Sunday, February 22, 2009

O Furtune - smiled on me

To be able to experience, live, Haydn's Oboe Concerto and Orff's Carmina burana in one evening was fortunate and exhilarating.

Haydn's Oboe Concerto is one of my favorite all time pieces. Something about it sends chills down my spine. I first heard it in the early 1990's on WQED-FM 89.3 at my work place, at lunch. A friend, after hearing me exclaim that it was a fantastic composition, told me to call the DJ and ask what it was, so I did. Paul Johnston, the DJ at the time, was glad to tell me it was Haydn's Oboe Concerto. So ever since then I've purchased a few versions, and have been waiting for the PSO to bring it to Pittsburgh. Well tonight I was not disappointed, the PSO premiere performance was just as great as I could have expected, and Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida did a spectacular job on the Oboe.

The Carmina burana likewise did not disappoint, the live performance was so much more powerful than any prerecorded version. And what a surprise, all those lovely movements in between the opening and closing O Fortuna. This, therefore, I would consider as my first hearing of this complete piece, even though I did recognize one other movement in between. The complexion of the O Fortuna movement, and all the other movements, to my ears, and eyes, seemed someone different. Not knowing Latin, I did not know what they were singing, not a problem as the singing itself sounded melodious and understanding was not a requirement for enjoyment. The 'new' musicgreat minds think alike showed many light, airy and beautiful parts at first, much different than the opening, and not what I expected. Then when the solo singers began to sing what to me seemed to be a comic opera, beautifully performed, and some humorous body movements causing audience laughter, I was again surprised, pleasantly.

What is this piece? I kept wondering, it has so many elements that I find difficult to put together. All of the movements were lovely to hear, but I was in a quandary. The culmination of what seemed to be a love affair ensued, but I was not sure, and it seemed to come together at the end and a reprise of the O Fortuna concluded the cantata. Later, at home, I read the English translation of the O Fortuna (below). This seemed to indicate that perhaps this is a tragedy, and not a comedy, so again I'm confused. I see I've got some reading to do to bring myself up to speed. But the lingering impression was that the music was fantastic, and all the players of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, the soloists and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck, did a fantastic job. I can't wait to experience this again, next time I'll have context.

English translation of "O Fortuna," a poem from Carmina Burana

"O Fortune,
like the moon
Stands constantly changing,
ever waxing
but waning;
hateful life
now oppresses
and then soothes
as fancy takes it;
and power
it melts them like ice.

Fate - monstrous
and empty,
you whirling wheel,
stand malevolent,
well-being is vain
and always fades to nothing,
and veiled
you plague me too;
now through the game
I bring my bare back
to your villainy.

Fate, in health
and virtue,
is against me
driven on
and weighted down,
always enslaved.
So at this hour
without delay
pluck the vibrating strings;
since Fate
strikes down the strong man,
everyone weep with me!"

Friday, February 20, 2009

O Fortuna as a creative spark

What exactly is Carmina Burana, the O Fortuna music by Carl Orff? balancedI frankly don't know for sure. I'm writing my thoughts on what it means to me. First, I've mostly heard the approximately 2 and a half minute segment of the O Fortuna, the most famous movement from Orff's cantata. Who hasn't heard this? It's so famous, that I suspect it is as recognizable as just about any other composition. I remember it was used in a television advertisement for the Marine Corps and one for the National Guard.

I also remember it was used in many movies, the one I remember most is in the movie 'Excalibur', 1981. Others include 'Hunt for Red October', 1990, 'The Doors', 1991, and Lord of the Rings.

But that's ultimately not what it means to me. To me it isn't a thought of a collective force, but rather an individual creative spark. A song of an individual who is perhaps sought by the collective, or shunned, but operates independently, on his or her own, using their own internal force, their own power of thought, reason and sense of right and wrong, in a quest to do what's right for themselves and for all, to reject the unholy or ungodly, to embrace the adventure, to endure the torment, the rejection of the collectivist or societal norms when those norms are wrong, to surmount any odds, and to do it all with a great zest, zeal and humor presented forward and outwards, a certain unalienable smile and jovial spirit, to quench the thirst for the adventurer himself, as a kind of pirate with a gentleman's charm.

Indeed this music is compelling, the kind that drives man to passion, to movement, to action. It distinctly has that effect on me. To achieve, to write, to invent, any creative individualist act that I can think of, to type faster, to produce, without hesitation, something, I know not what, and yet it is there. But it is too short in that form, I'm awaiting the rest of it, I'm wanting more. I could listen to that segment, part of that O Fortuna movement again, and I will. But I will hear the whole cantata performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony on Saturday night, and I will write more.

