Japan to Accept Britten Score, 70 Years after its Commission

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The Consul General of Japan in Boston, Masaru Tsuji, will be the NEC Philharmonia concert at Jordan Hall this evening [March 10] to receive a copy of the Benjamin Britten score, Sinfonia da Requiem. Originally commissioned by the Japanese government in 1940 for a celebration of the 2600th anniversary of that country, the composition was, according to Ben Zander, rejected because of its Christian movement titles and was never performed in Japan.

Benjamin Zander, guest conductor of the NEC Philharmonia, notes, “We are deeply moved by Britten’s composition and by the grace of Japan’s esteemed diplomatic representative in receiving the score 70 years after the event.”

Dear Mr Tsuji,

I received your message through your assistant, Ms Hansen and I wish to reply with great respect and affection for a new friend.

I think I have managed to unravel the story of the Britten work. [continued…]

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Explanation of Clarity versus Reverberation in Concert Acoustics

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In his review here in the Intelligencer of the recent recital by violinist Thomas Zehetmair at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Christoph Wolff mentioned that the acoustics in the Stephen D. Bechtel Auditorium, designed primarily for symposia and lectures, “…was remarkably good in every respect. ” Wolff’s comment deserves some expansion on the whole question of acoustics.

The Bechtel auditorium is very well designed for its purpose. The audience sits in semicircles around the podium, forming a wide fan. There is ample space behind the performer, and the back of the stage is filled by a moderately sound-absorbing projection screen. The seats are upholstered with sound-absorbing fabric, and there are carpets in the aisles. The high ceiling gives an unusually large internal volume for a speech auditorium, and the extra volume increases the reverberation time sufficiently that there is a noticeable, although quiet, reverberation — under one second. Reverberation is audible, but at a low enough sound pressure that it does not obscure the music in any way. The music, even eight rows back, is as clear as if one were standing next to the performer. The net result is an exciting, highly engaging, concert experience, increasingly unusual in concert venues. [continued…]

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Emmanuel Church Celebrates Institution of New Rector with Special Offering from Emmanuel Music

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BMInt  interviewed composer and Emmanuel Music director, John Harbison, and the Rev. Pamela L. Werntz, who is to be instituted as rector this Sunday. The 10:00 AM regular service will include Bach’s Cantata No. 163 in English, and a motet by James Primosch.  The 3:00 PM special service of institution will feature a repeat of the Primosch. Your correspondents also recalled the Rev. Al Kershaw, Emmanuel Church’s rector enthusiastically encouraging the  founding of Emmanuel Music. The incoming rector is also deeply committed to music, especially the music of Bach.

The interview with John Harbison:

BMInt: We recall that a former rector, the Rev. Al Kershaw, presided over Emmanuel when Craig Smith conceived the idea of the special music program.

Craig was a tenor in the choir at the time. The music director faltered, radically, and Craig took over the choir. And within a few weeks, he went to Al with the idea of doing a Bach Cantata series.

He had been coming to Cantata Singers concerts — back when I was conducting, and I had just gotten to know him because he lived across the street from me. …

He got the series going in ’70 or ’71. At the first performance, Rosie [Harbison’s wife] and I both played. Jane Bryden sang… It was in a period when much of the time, the congregation was meeting at Lindsey [Chapel], very small-scale. Quite soon, I think the second year, Craig decided to do it every week. Al was fine with it.  Then Craig augmented the chorus quickly with some other singers.

BMInt: Do you think the Bach Cantatas have helped increase the congregation?

I think they did, I think Al thought they did, very much so.  Bach cantatas, and the Jazz ministry, were very beneficial.

BMInt: Al was a jazz musician, right? [continued…]

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The Monteverdi Orfeo Film: Spectacular, Surreal, Stylish

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A film presentation of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, directed by René Jacobs and staged by the Trisha Brown Company at the Auditorium of the Louvre au Dimanche 21 février was sold out, my husband and I were told, but a quickly presented card from Boston Musical Intelligencer worked magic. The staff was delighted at the offer to write up something for Boston classical-music lovers.

