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Thursday, April 23, 2009

ALEA III - Celebrating Yehudi

On Wednesday night the new music ensemble ALEA III, based at Boston University, performed their fifth and final concert of the season. It called for an impressive roster of musicians in combinations for chamber ensemble and chamber orchestra. ALEA III, now in their 31st season, is comprised of the best and the brightest of Boston-area freelance talent. Thanks to Boston University, the Greek Ministry of Culture, and other generous sponsors, their concerts are free and open to the public. In times of tight household budgets, public concerts such as these are a great value and public service. The audience was large and enthusiastic.

This final concert of ALEA’s season was dedicated entirely to the music of Pulitzer Prize-winning Yehudi Wyner – presumably in celebration of the composers’ upcoming 80th birthday on June 1st, 2009. It was a musical party not to be missed, and it seemed as if the entire community of composers in Boston came out in tribute. I glanced upon many familiar faces of composers that have in one way or another been touched by Wyner’s music, and in some instances studied with him directly. Noted composers such as Marty Boykan, Scott Wheeler, Rodney Lister, John Harbison, Yu-Hui Chang, Malcolm Peyton, Eric Chasalow, Peter Child, Michael Gandolfi, Richard Cornell, Mark DeVoto, and Gunther Schuller were just a few present TSAI Performance Center at Boston University. I’m sure there were many others that I didn’t observe or didn’t recognize. (Oddly, I noticed that the majority of these composers situated themselves in the back row of the ground-level, with John Harbison seated almost exactly in the middle of the pack. The seating arrangement assumed an aura of ritualistic ceremony).

The large and enthusiastic audience also included some small children eager to stay up late on a school vacation night. A few of them had parents performing in ALEA III, and would wave to mom or dad on the stage after the music had been played. For the most part the kids took in Wyner’s modern music pretty well, but I did have to filter out more than the usual amount of giggling, uncontrolled bad winter coughs, and nervous chatter. Two thirds of the way through the first work on the program – Wyner’s Horntrio (1997) – one little girl belted out the comment “what’s this song?” That was a good existential question, but it went unanswered since her parent-guardian was wearing earphones and listening to an entirely different concert on his iPod.

But the 16-minute Horntrio is a great piece, and Yehudi played the piano part with the skill and panache of a composer who knows every note of the work frontward and back. He was joined by Krista Buckland Reisner on violin and Laura Carter on French horn who also played as if they had a hand in composing the piece. The work sounded well-rehearsed and carefully shaped and articulated – even in the legendary crappy-sounding acoustics of TSAI hall. It would be nice to hear it again in a room purposely designed for the performance of music: such as Jordan Hall at NEC or the new Distler Performance Hall at Tufts University. The first time I heard the Wyner's Horntrio was at Slosberg Hall at Brandeis, with Yehudi at the piano, and the good acoustics there make a difference. Reisner was in her element. She appeared totally absorbed by the music and at times seemed consumed by it. It was interesting to see the three musicians eye contact, facial expressions and gestures as they interacted with each other to bring this energetic music to life. This is what makes live performance exciting.

The last movement of the Horntrio is remarkable for the synthesis of vernacular music from Wyner’s youth and a uniquely American brand of post-Schoenbergian modernism. Elements of Tin Pan Alley popular song found their way the fast final movement as a natural but explicit consequence of the musical flow. Wyner - an intuitive composer who follows his ear - has classical, pop, and jazz harmony in his bones. Perhaps he inherited his musical language genetically from his father, Lazar Weiner, who was the preeminent composer of Yiddish art songs in America. According to Yehudi’s own program notes for the Horntrio, fragments for “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “Lazybones,” and “Who Cares?” by George Gershwin infiltrate the music.

I’m glad that I usually read the program notes AFTER I listen to a piece. The music of Gershwin did occur to me as I listened to the ending movement of the Horntrio. I did hear the influence of Gershwin and music of that era, but it was in the context of a new musical language that integrated out-of-context fragments that we have come to associate with pop music of that time. Isolated chords, clichéd riffs, and jazzy gestures all conspire to remind us of music of the 30s and 40s, yet it functions in an entirely different way. The dissonances do not resolve, the harmony flows sideways, and the music exhibits modernist ticks, sudden outbursts, and flows with a more contemporary migration of ideas. It’s as if we had been listening to Gershwin while in a dream state, or if his iconic music had been refracted through the lens of a kaleidoscope and broken into discrete snippets of exqusite sound. Yet the texture is new and the music somehow all relates, correlates, and follows the natural laws of musical composition without violating my sensibility of what that should be. The composer assumes that we are educated listeners, and his work asks for our full participation, but Wyner gives us familiar landmarks along the way to latch onto. While there is a lot of sampling of familiar territory in the Horntrio and the sounds of pop culture are skillfully reassembled into a tapestry of twenty-first century “serious” music, the overall design and musical integrity of the work is both fresh and ingenious. Wyner plays with notes the way the Harlem Globetrotters play with a ball. It’s a pleasure to experience, and a marvel to listen to.

