William Grant Still

The Boston Civic Symphony will begin its season with an ambitious livestreamed concert broadcast free on Sunday at 3:00 from the First Church in Cambridge [access stream HERE]. I spoke with conductor Francisco Noya about how the Symphony has put together the concert, what it has been like to rehearse with masks and social distancing, and how our moment in time influences programming. The conversation began with the usual icebreakers:

FN: I’m very, very well, thank you, though it has been a very strange year. For the first time in twenty years I find myself without having to worry about preparing a concert for the coming week, but there has been plenty to do ― I teach remotely, I have been studying scores, and I’m constantly in contact with my colleagues all over, including in Latin America and Europe, to see what they are doing and what they are able to put together.

BJS: About your Sunday concert ― I’m happy to see a large local ensemble finding a way to do something live.

Oh, we’re not large ― we’re very much smaller than usual. [continued…]

A Far Cry rose above the calamitous times Saturday night with creativity, grace and a gift for conviviality, delivering a riveting and deeply satisfying soirée concertante prerecorded in Pickman Hall. “Dawn Breaks” is available for purchase HERE.

   [continued]

“BCMS@Home” leaves me in a conundrum. The ensemble’s recently produced 73-minute video and hour of archival audio from 2017 and 2019, albeit familiar and comforting, join a crowded marketplace of recordings.    [continued]

The real Alice

During its decade of existence, the self-styled “activist opera company” White Snake Projects, founded by librettist Cerise Jacobs, has provided Boston with operas based on Chinese fables (including one that went on to win the Pulitzer for music for composer Zhou Long), a combination CGI and live action videogame saga, a supremely unlikely comical extra chapter to the Book of Revelation, a heartfelt meditation on cultural dislocation and governmental cruelty, and more— BMInt’s index shows ten related reviews and articles.

Such an output of well-produced new works would exceed expectations from many larger operations, according to the publicist, yet from the its beginning the company has also insistently strained against the boundaries of the possible, tirelessly searching for a mousehole from which further White Snake Projects could roar.

As the pandemic has caused producers of live performing arts worldwide to reassess business models, Jacobs and White Snake Projects have proved fleet of foot, first presenting a digital edition of the community song laboratory Sing Out Strong: DeColonized Voices [BMInt review HERE], and then using the lessons learned therewith to vault to  the virtual opera Alice in the Pandemic, which, they say, brings new depth to Wagner’s Gesamtkunst concept. Alice’s visible and audible elements rest on a virtual Wonderland — a rabbit hole within a rabbit hole — in which a team of tech innovators has toiled for months to imagine, like the White Queen, as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Alice in the Pandemic premieres in cyberspace October 23, through October 27. [continued…]

Having known of Maynard Solomon’s failing during recent months, I am saddened but not surprised to learn of the death of this first-rate musicologist at age 90, after his long and productive life. In 1977 he published what has been widely recognized as the first modern biography of Beethoven, in which he went beyond Thayer-Forbes to explore Beethoven’s personality from the standpoint of a psychologist. This inevitably involved him in deep controversy with scholars and shrinks alike, but Solomon’s painstaking and levelheaded examination of sources, enabled him to make convincing interpretations for Beethoven’s imagined origins, his unending search for compatible women, and his troubled relationships with his younger brothers and nephew. Even without the added imprimatur of a PhD, Solomon’s thoughtful analysis of the historical and documentary circumstances of Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved” brought him to point to Antonie Brentano, to whom Beethoven had dedicated his Diabelli Variations; this interpretation has stood up over the years, despite some angry challenges. Most of the opposition that I can find comes from people who can’t recognize how well-written is Solomon’s book, a book that one can still reread for pure pleasure. There are later books, too, including two more on Beethoven and a Mozart biography, also an Otto Kinkeldey Award from the AMS and three ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards. Many still cherish a whole batch of immortal and beloved vinyl issued by Vanguard Records, the forward-looking company that Maynard Solomon and his brother, Seymour, founded in the 1950s. [continued…]

Russian sixth

The symphonic tradition came relatively late to Russia, but it blossomed rapidly, starting with works of genius like Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, an “overture-fantasy” (1868). Important symphonies soon followed. But first, let me begin with a harmony lesson, showing a harmonic basis that quickly became an emblem in Russian symphonic music:

In this succession, which I call the “Russian sixth,” a root-position major tonic (I) proceeds to a submediant triad (VI) in first inversion, with the tonic note in the bass, and with a chromatic passing tone (raised fifth degree) in between. There are many good examples: the beginning of Borodin’s D major string quartet, the Polovtsian Dances in Prince Igor, the third movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and (spectacularly) the entire Trio section of the 5/4 second movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, in which the equilibrium between D major and B minor constantly shifts. [See my article, “The Russian Submediant in the Nineteenth Century,” Current Musicology 59 (1997), or on my website HERE] [continued…]

Oliver Caplan leads merry masked band.