So I was nonplussed to discover that this presentation was hardly au courant; it originally was seen at Théatre Royale de la Monnaie in Brussels under artistic director Bernard Foccroule in 1998, followed with a performance at the festival in Aix-en-Provence. Nonetheless, as it turns out when we returned to Boston and asked more than a dozen local music lovers (so far), almost no one even knew of it. Quele dommâge. [continued…]

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A Birthday Note

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On February 22 I celebrate Chopin’s birthday, not George Washington’s.  Two hundred years ago today, one of the greatest Romantic geniuses was born near Warsaw, of French and Polish parentage.  His amazing talents were already apparent when he was eight years old.  By the time he was 16 he was writing music of permanent value,    [continued]

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Is Classical Music Radio A Dying Technology?

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WGBH’s spokesman, John Voci may be unintentionally right according to a BMInt commenter. The future for classical music broadcasting may be on the internet rather than from 100,000 watt radio towers, which, because of their cost of operation, require lowest common denominator programming. Richard Buell, a former Boston Globe critic, has a comprehensive website on streaming classical music here. His comment, which follows, is part of a lively discussion at the end of an earlier article .

Have you ever wondered what can classical music radio be like far, far away from dear provincial little Boston? If you’ll give me your attention …

Across the Channel from France Musique — which Joel Cohen rightly praises — you hear such offerings as BBC Radio 3’s CD Review, whose regular Building a Library feature amounts to a vivid critical discography in sound. Whose recording, say, of Schumann’s Kerner Lieder is THE one to have? One Saturday morning a few months back that wonderful writer Hilary Finch (of Gramophone and the Times) was on hand (and for an hour!) to go through the whole lot of available recordings.

There is nothing remotely like this on U.S. radio stations, and to the best of my knowledge there never has been. [continued…]

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Metropolis with Original Music, at the Berlin Film Festival

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A Report from Europe: Will success spoil Gottfried Huppertz?

This was the question running through Trobador’s mind as he, along with a certain number of other European spectators, tuned in to an unusual television program last Friday on the Franco-German channel Arte. It transmitted the “première” of a legendary film, Metropolis (1927) of director Fritz Lang, restored to its original two-and-a-half hours. This was shown before a live audience, with a full, well-rehearsed orchestra performing from the original Gottfried Huppertz (1887-1937) score, edited by the German conductor-musicologist, Bernd Heller. Given the short run of the original film with its original score, in 1927,  more people have probably heard the music this week than at any time since its composition (although I am told on good authority that the score can be heard on two-year-old DVD produced by the Murnau Stifftung.) [continued…]

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Davies Develops Young People, New Music at NEC Festival

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The last weekend in January brought the 20th Annual Festival of Contemporary Music at the New England Conservatory, and this year’s guest composer was an old friend of Boston, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen’s Music in the United Kingdom and at 75 the most illustrious living British composer. I can only report on some Saturday afternoon events, and regret that I wasn’t able to come to the big schedule on Sunday, but what I saw and heard is strong evidence that good music for and by young people is going strong at NEC. Most Saturdays at NEC are likely a madhouse of bustling kids, teachers, and groups; there are, I was told, some 1,400 students of elementary through high-school age in NEC’s preparatory programs. Brown Hall, in the basement adjacent to Jordan Hall, was host to the first program, and it was filled to overflowing, with every chair occupied and 100 students and parents in standing-room-only. [continued…]

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Latest Ratings Show WGBH Audience Flat and WCRB Down 14%

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The changes in the formats of WGBH and WCRB, which hundreds of BMInt comments lambasted, have not produced results likely to please management. The latest Arbitron reports, the first to measure the response to the changes, show WGBH with the same listenership it had in October and WCRB with 14% less. On February 3rd this writer made a presentation on behalf of BMInt to a very courteous WGBH board board of directors:

Good Evening. I am like those at the table, a director of a Boston cultural non-profit. In my case it’s the Harvard Musical Association, where I have been director-at-large for twenty years and the chairman of the program committee for all of that time. So I can speak with authority on matters of classical music programming as well as fiduciary responsibility connected with a board seat. [continued…]

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Divorce, Paris Opera Style: A Conductor Leaves the Podium

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Trobador’s Paris Diary

Rumor has it that they are a hardbitten bunch,  the players in the orchestra pit of the Paris Opera.  And Trobador can vouch,  from his couple of seasons of gigging  around in France with Paris-Conservatory-trained instrumentalists, that the men and women of that milieu are a no-nonsense crowd. They like things on the job to go quickly and efficiently,  and according to Hoyle.

