Saturday, April 30, 2011

Follow up to my post on The Rite of Spring

I get to do this, because it's my blog

Sonnet — May 29, 1913

In times like these, without a certain measure
(Grow up; a clock slows down as mass increases),
One’s self divides, as in a fractured mirror.
Repetition (only) signifies.
Silence. Breath. Deceptive bits of leisure.
Then blocks of seconds pound the earth to pieces.
Rivers break like cannon coming near
As Russia springs to life. The virgin dies.
Volcanoes! — Nah, who needs another Strauss?
“It expresses nothing but itself.”
Numbers from the pit are all you hear while
Smoking in the wings. They riot in the house,
Knowing no way back across the gulf.
You expected nothing less. Admit it. Smile.

Joe Barron

Friday, April 29, 2011

Whose 'Rite' is your favorite?

A performance can make or break one's attitude toward a piece of music. I have to confess, as much as I like Stravinsky, it took me years to warm up to The Rite of Spring. I was always excited by Par I, but I would begin to squirm and check my watch during Part I. The reason was plain enough; the only recording I knew (and I'm talking high school and college here), was Stravinsky's own, with the Columbia Symphony, which is something less than definitive. Later, I bought a cassette (so that pins us down to the early 80s) of Michael Tilson Thomas and the BSO, and when I heard that, I said to myself, "OK, I'm starting to get this." Then, on radio, I heard the version by Solti and the Chicago Symphony, and I said, "OK, I'm really starting to get this." I went right out and bought the London LP.

In the years since, I've collected and tried several versions on CD — by Gergiev, Abbado, Maazel, Boulez, Tilson Thomas again (with the San Francisco) — but none of them quite got into my blood the way Solti's did, and still does. I'm happy to report I've just supplemented the LP with an out-of-print, used CD from Amazon, and the performance is everything I remembered from the record: precise, controlled, clear, large-scale and dynamic, and it maintains its momentum right to the end. For me, it justifies the Rite's reputation as the breakthrough to the 20th century.

Anyone else in the blogosphere have any particular favorite recordings?

Christopher Hitchens on the royal wedding

Whatever your attitude toward the royal family (and it probably isn't worth the time to even have an attitude), or toward Christopher Hitchens, this piece is brilliantly written. I especially like "the morose, balding, New Age crank and licensed busybody that we flinch from today." There is nothing like a little bile to elevate the old word count.

I thought the whole point of the g.d. revolution was to free ourselves from these people. Why all the interest in watching them mate?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Selig sind die Toten

I don't intend to give a detailed review here, but I would like to acknowledge the two excellent choral concerts I attended in the past week. My compliments to John Sall and the Abington Symphony and Choir for A German Requiem April 10 and David Spitko and the Choristers for Dvorak's Stabat Mater in Upper Dublin April 16. Soloists in each were outstanding, and the choruses were glorious. I think the German Requiem is a more impressive piece of music than the Dvorak, which doesn't take longer by the clock, but seems longer. Perhaps that's only because I'm not as familiar with it. (The concert included three other pieces, too, which, though short, might have been overkill.)

My only complaint, besides some wavering tones in the strings of both orchestras, is that the Requiem was done in English. It didn't really detract from the experience for me, but as the bass soloist told me afterward, it just sounds better in German.

The Choristers are planning an evening of Americana next season to include Porgy and Bess and Copland's Old American Songs. I told David that if he programmed Ives's Harvest Home Chorales, I'd give him a thousand words in Ticket. He never got back to me.

No further concerts planned at present. All listening will be done at home, over speakers.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Sing along with death

Spring is the season of passion and death. If you don't believe me, look to the concert calendar. Funerals have long been an inspiration for composers, of course, and if you sing in a choir, you're going to appear in your share of Requiems, but with Good Friday coming up, demise is uppermost on the minds of our choral directors. Two groups in suburban Philadelphia will present memorial concerts over the next two weekends. On April 10, the choir at Abington Presbyterian Church will perform Brahms' German Requiem, and on the 16th, the Choristers (formerly the more provincial Choristers of Upper Dublin) will sing Dvorak's "Stabat Mater." Both concerts are dedicated to the memory of those who have died in the past year, or earlier, if one’s grief is great enough. Names submitted by the performers, congregants or audience members will be printed in the programs. (See my previews at left.)

Of the two pieces, I guess I will find the German Requiem the more congenial. Brahms was the sort of agnostic that was becoming increasingly common in the 19th century, though he knew his Lutheran Bible well, and the verses he chose for the Requiem don't fit the standard Christian model of redemption through pain. (I have to question the thought-process of a God who cannot redeem sinners without staging an act of torture for their benefit.) Every program booklet ever published on the work points out that Jesus is never mentioned, and, despite the promise of resurrection near the end, the emphasis is squarely on comforting the living who are left behind. Before the first performance of the work — appropriately enough, on Good Friday, 1868 — K.M. Rheintaler, the rehearsal director, tried to persuade the composer to add a movement that would be more in keeping with the spirit of the day. According to the Grove Dictionary, “Brahms politely but firmly refused.” And for that we may thank him. Tacking on a conventional expression of piety would have ruined the emotional and intellectual integrity of the piece. The music is more genuine, more sincere and more effective without it. I am looking forward to the concert, even if the performance will likely be uneven, as performances by community groups usually are.

Dvorak, a devout Catholic, never understood Brahms’ decision, either, and his “Stabat Mater” does end with just such an expression of piety. To be fair, though, so does the poem he set. “When my body shall die,” it says, “grant that my soul be given the glory of paradise.” David Spitko, the Chorister’s director, described Dvorak’s music to me as progressing from darkness to triumph. Dvorak had lost three children in the years before he wrote the piece, and he was entitled to his feelings, but I have lost a child, too, and my own feelings are somewhat different. Nevertheless, I want to hear the music. Much of Dvorak’s vast output is rarely performed. Think about it. Beyond the handful of “name” pieces like the “New World” Symphony or the “American” String Quartet, how much of it do we really know well? I’ve never heard any of the operas, and I don’t know how many of them I can even name. I’m grateful, then, that David and company have chosen to revive a major but underexposed work.

Oh, by the way, the performance of the Requiem performance. You have no excuse not to go, if you are anywhere in the area.