Boston-based Juventas New Music Ensemble, the subject of many positive reviews on this site, has had surprising success with its free virtual programming. Devoted to the famous composers of tomorrow, the ensemble has, of late, made a virtue of necessity by growing its audience electronically. “American Mirror” [viewable HERE] inaugurated the ensemble’s 16th season in the company of more than 6,500 viewers by the end of a week. Thanks to outstanding musicians, stellar composers, and the superb sound and video from Futura Productions, Juventas seems to have found a very useful niche.

To put this achievement in context, Juventas has an annual budget of only $78,000. By contrast, the Boston Symphony has an annual budget of over $100 million and crossed that same YouTube viewership threshold only twice in the past 12 months.

The Juventas team designed the evening as a three-dimensional experience, drawing on elements that make nights in the concert hall so special. Professor Karen Ruymann of the Boston Conservatory at Berklee ran her signature pre-concert “Composer Conversation” on Zoom. Without the need to travel, all six composers joined audience members from across the country for a lively discussion. The ensemble offered a downloadable program book from its website. And team members hosted a chat room with viewers during the performance. While most classical ensembles are currently offering pre-recorded content, Juventas streamed live, unedited video as the musicians were performing. “It was a little scary for sure, but we wanted to bring our audience the thrill and authenticity of live performance,” says Caplan. As if to prove the concert was live, he even responded to messages from the YouTube chatroom live on camera. [continued…]

Andris Nelsons to continue roles.

During a virtual special announcement cum press conference transmitted from Leipzig and Symphony Hall, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra ceremoniously announced an extension of Andris Nelsons’s contract as BSO Music Director through the 2024-25 season.

Mark Volpe, BSO President and CEO and acting BSO concertmaster Elita Kang presented via live video stream from Symphony Hall, while in a studio in Leipzig, the city’s Mayor Burkhard Jung represented the GHO in announcing the simultaneous extension of Nelsons’ status as Gewandhauskapellmeister. The Boston Symphony Orchestra/Gewandhausorchester Alliance, “an unprecedented multidimensional partnership in the orchestra industry will likewise continue apace through the 2025.

This writer joined 92 watchers on YouTube this morning at 11:30. The Leipzig mise en scène felt relaxed with unmasked and un-distanced presenters willing to touch hands. While neither feed came across in full HD (only 720p), the BSO camera showed the additional disadvantage of underexposed shots with crushed blacks. Lively performances from the Gewandhaus Brass Quintet bookended the warm palaver.

In summary, Burkhard Jung, the Mayor of the City of Leipzig averred that “Everyone is delighted about contract and alliance extensions.” Mark Volpe agrees that the announcement is “very special.” He is thrilled with the continuation of the alliance and the emotional performances Andris Nelson’s leadership with “undefinable yet undeniable chemistry.” He also spoke of “watching Andris and Alice drive by on a golfcart, giving evidence of special era beginning.” [continued…]

The New England Conservatory is beginning to live-stream free Philharmonia (string ensemble) concerts this weekend from Jordan Hall. The performances will entail 20 string players under a single conductor, Hugh Wolff, Lina Gonzáles-Granados, or Christopher Wilkins, and will explore the diversity and beauty of the string ensemble repertoire. All are eager to return to live performance. (NEC has implemented low-latency technology across campus and in the homes of students and faculty, reducing latency to under 15 milliseconds, making it much more like being in the same room with other artists.)

In addition to the larger-ensemble live streams, NEC will be recording and streaming a number of other concerts, including the Balourdet String Quartet (in residence), plus the 36th year of First Mondays concerts curated by cellist Laurence Lesser. (Much more on this from a conversation with Mr. Lesser comes below.)*

A couple of nights ago NEC hosted a talk on cultural equity and diversity as part of their Perspectives Forums. Four distinguished alumni shared their vision of what NEC looks and feels like when it has lived up to its commitment of cultural equity and belonging. This series continues monthly

October Highlights

All virtual performances listed below are free and open to the public. Additional fall concerts are to be announced HERE.