Nonetheless there was an element of surprise in the news, first made public January 18,  that Emmanuelle Haim, a rising star in the French baroque music scene,  had walked away from the Paris Opera’s production of Mozart’s Idomeneo,  for which she had been engaged as musical director,  to be replaced for the final rehearsals and the public run by the little-known Philippe Hui. [continued…]

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Lost Innocence: Unfolding Horror in Turn of the Screw

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“I seek a friend —Obedient to follow where I lead, Slick as a juggler’s mate to catch my thought… and in that hour ‘The ceremony of innocence is drowned’…” This ominous text is from the libretto to Benjamin Britten’s opera, Turn of the Screw, to be presented by Boston Lyric Opera as an Opera Annex production at the Park Plaza Castle on February 3, 5, and 6.

Loss of innocence was a theme of much of what Britten composed. Biographers have noted that his experience in his early teens, at the Gresham’s boarding school in England, at a formative time of his life, was partly the cause; Peter Pears later referred to this period for Britten as “two uneasy years.”

Death in Venice, Britten’s last opera, “was, in some sort of way, a summing up,” Pears has said, noting that its lead character questions what he had spent his life looking for: “Knowledge? A lost innocence? And must the pursuit of beauty, of love, lead only to chaos? All questions Ben constantly asked himself.”

The impression among Boston opera concert-goers in recent years was that Boston Lyric Opera had lost its edge; but in the past two years, under the skillful new management, BLO is once again back on track, offering fine, out-of-the-ordinary productions. BLO conceived of Opera Annex as an opportunity to experience opera outside the traditional theatre environment by creating a production that reflects the unique characteristics of its particular performance space. Under a partnership between BLO and Boston Park Plaza Hotel and Towers, Turn of the Screw will be the first opera ever performed in the historic National Landmark Castle since it was built in 1891 as an armory for  the First Corps of Cadets. Stagehands are now at work at the Castle, creating a “pit” and stadium with 580 seats, all with unobstructed views and including ample wheelchair seating. [continued…]

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UPDATE on WGBH Story: Ratings and Support Soar for DC’s WETA with Shift from All-talk to All-classical

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BMInt Interview with Daniel C. DeVany, Vice President and General Manager, Classical WETA 90.9 FM, Washington,  DC

One of Daniel DeVany’s first acts, when he became general manager of Washington, DC’s WETA in 2000, was to encourage the staff and trustees to examine how their public was being served. WETA has a 75,000 watt transmitter, which is by a significant factor the most powerful in the DC area. Yet [just as at WGBH] listenership and contributions were ebbing.

The conclusion of the self-examination led the station to believe that its variety format of news, talk, and various types of music was to blame for failing to achieve listener loyalty. It was clear from their market research that when music ended and news began or vice versa, listeners would switch the dial. Thus they decided in 2005 to convert to a single unified all-talk format with an emphasis on international news, which they believed would be great service to the DC demographic and result in greater numbers of listeners with concomitantly greater loyalty and support. [continued…]

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BSO Strives to Maintain Live Friday Broadcasts

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Interview with Jonathan Menkis, Chair of BSO Players’ Committee

The Boston Symphony Orchestra management feels the loss of the Friday afternoon broadcasts represents a significant rupture with a loyal subscriber base.

Further, both the BSO management and the players committee agree that it is very important for the BSO to have broadcast exposure. They feel that as media exposure has been drying up, it has become harder for the BSO to maintain its position on the world stage. And what the BSO gains from those broadcasts is immense. [continued…]

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Future of Classical Music Broadcasting in Boston in Jeopardy

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More than 400 classical music aficionados filled the New Old South Church Tuesday night, January 5, to voice their concerns over elimination of classical music programming at WGBH Radio. On December 1, WGBH shifted all its concert music broadcasts to station WCRB, where it has established a 24-hour all-classical format and promptly announced the cancellation of Friday BSO broadcasts. Note: The Boston Phoenix is streaming the audio from the event here. [continued…]

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BCMS Does Time on Three January Saturdays, supper included

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The last interview here of Marcus Thompson, violist and artistic director of Boston Chamber Music Society, led us into BCMS’s coming season, closing with a hint about a new Winter Festival, which will consist of three panel discussions in the late afternoons, followed by concerts at 8 pm (with a chance for participants to purchase a box supper) on consecutive Saturdays— January 9, 16 and 23 —at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium. As news of the BCMS Winter Festival and Forums and its theme, “Musical Time,” emerged, we asked Marcus what makes this festival tick and how it came about. [continued…]

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Anything We Can Do for Classical Music Radio in Boston?

