WHRB Remembers David Elliott

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The David Elliott Memorial Orgy (1942-2020) will commemorate the 58 years David served as voice of Harvard Radio, and will weave together iconic and beloved moments at WHRB that tell a story of the station’s longtime mentor, host, and friend. Listeners and WHRB alumni (“ghosts”) will also be commenting throughout. The Orgy is in nine sections: Early Years, Classical Music Relations, WHRB Historian and Community Keeper, Harvard Broadcasts, Special Programs, Love of Opera, and Holiday Broadcasts. The memorial is slated for Thursday, December 24 from 8 am to 6 pm on WHRB, 95.3 FM and streaming HERE.

The Early Years section will feature a discussion of and a work from one of David’s earliest WHRB broadcasts, a series entitled Voices That Live that the Boston Globe highlighted in 1961.

The Classical Music Relations section will likely prove most interesting to the Boston classical music community. It begins with interviews David conducted with three of the most influential figures in classical music: soprano Renee Fleming, violinist Joshua Bell, and composer Aaron Copland. It continues with excerpts from David’s interviews with directors of classical music organizations in the area, including Deb Boldin from the Chameleon Arts Ensemble; Benjamin Zander from the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra; Gil Rose from Odyssey Opera and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project; and Kathy Fay from the Boston Early Music Festival. Key musical recordings related to David will also be heard throughout this section. These include one for which he was the recording engineer: a luminous 1971 performance of Aaron Copland’s 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson from Sanders Theatre, sung by famed soprano and long-time Boston area opera teacher Phyllis Curtin, with Copland at the piano. Tributes will also be heard from other members of the Boston classical music community, including Ryan Turner, Martin Pearlman, Ron Della Chiesa, and Susan Byers Paxson. [continued…]

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Listening to the Ninth and Some Mahler in 2020

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Beethoven Death Mask (HMA Collection)

Were the world not in the throes of a once-in-a century pandemic, countless tributes and performances honoring Beethoven would be marking the composer’s 250th birthday celebration this month. Here in New York, I was looking forward to attending a performance of his Ninth Symphony, a touchstone to which generations have turned in search of hope, solace, perspective, courage, or simply a sublime musical experience. The work has so deeply enmeshed itself in history and culture that, as Charles Rosen said of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D Minor, “…it is difficult at times to say whether we are hearing the work or its reputation, our collective image of it.”[i] While unquestionably a crown jewel of the Western canon, the Ninth also stands apart from that canon on account of its sheer scope. Utopias germinate in periods of suffering and strife that nevertheless harbor the potential to transcend the ever fraught and undesirable present. Is it fair to suggest then, that the capacity of the Ninth Symphony to speak to us today has been heightened by the mounting challenges of our times?

The magnitude of our losses this year, and the failure of the federal government to contain the pandemic have led to collective disbelief, helplessness, mourning, and trauma. Non-pandemic news has been consistently alarming also, but one event stood out: the on-camera asphyxiation of George Floyd by a white police officer, calmly and in cold blood, so flagrantly violated our innate sense of justice that it instantly became an agent of change. Demand surged for racial justice, opening one of America’s rare windows since the Civil War for radical and meaningful change. What would it have been like to attend a live performance of the Ninth Symphony in this simultaneously harrowing and hopeful year? This question led me to wade into the lore of the work itself.

The Ninth’s central idea of a universal reconciliation is anchored in Friedrich Schiller’s ode “An die Freude” (To Joy), written in 1785 and revised in 1803, the latter version being the basis of Beethoven’s setting. The period of the poem’s composition saw the emergence of a new discourse that defined the human subject, for the first time in history, without reference to a larger religious or social framework and only in relation to itself. This figure—the individual, independent human being— had just come of age and had found its epoch-making expression in the Declaration of Independence, which spoke of “unalienable Rights” to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” and in the French Déclaration des droits de l’homme (1789), which boldly opened with the statement that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” The historic moment marked the emergence of humankind from its “self-incurred immaturity,” in Immanuel Kant’s famous definition of the Enlightenment.[ii] [continued…]

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No Surprise: Beethoven Was 19th-Century Boston’s Favorite Composer

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At its founding in 1815, the Handel and Haydn Society committed to performing music both old (Handel) and new (Haydn). And before the composer’s death in 1827, several members proposed commissioning Beethoven for a new oratorio. The details and mysteries around this endeavor can be gleaned from this H + H feature.