Next on the program was the 25-minute Quartet (1999) for oboe, violin, viola, and cello. It was played by Jennifer Slowieck (oboe), Krista Buckland Reisner (violin), Peter Sulski (viola), and Leo Eguchi (cello). These are all fine Boston-area musicians, and I know first hand from working personally with Reisner and Sulski that they pay much attention to detail. They bring unparallelled dedication to every performance, which was certainly the case with Wyner’s Quartet where they all were on the “same page” both figuratively and literally. The music was balanced, unified, and direct. The magic we hope to hear in any performance of chamber music was clearly evident in this case. In particular I remember some off-the-beat attacks in the strings in a dance-like regular pulse that seemed whimsical. Reisner almost laughed out loud as she played this playful passage with her 4-stringed colleagues. There were many other exciting details too, such as wicked fast string tremolos set against a deliberate cantus firmus-like theme in the oboe. Slowik had a difficult part to play on the oboe. Her part (written originally for Peggy Pearson) is a beautiful but stands in contrast to the strings. The oboe is somewhat unforgiving instrument that quite frankly lacks the contrast of dynamic and tone color possible with strings. But Wyner’s Quartet accounts for this, and almost treats the oboe as a soloist in places, although the work is equal to - if not a elaboration of – any major work written for the traditional string quartet (with two violins). In other words, the oboe does not play second fiddle.

Yet, as sonically captivating as the oboe Quartet is, I found my mind wandering a bit when it should have been slave to the musical narrative. I don’t think the music should have gone on for nearly a half an hour, and the content and subsequent development of ideas in the piece to my mind did not adequately rise to meet the intended breadth and scope of the work as a whole. I did hear what seemed to be variations in the later half, and my speculation about this formal structure was confirmed when I read Wyner’s program notes after the fact. Perhaps it was not articulated well, either in notation or in performance, since by the end I was worn down by the stopping and starting of musical sections. It seemed over-articulated, equally spaced, and repetitive in places, although my first general impression of the piece is positive. But aside from my petty qualms about the formal structure of the Quartet, the surface texture of the music with its elegant melodic and harmonic language could seduce even the most die-hard critics of modern music. It is nicely written for the instruments and a joy to listen to.

During the intermission, I had the good fortune to have a long and inspiring conversation with composer, conductor, and all-around musical guru Gunther Schuller. We were somewhat secluded in the balcony, so we were sheltered from the disruptions, interjections, and intrusions that usually occur from his avid fans. It gave us time to discuss music, mano a mano, and that’s an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.

After the intermission the heavy artillery came out on the stage. There were two chamber orchestra works expertly conducted by Venezuela-born Francisco Noya. The first of these two pieces was Passage Part I, which Wyner composer to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the new music ensemble Collage. Passage was conceived as the first movement of a larger multi-movement chamber work. I marveled at the conservatism of the musical language, although it wasn’t tonal per se. While it referenced tonality, the music doesn’t appear to follow any of the standard doctrines associated with either traditional harmony or popular song. It was outside of the tonal system, but the sonorities were clearly made from a 19th century musical fabric. Gunther Schuller, who I had just been talking to, had conducted the premiere of this piece in 1983 with Collage. The piece has a consistent mood, and a sentiment that is mellow, dark, unpretentious, but distinctly American.

The final large work on the program was a song cycle for soprano and chamber orchestra titled The Second Madrigal: Voices of Women. Karyl Ryczek was the soprano, and sang the 10 songs with grace, varied emotion, and vocal clarity. I knew this work from a version for soprano and piano that the composer had recently broadcast with Dominique Labelle live on WGBH radio. Labelle had also recorded The Second Madrigal on Bridge Records with Wyner conducting. The song “Cosmetics Do No Good” is one of two poems at the heart of the song cycle, and musically I find this to be the most engaging and memorable piece in the set. Vocal music is challenging on many levels, and only the most skilled of composers can create the requisite emotional synthesis between text and sound. It’s a miracle if and when all of the parameters finally come together - text, music, and performance – in unified and cohesive new form. I think Wyner achieved this allusive goal in his cycle The Second Madrigal. It’s as if he hit upon poems that resonated with his outlook on life, and then let his muse loose to cook the goose.