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Boston Musical Intelligencer will be presenting a panel discussion at Old South Church, Copley Square, Tuesday, January 5, 6:00 to 7:30 pm. The panel intends to address the overwhelming response of dismay at the diminution of classical music programming in the greater Boston area.

Moderator: William M. Bulger, former MA Senate President and President, University of Massachusetts, board member of the Boston Public Library and BSO Panelists: Richard Dyer, former classical music critic, The Boston Globe; Christopher Lydon, Radio Talk Host; Dave MacNeill, for many decades announcer, then general manager at the old WCRB; and John Voci, general manager, WGBH Respondents from BMInt: Mark DeVoto, John W. Ehrlich, Brian Jones, Peter Van Zandt Lane, Tom Schnauber, David Patterson, Rebecca Marchand.

The event is free and open to the public. Click here for a printable flyer. Click title to read comments.

   [continued]

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WGBH to Discontinue BSO Friday Afternoon Broadcasts

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According to officials at WGBH, the station has always looked at opportunities to expand and extend its programming, so when it learned that WCRB was going to be for sale, it became the successful bidder. As radio listeners now know, WGBH has become a news station and spawned WCRB (now at 99.5 FM) as its all-classical arm. This is the first of two articles that will deal with the arrangements between the two stations.

Boston Musical Intelligencer learned this morning that the broadcast schedule for Boston Symphony Orchestra live broadcasts was to be cut in half with the dropping of the Friday afternoon concerts; however, the Saturday evening live broadcast will continue with the same personnel that has been bringing it to the radio audience on Friday afternoons since October, 1991.

The Friday afternoon broadcasts were part of the original format of the station and have been running continuously for 58 years. Indeed, the stations’s first broadcast was the Saturday night BSO concert on October 6, 1951, followed by broadcast of the concert the next Friday afternoon. The relationship was even stronger; for the first two years, WGBH’s office and studios were actually located in Symphony Hall, and the symphony programs listed the station’s complete programming.

The voice of no less a figure than American composer Aaron Copland was heard during intermission of that first historic broadcast on October 6 (published in the program book for the following week): “It is particularly heartening to be able to take part in the first broadcast of WGBH. I wish I had known about the plan to establish it when I was in Europe for the first six months of this year, because whenever the question [of American radio broadcasts of classical music] came up, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sheepish.It is particularly heartening that there is a station of great interest to an adult mind. The field is wide open and I cannot think of an area better equipped than Boston for the carrying out of an adventurous project of this kind.

“As a composer, I am particularly pleased that listeners to WGBH will be able to listen to live broadcasts of BSO concerts. Since each Friday afternoon program will be repeated on Saturday night, listeners will have the opportunity of hearing a new work twice. We contemporary composers like that idea. For the second hearing often tells more about a work than the first. When second impression of a new work may be more or less favorable, it is seldom is exactly the same.” [continued…]

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Jazz Propelled into Mainstream Conservatory Education: Gunther Schuller at The Helm of NEC

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The BMInt staff’s interview on November 22 with Gunther Schuller lasted two hours. Part 1 was a cut-and-paste of discussions related to two then-upcoming performances of his music. This excerpt deals with Mr. Schuller’s role as president of New England Conservatory (from 1967 until 1977) and his founding of the jazz curriculum.

BMInt: Larry Phillips [Boston organist and reviewer for the Intelligencer] says he went to the Conservatory just because of you.  One day he saw you in the corridor, mopping, and he said, ‘Is this what the conservatory has come to’?

GS: (Laughing) I did that because there were so many problems in the building and there wasn’t enough cleaning up and all of that.  So I just did it myself just to show, Here’s the president, sweeping the stairs…

‘If I can do it, you can do it’?

