Monday, February 16, 2009

Songs Harbison Loves to Sing

This weekend, Camerata San Antonio performs music by Andre Previn and John Harbison. On the program is "Songs America Likes to Sing"...

John Harbison: I’m doing a piece for small chamber ensemble which is based on, really variations of various kinds of the most familiar songs I could think of, it’s called Songs America Loves To Sing. The variations are actually quite intricate but the fundamental material is extremely well known and I suppose it comes out of my frequent encounters with Bach cantatas which are based on chorales which at the time were very familiar with the audience. So I’m doing a similar thing, they are in a sense I think of them of chorale preludes because the idea of the chorale prelude is a very familiar cantus in very unfamiliar environment.

John Clare: Any hints to these familiar songs you’re chorale preluding?

JH: Well it ranging very ordinary, occasional like Happy Birthday to Aura Lee, and a number of other songs, really I think the basic criterion is familiarity, that something be quite well known, hoping that the presence of these canvases will guide the listener through what will sometimes is a quite an unusual environment that I sort of imagine for them.

JC: That sounds really fun!

JH: I’m enjoying it, it’s again somewhat of a found object idea.
Camerata San Antonio plays Friday night in Boerne and Sunday afternoon at Travis Park United Methodist Church in San Antonio. I'll give a pre-concert talk at 2:20pm, before the 3:00pm start time.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Grammy Winner: Mr. Tambourine Man

Congratulations to John Corigliano and the Buffalo Philharmonic, JoAnn Falletta and Hila Plitman for their two Grammy Awards this last Sunday. Monday is Corigliano's 71st birthday!

From our interview:
John Clare: "Two people I would not put together, Bob Dylan and John Corigliano but there’s a lovely singer involved. How do those inspirations kick start? Was this something that came about with the singer? Was it something that someone said oh, check out these songs?"
John Corigliano: You're talking about Mr. Tambourine Man - a cycle of seven poems of Bob Dylan that I set to music with out any knowledge of his music. And the reason this took place is because Sylvia McNair and Carnegie Hall asked me to write a large song cycle. And Sylvia said really want to be an American writer the poet and I agreed. She said it would be wonderful to get an American who speaks to people today. And you know what? Every great poet speaks to people today, I mean you know Emily Dickenson speaks today. But I thought is there anyone outside of our kind of cultural elite living? Is there someone who speaks to everybody who’s also very, very good? And someone said to me you should check out the lyrics of the song of Bob Dylan because they really poetic and very good. And so I sent for a book of just his lyrics, a big thick book. I went through them and indeed a lot of them were wonderful, some were not, but you know that’s fine. And I went through them and I went through them and I finally put them together into a seven cycle song. The unusual thing and people tend not to believe me in this is that I didn’t really know the music to Mr. Tambourine Man or Blowin' in the Wind. Now when I say that I might have heard it in the sixties or whenever it was done at a coffee shop while I was talking to somebody. But it didn’t pull my ear into its’ world and therefore I never really heard it. I’m not saying this to condemn him because God knows you know he’s considered a great composer by many people and I won’t take that away from them. But it didn’t excite me the way for example the Beatles did. When I heard their music I stopped and there where so many things they would do doing that were really wonderful for the composer...there were interesting harmonically, rhythmically and phase lengths and other ways that I was really fascinated. Never got that from the Dylan songs in those days, so I didn’t know them. So I took these lyrics or poems - they are wonderful poems, and I was setting them as I would set you know Emily Dickson or Goethe. I was just setting them as a composer of my world setting words I thought were very important. And the result of that was a song cycle that some people love and some people don’t want to hear. I know a lot Dylan people who don’t want to hear this piece. They think it’s strange because we always think of the sacrilegious part - oh say how dare you play Mozart with a pop thing or whatever - and it’s always the classical people. I have found that the folk, pop people can be very ridged about the fact that you are taking Dylan into your world. I don’t think I would have minded if I had a pop version of my music but that’s not what I am. I simply wrote and reflected the words. Another thing about it is Dylan like many folk composers, he wrote an melody and his emotional tale kinda rides over the melody. It isn’t reflected in the melody so he’ll write, he’ll have the same music per verse in which many things happen and many different emotions are displayed - they don’t get reflected in the music. And I understand that and that’s fine and I appreciate and respect that. But one of the things about art music whether it’s St. Matthew Passion or something else is the idea that these words can be reflected in this music and that’s what I did. So it will be music that will have three different kinds of listeners. One is a novice who will listen to it and say I love these words and I see this music means something or it doesn’t to me. One will be a Dylan supporter who will say I don’t want to hear it because it’s not right to do that. And the third person will be who love Dylan who also get a fascination out of listening to a piece in which both things are happening. That is they hear my piece and they hear Dylan’s piece at the same time. And it’s very interesting for audiences. They really like play these pieces because Blowin in the Wind, they hear the Dylan song and my song at the same timed because they know Dylan so well that when the words happen it just goes into those . But than they hear my cadences and my world and its different and they find that interesting. And I find that interesting abstractly too."

