Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Bruckner 3, a first rehearsal report.

We had the first rehearsal yesterday for the the March 30th performance of the American Premiere of the 1874 version of Bruckner 3. I was struck in listening to our rehearsal how much the super slow, heavy, poorly balanced renderings of Bruckner that we kind of take for granted changes our whole perception of the composer. I find that simply balancing the voices carefully, playing the music at speeds appropriate to the harmonic motion that allow the melodic lines to dominate and not getting caught up the "the organ is the model for Bruckner's sound and orchestration" idea makes Bruckner sound far less "weird" and that he can take his place as an original but organic late 19th century composer instead of a slow motion freak show. Years ago, I remember hearing the Mauceri recording of Korngold's "Das Wunder der Heliane" and thinking that it almost did not sound like Korngold-until I got the score, and realized that the slow motion, heavy-handed, bloated reading made us lose touch with the essential melodic and harmonic qualities of his music, and that if you listen to someone else sing "Ich ging zu him" (Dagmar Schallenberger, Lotte Lehman, even, to a certain extent Renee Fleming, who does overinterpret it) you realize the music is just great Korngold. It was this recording, that made me wonder if other music- and specifically Bruckner-was hurt by this type of problem. It was many years before I actually conducted Bruckner, but I always vowed to followed the logic of his harmonic motion when conducting him, just as I would with any other composer. Bruckner has suffered so much by this attempt to make him "profound", it is easy to lose sight of how gorgeous his melodies are, and how much humanity, and yes, even humor there is in his music. I hope we can bring this to the performance this Sunday. And by the way, the 1874 changes all sound awesome! Tickets and info here.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

A Remarkable Child

The conventional wisdom on Edward Elgar was that he was a late starter as a composer. It is true that it was only with the premiere of the Enigma Variations in 1899 that his international career really took off (by which point he was 42 years old), but it was really only his fame, not his talent, that came late. There is no clearer evidence of this than his two "Wand of Youth" Suites, written in 1907 but based largely on music composed in 1869, when the composer was twelve years old.

The music for "Wand of Youth" was derived largely from a play that Elgar and his six siblings put together for a "family entertainment" for his parents and some relatives. The kids wrote a play on the theme of the relationship between adults and children, pointedly addressing the issue that adults completely fail to understand children. Young Edward was given the task of writing music for the event, scored for the very limited forces available to them-a cheap fiddle, a piano, a wooden flute and a homemade three string bass-created from plywood and held together by nails. One can only imagine what it sounded like.

Edward was the bass player in this "orchestra", but for one scene in the show he was needed to perform some stage tasks, and the only person available to play the bass was his 6 year old brother Frank-who had never played any instrument at all. As a result, the young composer created a bass part that consists entirely of open strings-it was tuned to the notes A, D, and G in the manner of an old British bass viol-and with every note the same length. Over this extremely limited bass, Elgar wrote a gorgeous, memorable tune, that sounds like vintage Elgar-in fact it may remind you of the theme of the Enigma Variations, to which it has an obvious kinship.

Here is a recording done in 1928 with the composer conducting. Note the old fashioned slides!

MusicaNova Orchestra is doing the whole first Suite on February 16th, at 4PM at Central United Methodist Church in Phoenix, along with much other great music. Tickets here.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

"Authentic" Bruckner; an Unattainable Goal

I am in the process of copying out the full score to the 1874 version of Bruckner's Third Symphony, in preparation for our March 30th concert. It has been a fascinating exercise for a number of reasons, not least of which is seeing the differences between this score and the published 1873 version. But in putting it together, I have found something interesting; there are a number of performance indications in the 1873 score that are missing or different in the 1874 version. Dynamics are often missing, sometimes different, and sometimes ambiguously different. There is a spot in the second movement where a contradictory dynamic in Bruckner's hand has been added in the margin. Some slurs are missing, and some are different.

What is especially curious is that in some cases there is more detail in the 1873 version than 1874. It suggests that the Wagner dedication score (the basis for the Novak published edition) was already tinkered with over the earlier version of the score, and that when Bruckner went back in and made changes in orchestration to the 1873 score he forgot or left out some of the additional performance indications that he had added to the Wagner dedication score.

