

I see Shovels on the horizon, but where are the Violins?

During FDR’s New Deal, nearly a half million works of art were created. In addition to the painting, murals and sculpture, there was generous support for music. Countless public performances involving folk music (e.g. Woody Guthrie), classical music, performances of dance, drama, and opera were supported by government funds during this period. Aside from investing in the infrastructure of new roads, bridges, and buildings, the New Deal employed a lot of artists. It gave many of them a food on the table and a career in addition to providing the joy of music to the masses.

To support music, Roosevelt's Depression-era New Deal created the Federal Music Project. It was directed by a former conductor of the Cleveland Symphony - Nikolai Sokoloff – and the program employed approximately 16,000 musicians at its peak. It was divided into sub-divisions which focused on: orchestral and chamber music; choral and opera; concert, military and dance bands; and theater orchestras. There were about 5000 weekly performances country-wide serving millions of people. Admission charges were kept to a minimum.

Roosevelt's New Deal had a component specifically directed to composers. In 1935 the New York City Composers' Forum-Laboratory was created as part of the Music Education Division of the Federal Music Project (FMP), working under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Each Composer Forum event featured one or two composers – such as Arthur Berger, Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, Ruth Crawford, Roger Sessions, Elie Siegmeister, Roy Harris, Virgil Thompson, Johanna Beyer, Norman Cazden, Robert McBride, Paul Bowles, or Paul Creston (just to name a few). Over the years I've met a number of these well-known American composers.

Admission to the NYC Composers' Forum-Laboratory concerts was free, and the events would include a question-and-answer session between composers and the audience on a wide-range of topics A stenographer would record the discussions – and these documents survive today and provide a rich source of information about a vital period in American music for researchers, scholars and historians.

The New York City Composers' Forum-Laboratory (located at a Midtown Community Center) was the leader and model for other cities across the nation. For example, in 1935 Henry Cowell’s "Mosaic Quartet" (String Quartet No. 3) was performed by the Modern Art Quartet at the 7th of the WPA Composers' Forum-Laboratory events. The success of the New York City Composers' Forum inspired cities across the country to institute similar programs, including Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and San Francisco.



Under the auspices of the NY Forum, composer Roy Harris presented a lecture series entitled Let's Make Music that was broadcast over WNYC – a radio program that attracted thousands of active listeners. WQXR also aired many of the concerts presented by the Forum. Nationally, 1,500 composers penned 5,500 works under the FMP, and all of these were performed by WPA-sponsored ensembles.








There was a research and educational wing of the FMP too, and they provided classes in rural areas as well as urban neighborhoods. It’s estimated that over 132,000 children and adults in 27 states received musical instruction every week. Federal Music Project workers also pioneered research into music therapy, served as music copyists, arrangers, librarians, and catalogers.





Why not reinstate the WPA Federal Music Project? We have the talent. We need the jobs. It will improve the cultural infrastructure of the nation, rapidly inject much needed stimulus into the economy, and feed the souls of a public hungry for new music.

Links:

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,931197,00.html?iid=perma_share

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Monday, December 8, 2008

Concert Review: BSO Carter Interventions


Elliott Carter

American composer Elliott Carter will be 100 on Thursday December 11th and will be celebrating it with the Boston Symphony Orchestra with the NY première of his Interventions for Piano and Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.


Willemien and I attended the World première of Interventions at Boston's Symphony Hall on Friday afternoon December 5th (actually the first performance was the night before). The concert - which included Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto (Daniel Barenboim was soloist in both works), Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Schubert’s Fantasie for piano four-hands with Barenboim and Levine at the keyboard - was sold out weeks in advance. Fortunately we were able to obtain "rush tickets." This was the last concert in Symphony Hall for the BSO in 2008. They return to Boston again after the "Boston Pops" season on January 22nd, 2009 with guest conductor Kurt Masur.


The line for rush tickets started forming early, around 9 AM.

















We joined in line after a quick breakfast at Au bon Pain. It's a lot of fun talking to others waiting in the queue with you, and we met some very interesting (and eccentric) people.

The onslaught of the masses into Symphony Hall on a Friday afternoon begins long before the 1:30 downbeat. We walked past an impressive parade of chartered buses parked on Huntington Avenue. They had just dropped off their cargo of symphony patrons.



Arriving early at Symphony Hall, we took in the 12:15 pre-concert lecture by BSO Publications Associate Robert Kirzinger (there is a link to his program notes for the Carter piece at the bottom of this post).

And then, having some time to pass, we visited the crowded and bustling BSO gift shop. There was a holiday tree with "musical" ornaments, such as a little plastic flute for $9.00.


