Today is the BIG day.
After a nearly-five-year journey, volume four in our series of the complete symphonies of Robert Schumann and Hans Gál hits the stores today. The CD is now available to order, stream and download from fine retailers in most territories.
I don’t have to remind most of you what a big moment this is- you’ve supported the project because you understand the importance of the music and the urgency of the effort. You gave because you knew someone had to.
The good news is that your generosity, your commitment and your sense of urgency has paid off. The disc is out, the series is complete. For the first time, there is an integral set of the symphonies of Hans Gál all performed by the same orchestra and conductor. Thanks to your support, we were also able to deliver the first live cycle of these important works in history, most of which had not been played in over thirty years. We’ve also completed a Schumann cycle that we think is a really exciting addition to the discography- one that is both grounded in the latest scholarship about Schumann’s life and music, and fresh and full of life, thanks to the tireless efforts of my colleagues in the orchestra
This project has helped the music of Hans Gál reach the ears of countless new listeners around the world through broadcasts on BBC Radio 3, Performance Today and NPR’s All Things Considered. The music has been discussed for the first time in national newspapers in the US and UK, including the Sunday New York Times, the Washington Post, the Saturday Telegraph and the Guardian. We’ve been a Gramophone Editor’s Choice, and have been on several “best of the year” lists.
Later this spring, Hans Gál will be featured for the first time on BBC Radio 3’s “Composer of the Week”. It’s currently scheduled for May 5th-9th, but check your listings closer to the time. This is a huge breakthrough for Gál, and it wouldn’t have happened without this project or without your active support.
All of this, however, is a beginning, not an end. I hope you will continue to help us to make the most of what we’ve all invested in the project. First- not to state the obvious, but now would be a great time to sell a few CDs. Please tell your friends about the disc in person or via Facebook and Twitter. Word of mouth counts for so much today, and early momentum is vitally important for getting the media interested in spreading the word about any new CD.
We very much want to see Hans Gál’s music programmed at international festivals, particularly the Proms.
Please consider writing a nice, positive letter to:
Office of Mr. Roger Wright,
Controller BBC Radio 3
Director BBC Proms,
Perhaps you can articulate to Mr Wright why you supported this project, what you admire about the music and why you think it is important that it is featured at the Proms. Perhaps you can also explain why you think this music has the potential to engage a large audience. Remember, be constructive and positive and personal- share your passion for the music and we’ll be more likely to get great results.
Please also consider writing to your local orchestras, festivals and presenters. People really do read these things and try to take them in to account when planning, especially if they can sense that there is a buzz around an idea or a composer.
And, of course, if you think there is someone that one of us at team Gál should be in touch with, please email me at email@example.com.
So, what’s next on the recording front? There are several important projects in the works. Cellist Matthew Sharp is putting together a very interesting project to record Gál’s Cello Concertino alongside several other concertos by composers of the same generation. Ensemble Epomeo, who recorded the complete Gál String Trios last year, are planning to record the two late Gál quintets (his Viola Quintet and Clarinet Quintet) in 2016, and also hope to record his piano quartets. On the orchestral front, there is still much to be done- there are some wonderful string orchestra pieces that we hope to record soon, as well as some lovely chamber orchestra works. More ambitious, however, is the plan to record Gál’s very important major choral/orchestral works De Profundis and Lebenskreise, and eventually the operas. These are huge pieces and massive projects, but they look a lot more achievable now than four years ago when nobody had ever managed to record a Gál symphony, let alone all four.
Thank you gifts will be in the mail over the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, thank you all for believing, for acting and for making this project possible.
Re-blogged from ensemble-epomeo.net
On Sunday, the 23rd of February, Ensemble Epomeo and shakuhachi virtuoso James Schlefer will give the world premiere of composer Victoria Bond‘s new work for shakuhachi and string trio, “Rashomon.” We asked Maestra Bond a few questions about her new work and her distinguished career.
EE Your new quartet is titled Rashomon. Most people will recognize the title from the iconic Kurosawa film. Can you tell us a little bit about your use of the title- is the piece based on the film, and if so, how?