The Society’s early interest in Beethoven was not limited to this possible commission. By 1837, they had performed his oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives eight times.

The Boston Academy of Music, an outgrowth of composer-educator-businessman Lowell Mason’s publishing ventures, formed a small orchestra under the direction of George James Webb. During the 1840s, this ensemble gave the first performances of seven of the nine Beethoven Symphonies, many of them on multiple occasions, and the Fifth, a dozen times. To our advanced ears, the orchestra would surely have sounded execrable, but certain auditors of the time became enchanted. Chief among them was John Sullivan Dwight, a Transcendentalist-Unitarian minister, who may be considered America’s first music critic. During the four decades he published Dwight’s Journal for Music, he gushed that Beethoven’s Symphonies exhibited the boundless striving to pronounce the unutterable, to embrace the infinite . . . the hearer, spell-bound, must follow the heaven-storming Titan, as far as his strength holds out.’’ [continued…]

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Fusing Music and Poetry on YouTube

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Emmanuel Music has reconfigured its three-part Britten Chamber Festival into a streaming format, with virtually all the pieces and personnel planned for the cancelled in-person concerts. Three concerts will stream as a festival over the weekend of December 18th -20th on Emmanuel Music’s YouTube channel.

Says Artistic Director Ryan Turner, “Benjamin Britten’s chamber music deserves to be heard more often. His vocal writing is on a par with any other composer. Inspired by Henry Purcell and Baroque form, Britten fused music and poetry with a simplicity and clarity that communicates directly with audiences.”

Britten’s Five Canticles, written for one, two, or three singers (always a tenor, written with Peter Pears in mind) and with varied spare accompaniment – a piano, a harp, and a piano and horn, highlights the series. Classic canticles usually a feature a hymn, but Britten gave the canticle form new meaning when he set a poem to music, ultimately including T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” and “Still Falls the Rain” by Edith Sitwell. Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac, is almost a miniature opera, with dramatic gestures and strongly-formed characters. Each canticle becomes a miniature cantata with several constituent movements that also reflect elements of the song-cycle form. “The marriage of word and music that examines the human condition falls naturally into Emmanuel Music’s tradition, as does the cantata-song cycle form,” according to Turner. “Streamed concerts make us think differently about how we present the music,” because shorter segments seem to work best, we’ll alter the original three-concert format. Once we have everything recorded we’ll decide how best to package each concert segment. It’s actually nice to have that flexibility.” [continued…]

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Unlock Locke’s List for 2020

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Scene from Paisiello’s Le gare generose

in which he shares some major discoveries and pleasant diversions encountered in recorded opera and other vocal music, as well as a ballet to a scenario by Arthur Schnitzler.

What a strange, scary, and remarkable year 2020 has been, in all our lives! The social isolation that I have carried out pretty consistently has led me to look to music even more than usual for solace, enlightenment, and pleasant distraction. I gather that many music lovers have traveled a somewhat similar path since mid-March.

My penchant for opera, and for vocal music and for the theatre generally, has led me to get to know a number of recent CD releases, many of which I have reviewed for American Record Guide or for various online magazines (notably Bill Marx’s Boston-based The Arts Fuse).

BMInt has kindly offered to let me share my discoveries from the past year or so this, in my fourth annual round-up of operatic and other vocal recordings. (The others can be found by clicking here: 2017, 2018, 2019.) I’ll move in rough chronological groupings because I tend to think historically (as I suspect that many BMInt readers do). I will also briefly mention a few notable performances that I attended (whether in person or virtually).