<p>Commemorating Premiere of Schuler's "Where the World Ends"</p>
Commemorating The Premiere of Schuller's "Where the Word Ends"

Yes. I had to do a lot of that. … Most of the Board thought it was sinful to give money. They are sitting on the Board and they didn’t want to support it financially. Ant they were very wealthy people, most of them. I just got up in the middle of the meeting and said ‘$5,000! Here! Here it is! Now, listen!’… I shamed them into it. And you know, I’m just a poor musician.

Did the composition of the Board change a  lot when you were president?

No, no!  it didn’t change at all. This was the Board that I inherited. By the way, there were no Jews, no Blacks, no, no anything.

Just WASPs — I mean, at the end of your tenure?

It had changed slightly, including the chairman, and that got a little bit worse, not better. But look, never mind. The two people and I, the three of us who saved the Conservatory, were David Scudder and Jim Terry, who were both young on the Board. The three of us got the Ford Foundation grant, 2.5 million dollars, to be matched, and that’s what saved the school.

Was it going to collapse?

OH! It was bankrupt!  It was financially… they had $220,000 in the bank!  And enrollment, which were supposed to be 715, was 215, the padlock was gonna come on the door, with the sheriff. And I rescued the school — with these two guys. [continued…]

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Schumann’s Second Symphony and the Legacy of Beethoven and Schubert

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“From this listener’s perspective it is as perfect a symphony as exists — by anyone. Intellectually compelling, emotionally searing, kinetically irresistible, gorgeous in detail and large sweep, and a thrilling convergence of all his gifts, the Second Symphony is Schumann living his most determined struggle.” (David Hoose, program note for a performance by the Boston University Symphony Orchestra, Dec. 8, 2009)

Schumann’s other symphonies, no. 1 (“Spring”, 1841), no. 3 (“Rhenish”, 1851), and the troublesome No. 4 in D minor which underwent much revision (1841, 1851), can all be regarded as his attempts to expand the boundaries of the symphony beyond what had been bequeathed by Beethoven. Beethoven and Schubert, after all, had inherited the classical symphony from Mozart and especially Haydn, and expanded its boundaries in their own works so that it became the romantic symphony in dimension, form, and use of the evolving modern orchestra. But, for any 19th-century composer living after Beethoven, the problem of the orchestral symphony is simple to ask: what can possibly be done in the symphony after the example of Beethoven’s Ninth? [continued…]

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Upcoming Schuller Performances Provoke His Ruminations on 12-Tone Music

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Noting that two concerts featuring works by Gunther Schuller are being performed at Jordan Hall in the next ten days, first by the Borromeo String Quartet on November 30, then by New England String Ensemble on December 6, BMInt staff interviewed a hale and hearty Schuller on November 24, the day after his 84th birthday. The stereo was playing Sibelius’ 1st Symphony when they arrived. Mr. Schuller was immediately didactic: “Do you know who’s conducting? Look. Who are the two greatest conductors today?” (It turned out to be Osmo Antero Vänskä.) “Most interpretations are so slow and draggy. This guy makes it like an operatic drama, the way Sibelius wrote it.” With pieces of his birthday cake, brought by BMInt staff, the interview began. Listen to an excerpt here.

Happy 84th Birthday!  (BMInt Staff Photo)
Happy 84th Birthday! (BMInt Staff Photo)

How did the Borromeo Quartet come to be playing your fourth quartet in a few days, then recording all four quartets soon after?

Ah, I have almost nothing to do with that. First of all, they did play my third quartet three or four years ago, and I think they played it something like 20 times, including what I consider the best performance of the third quartet that ever happened — in Jordan Hall. They played it beautifully. The Borromeo is one of the two or three best quartets in the United States— just marvelous. Nicholas [Kitchen, first violinist of the Borromeo] and a young composer who was at the Conservatory, his name is Mohammed Fairouz — he’s very talented he’s only 24 years old, and he’s written already an immense amount of music and happens to be a fan of mine — he and Nicholas are good friends, and he once mentioned my upcoming birthdays — this is only eighty-four — but the next one will really be the big one. So they came up with this scheme of doing all four of my quartets, and not just once, but several times. So that’s how it started.