When Haas was preparing his Bruckner editions, he claimed that his intention was to get at what Bruckner “really wanted” and that the manuscripts, not the first editions were to be the source. He objected to the first editions because he felt they had been tainted by the influence of his students and friends and that the weak willed Bruckner had acquiesced to these change only because he was desperate to get his music published and played. Recent scholarship has undercut the weak willed Bruckner story, and it is hard to see how anyone who had read his letters or the letters of the Schalk brothers and Löwe could have come to that conclusion.

Looking at the various early versions of the Third Symphony has given support to the theory I have had for years-that Bruckner was not particularly insecure about his music, but he was compulsive tinkerer. Every time he would look at a piece that he had written, he had a hard time keeping his hands off it. He wanted to “fix” something, to change something. The versions of his early Symphonies from the end of his life are remarkable not so much for the influence of the Schalks and Löwe but for his own, not always judicious, reorchestrations of parts of them that are more in line with the style of the Eighth Symphony!
Thus the idea of “authentic” Bruckner is very complex, and in the case of this version of the Third Symphony, I have an especially tricky problem. The additional indications in the Wagner dedication score are helpful and good. But a truly accurate rendering of the 1874 score would not include them! If I was preparing a scholarly edition, I would have some special way of indicating what was missing in the 1874 score. But for now, I will happily include the additional 1873 indications, and only omit them when there is something contradictory in the 1874 score. After all, in the final analysis, I want something that will sound good and a score that helps the players make the right musical decisions.

If you help underwrite this project, you can get your own full score! See here.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

An open message to composers and supporters of composers- send us scores and talk to us!

A couple of weeks ago I attended a concert in New York given by the pianist Jack Gibbons. He played all of the op.39 Etudes of Charles Alkan- almost two hours of rather obscure but glorious music. The audience was about 200 at Merkin Hall, but everyone there was really there. it was the best audience I have ever seen. A little girl sitting near the front clasped her hands to her face and smiled with astonished delight about a minute into the performance. At the intermissions (there were two!) you could feel the excitement. This was an event...an event that everyone there would remember forever.

This was not surprising to me. The most memorable concerts I have done have been of great little known music. I have come to believe that doing music like this is the most important work I can do as a musician. The problem with programming music like this is that it is very hard to find corporate or big donor underwriters for these concerts. Further, by their very nature, they are not likely to attract a large audience-quite the opposite, In a classic catch-22 the audience are likely to be smaller for the same reason donors are hard to find- because the names are less well known.

And yet, these concerts are the ones that mean the most. If love could be quantified, the love, attention and gratitude I saw at the Gibbons/Alkan recital was greater than I have ever seen at a sold out standard repertoire Philharmonic concert.
For these reasons, MusicaNova must keep doing great new and neglected music and performing it with all the seriousness and consideration that big budget groups give to standard repertoire. But we need help and the place we are looking is from those to whom it matters most.

There have always been two distinct sources of support for great music. The infinitely endowed-kings, captains of industry, foundations, corporations and governments-have kept music alive for centuries. But there has also been another way; self-promoting music or using the resources of enthusiastic supporters to bring the music to the world. With few exceptions (Haydn comes to mind) it is not the support of kings and captains of industry that has moved the music world forward. The music world has changed because of enterprising composers, performers and supporters creating their own opportunities. It was the way followed by Handel and Beethoven, when they self-promoted their own concerts or solicited “subscriptions” to pay for the events; by Axel Carpelan whose tireless advocacy and small scale fund raising made Sibelius known to the world; by Elliott Carter, who subsidized good players playing his music from the time his career started until well into his late middle age; and by Michael Tippett, who lived on the edge of poverty as he recycled every penny into performances of his music until the world caught on to who he was.

Composers and supporters of fine composers-we are there for you. Although we will obviously only perform music we think is worthy of performance, we will consider all good orchestral music. We will work with you on the crowdfunding if you need to do that. But we need your energy, your participation and your support to make it possible to do the music you love.

We will even work to help create a score by orchestrating an unscored work or revising one by a composer with imagination who might need help in the technical details of scoring for orchestra. Imagination matters more than gaps in knowledge or technique.

Please contact us with your own music, with the music you love, and let us know if you are willing to be the leader in getting the support we need to put the music on. We will work with you. We will make it happen; we just cannot do it alone. Email me at warren.cohen@musicanovaaz.com., call 480 585 4485 or facebook message me or MusicaNova Orchestra.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Gerald Finzi and my Grandfather; an Odd Connection.