I've found out since that:
From the 11th-13th Century, Carmina Burana is a collection of love and vagabond songs.
Carmina Burana, also known as the Burana Codex, is a manuscript collection found in 1803 in the Bavarian monastery of Benediktbeuern and now housed in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich. The 119 leaves of the original collection contain 228 poems compiled by three different scribes.
Fortuna is the goddess of fortune in Roman Mythology.
Carmina Burana is a scenic cantata composed by Carl Orff between 1935 and 1936. It is based on 24 of the poems found in the medieval collection Carmina Burana. Its full Latin title is Carmina Burana: Cantiones profanae cantoribus et choris cantandae comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis ("Songs of Beuern: Secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung together with instruments and magic images.") Carmina Burana is part of Trionfi, the musical triptych that also includes the cantata Catulli Carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite. The best-known movement is "O Fortuna" that opens and closes the piece.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Metronomic candor

The beauty of Beethoven's Symphony number 8 has driven me to poetry once more, based on words I wrote during the wonderful performance by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under the baton (literally) of Rafael Fr├╝hbeck de Burgos. I heard marvelous synchronicity and superlative metronomic fluidity. The maestro was wonderful with his marvelous conducting, the left hand was expressive and the right hand led with the baton, and there were plenty of smiles in the orchestra to go around...
Metronomic candor - Beethoven Symphony No. 8

Gorgeous serendipity, landed squarely on my nose
No lack of hesitation, dare rob me of my prose
Speaking speech in volume, pitched above three rows
Luck she barely knew me, and nimble on her toes

Born with trepidation, and furrows on her brow
A subtle time and mellow rhyme, and now's when I avow
Overture preamble, pioneering lead somehow
Further salutation, hello goodbye and ciao

What rapid introspection, as during tranquil lull
Was thought and then was lost upon, and glance would soon befall
Approaching gentle movement, commence and dart away
Lunge full bore, sawing bow and sweeping sooth foray

Steeped to incredulity, behind inquiring glance
Thread simple hesitation, woven as a dance
Morphing other voices, and rhythm to enhance
Stretched around my temple, unlikely as romance

Extend seesaw return chutzpa
Winding up reverb
Unleash what's raw and look voila
Adoration cannot curb

Start again, reprise and yet, consider slower still
Metronomic candor, ascending toward yon hill
Drowning with your grandeur, grasping for a thrill
Bass and sound revolve around, strings they do instill

Impetuous dampened softness, rich with full contour
Sweet and slender tremor, ascend with bass once more
Burst horns upon my consciousness, alert to hear the score
Prepare one heart for apex, last passion to endure

Metronomic candor

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Trio Orchestration

February 02, 2009

I really enjoyed the concert, and the Trio was new for me, and quite beautiful. The piano concerto was sublime (photo below with pianist Orion Weiss during the pre-concert chat: he was marvelous in the Grieg piano concerto). A few comments from Maestro Tortelier on his orchestration of the Ravel Trio. This is a very shortened list of the remarks that elicited a response from the audience, laughter or applause. He was quite entertaining during his introduction of the piece. Read the description for context.

  • .. in the Mother Goose - Alright, you still with me?
  • .. it's the same music anyway - I hope you recognize it.
  • .. game of tunes / two sides of a coin - witty / subtle and waltzy
  • .. scherzo or chorale: a trio of trios
  • .. we start with the strings, are you ready for sensual horns, sexy trumpets
  • .. a slow Passacaille: starting with only double basses, builds to a climax and all the way down to the bottom
  • .. (describing arches with joyful impetuosity) one arch is enough
  • .. Are you interested in the climax? -- we make more noise
  • .. (based on Ravel's notes) not sounding trumpety enough, I gave this part to the trumpets

I also very much enjoyed the first piece, I wrote this while listening...
My poem based on Jean Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela

You were a dream to me, I could not conceive
heighten tension sliding below
ebbing higher gently swayed as in a breeze
softly enunciating naivety

Flutter by, but don't wave
don't see me below your soaring wing
perceive your world, but not my black watery depths
awakening beyond as light permeates mist

Full and rich depths surround
as grand aura fills my sound
your lone voice observes alone
higher still - would we soar at the same height?

Yet not together
Take a bow and smile

What a treat! Montero at the PSO

January 24, 2009

Tonight, I enjoyed so many facets of the concert at the PSO, its hard to do them all justice. The works performed were all wonderful, and some were new to me, including Barber Symphony No. 1 and Mendelssohn Symphony No. 5 (actually he composed this symphony as the second in the sequence, but it was labeled as 5), both wonderful works in their own right, yet not played very often on the classical stations.