Baroque Bounty

Either you love Baroque opera, or you don’t even want to read about it, much less listen to it. But, if the latter, I suspect that you haven’t heard many truly splendid recordings of that kind of music. This year brought us four of the most vivid and engaging such recordings I have ever encountered. [continued…]

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“Messiah for Our Time” On Time

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Reginald Mobley masked

In a year when “Comfort ye my people” means more than ever, WGBH and the Handel and Haydn Society have transformed the holiday tradition for television and video streaming.

The redoubtable associate conductor and keyboardist Ian Watson leads “Handel’s Messiah for Our Time” on GBH 2 on December 20th at 7 pm in an hourlong broadcast featuring the H+H Chorus and period instrument H+H Orchestra, in Part One of Messiah plus the “Hallelujah” Chorus. Soloists include soprano Joélle Harvey, countertenor Reginald Mobley, tenor Aaron Sheehan, and baritone Sumner Thompson.

Streaming on YouTube, Facebook, wgbh.org, classicalWCRB.org, and handelandhaydn.org  will continue for some time thereafter.

Under Massachusetts Covid protocols, the show was recorded at GBH’s Brighton Studio using robotic cameras; chorus and soloists wore special singing masks and underwent individual testing twice prior to the taping.

Recording engineer Antonio Oliart Ros began with the reduced ensemble and soloists in a socially distanced environment of eight or fewer musicians at any one time. Watson set the tempo and created an audio bed. Video of his conducting obviated the need for a clicktrack when, in the next session, Ros staggered a second group of eight vocalists in a new arrangement in the studio, allowing for a layered full-chorus sound to emerge in the final recording. On the third and final day Ros recorded two period trumpets separately to reduce the chance of spreading Covid in studio space. [continued…]

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Chopin: A Progressive in Tonality

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Though standard harmony textbooks don’t mention it, you can find “progressive tonality” on Wikipedia; I think it’s a misnomer, but the term is often heard in loose contexts, and there’s a basic definition that seems useful enough. “Progressive tonality” was apparently first described by Dika Newlin in her book, “Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg,” which arose out    [continued]

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Angels KO Plague as RenMen Rerecord Holiday Single

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Last December, Renaissance Men’s Christmas gala went off without a hitch: stellar performance, cooperative audience, large consumption of homemade eggnog. More important, great raw tracks had been captured. The New England-based professional choral ensemble had hired producer Jeffrey Means (assistant professor of composition at Berklee) to record the concert for a second album, A Very RenMen Christmas LIVE!, after the success of their first, RenMen Laments (Navona Records / Naxos Direct).

Unfortunately, in February Means and RenMen discovered a technical problem with a key piece, Saunder Choi’s “Angels We Have Heard on High.” The group planned to rerecord it but Covid happened. St. Mary’s Episcopal in Newton, the venue, closed their doors. Other concert locations canceled their seasons, studios likewise suspended work, and the world embraced videoconferencing. Meanwhile, the deadline to deliver fully mastered tracks to the album producer loomed, weeks away, with postproduction work half that.

RenMen scrambled. Anthony Burkes Garza, bass and general manager: “With so many normal solutions off the table, we discussed several emerging options, such as ‘virtual choir’ recordings or multitracking with 3-4 singers performing all the parts. We even considered going forward without that track.” But “Angels” both seemed critical for the album and too complex for virtual recording solutions. “I truly began to lose hope. If we couldn’t rerecord Choi’s piece, our second album would miss its scheduled release date of November 2020, timed for Christmas sales,” pointed out Peter Schilling, baritone and business manager. “We would ultimately have to push the release to November 2021, with nothing to show for 2020.” [continued…]

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Reevaluating Composer You’ve Hardly Heard Of