The music of Gerald Finzi was a revelation to me when I first heard it in 1991. I was living in London, and was listening to music at the British Music Information Center when I came across a recording of the Eclogue for Piano and Strings. Upon hearing that opening, I was transfixed. Why did I not know the music of this remarkable composer? I listened to everything I could find, and it was clear that Finzi was a unique and extraordinary voice, with an almost unprecedented ability to set the English language to music. His knowledge of poetry, his sensitivity and the care he took with his texts and word setting were a revelation to me. Listen to his setting of Shakespeare's Come Away Death. This text has been set many times, by many composers, but for me the simple perfection of Finzi's version is ideal.

I have often wondered if my love for Finzi was related to an odd similarity of our backgrounds. Finzi was born two months to the day before my grandfather; both were born in England, and both my grandfather and the composer were brought up by assimilated Jews who were more English than Jewish. (my great-grandparents named their dog “Ladysmith” after the battle in the Boer War. Even owning a dog was something Jews of that time and place would have been unlikely to do). Finzi managed to hide his Jewishness, to the point that even people who knew him well were unaware of his origins. Of course, that was impossible for my family unless they were to change their name; but culturally, they were English, and were barely conscious of anything Jewish; like Finzi, they were not “culturally Jewish” in the manner of many non-religious Jews.

My great-grandfather was a violinist, and my grandfather a percussionist; like Finzi, they came from a family in the manufacturing business, but my great-grandfather and most of his children became musicians. Unlike Finzi, none of them became composers, although my grandfather wrote a song called “I whisper I love you” that was written to the tune of “Tea for Two” and was played by the Paul Whiteman band two years before the Vincent Youmans classic was composed. (in reality, I am pretty sure that is a coincidence).

Although my family celebrated a totally secular version of Christmas, Finzi, himself, like my grandfather a non-believer, went further; he wrote what is to me the finest piece of Christmas music ever written, “In Terra Pax”. This setting of gorgeous poem by Robert Bridges “Noel:Christmas Eve 1913” incorporates into the fabric of the poem passages from the Gospel of Luke at exactly the moment in the poem where the reference is appropriate. No other Christmas work has ever caught the spirit of magic, wonder and mystery of the Christmas season so beautifully.

The West Valley Chorale with soloists Robert Altizer and Carolyn Whitaker will be singing this masterpiece with the MusicaNova Orchestra at 7PM on December 6th at the Central United Methodist Church 1875 North Central Avenue in Phoenix. Please come hear us. Tickets here.

Friday, October 25, 2013

"The Black Mahler"

On October 27th, 4PM at Central United Methodist Church in Phoenix members of the MusicaNova Orchestra will perform a remarkable early work of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a British composer who improbably became one of the most celebrated musicians of his time. It would be hard to imagine someone less likely to achieve such fame; the illegitimate son of an African man (who left the country before his son's birth, and never even knew he had a son) and a working class English woman brought up in the London suburb of Croydon. He studied violin as a child, auditioned for the Royal College of Music at the suggestion of an acquaintance of the family, and was accepted on scholarship. He wrote some small pieces of music and took a composition class with Sir Charles Stanford, who was impressed enough with his talent to show some of his music to Elgar. When Elgar was unable to provide a piece for the Three Choirs Festival he, remarkably, recommended the then 22 year old Coleridge-Taylor, saying “he is the best composer of the young ones.” Before that year was out Coleridge-Taylor had written the Oratorio Hiawatha, which became an instant sensation. In less than ten years it was the third most performed Oratorio in the English language-after the Messiah and Elijah!

Coleridge-Taylor was one of those fascinating people whose outer appearance suggested someone quite different than who they were. He looked African, like his father, but he was thoroughly English by upbringing and culture. This contradiction often creates people who are acutely sensitive to the vagaries and cruelty of “judgment by appearances”. It also often makes people yearn to find out more about the part of them that is suggested by their appearance. Both of these traits were very pronounced in Coleridge-Taylor. He was unfailingly kind and non-judgmental, and after an eye-opening trip to the United States in 1904, he began to explore African and African-American music and used it as a source of a number of compositions and arrangements. He created a sensation in the black community in the States. An American journalist called him "the Black Mahler". To this day, there are at least two schools in predominately black neighborhoods in Maryland that are called the “Coleridge-Taylor School” and a number of black children were named after him. One of these was Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, who became a great composer in his own right.