It is hard for me to fathom that Yehudi is about to enter his 8th decade. Although he has been writing music since before I was born, I clearly remember his Intermedio - Lyric ballet for soprano and strings. It was performed (and recorded on CRI Records) by the American Composer’s Orchestra around 1975. I attended the concert at Alice Tully Hall in NY, and was extremely impressed by his musical language. I was also impressed with the soprano in that performance, a respected musician and conductor-to-be named Susan Devanny Wyner. Susan accompanied her composer husband in the audience at the ALEA III concert Wednesday evening.

Even back in the early 70s, Yehudi Wyner was known to me for forging a convincing unity between the tonal and atonal systems of music. I regret that I did not take my father’s advice, and enroll as an undergraduate at SUNY Purchase where a young and upcoming Wyner had been appointed as Dean of the Music Division. But wanting to get away from the daunting and oppressive artistic orbit of the NY metro area, I choose to study in the provincial city of Boston instead. As fate would have it, many decades later Wyner would join the faculty of Brandeis, albeit well after I was kicked out of the music department for loitering. We’ve met informally, but I know him mostly from his music.

The Wyner tribute concert was inspiring in several ways. For one thing, it is encouraging to me as a middle-aged composer that someone with a few decades on me is approaching their pinnacle of success. I’ve always been playing catch-up with composers in their 80s, 90s, and beyond. I found it very telling that the oldest work on the ALEA III program was written in 1997. Could it be that composers don’t hit their full stride until late in life? Is the field of music composition one of the few areas in life where being a “geezer” pays dividends? Or is the converse true – keeping one’s mind busy by writing complex music is an anti-aging formula worthy of FDA approval? If my hunch is right, we can expect to hear a lot of great new music from Wyner and his generational peers (Schuller, Babbitt, and Carter just to name a few). I’m not sure how agile they are at golf or tennis, but its clear to me that they are at the top of their game when it comes to writing music.

All of the performers in ALEA III rose to the occasion for the Wyner celebration concert. It appears that good music inspires good performances. In a good and orderly world, that’s they way it should be. Thankfully that’s the way it was on Wednesday evening at the TSAI Performance Center in Boston.

If you missed the ALEA III concert, don’t despair. Three of the pieces on the program have been recorded on Bridge Records at

You can learn more about Yehudi Wyner and his available recordings from the following links:

Theodore Antoniou, Music Director
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
TSAI Performance Center
Boston University, Boston


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Vinyl Record Day

Vinyl Record Day is a non-profit, tax-exempt 501 (C) 3 organization for people who love vinyl phonograph records.

Vinyl Record Day
is celebrated annually on August 12th - the day Edison invented the phonograph in 1877.

Vinyl Record Day
is dedicated to preserving the cultural influence, recordings, and cover art of vinyl records.

Vinyl Record Day
promotes the future of vinyl as a storage medium technology for recorded music.

Vinyl Record Day
supports independent used record stores and indie retailers of vinyl-based music.

Don't laugh folks, this is a serious trend. I recently visited Barns and Noble and was pleasantly surprised to find band new vinyl LPs on display in the music section. Of course, audio compact disks still out number phonograph records, but the counter-revolution in retail music seems to be taking hold.

The future of CDs looks grim for many reasons. Old fashioned phonograph records are making a come back, in a big way.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

2009 Pulitzer in Music

Stephen Michael Reich has been lauded as "our greatest living composer" (NY Times), "America’s greatest living composer" (Village VOICE), “...the most original musical thinker of our time” (New Yorker), and “...among the great composers of the century” (NY Times).

Now at the age of 73, he can add the distinction of "Pulitzer" to his list of accomplishments. While he has been a Pulitzer finalist three times, his Double Sextet (premiered March 26, 2008 in Richmond, VA) finally won him the award.

That should lend some encouragement to composers like David Rakowski and Peter Lieberson who are also multiple-year runner-up Pulitzer finalists. In this business, persistence helps.