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Jennifer Higdon: New Concerto

Jennifer Higdon will write a new work for eighth blackbird for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's next season (2009-2010) announced yesterday!
Higdon has said "For me, I like to imagine the performer playing the work, but I also get to know their playing before I ever even commit a note to the page. So, I investigate the kinds of things they do on their recitals and I talk to them, if I at all possibly can. Kind of funny though, sometimes they will make special requests, and it doesn't really compromise the composing, you can actually sit down and figure out a way to make your musical gestures fit their wants - what they would like to do on their instrument."
And also told me at Curtis: "If a composer is young and they've listened to Tchaikovsky all their lives, the only thing they're going to write is just more Tchaikovsky, so I tell them, try all kinds of things. If you don't like the music you're listening to, figure out why you don't like it because that'll teach you something too. So you know, I always tell them to look at as many scores as they can, to listen to as much music as they can and to write and try to get their pieces played because that's the thing that composers learn from the most."

We're looking forward to her upcoming Violin Concerto with Hilary Hahn this season, to be recorded for DG with the Tchaikovsky concerto.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Jennifer Higdon: New Opera

Jennifer Higdon will write her first opera, to be premiered in 2013. This commission by the San Francisco Opera was announced there yesterday.

From an interview we did at Curtis: "In a given year, I'll turn down on average 20 commission offers, but what I do is, I figure out which ones feel like they resonate within me, where I feel like I can actually write something that will work. Sometimes, I'll ponder the possibility, like I was asked once to write something for tap dancer and juggler and orchestra, and I thought, well, you know, I think I'll pass on this. I'm like how... what do you do for jugglers anyway? I can't figure this out. It was kind of an odd sort of request, but someone had an idea somewhere, I hope they found someone to write that."

The librettist is Gene Scheer, but no subject has been announced yet.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Milton Babbitt & RCA Studios

Milton Babbitt points out the old RCA Studios in Princeton, NJ.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