VB: I have actually based my composition on two short stories by the Japanese author Ryunosuke Akutagawa; “Rashomon,” and “In a Bamboo Grove.” These, in turn, were taken from Konjaku Monogatarishu’s Anthology of Tales from the Past, also known as theKonjaku Monogatari, a Japanese collection of over one thousand tales written during the late Heian period (794-1185). The volumes cover various tales from India, China and Japan. The subject-matter is largely drawn from Buddhist and secular folklore. The folkloric tales mostly depict encounters between human beings and the supernatural. The typical characters are drawn from Japanese society of the time — nobility, warriors, monks, scholars, doctors, peasant farmers, fishermen, merchants, prostitutes, bandits, beggars. Their supernatural counterparts are oni and tengu. The work is anonymous. The date of the work is also uncertain. From the events depicted in some of the tales it seems likely that it was written down at some point during the early half of the 12th century, after the year 1120. Many of the tales which appear in the Konjaku are also found in other collections, such as ghost story collections; having passed into the common consciousness, they have been retold many times over the succeeding centuries. Modern writers too have adapted tales from the Konjaku Monogatarishu: a famous example is Akutagawa Ryunosuke‘s In a Grove, well known in the West from Kurosawa‘s film Rashomon.
EE- Rashomon is structured as a theme and variations, one of the oldest Western musical forms. What is the appeal for you of this formal structure as composer working today? Is your approach to variation form in this work based on any existing formal models?
VB: theme and Variations is one of my favorite musical forms and I have written many throughout my compositional career. It was this convergence of musical and literary forms that drew me to the story of Rashomon in the first place, and I was struck by the implications of this abstract musical form in a dramatic context. Within each of the four movements, each being a variation of the theme presented in the first movement, is another form, as follows:
I. The Gate – Theme
II. The Murder: A Crime of Violence – Variations
III. The Murder: A Cold Calculation – Passacaglia
IV. The Murder: A Crime of Passion – Rondo
EE- The Rashomon story suggests a strong Japanese influence on the piece. Did you feel like the sound of the shakuhachi almost mandated some Japanese element in either the musical language or programmatic structure of the piece?
VB: The theme itself has a Japanese character, being a descending pentatonic scale with an ambiguous chromatic element. In addition to the shakuhachi, I also wanted to imply the sounds of traditional Japanese instruments in the string parts.
EE-Does the piece have any typically Japanese melodies or stylistic traits?
VB: The melodic material is original, though influenced by traditional Japanese melodies and timbres.
EE- If so, had you ever written in a cross-cultural style before?
VB: I have been influenced by many cultures, having travelled extensively as part of my life as a conductor. Some of those cultural influences are: Chinese, Brazilian, Irish, Puerto Rican, English, French, German, and Italian.
EE-Are there different challenges working with material from a non-Western musical tradition?
VB: The challenge of working with materials from other cultures is to maintain one’s musical identity and not to simply adapt folkloric influences. My desire is to absorb these influences and make them my own, so that they become part of the musical fabric of my creative world.
EE- You’ve managed to maintain a diverse and successful career as both a conductor and composer- that’s quite an achievement. How has composing shaped your work on and off the podium? Do feel you study scores or rehearse differently because of your experience as composer?
VB: Having a double life as composer and conductor has many advantages, the principal one being an intimate and working knowledge of the literature and of performers. I approach the study of a score looking for clues, and asking myself “why has the composer made these decisions?” These insights become an important component in shaping my interpretation of a work. Conducting instrumentalists and singers gives me valuable insight into what works technically and dramatically for each artist in the context of a given work, and especially what doesn’t work. This information becomes an essential part of my own compositions. I often feel as though I have had the opportunity to be my own “Composer-in-Residence” during a rehearsal period with an orchestra, opera company or chamber music ensemble. The one great challenge of maintaining a conducting and composing career is that of time, and in that regard, I have decided that composing is more important to me, and I am devoting the majority of my time to it, cutting back on all of my conducting activities.
EE- What are your conducting and compositional ambitions for the future?
VB: I am completing work on an opera about Clara Schumann, called “Clara” which will have a concert reading next season, and a Hanukkah opera called “Miracle!” which will premiere next December. I am also completing two concertos, one for violin and string orchestra and one for trumpet and brass ensemble as part of a project for Albany Records and Roosevelt University. This project is called “Four Presidents” and celebrates George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt with works for narrator and a variety of ensembles, the text being adapted from the writings and speeches of each of the presidents by historian Dr. Myles Lee. In addition, each work features a solo instrument and pays homage to the music of the period as follows:
Pater Patriae, a concerto for flute and wind ensemble, using material adapted from fife and drum tunes of the revolutionary period.
The Indispensable Man, a concerto for clarinet and wind ensemble, using material from the big band era of the 1940’s
The Soul of a Nation, a concerto for violin and string orchestra, using material that Jefferson actually played on the violin
Title TBD, a concerto for trumpet and brass ensemble, using material from the time
EE- What music excites you these days? Have there been any “wow” moments in the last year or two where you discovered a new piece, a new work or a new insight into a familiar one that really made a huge impression.
VB: I produce a new music series called Cutting Edge Concerts New Music Festivaleach year in New York, and present a wide variety of composers and performers throughout the month of April at Symphony Space in Manhattan. This allows me to be in touch with established as well as emerging composers, and I have so many positive impressions of what is being written today, that the list would be very long!
