Thursday, May 26, 2011

Rites of May...

Summer is so close to being a reality - but, as has become my late-May custom, there's still grading to be done. Even though my last exam was more than a week ago and graduation was last Saturday, our school is quite generous in giving faculty until May 31 to submit grades. A thoroughly mixed blessing. So, once again my May is filled with red ink-stained exams, endless piles of papers, and rows and rows of numbers on spreadsheets. Thus, this is a more of a placeholder than a substantive post, a promise that I'll be back blogging soon...but probably not until next week.

A few scattered items:
  • I blogged a couple of times about working on an article called "Rites of Spring," but never got around to posting a link when it was done. You can read it here. I have to admit I tend to prefer the long, messy, unedited world of blog posting, so it's kind of funny to me to read a more tightly constructed piece of mine, complete with tidy wrap-up, etc. I suppose it's a good discipline to submit to that kind of constraint (discipline via constraints is a subject of the piece), but I always want more words - and more multimedia.
  • Although our Piano Hero series has been on hiatus for this academic year, we had a chance to do one celebratory year-end event on Monday. The short program featured mostly music we'd done before in what turned out to be a sort of Americana program: the Overture to Bernstein's Candide (arranged for two pianos by Nathan Skinner, my co-conspirator); the Saturday Night Waltz and Hoedown from Copland's Rodeo; a new hybrid composition/arrangement/mashup by me (I am an American, after all); and an eight-handed version of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, which of course was written to commemorate the 4th of July. I had always thought that the Declaration of Independence was adopted in 1776, but I guess it didn't really happen until 1812. Anyway, I'm looking forward to writing more about my little mashup arrangement soon...
  • Oh, and maybe you missed that my little virtual Pierrot is now reciting in German and French - a good chance to remind you that operamission's upcoming "chamber theatre" double bill of Pierrot lunaire  and L'histoire du soldat is well worth supporting, even if you just want to kick in a little. I'm still trying to figure out a way to get to NYC for one of the performances (June 3 and 4); these iconic works of Stravinsky and Schoenberg are perfectly suited for the intimate setting of the Gershwin Hotel. As I tweeted recently: "...Iove the idea of Pierrot hallucinating and the Devil mischief-making within the Gershwin Hotel's deep red walls." (Cool. I only just noticed that, in shortening that tweet to the 140-character limit, I accidentally conflated the words "I love" into "Iove" - depending on the font, you might not even notice the difference, but love is spelled with an 'i.')
  • I've also learned, via operamission's Jennifer Peterson, that probably my favorite LP ever, a Boston Symphony Chamber Players recording of L'histoire du soldat featuring John Gielgud, Ron Moody, and Tom Courtenay, has finally been released on CD. I digitized my LP years ago and had considered  posting my bootleg version online since DG didn't seem interested in releasing it; but I'm still ordering the CD and would highly recommend that you do the same. The playing by Joseph Silverstein et al. is amazing and Gielgud and Moody are unforgettable. The translation by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black is also endlessly delightful - reminiscent of Dr. Seuss at times. In fact, I'm going to to ahead and post three sample tracks (second one features Gielgud/Moody) - I can only think that they would encourage you to want to buy the whole thing:

"Ah...that seems to arouse your in-ter-est..."

That's all I've got for today... (Somehow, it still ended up being a longish post. Hmm, I wonder why my grading never seems to get done...)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Full Moon and Tipsy Charms

The good folks at operamission (who put on last summer's fabulous Così fan tutte: Some Assembly Required) are presenting an inspired double bill of Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire and Stravinsky's L'histoire du soldat on June 3rd and 4th at the Gerswhin Hotel in NYC. As part of the promotion, Pierrot has been tweeting his quirky, moon-drunk poetry on his own Twitter feed, so, in between exam-grading, I had the idea of getting one of those xtranormal actors to speak one of the poems. (There is a full moon tonight.) Unfortunately, there's not yet a Sprechstranormal that converts text into sprechstimme, but Schoenberg's already done that anyway.

But, if you've ever wondered what it might sound like if a BBC newsreader was handed an English translation of some Albert Giraud poetry - well, it might sound kind of like this:

The wine that one drinks with one’s eyes
is poured down in waves by the moon at night,
and a spring tide overflows
the silent horizon.

Lusts thrilling and sweet float
numberless through the waters!
The wine that one drinks with one's eyes
is poured down in waves by the moon at night.

The poet, urged on by his devotions,
becomes intoxicated with the sacred beverage;
enraptured, he turns toward heaven his head,
and, staggering, sucks and sips
the wine that one drinks with one’s eyes.

translation by Stanley Appelbaum

[UPDATE: Now available in German (what Schoenberg used) and Giraud's original French. - Also, couldn't resist changing post title from "trippy" to "tipsy." Why didn't I think of that in the first place?]