I was entertained by the musical dolls, which included (left to right) Madame Butterfly, Giacomo Puccini, and Richard Wagner.



Their tag reads "Wind me up. I'm Musical." The dolls are made by the Unemployed Philosophers Guild (how appropriate) and sell in the BSO gift shop for $21.93.


I was more interested in viewing the many documents on display in the Cabot-Cahners room in an exhibit titled Celebrating the Life and Music of Elliott Carter. It contains fascinating photographs, letters, and manuscript scores from Carter's personal collection and from the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland. Unfortunately, the room was full of ambivalent symphony patrons blocking my view. They were more preoccupied with chatting and consuming over-priced wine than studying Carter. I couldn't navigate very well around the Boston Brahmins to view the display close up, but I did manage to snap a photo of the manuscript score to the Carter's Figment for solo contrabass.


Before the concert got underway, as I looked around at the capacity house in Symphony Hall and as I thought about the demographics of this crowd, I had to feel in the minority. For one thing, even with my white hair, I was among the youngest in the auditorium. I also had a strong sense that the average net worth of the core subscription crowd is well-above mine. Doing a little quick math, I estimated that if the average net worth per concert goer is a million dollars (I suspect that it could be MUCH higher), and there are 2000 people sitting in the concert hall for this concert. That means that the combined net worth of people in the hall amounts to 2 billion dollars! The high-end nature of the advertisements in the concert book lend support my theory. Man, the world of classical music is one of princes and paupers, and it has probably always been that way.

The concert began with Schubert's Fantasy in F minor, D.940, for piano four-hands. Maestro Levine had snuck out on stage immediately after Kirzinger's talk to warm up on the humongous Steinway. Barenboim and Levine make a good piano duo. Levine played the secondo part, but was very attuned to the leadership role Baremboim took in interpreting the piece. Their timing was well-synchronized, but tastefully diverged as a pianist would naturally do when playing romantic music with "hands apart." In the scherzo, Barenboim pumped the pedal like the two of them were teenagers in a stolen sports car drag-racing down Main Street at midnight. The sound they created on the grand piano was very orchestral.

Of course, composers don't listen to music like "normal people." My mind began to think of ways to orchestrate the Schubert Fantasy for orchestra. I found a solution for most of it, except how to orchestrate the long trills?


Next came the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3, in C minor, Opus 37. It was done very nicely, with a reduced-size orchestra to partially mimic what Beethoven would have heard. The tempos were different than I am accustomed to, and the Allegro of final Rondo sounded slow - but I was pleasantly surprised when the coda went lick-i-ty split.

As a side note, Barenboim had been a guest on the WGBH TV talk show "Greater Boston" with Emily Rooney just a few nights before. He was interviewed by Rooney (daughter of commentator Andy Rooney of "60 Minutes" on CBS) about his new book titled Everything Is Connected - The Power Of Music. I found her questioning to be absolutely clueless about music and surprisingly naïve. But it perked my interest in the book, and I found a copy at Barnes and Noble and read the chapter about Pierre Boulez in the bookstore cafe. Willemien made sure that I did not spill coffee on it before it got returned to the shelf.

It was now time for the BSO to play the Carter Interventions, a work that was jointly commissioned by Levine (for the BSO) and Barenboim (for the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin) with generous financial aid coming from several foundations. I didn't know what to expect, since it was written in 2007 when Carter was 98 years of age.

I can't speak in detail about the piece with only a first hearing, but I will say that it will likely stand as one of Carter's major works. It's a very substantial piano concerto, and although full of the complexities that we associate with his music, is also rather witty and ingenious in its construction.

Here is a short video clip of the performance that I surreptitiously shot with my digital camera. It has the degraded audio and video quality that you would expect from the camera of a new music tourist sitting in the absolute back row of the orchestra section of Symphony Hall - under the balcony in row TT, seat 8.


This clip captures one of the more tranquil sections of the work, but there are also explosions of orchestral rage and fits of virtuosic piano playing too. The two basic elements of the piece, orchestral-music (led by Levine) and piano-music (played by Barenboim) constantly interrupt each other and compete for attention. There are also two groups of trios (or a concertino septet) sitting up front beside the piano, and they play an important role in the musical dialogue.

Carter wrote the following in his program note:

...I decided to write a work that had one long line, mostly for the strings, interrupted by the piano which also had its developing part interrupted by the orchestra. Each intervening in the other's part, sometimes humorously.

