Bill Faucett’s delightful, sober, and beautifully researched “John Sullivan Dwight: The Life and Writings of Boston’s Musical Transcendentalist” has the merit of a good portrait. The subject comes vividly to life through careful contextualization but is not reduced to context or explained by context. The more we gaze, the more we are struck by the sitter’s personal idiosyncrasy and free agency. Take, for example, the portrait of the composer Christoph Willibald Gluck by Duplessis, painted in Paris in 1775, a copy of which hung in Dwight’s living room in the late years of his life. Gluck is firmly located in time and space by his clothes and harpsichord, but he gazes freely upward to heaven in a moment of timeless inspiration. Gluck’s soul seems to transcend circumstances, irreducibly personal and noumenal. Faucett does something analogous with John Sullivan Dwight. He provides abundant details that anchor Dwight solidly in his generation and in XIXth -century Boston, but he emphasizes the transcendent spirit that inspired him to act and the moral sense that guided him.
Like Duplessis with Gluck, Faucett coaxes Dwight to reveal himself. Consequently, we have a rich, full-bodied human story that grabs our attention without dulling our interest. Dwight’s very real importance as a key player in shaping the culture of classical music in Boston for a brief but decisive time frames Faucett’s narrative, but never overshadows the deeper story of a fellow human being grappling with life and death, beauty and meaning, passion and finitude. Mon semblable, mon frère – not in turpitude and guilt, as Baudelaire meant it, where we find a sort of perverse safety, but in spiritual yearning and idealism, where we are vertiginously exposed, vulnerable. “I simply preached the faith that was in me” Dwight declared. Faucett paints Dwight for us as uniquely combining self-drive and modesty — driven equally by his uncompromising love of music and distaste for all that dazzles without enlightening. The fact that so few of us know his name and must discover his ideas from scratch is subtly part and parcel of who he was.
A uniquely gifted American composer, David Del Tredici left us some remarkably rich music. “An experimentalist who leaned into New Romanticism,” an NY Times sidebar reads, referring to the frank and unabashed tonal lyricism of several of his works inspired by Lewis Carroll. He was the first West Coast composer I ever knew in person, a California native who had started out as a concert pianist.
In the usually very popular post-thanksgiving subscriptions concerts (Friday afternoon and Saturday night), an instrument more associated with big bands takes pride of place on the Symphony Hall stage as BSO Assistant Conductor Earl Lee leads the sultry, atmospheric 1949 Saxophone Concerto by French composer Henri Tomasi; as soloist Steven Banks makes his BSO debut. The show opens with a very French symphonic poem, César Franck’s Le Chasseur maudit — “The Cursed Hunter” —based on a ballad about a man who commits the grave sin of hunting on the Sabbath and is doomed to be chased eternally by demons. The closer, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, opens with the famous “fate” motif, before composer’s great gift for beautiful melody sweetens it. Tickets HERE. Our brief discussion with Earl Lee follows.
FLE: Franck’s Le Chasseur maudit (Accursed Huntsman) surprisingly isn’t actually a BSO rarity. Starting with Gericke in 1901, it was done every ten years or so up through Monteux in 1920. Since then it’s been revived every 20-30 years or so. What accounts for its minor durability among the Franck symphonic poems?
Words cannot do justice to the long-time NEC composer-flautist-teacher-conductor-theorist-historian who died last July. The breadth of his experience and career far outweighs what I can put into words, even as someone who had the luxury of being so closely involved in his orbit. It is fitting, then, that New England Conservatory will be hosting a memorial concert for him on October 23rd, 2023, what would have been his 85th birthday, at 4 PM in Jordan Hall. Among the speeches, many of his works will be performed, including the poignant Serenade for flute and harp that he composed after the death of his beloved wife Arlene and several songs from his cycle Five Songs from James Joyce for mezzo-soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano (of which I will be conducting). His other composer interests, Ives, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky will be well-represented, too, along with other pieces of note that Mr. Heiss commented on at length at different times. This event promises to be NEC’s proper moving tribute to one of the most important and highly regarded professors to have ever graced the hall of Jordan Hall building. I am forever grateful, John Heiss. Know that, wherever you are.
Early American music has been a part of The Boston Camerata’s repertoire since the beginning of its recording history. It is with a vivid interest and joy that we have, over the years, included our own North American musical heritage in our concerts and recordings. A recent Harmonia Mundi recording, Free America! Songs of Resistance and Rebellion, appeared in 2019. We’ll Be There, their newest Americana program, featuring Black- and White- American spirituals from 1800-1900, comes to Trinity Church in Copley Square on October 21st at 5:00 and to the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury on October 22nd at 4:00. Information and tickets HERE.
We’ll Be There moves chronologically and focuses most intensely on the African American presence in the repertoire. The rewards of such work are great, but the challenges are mighty. Because of terrible social inequities and injustices, early written musical sources of Black songs, prior to the choir arrangements of the late 19th century, are far too few. Thus the few precious written songbooks, as well as the collaborative memory and ongoing oral tradition of the Black community provided sources of some of the deepest regenerative forces in American musical life. A program essay follows.