It was Gabriela Montero who stole the show. Her playing in the Rhapsody in Blue was a unique experience. The jazz and tempo were all her own. But the real treat was right after the Gershwin composition. Ms. Montero asked the audience what kind of improvisation she could do, what particular song, perhaps something from Pittsburgh, she could take and turn into an impromptu rendition for just this occasion. No need to wonder, the mass of the audience chanted 'Here we go', yes, the Steeler song (if you are not from Pittsburgh, realize that the Pittsburgh Steelers are going to the Super bowl next week). And there she went, playing a magnificent composition with the Steeler chant interwoven beautifully, some classical Baroque, and finally ending with a rhythmic mamba. The audience irrupted with the most sudden applause I have ever heard. I was a sight to behold, a sound never to be forgotten.

After intermission we were again surprised: Ms. Montero and three other PSO musicians formed a quartet and performed John Williams' "Air and Simple Gifts" which was originally played a few days ago at the presidential inauguration. It was a beautiful piece, obviously based on a theme of Copland.

Afterward, there was a post concert chat with Jim Cunningham and Ms. Montero.

Question: "What is your favorite piece to play"

Montero: "There are many, right now I'm really into concertos. I'm playing Rachmaninoff 3, that's one of my all time favorite pieces to play. I'm also playing Brahms No. 1 in Vienna, which I absolutely adore. I'm very fond of Brahms, Schumann, Bach, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff. Rachmaninoff I die, it's very romantic."

Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic at the PSO

January 17, 2009

The music I heard last night at the Pittsburgh Symphony, composed by John Adams, had two different complexions. Nixon in China, an opera with complete symphony and six fantastic voices, was a wonderfully melodic composition which, based on the music alone, was a completely beautiful artistic composition that I found quite pleasing. It was music that I would like to hear again. My only disappointment was with some of the words, but my mind only perceived a few of those, I'm one of those right brain types that only hears the music. Somehow, the words I did hear startled me with their political dissonance, and I chose instead to concentrate on the wonderful score. I remember the idea of Nixon visiting Red China as a wonderful way to open people's minds to the fact that worlds can be brought together.

The second composition played by the PSO and written and conducted by Mr. Adams was his Doctor Atomic Symphony. It began rather stark, with some musical dissonance, but what do you expect, it is supposed to represent the bomb. It went on to some very nice music throughout. At one point near the end there was a very sad and melodic movement which was simply beautiful, a very moving piece of music. Again I found myself wishing to hear this again. It was the kind of music that might compel one to write poetry. If I could hear it again, I think I would

Messiah, by Handel

December 14, 2008

inspiration My concert going experience Friday night was rather atypical. I went by myself. Other than the "Hallelujah" chorus, I had never heard any other parts of Handel's Messiah before. It was different, in several ways, than any classical concert I have attended. The orchestra was sparse, mostly strings, a few piccolos, a bassoon, later a few trumpets, and the keyboard player ping-ponging his way back and forth between the harpsichord and the organ. The choir was smaller than other occasions, but 43 was still a good size and sounded great. I really liked listening to that bassoon, on this occasion it was easy to discern.

Somehow I expected this composition to be more completely filled with chorus. I did enjoy the chorus and solo singers immensely, but I didn't quite expect so much of the traditional classical parts of the composition, the beautiful baroque orchestral music. These parts would really be interesting if put together in a form without the chorus, but then that wouldn't be the point.

I couldn't help but notice the audience around me. One fellow in particular had what appeared to be the complete score, faded yellow and a bit frayed. He seemed to be overjoyed to be there, and often showed the score to his friend beside him. He followed along with the music, mostly reading the score rather than watching the stage below. I was enthralled with his enthusiasm, it was contagious, and I couldn't help but frequently follow his actions. After a while I figured he must be a music director himself, perhaps of a local college or high school, and he was here to listen, observe, compare and somehow gather together his own impressions of how he would direct his own performance based on the show we were all enjoying.

There were others around me who were singing along at parts, especially the Hallelujah Chorus, even though the sing along wasn't this night. I believe the program was switched. Originally there was to be an audience sing-along on Friday evening, but it had been switched to Saturday. When they announced that at the beginning, some moaned and groaned, others laughed and seemed relieved.

I thoroughly enjoyed this experience, I can't wait to go back next year.

I wrote this description while watching "It's a Wonderful Life" on TV. At the end, when he is glad to live again, George Bailey, is hugging his kids and says "Hallelujah"! Now there's a sentiment with which I can thoroughly concur. "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings"

A page of George Frideric Handel’s autograph draft score of Messiah, 1741.