Ensemble Epomeo – Diane Pascal, violin; David Yang, viola; and Kenneth Wods, cello with James Nyoraku Schlefer, shakuhachi. And exciting combo os shakuhachi and strings featuring two new KSA premieres: Rashomon by Victoria Bond, for shakuhachi and string trio and Sidewalk Dancesby James Nyoraku Schlefer for shakuhachi and cello. Plus Beethoven, Kurtágand Weinberg.
Tenri Cultural Institute
43A West 13 Street
New York, NY
Tickets $25 and $15 for students. Advance purchase with priority seating at brownpapertickets.com or 1-800-838-3006
Beethoven – Trio in D Major Op.9
Victoria Bond – Shakuhachi Quartet – World Premiere (a Kyo-Shin-An Arts Commission)
György Kurtág – Signs, Games and Messages (String Trio)
James Nyoraku Schlefer – Duo for Shakuhachi and Cello
Mieczyslaw Weinberg – String Trio
Several months ago I was sipping a flat white in a café with a friend and former student who was describing the teaching methods of one of America’s more eminent conducting pedagogues- a gentleman I’ve never met nor observed.
Apparently one of his favorite aphorisms these days is that, when conducting, “the camera is always on.”
Now, I need to include a whole bunch of disclaimers here- I don’t know the context or spirit in which this advice was/is given. It’s possible I completely misunderstood what I was hearing when my friend told me this (we stayed on this subject for maybe five minutes). Perhaps they meant that “the Camerata is always on.” The Manchester Camerata are a very good orchestra. So is the Salzburg Camerata. Maybe he just meant that one of these fine groups is always “on”?
Still, in the six months or so since that conversation, I’ve found myself thinking over and over again about this notion, about the possibility that a generation of young conductors is being trained to think of their conducting in terms of how they look, on camera or off. It’s become a bit like wondering if you’ve left the iron on when you left on vacation- once the idea is planted in your head, it eats away at you until you have to do something about it.
So, here I am, doing something about it.
I suppose I always needed to take on this topic. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve found it hard to believe that any teacher would actually tell a young conductor to approach conducting as if “the camera is always on.” I’m sure his point of view was more nuanced than my friend was able to describe in a few fleeting moments of a wide ranging conversation. Nevertheless, I have seen a growing obsession with the visual aspect of conducting among people who should know better, including other teachers, managers, administrators and critics. “The camera is always on,” regardless of its original context, seems like extremely handy shorthand for a mindset about conducting I see very often these days, so that is how I propose to use it for the rest of this essay.
Having thought about it now for some months, I think that “the camera is always on” may be the worst and most potentially destructive piece of advice I’ve ever heard given to young conductors. It’s certainly right up there with “be a complete dick to everyone and wear a cape to work,” “be a real maestro and make the effing soloist follow you” and “never look a score outside rehearsal until the day of a concert.” It’s probably even worse that “you can leave out the exposition repeat if you want to.”
Actually, it’s not even close- “the camera is always on” is in a different league of bad conducting advice from almost anything else I can imagine any teacher, colleague, employer or mentor suggesting. Being a jerk, being inflexible, even being incompetent are all behaviours that will instantly get you a lot of negative feedback. You’ll either learn your lesson quickly, or cease to conduct.
Making your appearance on the podium a prime concern, however, is more like giving yourself a little bit of cancer. By the time you know the damage you’ve done, it’s too late. In fact, not only will you not get much negative feedback when you first do it, you’ll probably get a fair bit of positive feedback when you start conducting as if “the camera is always on..” It may even help you get an audition or win a job.
But just as a smoking a cigarette can make you feel good, but smoking cigarettes will probably age you prematurely, give you emphysema, lung cancer and cause your death, playing to, or should I say conducting to the camera, may work wonders in the short term (and grad school is the shortest term of them all), but the road it will take you down is likely to be just as ruinous.
So why is this such bad advice? Don’t all conductors, even all performers, kind of want to look cool? Don’t we live in a visual world, and isn’t conducting a visual medium? Am I just being some kind of moralistic fuddyduddy who can’t accept that “the camera is always on” is just sound, pragmatic advice for the modern conductor in the modern world?
Allow me to share a cautionary tale.