NEC Philharmonia with Hugh Wolff conducting string works by Michael Abels, Chen Yi, and Antonín Dvořák from Jordan Hall.
Sat, October 3 | 7:30pm ET | streamed live from NEC’s Jordan Hall
Tickets: Free live stream HERE. [continued…]

Portland-based Palaver Strings, presents Ready Or Not  followed by a composer and musician conversation on YouTube on October 4th at 7PM . The high-quality livestream concert will preview Palaver’s 3rd full-length studio album, which was recorded at Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, scheduled for release beginning in January 2021. The livestream will feature a selection of pieces from Ready Or Not which includes music by all female identifying composers from the Renaissance through present day. Following the performance Akenya Seymour will join Palaver cellist Matthew Smith for a discussion of her piece Fear the Lamb, commissioned by Palaver in 2019

For too long, women have been shunted to the sidelines of history, their voices silenced and their influence minimized. The history of classical music is no exception, and even the most gifted female musicians were discouraged from pursuing professional careers, their work relegated to the footnotes of music history textbooks. Even today as more opportunities open up for female performers, composers, directors, and producers, these systemic injustices persist. Featuring music from the renaissance to the present day, including pieces commissioned and arranged for Palaver Strings, Ready Or Not celebrates the diverse voices and unique artistic visions of women throughout the ages, who have always made music whether the world was ready or not. [continued…]

Mike Roylance plays tuba

….and behold, the BSO Encore Series has arrived with additional opportunities to hear nine of the most popular performances (many of which BMInt reviewed enthusiastically) from Tanglewood’s Linde Center. Fifty BSO players will feature in the rebroadcasts of content including original compositions by BSO Associate Principal Horn Gus Sebring (written for alphorn and French horn) and folk arrangements by BSO violinist Bonnie Bewick; the world premiere 80 years after its composition of Sonatine for solo viola by acclaimed African-American composer Ulysses Kay; and newly commissioned works for brass ensemble by West Virginia-born composer and jazz pianist Kevin Day and trombonist and composer Chad “Sir Wick” Hughes. Other contemporary composers of color and women composers represented in the programming include Daniel Bernard Roumain, Gabriela Lena Frank, James Lee III, Valerie Coleman, Paquito D’Rivera, Marti Epstein, and Allison Loggins-Hull. Works of Bach, Beethoven, Berio, Brahms, Copland, Dvořák, Hindemith, Mozart, Poulenc, Ravel, Schubert, Schumann, and Stravinsky; traditional American, Scottish, and Irish reels, will also be offered.

Each Thursday at noon, and continuing for a month, the shows will begin with freshly recorded intros, and sometimes a Q & A session done live. [continued…]

BMInt has invited Daniel Orsen, violist and Artistic Director of Jamaica Plain Chamber Music to pen a brief promo for what seems like the first indoor, in-person chamber music concert in greater Boston for some time. Church of the Advent on Beacon Hill will present original and arranged music for string quartet on Friday at 7:30. See more and buy tickets HERE.

For the foreseeable future, in-person music making may be coming from small, local chamber music concerts in the players’ own communities. Jamaica Plain Chamber Music embraces this moment by bringing back live music as safely as possible. Though JPCM started last year with the mission of bringing together the wealth of musical talent in JP in chamber music concerts for our neighbors, the pandemic will bar us from our home at St. John’s Episcopal Church or any other venue in Jamaica Plain. Into the breach, Church of the Advent on Beacon Hill has graciously agreed to host our concerts this fall, so for the time being this will be “Jamaica Plain Chamber Music on Beacon Hill.”  Most of our performers are freelancers or grad-students who, without the institutional support of an orchestra or conservatory teaching position, have been particularly hard hit by the moratorium on concerts. And although readers might not recognize the names of the performers, the quality of the music making is phenomenal.

One often hears athletes talk about the importance of fans; it is the same for musicians. An audience energizes players, and the communication goes both ways. It’s hard to put into words, but we can hear the audience listening. I miss the communal nature and the ephemeral preciousness of a live concert even more. Those fill a spiritual need which recordings or livestreams cannot recreate. We mustn’t forget the ancient ritual: get dressed up, walk into a concert hall with hundreds of other people, dim the lights, and go on a journey together, like the crew of a boat. We are delighted to be playing music again with our friends and colleagues, but would be deeply moved and heartened by the greatest show of love and support for us and what we do, a live audience.           [continued…]

Henry’s band finds new ways to thrive

In ratifying a new contract guaranteeing their jobs through August of 2023, BSO players have agreed to pay cuts averaging 37% in a pain-sharing pact with management to mitigate a $50 million loss of ticket and rental revenue from the organization’s $100 million annual budget.

If and when monies re-materialize, the contract provides for tiered, and possibly retroactive restoration of the cuts.