Perhaps there is a silver lining here. Now that composers of vernacular, minimalist, and experimental music are winning the Pulitzer for music composition left and right, we no longer have to listen to the whining complaints of composers such as John Adams who have in the past taken issue over the narrow definition of the award. They have often made news and touted the so called fact that minimalists aren't taken seriously by the staid and conservative musical establishment. In their view, this systemic institutional myopia was embodied by the makeup and collective bias of the Pulitzer selection committee. The long-standing institution of the Pulitzer has been the ultimate proverbial glass ceiling for a collection of fringe, avant garde, and experimental composers. Perhaps they viewed it as a last great obstacle to wide-scale acceptance, and a distinction that would make their work more legitimate. They had already won the support of the general public, but it was the lack of respect from the brainy academic establishment - such a Columbia University which administers the Pulitzer Prize award - that seemed irk them to no end.

Things got really ugly in 1992 when the Pulitzer music jury comprised of distinguished composers George Perle, Roger Reynolds, and Harvey Sollberger chose Ralph Shapey's Concerto Fantastique for the award. Their choice was outright rejected by the Pulitzer Board, which up until that point had routinely accepted the professional jury's recommendation without question. However, the non-musicians of the Pulitzer Board overrode the jury's recommendation and choose their second selection instead: a much more conservative work by Wayne Peterson.

Dissed from having been overridden the music jury, flabbergasted and ignored, issued a public statement stating that they had not been consulted in the decision and added that the Pulitzer Board was not professionally qualified to make decisions in these matters. In the end the Pulitzer Board did not rescind their decision, and Wayne Patterson remained the official winner. Shapey, who is viewed by many professionals in the field as a neglected and talented composer, died in 2002 never having another shot at winning the Pulitzer.

Since 1992 many people feel that populism and politics have played a major role in the Pulitzer selection process in the category of music composition. From my perspective, this seems to be the case. For example, my late teacher Donald Martino completed two extraordinary pieces in the year before his abrupt death from complications of diabetes in 2005. Both of his final works were performed at Harvard in February of 2006 by my new music group the Lumen Contemporary Music Ensemble. His music publisher, Dantalian, submitted the both pieces (along with the requisite $50 application fee for each work) to the Pulitzer committee for consideration for the 2007 award.

Since these works were premiered in 2006, Martino was eligible for the Pulitzer posthumously. Unfortunately, neither of his works made it to the list of top three finalists, and the 2007 Pulitzer was ultimately awarded to a well-known jazz musician for a recording. The submission rules had just been modified to be much more inclusive. A broader definition of the term "composition" was expanded to include recordings of improvised music and electronics. Notated musical scores are no longer required, and commercial works such as Broadway musicals became eligible. The applicant pool of possible prize recipients became much broader overnight.

To make things even more complicated, it turns out that that jazz artist who won in 2007 did not directly apply for the Pulitzer, and from what I've read didn't go through the normal process of submitting the application, meeting the deadline, or paying the required $50 processing fee.

I was rather disappointed and disillusioned by the outcome. The two new works by Martino (in my humble opinion) are among his finest, and have had a legacy of continued success well after the Lumen premiere at Harvard. And it seems to me that it is not simply a matter of "information overflow" or that the works got lost in the stack of hundreds of applications on the judges' plate. I happened to notice that two of the five judges on the Pulitzer music jury in 2007 were in attendance at the Lumen concert, and were present to hear Martino's amazing new pieces. By all accounts, these individuals seemed to be very enthusiastic about Martino's new works.

All awards and prizes in the arts are lighting rods for controversy and aesthetic conflict. But I've stopped paying much attention to the results of the Pulitzer prize in music, since it seems to me that it has more to do with politics, populism, and political correctness than the quality and originality of the music itself.

Yet we should offer our congratulations to Steve Reich with the understanding that in many ways he was a "safe" choice. Few will take issue with his musical integrity and life-time commitment to composing and innovation. Of course, winning the Pulitzer would probably have aided his career more had it happened 40 years ago. But back then, winning the Pulitzer was seen as "un-cool" for a downtown or left-coast alternative composer, even if the prize money (currently a whopping $10 K) had helped him or her to pay the rent. This year the Pulitzer jury dodged controversy, and found a deserving composer who just about everyone can respect.

But in my book, the Pulitzer Prize in music is no longer the Big Kahuna that it once was.


Thursday, April 9, 2009

BSO Ring Tones

The hot tip of the day is that you can join the Boston Symphony Orchestra "Mobile Club."

Just subscribe by texting "BSO TONE" to 72648 to join and receive your free ringtone.

iPhone users should text "BSO WALL" to 72648 to receive free wallpaper.

As a member of the BSO mobile club you will receive weekly updates about upcoming BSO, Tanglewood, and Boston Pops performances.