About a year before I heard the phrase “the camera is always on” used in the context of conducting, I saw a concert at a major international festival that really got me thinking about this very issue. On the podium was a young-ish conductor with a HUGE career. Ever since he came on the scene, folks have been talking about how charismatic he is, how talented he is, what great hands he’s got, and how the camera loves him. (No, I’m not naming names, and no, it was not Dudamel). I’d seen him before a number of times, both live and on TV, and although I’d never been particularly won over by his musicianship, it only took me seconds to see what everyone was talking about. He was what is known, in the parlance of our time, as “the complete package.” It was also clear to me that he was someone who took his appearance very, very seriously, and who was keenly aware that the camera was on. To his credit, he’d mastered his relationship with the camera- the camera worked for him, it served him, it loved him. Everything he did looked great, every gesture looked like a CD cover.
But the last time I saw this maestro, his complete package was looking like it had been damaged during shipment. What I saw that night was someone teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It looked to me like all he could think about was what he looked like, what move to do next, what pose to strike for the nex t CD cover. He seemed totally disconnected from the music, and completely consumed with anxiety about when to do the next hair toss or when to unleash the next thunderclap downbeat. He looked awkward, nervous, neurotic and like he might simply stop at any time. In spite of his enormous fee and army of lackeys, I felt bad for him. It’s amazing how fast envy can change to pity.
Why couldn’t he move with the grace and flair he’d had in spades only twelve months earlier? I think he’d forgotten about what motivates us to move as conductors. I suspected that the obsession with his visual style had driven him to a point where he couldn’t figure out how to make decisions about what visual effect he wanted to achieve from moment to moment.
Music making is something that happens at astonishing speed- there’s little time to decide which move to use next when you’re on the podium, especially if you’re trying to figure out what the basis of your decision is going to be. Of course, we all want to look cool, but what is cool? How am I to know in the heat of the moment whether people will think my “Kleiber-esque lefthand swirlyque” or my “Lenny twitch” or my “Reiner-rhino stare” will look coolest? How do I decide what will look best on camera in the middle of a Mahler symphony?
A few years ago, I wrote a post about audition videos, in which I admitted that in this day and age, if you want to get a job audition, you’ve got to have a video that presents you as someone who looks like what the people watching your video expect a conductor to look like. You need to look like what the fourth sarrusophone player learned a conductor was supposed to look like when he took undergraduate conducting thirty years ago at Northeast Sheboygan Community and Veterinary College. Back then, I was still resigned to the fact that being able to look a certain way on the podium at a certain time was probably a hoop one has to jump through at some point in your career.
But would you choose a surgeon to operate on you based on how they looked on a video? “Oh! He looks very medical! I’ll let him do that heart valve replacement I’ve been needing!” Conducting may not be heart surgery, rocket science, or even oboe playing, but most people on orchestral search committees don’t know any more about conducting than they do about the inner workings of the mitral valve. Imagine hiring a sign language interpreter on the basis of how cool you thought they looked, and not realizing that they’re just making things up and don’t actually know sign language?Wait…. Didn’t this just happen?
But the real problem is not that evaluating a conductor on the basis of how they look is unhelpful (although it is), it’s that trying to make your conducting look they way you think people want it to look is deeply self-destructive.
The “camera is always on” highway is a road to nowhere, because once you adopt that approach, you stop learning your craft. The only place you can learn to conduct is on the podium, and the only way you can learn what works and what doesn’t is to listen to the results of the gestures you make.
We have to listen REALLY hard, and we have to be constantly evaluating the musical efficacy of every twitch, jerk, flutter, stab and sweep. We have to listen to see if raising our eyebrows at the clarinets gets a brighter sound. We have to listen to see if smiling at the violins gets them to play more off the string, or moving the baton a little lower stops the trumpets from rushing. We have to listen to see if a more pointed beat helps the orchestra to stay with you or makes them drag.
Combining generative and reactive hearing on the podium is a difficult balancing act
And one can’t just be reactive! One’s generative hearing (the process of creating an aural picture in your imagination) also needs to be strong. Every single second we’re up there, we’ve got to think about what’s coming next, holding inside you your concept of sound, balance, phrasing, and you have to think about every single detail of articulation, intonation and texture the composer is after. We also have to be responsive to the musicians in front of us, building on their strengths, engaging with their creativity, helping them play with confidence and learning from their experience.
If we’re not constantly aware of what we’re after, what we’re doing and what we’re getting, we will never, ever, ever, ever improve as conductors. And if you’re not improving, you’re getting worse.
I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to be focusing on how they look while conducting and really hearing everything an orchestra is doing at the same time. We may all just have to accept that there are going to be moments on our videos that don’t look cool. One will find other ways, off the podium, to improve them, but at the end of the day, if you look a little awkward, if your posture seems a little strange, if you’re breaking all the rules you learned in conducting school, then that may well be the price you pay for getting the best possible musical result on a given day. How do we know if we got the best possible musical result? By listening to the orchestra at every second in every rehearsal for years and years, and constantly evaluating whether what you were doing was helping or hurting.