ART: World Premiere in Houston

First published 1-22-2009 at Sequenza21:
I heard the world premiere of Absolute Ocean by Augusta Read Thomas in Houston Thursday night at Jones Hall.
1. Thomas spoke before the concert about her compositional process and specifically about Absolute Ocean. Her talk was engaging, direct and charming; Thomas included showing the audience some of the manuscript score, and explained how 15 seconds of music might take five hours to score by hand!
2. Absolute Ocean is a work for Soprano, Harp and Orchestra in three movements from poetry by ee cummings commissioned by the Houston Symphony. The soloists, soprano Twyla Robinson and harpist Paula Page, performed with conviction and panache - putting the music first without extraneous movement or distractions. The texts were projected (not always coordinated, but hey, they were there!) on each side of the stage and added to the performance.
3. The opening “Graceful” movement was pointilistic and bright. Robinson pulled pitches from nowhere and was matched beautifully by Thomas’ instrumental colors and combinations. Page was often backed by four percussionists and divisi solo strings.
4. Perhaps the most charming of all was the second movement, “Playful, spry and jazzy.” Hans Graf was direct and precise with the orchestra, making it easy for the musicians to move in and out of the lines deftly. Again Robinson caught the feeling perfectly of cummings text and Thomas’ frolicsome and vivacious score. Page was purely color for the most part, but had a chance to shine with a cadenza between this movement and the finale. Evidently this cadenza was added later at Page’s request - which certainly went more to weigh the harp part…I would not call Absolute Ocean a double concerto, but rather an orchestral work for soprano with a prominent harp part. I had heard it referred to as a concerto - and would be disappointed as such - luckily it is such a wonderful work, the nomenclature is not important.
5. “Resonant and elegant” finished the 18 minute work and the short first half (the second half was Mahler’s Fourth Symphony) of the concert. The finale paints the words with creative combinations, and has a satisfying and direct ending. Absolute Ocean is a complete success for the Houston Symphony, and kudos to Graf for adding such a gorgeous work to the symphonic world.
There are two more performances of Absolute Ocean, Saturday night at 8pm and Sunday afternoon at 2:30pm. There is another pre-concert talk Saturday at 7:10pm open to all ticket holders. The 2009-10 season has just been announced for the HSO, and includes another Houston Symphony Commission, for chorus and orchestra by Kevin Puts.

First published 1-24-2009 at ClassicallyHip:

I heard the Houston Symphony again tonight in Jones Hall. (Read about the premiere performance Thursday night, here at Sequenza21.)
1. Augusta Read Thomas spoke before the concert (see a video clip here) - showing some of the hand written score. There were lots of questions from the audience and good background about the work and Thomas' approach to composition.
2. Absolute Ocean's first movement is poetic and pointilistic. I heard strains of Copland in the music tonight, a flavor I didn't notice Thursday. There was a complete gaff in the supertitles - which I ignored even when they returned in the second movement - choosing to focus completely on the performance and music. Soprano Twyla Robinson' diction is such that you don't need the supertitles - and her voice is pure, passionate and pleasing.
3. The second movement, complete genius, was quicker and flowed with all of its humor, charm and brilliance. Ensemble was tight with the soloists and orchestra.
4. After a brief cadenza, the finale movement is touching and appropriately dramatic. Word painting without being banal certainly highlights the poetry with sublime music.
5. Mahler's Fourth Symphony is an ideal pairing for Absolute Ocean, and in particular, Twyla Robinson - she's busy for the first 20 minutes of Thomas' piece, then has a break until the finale of Mahler...also the dreamy score of Thomas leads beautifully to the heavenly view of Mahler. A completely satisfying program.
There is another performance of Absolute Ocean and Mahler's Fourth Symphony tomorrow afternoon at 2:30pm.

Here is Augusta speaking Saturday night before the concert at Jones Hall, a wonderful thought about music and text:

Saturday, January 24, 2009

John Corigliano in Conversation

Partial Conversation with John Corigliano with John Clare...

Clare: How did you know you were a composer? How did it come about that you decided to write music?

Corigliano: Actually it was because I grew up with my father as a performer and I would go to the NY Philharmonic and hear him rehearse a piece. He was the concert master at the Philharmonic and played solos at least once a year and I would hear him rehearse a piece and I would see how tense he was and then go through rehearsals and the concert. I would actually sit in the green room of Carnegie Hall as a little boy listening on the speakers because I was too nervous to sit in the hall because I knew every note of the concertos and was hunched over until he was done. And then the next morning got the seven news papers and read what they said about him and the idea of standing on stage and performing was impossible for me because I grew up with my father doing it and it seemed over whelming. I loved music and improvised at the piano. My mother was a pianist, very fine pianist who never played in public but she taught, but not me because I had two lessons and we, you know, that didn’t work. So I picked up how to play more or less by myself. I improvised a lot and the way I felt I could go into music was in composing because it, I didn’t have to be on that stage at that moment doing that thing. I could be at home, I could solve the problems. I could write them down and then it would be on stage and someone would play it at that moment. So it really had to do with my childhood and how I grew up more than anything else.