Sample all of my xtranormal creations here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Back to Infinity (and Beyond)

I mentioned yesterday that all the old videos I (and others) once posted on Google Video (one-time competitor to YouTube) are being taken down in the next few days. However, I've just discovered a nice little silver lining to the disappearance of this cloud storage. Whereas YouTube puts a 15-minute limit on video uploads, Google Video had no such limits. The silver lining is that Google Video has made it possible, with one click, to transfer videos over to YouTube - including the really long ones! This means I was able to sneak this 49-minute video through the back door and onto YouTube.

It's sneaky in a couple of ways as I don't really have the rights to the audio, but I haven't been able to find this audio (or the video version) available anywhere else, and I think people need to be able to hear it. (I will, of course, remove it if asked.) I lifted the audio off an old LP that was boxed with a Bernstein set I own - it's a recording of Bernstein's Omnibus lecture entitled The Infinite Variety of Music. The script for this lecture is featured in the Bernstein anthology of the same name. There are seven other such scripts featured in The Joy of Music and the live tele-versions of those have recently become available on DVD - and, of course, on YouTube. But this one, which was always my favorite, I still haven't found elsewhere.

I posted it on my blog a few years back, so here is a chance to reintroduce it. I don't mind admitting that reading this script as a teenager had a major impact on me. I read it over and over, and then listened over and over when I stumbled on the LP. As I wrote back in 2007:
In a way, it's kind of embarrassing now because I understand better the tricks that Lenny had up his sleeve, but I still think it's wonderfully done and it shows him at his inspirational best. His basic device is to take a simple four-note melodic pattern and show how many different famous melodies have been spun from it. (The fun-with-themes starts about 9 minutes in.) It's not accidental that the sol-do-re-mi pattern he chose is such a classic tonal formula, but the fun is to see how different the notes can sound according to context. 
So, here it is, complete with my own homemade score examples that are based on the ones found in the book. (It's posted under my secondary YouTube account, since I reserve the MMtube channel for multimedia I've actually created.) The heart of the talk, the "How Dry I Am" discussion, starts around 9 minutes in.

Even if you decide to skip ahead to the 9:00 mark, it's worth hearing L.B.'s basso spoken intro and the wonderful bit of Daphnis et Chloé that starts the program proper.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Peter and the Piano (and the Wolf)

Does anyone remember that there used to be a Google Video site which originally was set up to compete with YouTube? I actually chose Google Video as my upload site of choice back in those wild days when YouTube seemed kind of scary and illegal. Well, Google gave up on competing fairly quickly and simply bought YouTube instead; now, several years later, Google is removing content from users like me, so I'll be transferring stuff to YouTube that appeared on my blog via Google Video. (It may take awhile to finish that process, so it's possible that spinning the ol' Multimedia Musing Machine over in the margin will lead to a few dead links for now. But you should still spin the wheel!)

One of the advantages of Google Video over YouTube back in the day was that the Google platform allowed much longer clips to be uploaded. So, here's an 11:41 video that exceeded YouTube's old 10-minute limit, though YouTube's standard limit is now 15 minutes. It's a homemade puppet version of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf that we performed for my daughter's 4-yr old birthday party about eight years ago. It was all thrown together the night before, using puppets we made (the party itself was puppet-themed) and a somewhat abbreviated script I typed up. My wife narrated, she and my sister (who made the fabulous wolf puppet) operated the puppets, and I slashed my way through a piano reduction of the music from behind the camera. I'd like to emphasize that I did not practice very much. (Sort of an early Piano Hero experience.)

This is actually video of an encore performance we did for my daughter after the party. (The party version went OK, but there were a few technical difficulties, and the audience was delightfully loud.) I originally blogged about it here, focusing on the whole "piano reduction" issue. As I mentioned then, it's maybe surprising that this works well on piano (if you agree that it does), given that we're all taught to listen for the flute/bird, oboe/duck, clarinet/cat, etc. connections, but Prokofiev is one of the greatest piano composers ever, and his folksy tunes are worth hearing in just about any context.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Syncing Violas

So, I've written a few substantive posts recently about Bach, Stravinsky, and Mendelssohn - but it's not all serious business here at MMmusing, not in a world where violists are still at large. I've always had a weakness for viola jokes, so when I saw a video link on Facebook about synchronizing metronomes, I reflexively commented about the need for some kind of violist synchronization system. Then, when I was driving home from work last night, the following started to take shape in my imagination, including a basic plan for how to create it as quickly as possible.