(You can see both tummy and underpants in this video of one of the greatest and most successful recording sessions in music history.Apparently, nobody told him the camera was on that day. Sadly, Sir Georg did not advance to the live round of the auditions for Assistant Conductor of the Bi-Cities Community Sightreading Society on the basis of this audition video)
Updates and comments-
It’s been great to see the strong response to this post. Thanks for reading and for sharing it.
There are some interesting points made in the comments, and I want to just add a few quick follow-up thoughts.
Thanks again for reading, everyone
If you enjoyed this post and want to learn more about how conducting really works, why not come to my talk at The Bridgewater Hall next month?
International Concert Series
You’ll see me dissect some fascinating footage of great conductors of the past and work with a young conductor in a masterclass with an orchestra of talented musicians from the RNCM
Well, once I broke the seal yesterday and put together my 2013 Repertoire Report, I couldn’t really resist filling in my missing report from last year. So, herewith, my 2012 Repertoire Report.
Interesting points of comparison with 2013:
No Shostakovich in 2012 (compared to Cello Concerto, Chamber Symphony opus 83a, Symphonies 5 and 14 and the 8th String Quartet in 2013)
A lot more Brahms in 2012 than 2013, and (finally) one major work by Bartók.
Some very interesting new pieces and new composer- particularly my first encounters with Robert Saxton, John McCabe and Deborah Pritchard. Conducting my first Tippett was a HUGE awakening, too. A revelation, even.
What did you conduct last year? Send in your list (firstname.lastname@example.org ), and we’ll publish it and add it to the archive.
Most played composer of 2012: Beethoven (7 works)
It’s that time of year again here at Vftp Int’l Headquarters…
Repertoire Report Season- that exciting time when we look back at the year that just ended and take stock of who has been conducting and playing what. I really can’t believe it’s already been a year since I filed the last one.
Actually, it’s been two years. This time last year, I was so busy preparing over 170 minutes of music for the sessions for Auricolae; The Double Album (coming out in May, we hope) that I skipped Repertoire Report Season altogether. That means that my last report was actually for 2011, rather than 2012. Sorry!
Anyway- it’s fun to do this, and remember, I’m very happy to post YOUR repertoire report here. Just email it to email@example.com and we’ll add it to the archive, and Tweet it to the world.
Here’s a key to the symbols you’ll see in the list below:
Composer with most pieces on the list: Mozart (8 pieces)
Other composers who did well
I’m pleased to see that there are two living composers on that list, plus two composers whose life-spans overlapped with mine (Britten and Shostakovich).
Other points of interest:
I conducted only two Beethoven symphonies this year, which is low for me, and I conducted them on consecutive days. I also conducted two Mendelssohn symphonies this year, also on consecutive days with the same two orchestras. This was completely accidental. I was very excited to conduct two symphonies by Bruckner for the first time in a calendar year (albeit not on the same weekend), although I’d known the 7th backwards for most of my life and had workshopped it before. The Second was completely new to me, and I can’t wait to do it again. It’s now on my “I really have to record” list.
On the other hand, in 2013, I didn’t conduct any Mahler symphonies at all- a first since I started doing repertoire reports. Fortunately, I’ll do at least 3 next year (No.s 7, 5 and 4). 2013 was the fifth year in a row I recorded a major orchestral work(s) of Hans Gál. Now that the symphonic cycle is in the can, can I keep that momentum going? We’re hoping to record the Cello Concertino soon, but everything is still in pencil. Once we get the recording of the First done, I’ll need to take some time to see what we can do next on that front.
The bad news this year? No Bartók, no Stravinsky, no Debussy, no Ravel, no Janacek, no Messsiaen, no Prokofiev. Did I really not conduct a Brahms or Haydn symphony all year? Crikey. The good news? Finally, a year with more than one work by a “New Viennese” school composer (Schoenberg and Berg).
Speaking of firsts- 2013 is the first year in which any of my own music has appeared on one of these lists. Thanks to the combined miracles of deadlines, shame, pressure, coffee, support-from-friends, determination, booze and fear-of-failure I managed to finally shake off 15+ years of writers block and finish and perform two decent sized pieces. I’m not sure premiering your own music is ideal, but it sure is humbling- you sit down at the instrument knowing every note, but not being able to play any of them well.