But what of the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor? As a composer, he was a profoundly gifted melodist, and like several others who had that gift (think of Grieg or Poulenc) it could almost obscure the depth of his musical inspiration. His musical idol was Dvorák, and there is a Bohemian undercurrent to a lot of his melodic inspiration. If played casually, his music can sound like British light music of the 1930's, composers like Eric Coates. But if played with the conviction and intensity that he wanted put into it, it has depth and power, and the uniqueness of his voice comes through- it is easy to hear what Elgar and Stanford heard that made them feel that the world needed to hear this music.

We will perform his Nonet, written when he was still a student of Stanford. Clearly, he was experimenting with orchestral sounds and colors, but played on a limited number of instruments. The piece has a symphonic scope and structure, and, as always with Coleridge-Taylor, is chock full of delightful tunes. The writing is difficult and highly contrapuntal, but this complexity is likely to be lost on an audience, as the music progresses so easily and naturally that, on first listening, one is likely to miss the subterranean rumblings that give the music its perfect surface gloss. It shows what an extraordinary eighteen year he really was.

The piece was performed successfully at the time. But by the time he was ready to publish this work, he had had two extraordinary successes-His Ballade for Orchestra and Hiawatha. Full of new ideas, he let the Nonet sit, and never tried to get it published. So it languished unknown until 2002, when it was finally published by the Coleridge-Taylor enthusiast Patrick Meadows. Since then, there have been several performances in England, and a recording released; our performance is only the second time it has been heard in the United States.

Our concert has many other attractions including the amazing 10 year pianist Jessica Zhang playing Mozart, but one is certainly this unique major work by a composer who deserves to be heard. Tickets and information here.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

On Vaughan Williams, Boston and a Plea for Peace

In the wake of the events in Boston, we at MusicaNova posted the justifiably famous qoute by Leonard Bernstein: "This will be our reply to violence; to make music more intensely, more beautifully and more devotedly than ever before". This sentiment suffuses the music of Vaughan Williams' "Dona Nobis Pacem",the big choral work we will perform at 7:30 PM at Central United Methodist Church. (1875 North Central Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85004. Tickets and information here.) The work was written by Vaughan Williams in 1936, as World War II lurked on the horizon. Vaughan Williams had participated as a driver in the first World War and was appalled at the situation he saw in Europe at the time of the composition. Although the work is often spoken of as a "Cantata" and despite the use of biblical and ecclesiastical texts, it is not actually a religious work. Vaughan Williams often used religious texts and imagery for what he considered their "universal' qualities. The Bible and the Catholic mass were texts that everyone knew and were therefore a kind of emotional shorthand to convey certain messages-in this case, a message of a desire for peace.

As with many composers, Vaughan Williams had a very emotionally revealing relationship with his favored texts and writers. He loved Walt Whitman-in addition to the three poems presented here, he wrote a wonderful setting of "Toward the Unknown Region". The pantheistic ecstasy and celebration of personal freedom of Whitman could not be further from tortured religious musings and moralizing of John Bunyan, and yet the latter's "Pilgrim's Progress" was a fifty year obsession of the composer. It is though Vaughan Williams was searching for what was good, and what goodness could be through two writers who took almost opposite approaches to the question. This was certainly more a question posed for society as whole than a personal question for Vaughan Williams, who was himself a person who was almost universally loved and admired. He may have been influenced in this quest by his friendship with the philosopher G.E.Moore, who wrote a famous book on the subject of the nature of 'goodness". Further to the religious question, he described himself, at various points in his life, as either as "cheerful atheist" or a cheerful agnostic".so this was not a search for morality through religion either. He also said, referring to himself, "there is no reason that an atheist could not write a good mass!" If anything, Vaughan Williams was one of those for music itself was his religion, his reason for being, his solace and his love.

Ultimately, Vaughan Williams approach to the appearance of evil was very much like the one suggested by Bernstein; to make ever more intense and beautiful music. There is a certain defiance suggested here, and there is defiance as well in the passionate outbursts of the "Dona nobis pacem" in the work. There is defiance in the celebratory nature of the last movement; defiance in the three poems by Whitman, and defiance even in the passage from a political speech by John Bright and the biblical passages that follow it. But the defiance would not be enough; there must also be beauty. Defiance may be the response to evil, but defiance without beauty is almost nihilistic; when you create beauty, you are not merely replying to violence, you show that you can and will move past evil, to a new creative world that leaves the evil behind.

Come join us to celebrate beauty and this extraordinary music.