You can hear a little tug-of-war between the pitches A-natural and B-flat in the beginning and end of the work. The orchestra starts off with a big unison A-natural (as if tuning). The soloist counters with a Bb - as if to say "no, this is the pitch." At the end of the work, before the penultimate conclusion with a big fortissimo bang, the piano plays his Bb again, as if to say "you can tune now." The orchestra replies angerly with the A-natural. The symmetry is a Carterism: A-Bb ... Bb-A. I also wonder if the "A" is from jAmes levine, and the "Bb" for Barenboim.

Another potential Ivesian "Rollo" moment is when a single instrument blurts out a high note in relative isolation, it is immediately followed by a big orchestral tutti. I don't think a BSO player would screw up so royally.

There was a long standing ovation for Carter, who came up on the stage walking with a cane and took a bow. The audience seemed very enthusiastic. It's still hard for me to believe that Carter's modernist music is suddenly hugely popular. But I wouldn't want to "look a gift horse in the mouth."

The afternoon program concluded with the Rite of Spring which Carter first heard in the 1920's as a guest of composer Charles Ives. It was the exceptional performance that I would expect coming from Levine, and the the orchestra he has refined over the past 5 years. Levine has lost some weight, and he seemed very animated and gestured with motions that were larger than I have ever seen coming from him. At times he would swing around nearly 360 degrees in his executive swivel chair as he conducted the Stravinsky with visible joy and enthusiasm. I wont forget this one. (Another performance of the Rite that I will never forget was with the NY Philharmonic at a summer "Rug" concert with Boulez in the 1970's. He conducted it from memory).

There was one glitch with the BSO performance. In the quiet section early in Part II, a patron's cell phone went off near the stage, and it kept ringing. Oddly enough, it was on-pitch, and kind of fit with the music. But I had to wonder if Levine was going to pull a Richard Pittman, and stop the orchestra to yell at the idiot in the audience.

Everyone was invited to the BSO's Higginson Hall for a 100th birthday party bash after the concert. We attended. It was pretty lavish considering that we are reliving the Great Depression of the 1930's. Waiters and waitresses walked around offering Hors d'oeuvres, and you could help yourself to countless delights and rich spreads. I loved the salmon (pictured left), but had to wrestle with some elderly folk to get in. The cheese selection was excellent too. The bars served beer, wine, and mixed drinks - but Champagne seemed to be a popular choice.



Carter sat at a table near us, and was immediately surrounded by a crowd of VIPs. Here is a photo that I snapped of him talking with his friend and assistant Virgil Blackwell. Blackwell is the renowned clarinetist who founded the Speculum Musicae New Music Ensemble, and has functioned recently as Carter's personal secretary. Others gathered around, including Kirzinger and Levine's brother who cleared a spot right next to the honoree for the Maestro to sit.


And there was cake! Plenty of it.


Unfortunately we had to leave before the official presentations began, but we stayed for Levine's dramatic entrance and heard the beginning of speeches and birthday toasts.

Levine seemed to be beaming with pride. He was in his element. How often does a conductor have a chance to make history by commissioning and premièring such a major work? It's definitely one for the history books.

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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Johannes Brahms: Progressive or Subversive?



In a letter dated May 1893, composed in the final years before their death, Brahms wrote the following to Clara Wieck-Schumann:
I am tempted to copy out a small piano piece for you, because I would like to know how you agree with it. It is teeming with dissonances! These may [well] be correct and [can] be explained—but maybe they won’t please your palate, and now I wished, they would be less correct, but more appetizing and agreeable to your taste. The little piece is exceptionally melancholic and ‘to be played very slowly’ is not an understatement. Every bar and every note must sound like a ritard[ando], as if one wanted to suck melancholy out of each and every one, lustily and with pleasure out of these very dissonances! Good Lord, this description will [surely] awaken your desire!
Berthold Litzmann, Clara Schumann: Ein Künstlerleben nach Tagebüchern und Briefen, 3 vols. (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1909), vol.III, pp.570-571.


He was discussing the first piece of his new 4 Klavierstücke, Op.119, which was to set the tone for a century of radical musical invention that was about to ensue with a vengeance. Listeners, musicians, composers, and musicologists have been fascinated with the inner-workings of this brief and very private work, generically titled by the composer Intermezzo in B minor.

Arnold Schoenberg was deeply influenced by the intricate system of organic motivic development practiced by Brahms, and in 1947 wrote a lengthy and thoughtful article titled Brahms the Progressive that demonstrates a linkage between his ideas and those of his musical mentor and direct predecessor (Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg). Fascination with the radical nature of late-Brahms continues to our present time, and pianist/musicologist Charles Rosen elaborated on this thread in an article titled Brahms the Subversive.