It’s a longer list than the most recent one from 2011: 84 works versus 66. 2010 was a bit longer at 90 pieces. What pleases me, however, is that I think it’s the most interesting list I’ve come up with so far in my career. There are a lot of major pieces on here that anyone would consider a rare privilege to perform, works that are difficult to play or program, particularly dark or forbidding (Berg Chamber Concerto, Sibelius 4, Shostakovich 14- all from the month of June- spring to mind), contemporary works (I count 19 living composers). Also, all those composers with *’s (10-11 new composers for me this year): it’s so important and inspiring for performers to learn new musical languages. For instance- I’d never conducted anything by John Adams- learning the Violin Concerto took a lot of work, but understanding it took way more, and was incredibly rewarding. I expect to do more of his music in the years ahead.
Here’s the full list:
It’s that time of year again, when musicians all around the world are taking another stab at Handel’s Messiah. For me, it means coming back to a piece I’ve done many times after a long-ish break.
Handel, lookin’ suave- Extensive research has shown Vftp blog posts with pictures get more hits
I didn’t always love Messiah. In fact, when I first encountered it, I really disliked it. In my small-minded way, I couldn’t help but compare it damningly with Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, a piece I’d always loved and knew more intimately. (For all the complexity of his music, I think Bach is one of the easiest composers to “get.” I can’t think of any Bach piece I couldn’t tell was a work of genius the first time I heard it, no matter how awful the performance or how discombobulated my thinking. I can’t think of another composer I can say that about). There are still moments in the libretto of Messiah that really bother, even upset me.
Of course, recognizing that a piece of music is not as great a work as the Saint Matthew Passion is no great act of critical discernment- the same could be said of every other piece of music ever written with the possible exception of the Schubert Cello Quintet and Bohemian Rhapsody.
Eventually, however, if one has ears to listen , one realizes that a piece you might not have loved on first sight is good- maybe even great.
Then, you start figuring out why it is great, and the more you figure out, the greater you realize it is. For a conductor, this is about the time that you seriously start itching to “do” the piece, and through study and performance, you hope to find a sort of beneficial cycle of practical experience and genuine insight.
Long time readers of this blog will recognize that I’m a big believer that as musicians, we owe the composer the benefit of the doubt. As often discussed on these pages, any idiot can see that the “invasion theme” in Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony is pretty repetitious, and rather obviously “un-symphonic.” After all, he’s replaced the development section of a symphony with something two or three times as long as a “normal” development section in which essentially no development takes place. I’m amazed that many good musicians still can’t seem to get past this- it seems obvious that Shostakovich knew he was breaking the rules. Don’t we owe him the benefit of the doubt to find out why? When a great composer frustrates us, when the music disappoints our expectations, there’s usually a very good reason.
Dmitri Shostakovich- you’d be amazed how many people come to this blog just looking for a picture of Mr.DSCH
Back when I didn’t care for Messiah, one of my gripes was that so many movements seem to cover awfully similar musical territory. As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to understand that what at first seems like torturously pointless repetition is really an extremely sophisticated large-scale structural plan that is actually, in a way, quite symphonic (I’m talking about Messiah, not Shostakovich 7). This time around, I’ve been particularly struck by the way that the big ideas of the piece emerge from the fabric of what comes before. There’s possibly no more galvanizing-ly powerful moment in choral music than the bit in the Hallelujah chorus with the sequence “And He shall reign.” How interesting that the musical substance of that passage has long been coming into being, evolving gradually from near the very beginning of the work, with the similar descending sequence in “Let all the angels of God worship Him” and the rising fourths to the word “goodwill” in “Glory to God” marking major landmarks on the road to this moment.
Of course, 99% of the people who hear this music at all hear “Hallelujah” long before they hear any other part of Messiah (if they ever get beyond “Hallelujah” at all), and yet, to me the sort of super-charged joyful intensity that particular passage has in “Hallelujah” seems to be somehow informed by the journey that precedes it. A listener hearing the chorus for the first time won’t know this, but just about everyone seems to sense that there’s something about this music that is suffused with energy.
The opening of “Hallelujah” used to kind of mystify me, too. The first three bars seem so ordinary (and so many performances of them sound so WOODEN)- they just sort of trot along with a kind of inside-out, non-descript wordless version of what will become the “Hallelujah” theme. Why didn’t Handel come up with a more dramatic opening? And why only three bars? Surely a four-bar intro would have been more powerful- was he just being fancy? Lazy? And why not let the violins play the real theme? I always think it’s funny that audiences traditionally stand as soon as the movement starts- surely it’s the music in the fourth bar, when the choir sings the first “Hallelujah” that should make you want to jump out of your seat. Conductors so often seem wrong footed by these three bars, as if we don’t really know what to do with them. Many go for the “just try something” approach- we might try the “amp up the pomposity” approach or the “show ‘em your Birkenstock’s” extra-HIP version. Handel doesn’t help- there’s no dynamic in the intro, nor is there one for the entrance of the chorus. There are lots of possibilities, but I’ve also heard a lot of unsuccessful stabs at “the REALLLLLLY soft opening” or “the conspicuous crescendo.” Let’s face it, whether you bulk it up with Brucknerian steroids or make it extra mincy, it’s just three bars of medium tempo trotting with the tune turned inside out.