Clare: It’s funny, I sometimes see patterns of musicians where the sons will be doctors and doctors’ sons will be musicians. Were they ever saying it’s hard to be in the classical world?

Corigliano: Oh, absolutely, in fact they were very discouraging, both of them, about my going into concert music or any music. My father wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor or something and of course, when you’re a kid that’s all the more the incentive to do it. So I didn’t take it as a discouraging thing, I took it as a kind of daring for me. But also that was the world I loved and I was fascinated by. When I was a kid in high school, the LP record had just been invented and the LP record really was a break through much more than stereo was to the LP, the LP to the seventy eight was a huge breakthrough in terms of sonic, the wideness...a kind of way to capture sound. When I was a little boy I had at time you know in high school a fifteen inch Klipsch speaker with a horn and a corner cabinet and my set and I started listening to Capitol full dimensional sound recordings. I specifically remember a demonstration disc in which the gun fight scene Billy the Kid was performed and of course I put it on at first because it had a bass drum that plays very prominently in it. And there was my fifteen inch woofer, you know shaking the walls and I was in my house and I thought that was thrilling. But then I kept listening to the way that Aaron Copland got these incredibly interesting and originally sounds by playing simple sound chords with new spacings. And so I started going over the piano and trying those spacings out and seeing how you could get a simple c-major cord to sound fresh just by spacing it differently. And then I went out and got the music to it. And then I started Stravinsky and Copland and all these composers and being fascinated very much through recordings and, my father’s live performances of course. But the recordings were very instrumental in my being fascinated with the contemporary composer because in those days you know it wasn’t like now; I mean you couldn’t go into a record store and get some twenty-five year-old composer’s recordings because only the big labels recorded. It was a tremendous amount of equipment necessary to record. And so you had Stravinsky, and you had Copland and you had Bernstein, Piston, and Hanson and Bill Schuman. But you didn’t have the kind of variety we have now. But it did give me a chance to hear a lot of music that I had never heard before, and about that time Columbia MasterWorks started issuing its’ American Music Series - which was extraordinary! Goddard Lieberson put this together, an extraordinary series of pieces like John Cage...things I would have never had an opportunity to hear before. And in hearing those I became so fascinated with one can do, today compared to the past, that I just wanted to compose and that’s very much why I became a composer.

Clare: Do you think the musicians at the caliber that they were, the Bernsteins that your dad was not just a section violinist or violist or accordion player, he was a concert master of the New York Philharmonic, do you think that had an effect also in your musical up bringing?

Corigliano: Well I think so, I remember meeting a lot of these people. I remember meeting Fritz Kreisler and Pierre Monteux as a little kid, so I certainly did meet them and get to know them. I remember we used to have lunch with Dmitri Mitropolis at La Scala Restaurant my father and I. He would bring bring fava beans and he would ask for tartar steak and he would mix in with this bottle of fava beans he had and eat it and he would talk. So one of the things it did was humanize the great musicians of our time because my father knew them personally. But I think the real thing that gave me was the idea of, especially in the concerto, was the idea of the soloist and the ensemble and the drama of the concerto - because there was my father with an eighteen inch piece of wood, there was a ninety-five to a hundred and four piece orchestra playing and he had to rise above that - and in some way because the composer wrote it so that he could do so; he had to surmount you know fifty other string players plus another forty brass wind and percussion players and I think the drama of that was something I grew up with. So writing concertos in particular I feel a kind of naturalness about engaging in that dialogue because I grew up with it. And the idea that he played, that he could dominate that by his musicianship, the sound and the passion of his playing was something that I took as a natural thing.


Enjoy the online version of Baker's Dozen Dictionary of Composers!