Fairouz has a piece on the November 30 Borromeo program, too?

Yes, they are playing his Lamentations and Satire, along with both Bartok’s and my fourth string quartets.

Your quartets are not exactly new music; over what period were they written?

The fourth is only, well now, it’s actually six years old! It was written for the Julliard Quartet.

When was the first written?

The first was written in 1957.

Stylistically, do they change very much?

No. No! I don’t change stylistically. My music is  virtually the same stylistically, linguistically, as it was when I was 19 years old.  It’s of course, I’d like to think, more mature, better organized, and so on, and of course it’s more complex. It’s become more complex over the years. But stylistically? No. No. The thing, is I am so proud of these four quartets partly because each one of ’em is totally different in character. But not in style.

By style, do you mean tonal language?

I mean, yeah, well no. My language is always atonal, 12-tone, most of the time. So I just mean that; that’s what we mean by style. C major or tonal music is a style, right? But Beethoven wrote 32 different string quartets. None of ’em sound alike, and that’s my model. In everything. Mozart and those guys.

When you write in this very complex modern language that we have — I prefer to call it a language, rather than a style — and when you work with certain techniques like 12-tone,  there is certainly the danger that successive pieces could sound alike, just because you’re dealing with so  many sort-of rules of behavior. Although you work with rules in classical music, too —  Boy! were they strict. My goodness, they were more strict than what we have  — but anyway, there’s always this danger that you will repeat yourself, you know.

The first quartet, as I said, was written in 1957. The next was 1965.  I wrote the second quartet in seven days on a transatlantic trip on the Europa — oh, no! The New Amsterdam. The third quartet was dedicated to Louis Krasner, who was retiring from his teaching at the Conservatory and other things, and then the last quartet was for the Julliard. They are all, they are in my language, this is what I am proud of, and yet they are distinct animals. Different breeds. [continued…]

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If you hear something, write something! Boston Musical Intelligencer is One Year Old

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Last October with my colleagues, Lee Eiseman (publisher) and Bettina A. Norton (executive editor), I participated in the launch of the Boston Musical Intelligencer. Though it was clear enough to me at the beginning of this undertaking that Boston needed better coverage of its classical music scene, I was not prepared for the rapidity with    [continued]

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Hallelujah! Jordan Hall’s Scaffolding is Coming Down

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Just in time for the seasonal “Hallelujah Chorus” from Boston Baroque, patrons of concerts at Jordan Hall can offer their own “Hallelujahs.” The scaffolding and protective fabric screens, which have obstructed the entire façade for almost a year, are coming down. NEC personnel are assuredly offering their own Hallelujahs — the project was ahead of schedule and under budget.

The ceremonial unveiling, to be presided over by NEC President Tony Woodcock, will take place on Wednesday, November 18, at noon. NEC is also offering “festive music and refreshments.”

<p>New terracotta cornice and mable panel.</p>
Terra cotta cornice and marble panel above Jordan Hall entrance. (BMInt Staff )

All four of New England Conservatory’s buildings have been undergoing $20 million in deferred  maintenance work for the last year, but Jordan Hall is the one that has impacted concert-goers. While scaffolding was up, patrons found it difficult to drop off concert-goers and newcomers were baffled about where to find the entrance. The original signage put up by the contractors was “inadequate,” explained Public Relations Manager Ellen Pfeifer, so NEC staff attempted to improve upon it — with limited success, if one eavesdropped to other concert-goers on the way in.

“But it is almost a moot point now,” laughed  Ms. Pfeifer.

Built in 1903, the building has been known from the beginning simply as “Jordan Hall” — and not “The Eben Jordan Memorial Building” or some such, which some observers think more appropriate, since it was paid for by Eben Jordan II of Jordan, Marsh Department Store.

Jordan Hall was designed by Edmund Wheelwright, architect for the Massachusetts Historical Society, built four years earlier, and the nearby much more elaborately detailed Horticultural Hall, completed in 1901.  He was also architect for one of Boston’s most beloved bridges, the Longfellow, more familiarly, the “Salt-and-Pepper” Bridge, and the understandably idiosyncratic Harvard Lampoon (Wheelwright was a founder.). He is often credited with being the designer of the Anderson Memorial Bridge (1913-15), but it was probably the work of his successor firm; he had been institutionalized with mental illness for two years prior to his death in 1912.