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Quick, can you name two composers born in Somerville, Mass? Pat yourself on the back if, in addition to Alan Hovhaness, you identified Henry Hadley (1871-1937), one of that extraordinary generation of American composers born in the 1870s (e.g. Converse, D. G. Mason, Ives, Ruggles, Carpenter, Coleridge-Taylor, Mabel Daniels, Arthur Farwell, Rubin Goldmark, E. B. Hill, Arthur Nevin, Ernest Schelling, Louis Coerne, W. C. Handy, Arne Oldberg, and the proverbial Manny Moore). And, as with virtually all of these, you probably have never heard of Hadley. To set these matters aright, at least in Hadley’s case, historian, lawyer and musicologist Daniel Breen presented a lecture (via Zoom, naturally) under the ægis of the Boston Athenæum on Tuesday.

Plainly an enthusiast for his subject, Breen recounted that Hadley came from a musical family of some local renown, being the son and grandson of music directors of the Somerville school system. By way of a tiny acknowledgment, a plaque commemorates composer Hadley in Somerville’s Symphony Park. Would that there had been even that in some of the other locations in which he made his mark, which was a large one in his lifetime, though obviously not an indelible one. Hadley began music studies at home, but eventually turned to George Chadwick (the two formed a friendship that lasted until Chadwick’s death in 1931, and the two were even neighbors in West Chop on Martha’s Vineyard in the summers). After his Chadwick period, Hadley hied himself to Eusebius Mandyczewski’s studio in Vienna, where he could also soak up the musical culture. On a second trip to Europe a few years later, he sought out Ludwig Thuille, as a teacher, probably on the recommendation of Richard Strauss, whom he also met on that journey. [continued…]

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David Elliott (1942-2020)

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David Elliott died last night after a two-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. I saw him a few hours before he died, and can say that his end came peacefully and without pain.

David was enormously important to WHRB, to the Boston classical music scene, and to many of us personally.  His leadership, his dedication, his enthusiasm, and his tireless insistence on excellence inspired generations of students and listeners alike. 

I am deeply saddened by this loss, and with the Elliott family will be coordinating with on David’s wishes for his remembrance.  Our hearts and sympathies go out to all who knew and admired David.                          James C.S. Liu

Bettina A. Norton’s article from 2017 celebrates David’s life admirably. [continued…]

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Purcell in the Time of Purell

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Detail of Dido (Nathaniel Dace)

Way before any intimations of Covid 19 floated in the air, I had already planned the Boston 2020-2021 season, with a focus on Woman, hashtaged #SheToo. Dido and Aeneas, Henry Purcell’s only opera, indeed figured in this planned cycle of three productions, for several compelling reasons. For starters, presenting a superb early opera, dedicated to the fate of an abandoned woman, powerfully embodied the season’s theme. 

But by reviving this chamber piece [begins online November 14th HERE], we were also marking an important in-house anniversary: the first period instrument Dido in modern times. Joel Cohen directed the 1979 concert production, released on Harmonia Mundi LP ca 1980. The recording caused a big stir, catapulting Camerata onto the international scene, and heavily influencing later interpretations. 

I was also keen to continue our ongoing explorations of stagecraft. Music theater now forms a regular part of Camerata’s mission. Finally, we were ready to field a very strong cast of Camerata long time regulars, new invitees, and a high-achieving student ensemble from my ‘home’ teaching institution, the Longy School of Music of Bard College. 

Then the pandemic hit. [continued…]

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Honoring Centennial of American Women’s Suffrage, and More

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Reginald Mobley elucidates his new role.

H+H’s new programming consultant Reginald Mobley will guide members of the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra and Chorus through works by American female composers in the online Every Voice concert for peace and justice. A tribute to female composers including queer women and women of color features the Venite, laetantes, Op. 20 no. 12, by Isabella Leonarda, and works by Mari Esabel Valverde’s Prelude for Piano in A-flat Major and  Zanaida Stewart Robles’s Kuumba. Florence Price and Amy Beach works will also appear on the bill. Readings will precede each section. “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” closes the prerecorded show. Handel and Haydn alto Emily Marvosh will then offer a live Q&A. Tickets for the November 8th 3pm event are HERE.