You can also find the BSO online at Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube:

Of course, you can always visit the BSO website to purchase digital subscriptions.

But please, don't for get to turn your cellphone off if you decide to attend a concert in person. We want you to be wired, but not that wired.


Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Emerson String Quartet at Tufts

Friday was a day to remember. Willemien and I had tickets to see the famed Emerson String Quartet at the Granoff Music Center at Tufts University in Medford/Somerville.

The concert had to be one of the watershed classical music events of the 2008-09 concert season in Boston. The Emerson (Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer on violins - Lawrence Dutton, viola, and David Finckel, cello) is acknowledged as one of the top string quartets in the world. They have won eight Grammy Awards. For over three decades the ensemble has systematically explored the rich repertory written for this lean but mean combination of stringed instruments. I first learned about this gang of four from a few of their excellent recordings: Bach's Art of the Fugue arranged for string quartet, and the complete works for string quartet (and the string trio) by Anton Webern. But I never heard the Emerson perform live, at least not until this past Friday evening.

While the ensemble is Zagat top-rated, the venue is also about as ideal as we have in the Boston area. The new 300-seat Distler Performance Hall at Tufts Granoff Music Center has the perfect dimension, ambiance, and acoustic for listening to intimate music composed for string quartet. Before members of the Emerson came out on the stage to perform, Joseph Auner - Chair of the Tufts Music Department and a noted musicologist who has published a book on Schoenberg - welcomed the audience. He mentioned that Distler Hall was "optimized" by the acoustical engineers for string quartet. It seems to be true, and a perfect example of how science and art can work together (with the support of generous donors and an enlightened university) to provide great public spaces for music.

It is clear that Tufts is proud of their new music building, and arranging the Emerson String Quartet to perform there rather than in one of the major venues in Boston must have been quite a coup. Perhaps Joseph Auner used his prior connections on the faculty of SUNY at Stony Brook (where the Emerson is Quartet-in-Residence) to broker the deal.

The sold-out, full-capacity audience at Granoff seemed to represent the who's who of the Boston musical scene. Not only was Tufts represented by a contingent of senior administrators and distinguished faculty, but professional musicians and enthusiastic music students from the entire Boston-area were present. I spied the Department Chair of a Music Department from a little college down the road in Cambridge that starts with the letter H. She had brought her Beethoven String Quartet class along on a field trip to hear the Emerson perform the "Serioso."

There was much anticipatory electricity in the hall, since hearing the Emerson Quartet live is not a show to be missed. The concert began with the String Quartet in G Minor,Op. 74 No. 3 (known as the Reiterquartett or "Horseman") by Franz Joseph Haydn. Eugene Drucker was playing first violin (the two violinists of the Emerson routinely alternate between the first and second stand). It was a good warm-up piece, and the quartet found the right balance between exploiting the light and humorous elements in the music against the dramatic spiritual moments.

Papa Haydn had a unique ability to provide raw entertainment with an assortment of musical tricks or gimmicks while at the same time transporting us to another world with his profound understanding of musical structure and form. The sul'una corda (on one string) special effects of the first movement were not over-done by first violinist Drucker. It is a music effect that could verge on the 18th century equivalent of cartoon music if not handled judiciously.

The mezza voce ensemble playing of the second movement (Largo assai) was beautiful too. Haydn composed the opening music in this slow movement as one unified instrument, and the balance, articulation, vibrato, and tone color of the four musicians did not detract from that chorale conception in the slightest. Later on in the movement there are some Haydn-esque surprises, which the quartet executed with rhythmic precision.

It was interesting to watch the visual interaction between the performers, and how they make eye-contact at critical junctions within the piece. You don't get those nuances from just listening to a recording. It is one of those elements that make live performance exciting. Knowing that a train wreck could potentially occur at moment, the audience sits on the edge of their seats watching as well as listening. Performing music can be acrobatic, and that is an acknowledged part of the show - both in Haydn's time and in ours.

Musically, the Minuet is not that unusual, but the unified articulation of the staccato notes marked forte (measures 58-60) caught my attention. The Emerson seems to be very aware of the details written into the music, and they faithfully render the sounds as notated in the score. The acoustic of Distler Performance Hall allowed everyone in the room to distinctly hear every iota of sonic energy emitting from their matching modern instruments (all crafted by Samuel Zygmuntowicz in New York). Even with my aging ears, I could easily hear the rich timbre of their bows bouncing off their strings, or the resonance of a lone pizzicato as it echoed throughout the hall. That's why it's called chamber music.