Progressive or subversive, the two published pages of Op. 119 Number 1 Intermezzo explore areas of music that provide a veritable field day of never-ending musical intrigue, analytic fascination, and theoretical speculation. Brahms' short piece has kept music analysts and academic book publishers gainfully employed with an abundance of never-ending scholarly articles. Formative theoretical studies about this piece have been written by Cadwallader, Clements, Jordan, Kafalenos, Newbould, and the great Heinrich Schenker himself. Perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of this piece is by the British music theorist Jonathan Dunsby, who in 1981 published Structural Ambiguity in Brahms: Analytical Approaches to Four Works. His chapter 5 is entirely dedicated to the Op. 119 number 1. (Before you rush out to the local bookstore, this book is currently out of print, however a used copy is available on Amazon for $175.24). I had met Professor Dunsby at a "Music Analysis Conference" at Kings College London, England in 1984, and enjoyed his astute observations - not only about Brahms, but how Brahms influenced Schoenberg. Dunsby is at present a visiting professor at SUNY Buffalo: http://www.music.buffalo.edu/faculty/Dunsby/dunsbypub.shtml
Much of what I know about this particular piece stems from a graduate seminar in music analysis that I took with Martin Boykan at Brandeis over a quarter of a century ago. My score of the Op. 119 number 1 is blackened with coffee-stains and copious penciled-in annotations that I jotted down in varying levels of comprehensibility while listening to his insightful analysis and hands-on performance. My pages of music still carry the aroma of second-hand cigarette smoke generated by a classroom of chain-smoking graduate students.
A late copy of the manuscript for Op. 119 is owned by the Juilliard School of Music in NY, and I remember seeing it displayed in a glass case near the circulation checkout desk. It has annotations and corrections written-in by Brahms prior to publication.
Let's take a glance at the musical score...
http://imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/9/9d/IMSLP01531-Bp43.pdf
Already in the opening two measures we get a sense about the harmonically ambivalent world that Brahms has created. Of this, Walter Frisch wrote that the B minor triad "is embedded in a chord that looks, but cannot be said to function, like an E minor ninth." Taken out of context, this opening could be heard as a piece by Debussy! Yet there is an organic and traditional justification for all of the musical events. It's been compared to a fundamental chaconne structure, where a progression of a cycle of descending fifths can be clearly heard leading into the fourth measure.
Schenker published a "chart" of this work in Der freie Satz, and graphed the deep structure of the music as progressing from a low B - supported harmonically by I in b minor (in measure 9) - down to an F# grounding a dominant harmony (mm 14-16). But clearly the F# that begins the piece is the beginning of what we can hear linearly as the "5-line" of the work.
But I like Schoenberg's spin on Brahms, who thought that he had hit upon "an unrestricted musical language" that was latent with enigmatic ambiguity. Schoenberg was keenly aware of the refined elegance in Brahms, and appreciated his mastery over the intricate interplay of musical dimensions (harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, thematic, etc). He always referred back to Brahms as a timeless model of inspiration and a wellspring of intellectual thought.
And then we have Brahms' own words in his letter to Clara, explaining that the performer should "suck melancholy out" of every note. It's a hyper-romantic ideal, and the obsessive preoccupation with minute detail that in some ways foreshadows the microscopic sound world of Anton Webern. Brahms desires a ritard on every measure or note, and is striving for an Adagio that warps our perception of time or takes us to a distant planet.
The Intermezzo Op. 119 number 1 is not a trivial piece. Performing it, while not difficult technically, is something that only a pianist with a depth and breadth of musical knowledge should undertake. I've often said that no musician under the age of 40 should attempt to perform Brahms, since it is music that assumes a life-time of experience.
I found the following performance of Op. 119, number 1 on YouTube that I really like. The pianist, Frank Lévy, feels every note of the piece as an extension of his body. Watching him perform, you can see and hear the gestures that Brahms wrote into the music come to life. He skillfully executes every detail and nuance in the piece, while intuitively feeling the elastic ebb and flow of the musical tide and harmonic-rhythmic continuum. His phrasing is precise, and he is careful to avoid the feeling of bar lines where the music is suspended in time.
Once we get beyond the complex theoretical analysis of the notes on the printed page, the work becomes a sonic - and often physical - spiritual journey that communicates something that is unique to the musical experience. Lévy's performance of Brahms is transcendental. He's acquired the musical skill, insight, and intellectual maturity to render this piece whole - as if he were channeling the composer playing at the piano himself.

It's no wonder that after more than a century, the piano music of Brahms' late period continues to fascinate and enthral us. It's incredible music, and rich food for our soul.

(Frank Levy has released a CD of Brahms that is available on Amazon...)
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