Jonathan Cohen launches his first season as Handel and Haydn Artistic Director with Handel’s epic Israel in Egypt at Symphony Hall on October 6th and 8th Tickets HERE. We asked Cohen some questions such as “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
JC: The opening night of the season is a very special one for me as it is my first concert in my new capacity as Artistic Director of H+H. I chose this wonderful piece for several reasons; first the music is extraordinary, monumental Handel with double chorus and a colourful orchestral tapestry; second, we get to showcase our extraordinary home talent and can celebrate the wonderful strengths of the musicians and singers of H+H; third, Israel in Egypt (and Messiah) was highly likely heard in London by Haydn and served (in my opinion) as Haydn’s inspiration for his choral compositions, especially The Creation. Israel in Egypt is therefore a symbolic piece in the connection between Handel and Haydn.
We reprint our well-remembered 2016 feature and interview with Russell Sherman. He died last night at 93.
Russell Sherman’s eagerly awaited annual faculty recital on April 3rd at Jordan Hall will feature works long connected with him: Schoenberg’s Three Pieces for Piano, Op. 11, Beethoven’s Sonata for Piano No. 21 in C Major, Op. 53 “Waldstein”, Debussy’s Préludes, Book 2, and Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes (12) for Piano, S 139, No. 2 in A Minor: Molto vivace, No. 9 in A-flat Major “Ricordanza”, No. 10 in F Minor: Allegro agitato molto. He tells us he plays them differently each time. He can also imitate other famous pianists. He has lots to say in a free-form interview which follows the break. Youngish concertgoers and musicians who are not yet old will find it very difficult to imagine either the sea change that took place in the classical music environment in mid-1960s Boston, or the elevation of informed discourses thereon. The reason was the arrivals of accomplished musicologist Michael Steinberg at the Globe, then the working hornist, educator, and composer Gunther Schuller, who, as NEC president, engaged the serious piano prodigy (and Edward Steuermann student) Russell Sherman. Along with Brendel, Rosen, Kovacevich and a few others, Sherman opened our ears, hearts, and minds to fresh hearings of familiar classics, as well as to much new music. Soon after Sherman arrived, Steinberg wrote of his performance of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5:
Russell Sherman died last night at 93. He was the piano guru of the Boston area for over 55 years, having arrived during that revolutionary decade which saw the comings of Gunther Schuller, Michael Steinberg, Victor Rosenbaum, Thomas Dunn, and others. Sherman’s playing at the time — he had been a prodigy long before, and had read literary criticism as a Columbia student age 15 — was grounded in strong, fearless, colorful technique and interpretation alike, his rangy imagination informed by great score fealty. Please also read our reprint of a fascinating interview with Russell Sherman from 2016 HERE.
Fortunately or unfortunately, Sherman became labeled a thinking man’s pianist, although never showing the sometime gray fussiness of Alfred Brendel or the sometime colorless drabness of Charles Rosen, his similar contemporaries. (I once arranged for the latter and Sherman to have dinner, after which Rosen opined, typically, “He is an extremely interesting pianist and musician not of the top tier.” To which Michael Steinberg retorted, “Ha, exactly as is Charles. Well, to have been a fly on that wall.”)
“The family friendly transmedia opera combining Bunraku puppetry, computer generated images, and live opera. MONKEY is based on the Chinese quest saga, “Journey to the West,” rewritten to reflect contemporary issues from the multicultural mosaic of American life. Besides the two fundamental operatic elements of text and music, the three main characters — Monkey, Pig (Zhu), and Sandwoman (Sha) — are life sized Bunraku puppets. MONKEY delves into the world of computer generated technology through the use of CGI environs and avatars. Live singers on stage will be the voices of the puppets and avatars.” Continues tonight and tomorrow afternoon at the Emerson Paramount Center. Kathy Wittman’s rehearsal pictures appear below the break. Tickets HERE. Our review is HERE.
“Robert Craft: The Complete Columbia Album Collection,” a handsomely produced set of 44 CDs issued by Sony Classical, includes a 123-page accompanying booklet beginning with my six-page essay, “A Tireless Worker for the Music of Our Time,” along with photographs and a comprehensive listing of performers and recording data. You can get the whole thing HERE for $5.45 per disc.
Much of this set brings back to an eager audience a recorded legacy of historic importance. It reissues on remastered CDs what many of us have still treasured in our collections of vinyl LPs for many decades, beginning with the pathbreaking four-LP set of the complete works of Anton Webern, opp. 1-31. Many of these pieces were known for years, but previously unrecorded, and in some cases unpublished in score. The legend is that all of Webern’s works for orchestra, from the Passacaglia, op. 1, through the Six Pieces, op. 6, to the final Cantatas opp. 29 and 31, were recorded in just two hours of leftover time from Stravinsky recording sessions. Webern’s many songs (opp. 3, 4, 8, 12-19, 23, and 25) were divvied up by sopranos Grace-Lynne Martin and Marni Nixon* (suppressed as and later famous as the singing voices of Audrey Hepburn, Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood, Jeanne Crain and Marilyn Monroe), whose pitch accuracy Craft once described as “better than violin.” Another essential part of the Webern legend is that Craft’s four-LP set was the best-selling multiple-disc classical album ever, though it hardly seemed credible even in the early 1960s, when I heard the story from Milton Babbitt.