Yet Handel, who knew a thing or two about drama having written who-knows-how-many operas (forty-two or forty-six depending on what you count) by this point in life, knew exactly what he was doing, which is obvious if we give him the benefit of the doubt. This sort of seemingly non-descript “trotting” music has actually permeated the work up to this point. That was always one of my problems with the piece when I was young and taking in the work one movement at a time. When you’ve just heard “And he shall purify,” doesn’t “For unto us a Child is born” sound eerily similar? Medium temp, jolly, trotting eighth-note groove, a melody in moderate note values and a bit of sixteenth-notey coloratura. Then there’s “His yoke is easy.” Similar tempo, similar tune, just a slightly jazzier flourish to those sixteenth-notey runs. Fast forward a few tracks, and you’ve got “All we like sheep.” Sure it’s funnier than the others, in ways both intentional and unintentional (sheep jokes just get funnier and funnier the longer I live in Wales), but it’s still that same trotting bass line, the same mid-tempo grove, with thematic gestures similar in length and shape to those in “For unto us.”
I’ve certainly heard MANY performances that left me thinking that Handel was probably just trying to cover all this theological bases with some thinly spread recycled stock musical ideas, but experience teaches that the failing in these cases was in the performance, not the piece. Over the years, I became convinced that a lot of this was to do with tempo and put a lot of thought into making sure that I wouldn’t fall into the “universal tempo” trap, trying to highlight the differences between these admittedly similar movements, and actively seeking out the textual motivations for those differences. This time, however, I’m realizing that for all it’s important to do that (like most music lovers, I have come close to chewing my own arm off to relieve the boredom during an ill-conceived Messiah), it’s also important for me to realize that Handel, the dramatist, knew what he was doing, and that the similarities are very much part of the point. Those similarities are obvious, so it’s likely they’re both intentional and important. Why?
All of these choruses seem to be on one level about expectation, about the promise of divinity. They all sing about what humanity hopes or expects or believes divine intervention will bring to the world.
If you’ve had this idea of expectation in mind every time you’ve heard those seemingly banal trotting eighth notes over the previous 90 minutes, then surely those first three bars of “Hallelujah” can be seen as literally bursting with anticipation, with tension, with barely contained joy. After all the waiting, after all the hoping, the endless expectation, in these three bars we’re literally standing on the threshold of the vision the piece has been seeking throughout. Of course, I can now see why the choir comes in after just three bars- this close to the moment in which the biggest of all promises is fulfilled, nobody could expect them to wait one moment longer, let alone a fourth bar.
Marvin Rabin, founder of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras, Greater Boston Youth Orchestras and Kentucky Youth Symphony has passed away at the age of 97. Marvin was one of the most universally admired and loved people I have ever encountered in the music world- a man remembered with deep affection by seemingly everyone who played under his baton, and deeply respected by every colleague he worked with.
Two great conductors and beloved mentors, Jim Smith and Marvin Rabin, chatting at the UW Madison Symphony concert, November 2, 2013
I last saw Marvin only a few weeks ago at my concert with the UW-Madison Symphony. It meant the world to me that he came to the concert because the main work on the program, Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony, had been the first piece of orchestral music I had ever heard live- played by WYSO under Marvin’s baton when I was just a very little boy. After the concert, we spoke at length about the piece, and Marvin’s intimate knowledge and love of the score was as inspiring as ever. Although he had not conducted the piece in decades, he remembered every metronome marking- something far too many conductors never bother to learn in the first place. Although Marvin’s eyesight and hearing had both been failing in recent years, it was clear to me that he had taken in every note and every nuance of that concert, and every other one he had been to in recent years, through sheer force of will and love of the art. Marvin was pleased to know I was living and working in Britain, and talked with great fondness about the year he came to this country to observe how the British youth orchestra programs worked. “My favourite program,” he told me, “was the one founded by Béla de Csilléry in Kent.” This moment, when the man who opened the door to me being a conductor talked about watching rehearsals at the Kent County Youth Orchestra, where I’ve been conducting regularly for nearly a decade, really hit home how deeply connected we all are in life.
Marvin was, by all accounts, both a great musician and a great music educator, and he also understood how to create youth orchestras that had the right organizational framework and the right outlook to give young people a chance to experience great music first hand. Having conducted WYSO through its early years with great success, Marvin was that rare founder of an organization who was able to step aside gracefully. He was always available to the board, the organization and his successors as resource, sounding board or cheerleader, but never seemed to need to remind the world of his role in establishing the program.