Official accounts and personal reports of the negotiations portray a union generously offering givebacks for the benefit of the institution, knowing full well that most other working musicians are not so lucky to have employment guarantees.

Management has given back to players by lowering expectations from about 330 services in the outgoing contract to 167 in the first year of the new, concert-less one. (In generally understood parlance, musical services refer to performances, rehearsals, and various outreach; not practice at home, which players nevertheless need to keep up chops.) The memorandum of agreement (MoA) between the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Musicians Association local no. 9-535 of the American Federation of Musicians dated August 24th, leaves determination of workload in years two and three for future discussion. [continued…]

Politicians have forever used and abused composers, artists and performers. In our current dystopia, with the planet beset by climate change, a pandemic, economic instabilities, and facing the possible end of the American Democratic Experiment, life often seems fictional. Into this milieu, versatile musician and author Gerald Elias, creator of a previous mystery series, has cast a thriller, The Beethoven Sequence, released this week, published by Level Best Books [HERE],  explores possible outcomes in a both amusing and cautionary tale. His quick, gripping, and disruptive read stars an unlikely Layton Stolz, a socially awkward welder turned conductor, whose ascent to head a musical cult and, finally, the Presidency of the United States, seems uncannily plausible.

Stolz initially presents as an oafish naïf from rural Colorado, who dreams of a life in classical music, despite virtually no training, only to be rejected by Juilliard, when he finally applies in his early 30s. But Stolz is stolid, persistent. The first half, “Utopia Raised,” explains the motivation that charts the course of Stolz’s life, only lightly foreshadowing the latter, bizarre parts of the second half, “Utopia Razed.” The early chapters let the reader understand how Stolz’s plenteous challenges growing up with a brutal father and a fawning mother set the stage for his many disappointments, odd perceptions, dysphoria and flirtations with delusion and deception. In fact, the bland first chapters subtly hook the reader, so gently that subsequent deaths, justice diverted, blackmail and chases surprise, even stun.

Without revealing the plot, let me say that the story revels in Stolz’s almost happenstance creation of a system of orchestral pursuit that conjures some aspects of El Sistema, the rascally moments of the Music Man and reverential cult-like features of the Suzuki Method. The reader watches with amazement as Stolz rolls them from an initially bumbling effort based on homage to Beethoven’s concepts of liberty, heroism and humanism to, ultimately, a slick, smooth, and secretly sinister organization obliquely founded on some of Beethoven’s most dramatic and deeply felt ideals.  [continued…]

Seiji Ozawa (Shintaro Shiratori)

Seiji Ozawa frequently told students: “Listen! You MUST always listen! Only playing your own music is not enough, you must listen to others. To communicate with others who are playing with you is the core of music. Making harmony and ensemble, that is music!”

Even absent today’s proclamation from Mayor Walsh in celebration of Seiji Ozawa’s 85th birthday, we would have recognized him, to anyone who asked, as the most expressive and balletic conductor we have ever witnessed … especially in his favored repertoire.

I have known this since participating in a Dessoff Choirs Summer Sing of the Berlioz Requiem c. 1963. How could a musical high school student ever forget the two hours of preparation under a very young Ozawa before a very old Leopold Stokowski led us in a performance better-remembered for enthusiasm than for polish?

Flash-forward some decades to a post-performance tête-à-tête in the Symphony Hall green room. When I recalled the earlier inspiring moment, Ozawa, sitting on a sofa only inches away, looked into my eyes and claimed to remember. [continued…]

CEO Volpe has a lot on his mind.

A BSO insider muses on plagues, players, and pay in the context of management’s recent staff reductions and Tuesday’s upcoming vote on player salary givebacks.

Like every other American symphony orchestra, the Boston Symphony is challenged to find an artistic and financial path forward through the labyrinth of the COVID-19 pandemic.

An invisible quasi-living microorganism, relentlessly infectious, spreads fear and death among vast populations. Lockdowns, self-isolation, quarantines, contact tracing, and facemasks prove controversial and only partially effective. Social dislocation, anxiety, staggering loss of life, and massive economic downturn threaten to bring a major power to its knees as it struggles to retain its international preeminence. The US in 2020? How about Venice in the 17th century?        