It's not as well-executed as I'd like, but it's a silly enough exercise that I promised myself not to get too carried away with it. What actually interested me the most was the task of creating a bad viola ensemble that slowly morphed into a decent-sounding group. That's more of a challenge than you might think (not just for viola-based reasons, either), and the fact that my computer was born in 2004 isn't helping matters (renders video really slowly). So, I'm not totally content with the audio portion (and there are a few video glitches as well), but it's just a joke after all. For the record, I've played around with synthesizing bad violin playing here and I played around with morphing chaos into sonic order here. Oh, and I wrote about a fantastically subtle little viola joke, hidden away in an opera libretto, here.

I've thrown out tons of viola jokes on Twitter over the years (just load this really large page and search "viola"), and sometimes people seem taken aback at their meanness, but I don't really have anything against the instrument or the poor souls who try to make something of it. And I really wouldn't want to live in a world without Brandenburg #6 or Sinfonia concertante or those wonderfully scrubby chords (4:40) in the Brahms C Minor Piano Quartet or the opening of the Agnus Dei in Faure's Requiem. So, I'm grateful for all the gifts the viola bestows on us - from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Youth and Beauty

About a year ago, I walked into my daughter's Saturday morning string orchestra rehearsal and heard the twenty or so young students (ages 10 to 15) playing music that seemed beyond their years in its world-weary, yearning, searching quality. As far as I knew, the only piece they were working on was one of Mendelssohn's youthful string symphonies that are never numbered among his five "real" symphonies. This struck me as more like Mahler or Bruckner, but it slowly dawned on me that they were indeed playing Mendelssohn - music he'd written some time between the ages of 12 and 14!

In previous rehearsals, I'd only heard them working on the fast outer movements, which are energetic and full of expert counterpoint showing Mendelssohn to have been a remarkably gifted student. But this was both much simpler (slowly unfolding harmonies instead of imitative counterpoint) and much more mature (less imitative of past compositional models). Actually, I don't know that I can say for sure that it's not imitating some other composer (Weber?), but this brief Andante is enough to convince me that Mendelssohn is history's greatest musical prodigy, at least as a composer. OK, the Octet and the Overture to Midsummer Night's Dream had already convinced me of that, but he was an old man of 16 and 17 when he authored those - he may have been as young as 12 when he penned this.

I never got around to blogging about it last Spring, and I'm afraid I don't have time to craft the full-fledged essay I'd like to write now, but this recording popped up on my iPod recently, and I've found myself listening to it over and over. So here are some bullet-point observations, each of which could (and might) turn into its own post:

0) This, is a recording from last May's Spring concert - it is, of course, not professional in any way. They're young kids, it's recorded with a camcorder from far away with my toddler son toddling around and putting in a word or two (c.6:08). So, I'm not pretending it's perfect, but I love listening to it and it's my favorite recording of the piece I've found so far (more on that below). I think there are significant lessons here about a tendency to overvalue perfection. That's a very complex lesson, because aiming for high standards is a very good thing - yet, sometimes a performance that's rough around the edges can deliver a special kind of something. And hearing the music of a child played by children has its own value.*

[recording also includes the 3rd and final movement]

1) Obviously, part of what makes me love this recording is that my daughter is participating. As a general rule,  I think that in a desire to be objective about musical tastes, we tend to underestimate how much personal connections to the performer(s) can (and should) make. Still, I don't think that posting this is just a vanity project - my daughter was only playing the "third violin" part (there being not enough violists to go around), so this hardly shows her off. (I will brag and say that she was the youngest kid on stage, and that at this very moment she is playing a mean Mendelssohn concerto in the next room even as I type...but, oh yeah, not a vanity project. Let's move on...)

2) One thing that makes me prefer it to any other recording I've heard (there are a lot!) is that the tempo is much slower. True, the marking is Andante and this may be much slower than the composer intended; all I can say is, it works. It's amazing how much this slow tempo seems to unlock the magic in this music. There are a bunch of other versions you can sample: here, here, here, here, here. None of them have the same effect on me, although all are much more polished. (UPDATE: I just found and downloaded this recording, which is also quite leisurely; the accompaniment's a bit too forward for my taste, and I'd like more vibrato from the violins, so I still prefer the one above.)

3) Of course I'm probably biased to prefer this tempo, because it's the first way I heard the piece. Again, I think "first times" play a big role in the way most people listen to music, although you rarely hear critics admit that they may be biased in this way. I have the same issue with the sinfonia from Handel's Messiah and the second movement of the Bach double violin concerto (aka, "the greatest music ever written"). One tends to hear each played more and more quickly these days, and I just can't get used to it. I grew up with Bernstein doing this with Handel, and the livelier, HIP versions simply depress me. And though this Bach is lovely, I'll always prefer something more like this.