FLE: Since Handel and Haydn’s bicentennial, in 2015. you have been working as curator and conductor, director, whatever. Last April the organization created the role of programming consultant for you and expects you to reach out, both among underserved communities and unjustly ignored repertoires. So how much of each of those is important to your role? [continued…]

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Musicians Overcame Session Traumas

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Pixelated flautist

In late February, as most Americans remained blissfully unaware of the looming change that coronavirus would bring to their lives, Su Lian Tan, a flautist and professor of composition at Vermont’s Middlebury College, travelled down to Tufts University to sit in on a composition seminar taught by composer and pianist John McDonald, on Tan’s just-completed Piccolo Concerto. Italian piccoloist Nicola Mazzanti had commissioned the piece and was flying in that day from Europe to play the concerto for the first time during McDonald’s class.

Tan naturally felt excited. Mazzanti texted Tan as he landed in Logan airport. He was on the ground. So far, so good. Tan arrived at Tufts, score and piccolo in hand in case she needed to clarify anything. McDonald worked through some passages of the accompaniment with the composer as the students filtered in. As the start time arrived, all still waited patiently for Mazzanti’s arrival.

Twenty increasingly worrisome minutes passed. Tan, understandably concerned, honored her commitment to McDonald and his students. In Mazzanti’s absence, she played through the concerto herself. [continued…]

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Scott Kent, 1943-2020

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Logo for Kent’s artisanal record company

About to play the great organ at Methuen Memorial Music Hall many years back, the eminent soloist Christa Rakich asked a friend to check if recording engineer Scott Kent was in the house yet.

What does he look like?
Abe Lincoln in a blue-plaid flannel shirt, corduroys, and gray crocheted vest.
How do you know what he’s wearing if you don’t know if he’s here?
Because he always wears the same thing.

Scott Kent died recently, at 77, after some years of cardiovascular ailments following a stroke. His wife Marcia crocheted the signature vest, and as each one wore out, she would produce an exact replacement.

A sui generis audio good guy going way back in the Boston area and indeed across the Northeast, Kent not only took on the role of an accomplished, careful, generous engineer but also rewarded many of us as a go-to organ recordist and amateur scholar, with a prodigious memory and expertise over almost six decades.

Born in Chicago, Kent came to consider Wolfeboro NH his home base, his parents having built a cottage on Lake Winnipesaukee. He spent his summers there, directed the sailing program at the camp he had attended as a child, and sailed and skied there as an adult. He enrolled in Clark University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute but left after two years and moved to the Back Bay to work in electronics. He married and moved to Wilmington, got divorced a few years later while continuing his career in audio. He would commute to Gloucester in his Porsche, whose floor, after it rotted out, he replaced with a metal pizza parlor sign. Its restoration remained an ongoing project. [continued…]

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First Monday of Electoral Consequence

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A couple of months ago, while wondering what to program at NEC’s second First Monday at Jordan Hall, the familiar and beloved host-impresario-guru-cellist Laurence Lesser realized it would be falling on a significant Election Day Eve, and he struggled over whether to the cancel the show. Ultimately his garrulous and liberal nature (as well as conversations with NEC brass) convinced him that silencing the series would constitute an abdication. Lesser told BMInt that celebrating our national diversity would send the right message, whatever happened the next day.

For the November 2nd concert, don’t expect to hear the works of any German or Austrians, and if a European should slip into the mix to comment on the American condition, it would be in the person of a beloved Czech, whose journey to America helped us value our singular natives sources of melody.