The other day, I was practicing the dazzling finale of the Vivaldi Violin Sonata in F Minor, Op. 2, No. 10. Though in the score Vivaldi refers to the movement as a Giga, it has all the frenetic fever of a traditional Italian whirling tarantella. I like to think he opted to call it a Giga, a more acceptable designation than the pagan tarantella, in deference to the sensitivities of his Catholic employers at the Ospedale della Pietà, who nevertheless found reason to fire him on more than one occasion.   [continued…]

Boston Landmarks Orchestra under conductor Christopher Wilkins celebrated the centennial of the 19th Amendment last night with music composed by women. The narration, soloists, and prerecorded clips made for a lively online outing.    [continued]

Wandering singers and dancers will re-emerge from the proscenium in a 2012 production that BMInt featured HERE.

Sixteen years after its première, at Le Havre, France, in 2004, and after more than 70 performances in Europe, North America, and Australasia, “Borrowed Light,” an ambitious music-and-dance extravaganza, based on original Shaker songs I gleaned mainly from years of original research at the Shaker Library in Sabbathday Lake Maine, and performed, each time, live by Boston Camerata soloists and dancers, has yet, despite all those  many international touring events (and a bulging pressbook with clippings from all over), to be heard and seen in Boston. And yet, we learned just the other day, in a zoom-y conversation with the production’s brilliant choreographer, Tero Saarinen, that his Helsinki-based company plans to revive it a couple of seasons forward from now. Will the show then manage, somehow, to cross the ocean and be presented, finally, in our own hometown?

Meanwhile, we revel in an upcoming streaming representation thereof. On August 20th, the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival will be streaming (HERE) a “Borrowed Light” performance from its 2012 festival, in which Camerata and the Saarinen Company had been invited for the second time to sing and dance this work at the oldest American summer dance festival, in its historic performance hall. We hope our many Boston friends and supporters (as well as music and dance lovers from everywhere) will enjoy witnessing that extraordinary  interaction among singers and dancers mingling onstage.

I’d like, also, to express a large measure of personal satisfaction from this announced reprise by Jacob’s Pillow. The festival’s Becket, Massachusetts venue is situated only a few miles from the most important historic Shaker settlements. There is a rightness to performing their songs in their part of the world, just as there was a rightness to the many hours of archival library work Anne Azéma and I did at the Sabbathday Lake community in the 1990’s, bring forgotten songs written down in Shaker letteral notation back into today’s world.  In these current days of confusion and turmoil, we all want to choose “something like a star/To stay our minds on and be staid” (Robert Frost). [continued…]

We all heard, and still remember, his early recordings. Nobody played the Brahms D-minor Concerto more mightily or expressively, nor with more persuasive understanding of the music. I first heard him live at Tanglewood in summer 1959 or 1960, playing the Beethoven Third Concerto. Two years later he played in Princeton and I was drafted to turn pages when he played Leon Kirchner’s Sonata. Backstage I mentioned that I had heard him playing the Beethoven at Tanglewood a couple of years before, and he groaned, as if remembering that he hadn’t played so well then, and maybe that was true. “You’re not going to hear me play so well tonight, either,” he said. But he was wrong; if he was tired, it never showed. The Kirchner Sonata came forth with total strength and conviction, as did Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, a superb performance. As a page-turner I had a vivid sense of what Schoenberg had once said to Berg: “If you ever have the opportunity to see the way Mahler ties his necktie, you can learn more counterpoint from this than in two years at the conservatory.”

It was only a few years later that Fleisher’s career became cruelly vitiated by the dystonia that crippled his right hand, again as we all know. But we also know how well he carried on, bringing new energy and interest to the Paul Wittgenstein lefthand repertory, and making LH recordings. Eventually a good part of his RH capability returned; I remember reading about a performance of Franck’s Variations symphoniques that marked his return to the two-handed stage. My last view of him was at George Perle’s memorial in 2009, when he played Bach’s Chaconne in Brahms’s lefthand arrangement. [continued…]

The Boston Symphony Orchestra announced the unprecedented cancellation of next season’s concerts from September to the end of November because of Covid’s continuing spread. This goes far beyond the two-week season-opening delay occasioned by the flu pandemic of 102 years ago [see BMInt’s story HERE]; the Second World War, though, brought about shortened and eliminated Tanglewood seasons.

Management will announce decisions about the winter and spring periods by the year’s end. Patrons and subscribers will be contacted in September about refunds, credits, and donations. The BSO expects to lose $30M for the fiscal year ending in August.

In September, the Orchestra will announce online content for the season, following the apparent success since the end of March of the BSO at Home and ongoing Tanglewood 2020 Online Festival offerings. [continued…]

The violin and piano duo of Augustin Hadelich and Orion Weiss played Debussy, Brahms, and Adams for the Tanglewood cameras Saturday. With talent to spare, the artistic pair gave exciting, tight, enthralling, and even transcendent readings. Available online until August 1st.    [continued]