Haydn's Finale (Allegro con brio) is toe-tapping piece on a folk-like melody in sonata form stretched over a rhythmic grid. It's got some jazzy syncopations and showy high notes in the first violin. The Emerson played it faster than I've heard it before, and this created a great deal of excitement in the audience. After the Haydn, it seemed that everyone was warmed up, acclimated to the acoustic, and ready to tackle the next work.

The second piece on the program was the later 12th Quartet in D-flat Major, Opus 133 by Dmitri Shostakovich. It was a new piece to me, and to many others in the audience as well. At first hearing I found the opening two moments (Moderato- Allegretto) to be compositionally unfocused. But when the Allegretto - Adagio - Moderato - Allegretto sections kicked in, Shostakovich finally got my attention. The piece is heavy, dark, and stoic. It's music that seems cut off from the rest of the world, an almost private view into the composer's psyche. It is a piece of large dimensions, broad brush strokes, and at times it verges on morphing into a full-blown cello concerto.

It's interesting to observe how the same musicians and same instruments that we had just heard performing the elegant 18th century music of Haydn had suddenly transformed themselves to accommodate a completely different culture, time, psychological frame of mind, and musical aesthetic. Shostakovich is a long way from Haydn's Vienna. Technically, the piece is sometimes tonal (in the dark regions of D-flat major), but at other times it utilizes a language that is modernistic, highly chromatic, free-form, and atonal. The composer was torn in many directions, and willing to mix and match not only divergent techniques, but simple and complex ideas in a single work. After the intermission the program was about to get even heavier.

Many people had come specifically to hear the String Quartet in F Minor Op 95 by Beethoven. The "Serioso" quartet, as it is known, is an experimental work by Beethoven. The composer never intended this intense and introspective work to be a populist top-forty hit. Beethoven reportedly said, "The Quartet [op. 95] is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public."

While not a late quartet, the Serioso falls at the end of Beethoven's middle period. It's a very compressed piece that explores musical ideas and possibilities which provide insight into the depth and complexity of Beethoven's mind. The composer quickly shifts between calm and violent states of mind, and does not hesitate to break the rules of tradition. There are places where the listener is jolted, even shocked, by sounds that startle us - even today. Yet when one studies the structure underneath the dense pages blackened with notes, there is a cool logic that binds it all together. Arnold Schoenberg for one noted that the chromatic unison motive (Db, C, D-natural, E-natural) from the very first measure finds it's way into the fabric of the entire work. In some ways the piece foreshadows music.'s future. It's as if Beethoven had psychic abilities regarding the musical revolution that the 19th and 20th centuries would bring.

The second movement of the Beethoven quartet covers a lot of ground with just a few pages of score. We travel to distant keys, and take in two fugues. As listeners on a journey we have come a long way from the style of Beethoven's teacher and mentor - Haydn. Beethoven is emotional, brash, but his command of technical details within the music keep even the most concerned skeptics on board. Beethoven does not dumb down his art for anyone, and his "take-no-prisoners" stance makes him stand out as a composers' composer. To use a modern cliché, Beethoven "thinks outside of the box."

The Serioso, the sub-title for Beethoven's quartet - comes from the third movement (Allegro assai vivace ma serioso). It's an Italianesque term cleverly invented by Beethoven to instruct the performers (and consequently the listeners) in how to perform the music. It is based on a standard Scherzo and Trio, but transcends the mood we often associate with this form. Beethoven biographer Maynard Soloman preferred to call this movement a "March-Trio."

The fourth and final movement begins with a slow introduction in 2/4, but soon launches into a hearty Allegretto agitato in 6/8. It's built on a very logical structure that combines sonata form with the rondo. Beethoven borrows an idea from Mozart and uses his modified rondo structure (A B A' C B' A'). The Mozart innovation is less monotonous and more streamlined than the standard classical-era rondo ( A B A' C A'' B' A'''). Soon the work ends convincingly enough in F minor (m 132), but we suddenly find bonus material tacked on. Beethoven says goodbye with an Allegro that functions as a coda in F major that is totally unrelated to anything else in the work. Scholar Basil Lam observed that "comic-opera ending, [is] absurdly and deliberately unrelated to the 'quartet serioso'- the true Shakespearean touch that provides the final confirmation of the truth of the rest." But, with the brisk tempo that the Emerson Quartet played it at, it made the audience smile ear to ear. It was a wild and wacky ending to a profound work, and a little sugar-high at the end provided needed mental energy and a good send-off before the next heavy work on the program.