Beethoven Piano Co. No. 4

November 25, 2008

My impressions of the Beethoven Piano Co. No. 4, performed last weekend by Garrick Ohlsson and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Manfred Honeck: I was pleased with the performance, by Ohlsson and all of the members of the PSO. I was impressed by Honeck's mannerisms. I can't quite describe them yet, but they have a certain style, and I will try to put my finger on it in later, but to note: when he stands straight and tall with baton held high, expect the orchestra to respond in kind with a wonderfully explosive musical expression. Honeck comes across as humble in person when speaking, but his real expressions come when he is conducting.

The first movement seemed to contain some parts or additional phrases I've not heard before in the many times I've listened to prerecorded versions of this concerto. Is this my imagination?

The second movement was very moving. The fullness of the strings and the orchestra immediately brought the kind of force to my ears which never fails to impress. Often, the soft piano was interleaving with the orchestra like a gentle stream flowing through a mountain pass.

In the program notes, I read that this particular concerto was full of surprises for its time. Beethoven was a creative individualist -- just the quality I like; an artist that is anxious to "break the mold at every opportunity," how refreshing!. The beginning of the concerto forged a change in style. One thing mentioned was that our beloved composer changed the 'key' from the first few beginning phrases of the piano, to the entry of the orchestra, and that that represented the kind of change that was readily noticed by the first to listen to this concerto, Beethoven's early audience.

Here is my dilemma. I have very little training in music theory. I do know where each note is on a keyboard, and can readily play compositions with my right hand only, but the notion of a 'key' has somehow escaped my understanding for quite a long time. For a music lover like myself, it wasn't necessary for my enjoyment. Out of curiosity, I picked up a 'dummies' guide to music theory. I read through the entire description of keys and notions of major and minor. My first thought was that perhaps this is a notion which makes it easier for musicians to play their instruments. Just like computer can interpret instructions, the musician can interpret the notes, with the context being the 'key'. Context is a useful thing for any profession.

Key seemed to also denote the actual sets of tones of the set of notes being described. I must hand it to musicians, I find the whole notation and concepts quite difficult to grasp. Being originally an electrical engineer, I do know a little about frequencies and harmonics. I think the notions represented by 'key' could just as easily been represented by mathematical concepts related to the frequency of each note, and the relationships they all hold with respect to each other.

My contention is that I don't necessarily need to know much about 'keys' to understand and enjoy music. None of us in the audience need to know these concepts. I am sure there are quite a few out there that are conversant in this music theory, but I am not addressing them, there are likely more who do not. I am not turned off when I read the kind of description related in the program notes, I accept them as an 'extra' bit of biographical context to the music we are about to hear. But my take on the music is going to always be how it relates to my ears and mind. And of course being a live performance I get to see the performance as well.

So when I read that the 'key' change was interpreted by early listeners as 'really wrong' I am curious. Why? -- because I didn't detect a 'key' change at all. I went back to a recording I have on CD and listened again to the opening over and over. I tried to direct my mind to detect this key change that was described. But I cannot. I don't hear it. I think it is because the change in 'key' is an absolute change in the base frequency. Yet my mind is tuned to relative notes. I hear the exact sequence of notes being played because, relative to each other, they are equal algebraic multiples away from each other -- sort of my own musical theory of relativity. I don't necessarily hear the absolute frequencies, but the relationships of the sets of notes to one another in a particular phrase. If the same phrase is repeated in different key, then to me, it was the same phrase, sounding just a good as the original.

I wonder if these 'original' listeners to Beethoven, especially those who were critics or music reviewers some 200 years ago, are perhaps a minority. I wonder if perhaps there were many others, who like me, simply sat back and enjoyed the music. But when they read the press, unlike me, they were told that the aforementioned 'key' change was 'really wrong' or 'simply wrong' and did not conform to the typical opening of a concerto. So, like people of today, perhaps they let that information bias or distort their view. And forever more, we will believe that the 'consensus' of that time was that Beethoven was different, and therefore a bit 'mad'.

That's the kind of madness I call genius, I wish I had a bit of it myself.

Impressions of the Bruckner Symphony No. 4

November 22, 2008

The second movement of the Bruckner was my favorite. You hear the raw power of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra strings, each member acting in unison, pushing the romantic uplifting theme, reverberating deep into my body and soul. In person it is worlds apart from a recording. The violas get to shine. As they play with alacrity and potency, their theme is counter-posed by the rest of the strings preforming pizzicato. Interesting how only 12 viola players can put forth so much volume, when compared to perhaps 26 violins and the rest of the strings, not to mention the obvious fact that violas are facing away from the audience, yet it sounded wonderful, even to my ears, being seated in the very last row of the gallery, a testament to the acoustics at Heinz Hall.

Take a look at another performance of the same movement:

The third movement is more famous, it's been played countless times on WQED, I recognized it right away. It is one of those pieces of music that literally send goose bumps along one's body. The dynamic range of this symphony is amazing (as is the duration).