I never had the privilege of watching one of Marvin’s clinics or coachings, but I’ve heard a number of music educators and conductors speak with awe of his ability to transform an orchestra of young players with a few suggestions, and to open the eyes of a colleague in profound way with a few gently shared insights into a score.
There is a moving and informative tribute from Jake Stockinger at The Well-Tempered Ear here. “… he made understanding music and making music seem like completely natural and totally necessary, even inevitable, acts. “
In 2011, Marvin received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wisconsin School Music Foundation. He was only the third recipient, the first being Les Paul. The foundation asked a number of us to record little video greetings talking about the ways in which Marvin had touched our lives. I thought I would include it here as a personal testament to the affection, admiration and gratitude he continues to inspire in so many of us who were lucky enough to come into contact with him.
PS- Recent thoughts on the impact of WYSO here.
I thought some readers might be interested in a little essay I contributed to the current edition of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras’ newsletter. A text version follows the scan.
Youth orchestras are incredibly important- they make a huge difference in all kinds of young people’s lives. Support the one in your community!
When I was still in preschool, my teacher took a few of us to hear Marvin Rabin rehearsing WYSO for an upcoming performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. My parents had an LP of the piece at home, but hearing that music live, and seeing young musicians play it so well was a transformational moment for me. It set me on the path to a lifelong engagement with orchestras, with Shostakovich, and with conducting. From that moment, I was determined to be a member of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra.
Once I joined the orchestras, my years in WYSO were full of important firsts. Tom Buchhauser made every Philhramonia rehearsal exciting and enjoyable. Working with David Nelson, I remember playing the music of Mahler and Dvorák for the first time. As a senior, I was doubly lucky to be there for the arrival of James Smith as music director, and to be promoted to principal cellist. I had never felt anything was missing from my WYSO experiences up to that point, but Jim’s wisdom, musicianship, leadership and humor totally transformed the orchestra that year. Every rehearsal with Jim was productive, inspiring and challenging. We only studied about half as much repertoire as we had in previous seasons, but under Jim, we learned it in real depth. For a young musician who had already developed more than a passing interest in conducting, Jim was a perfect example of what a conductor should be, and what a great conductor can contribute to an organization. When that incarnation of WYSO finished its run after an East Coast tour, there were a lot of teary goodbye’s, but, happily, many of us have stayed in touch ever since. People I worked with in WYSO continue to be friends and colleagues to this day.
Jim set the bar very high in WYSO. Just how high I learned after graduation when I began my undergraduate studies in cello at Indiana University’s School of Music. On my first concert in the freshman orchestra, we played the very piece that we’d worked on with Jim for all of the previous year- Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony. I was so excited to do the piece with all these amazing music majors from all over the country, but in spite of a wealth of talent in the group, without the right kind of leadership, and an institutional commitment to excellence, the performance fell far short of what we’d managed in WYSO just a few months before. From WYSO I learned that the true measure of an orchestra is not how many hotshot players you can cram on stage, but getting them to work together, and making every rehearsal the best it can be.
I’ve conducted just about every kind of orchestra there is now, from the Royal Philharmonic right down to the most modest gathering of amateurs, but working with young musicians has remained a constant source of inspiration. During my years in Oregon, I founded a new youth orchestra, which has produced a number of wonderful young musicians in its first ten years, and WYSO was very much the model for that organization. Likewise, whenever I guest conduct youth orchestras, I try to remember it’s about more than putting on a concert. The lessons learned and discoveries made in WYSO shaped me as a musician, and serve as a reminder that youth orchestra is a place to open doors that can change lives forever.
It’s less than forty-eight hours now until recording sessions begin for volume 4 of Bobby and Hans- the complete symphonies of Hans Gal and Robert Schumann. We’re all very excited that the day is nearly at hand. YOU made it happen!
Interest in the project continues to pick up. Performance Today, American Public Media’s national digest of live classical music, has just rebroadcast our performance of Schumann’s 2nd Symphony, recorded in December 2011 as part of the sessions for volume 2 in the series. They’ve also included a selection from our recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, sung by the incomparable tenor Brennen Guillory. You can listen to the program online until Thursday the 5th of December here.
Also in America, Listen Magazine has published a new essay on “The Case for Hans Gal.” It’s in the Winter 2013 issue- on newsstands now or subcribe online. You can get a sneak peak here.
Finally, this memorable graphic from Zoe was one of the iconic images of the campaign:
Well, thanks to your generosity and tenacity, we can now fill in the blank box with the cover for vol 4, which will be released in March:
Photo by Benjamin Ealovega
We look forward to seeing many of you on Tuesday. Thank you so much for your support!
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