I've wondered how it must feel to relay to the public such a complex work of Beethoven's, and to be able to rapidly shift gears from one emotional to another at the drop of a dime in the communication process. Beethoven's volatile and often outright explosive personality is, to put it bluntly, symptomatic of an individual with unstable and obsessive-compulsive characteristics. You might label the genius "passive-aggressive" in the jargon of modern psycho-babble. As a performer, it is necessary to get into the composer's head, but engaging in a Star Trek-like Vulcan mind-meld with Beethoven surely must be dangerous business. I am grateful that the musicians of the Emerson Quartet for being willing to dive courageously into these deep psychological conflicts, and to then publicly convey variations on Beethoven's brand of scream therapy on the stage for audience enjoyment. It's just another reason why a Friday evening dinner and a movie can't compare to the excitement of a night out with live classical music. It's like meeting Beethoven face to face, with his stormy anger, shaking fists, and all.

Written in 1927, the Third String Quartet of Béla Bartók, is about 15 minutes in duration. It is clearly a work that utilizes the traditional string quartet, but in non-traditional ways. The music is fresh and exciting to the ear. Bartók in many ways redefined the string quartet anew. While he does incorporate folk music from his native Hungry, it speaks a different language. While I've seen some indication that the work is written in C-sharp minor, are not key signatures or any obvious relationship to that key, or traditional harmony as far as I can see. There are however many symmetries in the work, both formally and woven into the intervallic structure of the notes. Bartók is a cool, calm, and collected composer, but at the same time there are wild and primitive outbursts. He pushes the envelope of what string players can do, and it's natural that the Emerson Quartet would program this work for last on the hefty but diverse concert.

The Bartók Third Quartet is full of extended string techniques, which press the performers to produce a broader spectrum of colors and sounds. Bartók's work is almost orchestral in tone, and at times laser sharp in brilliance and sheer amplitude. As the musicians articulate the music with multi-stops, harmonics, sul ponticello, glissandi, trills, col legno, pizzicato, and even entire walls of sound, the centricity of pitch can becomes secondary to seductive fruits of overall texture and color.

There is rhythmic vitality in Bartók's music as well. You almost want to dance, but don't know how. The asymmetric, irregular, and changing meters, along with classic Hungarian short-long rhythmic patterns dominate this work. I watched for visual signs of inter-player communication as the quartet negotiated some of the more challenging rhythms, but sensed that they weren't simply counting beats at all. The rhythms were exact, yet they had internalized them as dance-like gestures, and were playing the patterns from muscle memory. This must be a piece they have performed often, since it was spirited and on the cutting edge of playability, but flawless in execution (as far as I could hear).

Bartók's Third Quartet also has simple melodies and counterpoint in his work too. Bringing out individual lines in an equally composed texture can be tricky too. The musicians in the Emerson found the right balance here. I was able to hear some important lines that I've never heard before, even on recording. But I also got a sense that these lines were not being fore grounded inappropriately. The musical score can only go so far to notate the detail of a performance. The rest is left up to the musicians to make decisions about, and I really got a clear, unified, and truthful reading from the Emerson Quartet that they had not only thought through all these details, but that were in agreement about what should be conveyed. It's not every day that concert performance goes well beyond just being well rehearsed. The Bartók was performed as if they knew what they wanted to say, and how to say it.

In the afternoon preceding the concert I dropped in on a public Master Class with one member of the Emerson Quartet - violinist Philip Setzer - and Tufts students. Mr. Setzer arrived five minutes late, having found himself driving in circles around "the little streets" of Medford and Somerville. (Beware that there are two streets named Tabor: Aveune and Road). Setzer listened to a group of students coached by Scott Woolweaver play through most of the first movement of the Brahms Sextet in B-flat Major, opus 18. I was very curious to hear what he had to say, since listing to the things that performers think about regarding music they perform provides a lot of valuable insight. As a composer, I truly appreciate the reality and common sense viewpoint performers bring to the table. It's very different from the shop talk of composers, musicologists, and music theorists who seem to breathe something other than oxygen.

At first Setzer commented on the room acoustics. He noted that it is a large room with a high ceiling, and that it might relate to his having trouble hearing some of the detail in the String Sextet. For example, he clearly couldn't hear the second viola's pizzicato in measure 62, or the syncopations (in measure 51). (I was glad to hear his comment since his observation mirrored my impression as well). Setzer asked questions like "who's the boss?" and "who's leading in this section?" Getting into the notes, he pointed out a spot (starting in m. 214) where some of the parts that are playing "off the beat." Those instrumentalists should listen to other parts that are playing "on the beat." He pointed out a slower section that should be dance like, and talked a lot about articulation.