In the Negro melodies of America, Antonín Dvořák “discovered all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathétic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay or what you will. It is music that suits itself to any mood or purpose. There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source. The American musician understands these tunes and they move sentiment in him.” [continued…]

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BSO Players Take to Big Stage for First Time Since March 13th

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BSO to make music etherwaves

In the first rehearsal for BSONOW, former BSO Assistant Conductor Ken-David Masur led a dutifully distanced* 59-player contingent this morning in Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, From the New World on a stage doubled in size by a 35-foot extension. The resulting first installment of the new streaming initiative will debut on November 19th under the rubric Music in Changing Times. Meanwhile enjoy a two-minute preview HERE.

BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons will return to Boston in the new year to record an episode that will focus on Beethoven symphonies: “Sounds of Revolution: Beethoven and musical revolutionaries.”

In addition to subsequent electronic concerts by 13-59 BSO players, management will stream a Holiday Pops offering (video shot at Fenway park and Symphony Hall), celebrate artistic, community, and educational partnerships, offer special access programs for college students and essential workers, and feature magazine-style behind-the-scenes storytelling.

The complete series of newly recorded BSO and Holiday Pops online programming is available to donors of $100 through www.bso.org/give. All donations made by December 31st will be doubled by the Gross Family Challenge, up to $1 million. Click HERE on Thursdays at noon between November 19th and April 13th to consume the content. [continued…]

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What’s a Stravymphony?

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Stravinsky by Picasso

To guess about Stravinsky’s Symphony in E-flat Major, op. 1, one could prepare by listening to an even earlier work, his Piano Sonata in F-sharp Minor, composed 1903-04, when the 21-year-old composer, still nominally a law student in St. Petersburg, was also deeply involved in private study with Rimsky-Korsakov. Hearing the sonata, which was rediscovered in manuscript only after Stravinsky’s death in 1971, you might think mistake it for Rachmaninoff — four movements, 28 minutes long, sounds about right, and Chopin and Tchaikovsky never sound very far away. In 1960 Stravinsky wrote: “It was, I suppose, an inept imitation of late Beethoven,” but it’s hardly like that. More closely related to Stravinsky’s Opus 1 would likely be one of the symphonies of Aleksandr Glazunov (1865-1936), 17 years older than Stravinsky and with a prior claim as Rimsky-Korsakov’s protégé.

Glazunov and Stravinsky seem to have nurtured a lifelong mutual dislike, Stravinsky acknowledging the older composer’s skills and achievement even though regarding him as a “cut-and-dried academician.” Glazunov composed his Symphony No. 8 in E-flat Major in 1906, the year Stravinsky’s received its premiere. Glazunov’s may be a more mature work, but Stravinsky’s immature symphony is more friendly. It turns out to be a conventional Russian romantic symphony, most closely resembling Rimsky-Korsakov in style, notably for its straightforward, bright diatonic sound, excessively regular repetition of four-bar themes and motives, and use of Russian folksong melodies. The Trio theme of the 2/4 Scherzo is “Down the Petersky” which is better known in the Nurses’ Dance in Tableau IV of Petrushka; another melody, appearing in the big rondo Finale, might be either a folk melody or Stravinsky’s own, but he used it again in “Chi-cher ya-cher”, the third song (“Caw, caw, jackdaw”) in his Recollections of My Childhood (1913). The Largo slow movement, a dark, expressively chromatic G-sharp minor, somewhat echoes the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. Its orchestral density looks forward, perhaps, to a generation of Soviet symphonic heavies, such as the third movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth. [continued…]

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A Conversation on Boston Civics

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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…]

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Snake Peers into Rabbit Hole

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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…]

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Maynard Solomon 1930-2020

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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…]

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Some Russian Symphonies, One in Particular

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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…]

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Juventas Streams Reach Thousands

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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…]

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For BSO, GHO, Nelsons: Status Quo Through 2025

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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…]

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NEC Too Gets With the Streaming Times

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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…]

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Ready for All-Female-Composer Album?

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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…]

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