Although the façade of Jordan Hall is less ornate that either of its neighbors, it does have nice neo-classical detailing, such as the cornice and dentate molding under the roof. And it sports a wrought-iron balcony running along one-third of the facade at the second-story level. Like Massachusetts Historical Society’s building, however, Jordan Hall’s brick is yellow, and not red, brick. [continued…]

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Disklaviers, Propellors, and Electric Bells: BMOP Offers Antheil Program

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BMInt interviewed Paul D. Lehrman, composer, author, consultant, educator, one of the world’s leading experts on MIDI, computer music and expert on George Antheil, whose “Ballet mécanique” will be performed by Boston Modern Orchestra Project on November 13th at Jordan Hall.

George Antheil is infamous as a “bad boy” composer. Is his Ballet mécanique music? Should we bring ear plugs?

Ballet mécanique is most definitely music. It is not a “noise” piece, although it presages that genre, along with many other genres, in its use of cacophony, silence, sound effects, and a huge amount of repetition. You can hear many musical influences within the piece: ragtime, Stravinsky, the Italian Futurists, jazz, and there’s even a snippet of Rimsky-Korsakov. So at the time it took the definition of “music” in new directions, but within a context that was recognizable, and today is fairly common.

When we did the premiere in Lowell in 1999 we gave out earplugs, but they turned out to be unnecessary, since the hall was fairly dead, and we were  conservative in deciding how hard to push the Disklavier player pianos. Jordan Hall is much brighter acoustically, and we now know more about how loud the pianos can go without suffering some sort of damage, so even though we are only using eight Disklaviers, it’s going to be quite loud. The players will all be wearing earplugs; it might not be a bad idea for the audience to be prepared as well.

Antheil’s score calls for some unusual “instruments” such as airplane propellers and weird bells. Can you tell our readers how you solved these problems?Antheil_caricature300

Antheil used electric fans with sticks or leather straps stuck in them — the “baseball card in a bicycle wheel” effect — at his performances, and some modern performances have used similar devices. But they are very hard to set up, and we don’t have much time in the hall. So we will be using digital samples of small airplane engines that were made in 1999 for the premiere. The bells are a collection of seven different-sized electric bells that I gathered over the years, which are triggered according to the score using MIDI-controlled relays. The siren is a real siren, which varies in pitch and volume according to the amount of voltage applied to it.

How does your version of the score differ from those circulating previously?

Antheil wrote two versions of Ballet mécanique. Before the revival of this version, the one that most people had heard of was written in 1952. It is for a fairly conventional percussion orchestra, with the notable addition of two airplane propellers, and it uses four pianos but no player pianos. It’s performed often and has been recorded about a half-dozen times. But Antheil’s first version, which is the one we’re playing, was written in 1924 and is a totally different piece. It has four player-piano parts, each to be played on four instruments, for a total of 16, and the parts are much more complicated and raucous than the human-played parts in the later version. It also has three airplane propellers and a siren. It is much longer and more drawn out than the later version, with a huge amount of relentless, driving repetition and a blocky structure that is not at all audience-friendly. It also includes 20 silences towards the end, each one getting longer than the one before it, which can really drive audiences nuts — and this was almost 30 years before John Cage’s 4’33”. The 1952 Ballet mécanique is a great piece, but it doesn’t have the scope, the power, or the sheer audacity of the early version.

Before 1999, the 1924 version had been played only with a single player piano, since technology to synchronize multiple player pianos didn’t actually exist. Antheil performed the piece a few times in Paris and once in New York. It wasn’t heard again until Maurice Peress conducted a performance in 1989, and never since then. But I just found out a group is performing it with a single player piano at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England, on November 22. I would love to hear that performance, but unfortunately I can’t get away. [continued…]

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Cracks Repaired: Durufle To Be Played by Wood on “Just Right” Organ

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Ross Wood is the perfect person to be playing the Duruflé Requiem on Old South Church’s notable organ next Sunday afternoon. Wood has played in Duruflé ‘s own church in Paris — St. Étienne-du-Mont, where the composer was organist from 1929 until his death in 1982. Wood also took master classes with Monsieur and Madame    [continued]

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