Occasionally borrowing a violin from the ensemble, Setzer would demonstrate a phase, how to articulate it, and what a difference a little vibrato can make. "Play vibrato through the entire phrase. It keeps the notes alive." It was easy to hear the difference in overall sound between a vibrato that appears only after the initial attack of notes with a long duration, and a vibrato that is always present. Setzer went on to compare the nature of string instruments to properties of the piano. Pianists have more control over their attacks, but string players are better able to mold the sound after a note is struck. As a result, if this Brahms Sextet were played in an arrangement for two pianos, we would hear the counterpoint and syncopations much clearer.

Setzer then said, "Now I'm going to make trouble." He questioned the positioning of the celli, and said that the sound would be much stronger if they were in the rear facing the audience rather than off to the right. He said that if you are going to sit in chairs, that they need to face the audience more. He quipped that the audience is "out there" (pointing to the front), and that "they purchased tickets to hear you." "Music is an art, but it is also a business." Everyone chuckled.

Taking instrument placement a step further, he had everyone except for the cellos try playing standing up. He explained how the Emerson Quartet has been playing standing up for about seven years, and that it really improves the sound. The cellist(s) can be slightly elevated. He indicated that if a violinist sits, the reflection of sound from the floor complicates the acoustic and makes it more difficult for everyone - including the player - to hear.

I couldn't stay for the entire Master Class, but I got a good idea about some of the thought processes involved that contribute to making the Emerson Quartet one of the top chamber music ensembles around. After three decades of performing, they are still at the top of their game.



patriotic songs in orbit?

SEOUL, South Korea

North Korea claims the rocket it sent up Sunday contained an experimental communications satellite that is successfully transmitting patriotic songs back to earth and into space. The official North Korean Central News Agency said, "The satellite is transmitting the melodies of the immortal revolutionary paeans 'Song of Gen. Kim Il Sung' and 'Song of Gen. Kim Jong Il'."

Well, that's one way to launch a new musical work!

I hope it doesn't bomb. :-)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Ninety-nines

My aunt, Beulah Stark (second from the right), was one of the first women aviators in the state of West Virginia. She was a member of the women's flying club know as the Ninety-nines (or 99s). This photo was taken in Parkersburg, WV on April 15, 1945. The photo was donated to the West Virginia State Archives by her estate.

The 99s air club was founded by Amelia Mary Earhart (photo on right), and is still active today and known as the International Organization of Women Pilots, Inc. It is important to remember how Amelia Earthart inspired everyone during the Great Depression. My aunt had met her, and was inspired as well.

In May 1932 Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic (from Newfoundland to Ireland). She later set several flight records.

My aunt Beaulah must have been flying by the mid-1930s, since Earhart and her navigator disappeared in 1937 while attempting to fly around the world.

I've heard that the location of what is now called the Chuck Yeager Airport (CRW) in Charleston, West Virginia was selected with the advice of my uncle and aunt who were both aviators. The original Kanawha Airport opened in 1947. It is located at an elevation of nearly 1000 feet on a small mountain top near the city where the peaks were shaved off to create some level ground and a VERY short runway. Even in modern days, landing in Charleston has always been an adventure. Aside from the jagged mountains, dense fog is often a factor.



Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Baby Genius?

The following video of a baby playing the piano recently appeared on YouTube and has already received thousands of hits...

Clearly the audio has been dubbed in, and we don't hear the music that the baby is actually playing.

The question that occurs to me is this: Are humans all born with genius ability and gradually become stupid as they grow older?

Who in their right mind would consider the banal brain-dead music substituted in this video to be better than what the infant originally performed?

It only goes to prove my theory that we get stupid as we get older. Education and training make us dumb. It wipes away all of our innate talent and genetic memory. John Locke's so-called Tabula Rasa (or "blank slate" theory) is a fallacy. If only adults would realize this, and listen to the music for what it is rather than try to improve upon it.

There is a corollary to the my theory that education is inversely proportional to knowledge. It's that technological advancement makes us less capable as humans. The more machines we have to do our thinking and work, the less productive and useful we become.

Ever since humans discovered simple tools and how to make fire, the planet has been going down-hill. I don't suspect that YouTube, XBox, Tom Tom's, iPhones, Twitter, or the Wii will save civilization from its ultimate demise.