4) The old wisdom about Mendelssohn's career was that he was an undeniable genius who perhaps never quite fulfilled his early potential, great though his music is. (Dying young didn't help, of course.) There have been considerable (and laudable) efforts in the recent past to correct this, and some suggest that Wagner's anti-Semitism played a role in setting up this idea that Mendelssohn was a clever guy who lacked a certain depth. Well, this is complicated, but, biased though I may be by the "old wisdom," I still tend to agree that Mendelssohn never surpassed his greatest teenage works, and that certainly says something. Only the violin concerto is, for me, as perfect as the octet - and I can't think of a single movement from his five symphonies that I love any more than this little Andante. (By contrast, although I've never been all that excited by Mozart's early works, once he hit his stride, his trajectory just kept going up.)

But maybe that's just me - and I'm always prepared to change. I know I need to get to know the string quartets better. I'm always confused by my attitude towards Mendelssohn, because I have no doubt that the Octet and the Violin Concerto are among my twenty favorite pieces ever written by anyone. Two in the Top 20! That should almost guarantee that be belongs near the very top of my all-time list, but he didn't make my Top 10. Hmm.

5) This is really just a random point, but I see that Greg Sandow is headed off to Cambridge to argue the affirmative side of this debate topic: "This house believes that classical music is irrelevant to today's youth." First of all, what a stupid proposition. Look, I don't believe that classical music is essential to anyone, and I get that people can live long, happy, fulfilled lives without it. And, sure, it is irrelevant to those for whom it is not (yet) relevant. But it's ridiculous to think that it can't still be relevant, or that it somehow shouldn't be relevant. This isn't the showiest piece of music ever written, and I suppose it's subtle in some ways, but I'll bet you there are a lot of people who could hear it and know that something very special had just passed by.

The symphony is quite Baroque in character in many respects (the last movement has lots of Corelli & Handel features), which is one thing that makes that Romantic Andante (when played slowly enough) stand out as so precocious. Though the symphony is officially broken up into three movements, the first has a French Overture-like structure: a stately intro followed by quick-paced counterpoint (which anticipates the famous Midsummer Night's Dream scherzo - go to 0:50 in the video below), so that we basically have a slow-fast-slow-fast structure of the kind so common in Baroque sonatas. And, like a lot of those sonatas, the third movement doesn't really end, but transitions directly into the finale. In some ways, the Andante is just a suspended moment in time, its unhurried tension finally breaking out into the break-neck finale, but I'm always sad that it's over. A composer who can make time stop is even more impressive than one who can make your heart pound.

I could easily write an entire blog post about all the little moments I love in the Andante, but I'll restrict myself to two: After a two-bar intro, four nicely balanced four-bar phrases present the main thematic material. Then, at the 0:55 mark, there are two little transitional bars where the melody seems to be lost for a second, before modulating to the dominant. Many recordings bring out the accompanying line in those bars in a way that ruins the effect for me. It may have been the result of timid inner strings, but in the youth orchestra performance, there's something wonderfully fragmented in those two bars as the music almost threatens to dissolve into nothing. It gets me every time. Then, at the 1:56 mark, the music having settled into the distant key of A-flat major, there are four bars in which a good ol' augmented sixth chord magically transports us back to C major. (You don't need to know anything about what that means to hear that this halfway point is magic. And, yes, I've now used the word "magic" a lot in this post. As is appropriate.)

The youth orchestra recording above does not include the opening movement (with its slow-fast pairing), but it does include all of the exciting finale. The roughness of the playing is even more apparent there, but I still find the scrappiness endearing. Mendelssohn here shows what will become a lifelong love with the process of textural dissolution - meaning that busy, multi-voiced music will suddenly have all the parts playing in unison in a way that creates a fantastic kind of tension. I've likened it before to a struggle in which it becomes apparent that the only "way through" is via a narrow passageway that, like a funnel, requires all parts to play a single line together. One might think that unison passages would be the most relaxed, but in music that is mostly cushioned by harmonies, sudden unisons can be very striking. The ends of both halves of the finale feature such passages (4:52 above, repeated at 5:39 and finally at 6:27), and though the unisons aren't always so unison in execution, they are thrilling in effect.

If you'd like to hear the entire symphony played by professionals, here it is:

But I keep returning to the kids...

* A few years ago, I heard the Boston Symphony (under Kurt Masur!) play Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony a couple of weeks before hearing my school orchestra play it. The BSO performance was terrific, but there's no question I was much more engaged by the student performance, even though, and perhaps because, the music had them on the edge - and, of course, because I was experiencing the music through these young musicians, excited that they were getting exposed to such a marvelous piece. I find that just about every piece my daughter is working on suddenly becomes a favorite of mine, for much the same reason. Sure, I could try to become a more objective listener. But why?