the pulitzer prize in music

Choosing composition as your life’s work means a challenging career ahead. Hundreds of years ago, job security meant finding a patron who would feed and house you and expect you to produce a pretty constant stream of music for their court orchestra. If you were lucky and well-connected, you might also have a thriving career writing opera for the public or publishing piano music for students and music-lovers. But the percentage of composers who can make a living just from composition has always been relatively small, and it is still true today. One of the most successful composers out there right now is Aaron Jay Kernis, and LACO will be performing one of his works in their upcoming concert. Kernis’ Viola Concerto will make its Los Angeles debut with Paul Neubauer as soloist. It’s sure to be a wonderful experience.

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Aaron Jay Kernis has had a very productive career thus far; he’s been recognized by the professional organizations ASCAP and BMI, and he has won a number of very prestigious awards in his field. He’s also received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. He won the Rome Prize in 1984, which allows for a year of writing and study at the American Academy in Rome. Previous winners include Roger Sessions, Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, and Lukas Foss. Kernis’ work Colored Field received the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition in 2002. Kernis continues to collect accolades, and he’s sharing his particular ideas and talents with thriving university programs. He is composer in residence at Northwestern University (made possible by the Nemmers Prize) and he is also in residence at New York’s Mannes College.

One of the jewels in the crown of this already amazing career is Kernis’ 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Music, which he won for the String Quartet No. 2. At the age of 28 at the time, Kernis was the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer in Music. I only learned there was such an award in the late 90s, when my former theory professor, Melinda Wagner, won for her Concerto for Flute, Strings, and Percussion. Since then, I’ve wondered about the origin of the Pulitzer Prize in Music.

The Pulitzer Prize was set up by Hungarian-born newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer. His papers, New York World and St-Louis Post Dispatch favored high quality writing and investigative journalism. Pulitzer was incredibly supportive of the idea of a school of journalism, which would properly train writers at the university level to create content for newspapers and other publications.

In his will drawn up in 1904 (he died in 1911), he left money to Columbia University with the stipulation that they begin a school of journalism (it was founded in 1912) and award the Pulitzer Prize celebrating excellence in various fields. Pulitzer named a few awards: four in journalism, four in letters and drama, and one in education. There were also scholarships for travel. Among the letters awards were ones for an American novel and an American play (which had been performed in New York). The first set of prizes was awarded in 1917. There is both a certificate and a cash award for each prize. Pulitzer understood that times would change, so he was not overly rigid in his stipulations. In fact, he established a board that would oversee and advise the awards, so that they could replace subjects or add subjects, and respond to the changing times. Currently, the Pulitzer foundation gives out awards in twenty-one categories. In the 1990s, the Plan of Award committee responded to the proliferation of online content by expanding the definition of entries. This change was amended further in 2006.

The Pulitzer Prize for Music was added in 1943. At first, only art music entries were considered, but again, Pulitzer’s understanding that times would change allowed for a broadening of the category. In 1998, the definition of eligible music became more inclusive towards more mainstream musical styles. Things seemed to be moving in that direction already; in 1997, Wynton Marsalis’ “Blood on the Fields,” which displayed strong jazz influences, took the prize. So once the Plan of Award committee made the change officially, other composers who had been overlooked received some late recognition. In 1998, George Gershwin was honored on his hundredth birthday, as was Duke Ellington in 1999. In 2007, Ornette Coleman’s live jazz recording Sound Grammar won the award, the first to take such an honor, and it was validation of the progress towards an acceptance of the diversity of American styles.

Although the Pulitzer Prize is not without controversy or detractors, Aaron Jay Kernis’ inclusion in the pantheon of winners is ultimately a coveted honor. To receive such a prize so early in one’s career,  it must have felt to Kernis incredibly encouraging. And Kernis has made good on the promise he showed. Not content to sit idly after winning an award (or many awards!), Kernis has shown that each new honor just encourages him to write more, add nuance to the development of his style, and contribute to the rich diversity of the American music tradition.

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musician spotlight: Kristy Morrell

Horn player Kristy Morrell has been gracing the LACO stage since 1997 – 17 years! What a perfect candidate for our new Musician Spotlight feature! Come see Kristy in action this weekend, when she’ll be performing during “Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3,” LACO’s concert on November 15 & 16 (buy your tickets now!). Kristy kindly answered some fun questions for us, so check out which beverage inspired her favorite Halloween costume, as well as which classical music piece caught her ear at the tender age of four.

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Do you have any pre-concert rituals?I usually take a 20 minute “princess nap.”

What’s your earliest musical memory?My grandpa played Dvorak’s New World Symphony for me when I was 4. It fascinated me and I begged him to play the record endlessly. Finally, he let me take the record home and I literally wore it out.

If you could play another instrument other than the one(s) you already play, what would it be and why?  I sing a lot in church choir and I always wish I had a better voice.

What’s your favorite music-based movie or TV show and why? I LOVE Mr. Holland’s Opus. As an educator, it validates my passion for sharing music with everyone.

What’s your favorite topping on ice cream? Pizza? Salad?  I love anchovy on pizza. (A lot.)

What’s your favorite sandwich?  Reuben with extra sauerkraut.

What’s something about you that no one would know just by attending a LACO concert?  I raise chickens in my backyard. Penelope, Peony, and Violet are their names.

Halloween was a couple weeks ago… What’s your favorite or most memorable Halloween costume?  When my husband Steve and I were students at Eastman, we dressed up as a 6-pack of Genesee Beer. (Our favorite libation due to its economy, not flavor!)

In addition to her work with LACO, Kristy Morrell is a faculty member at USC’s Thornton School of Music and The Colburn School of Performing Arts. She performs frequently with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale, LA Opera, and Pasadena and Pacific symphonies. A respected recording artist, she has performed on numerous motion picture and television soundtracks and records. Kristy has a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from USC, where she also received her Master of Music, and a Bachelor of Music and Performer’s Certificate from the Eastman School of Music.

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genesis of the viola concerto

Viola Concerto (2013-2014)
I. Braid
II. Romance
III. A Song My Mother Taught Me

This new concerto for Viola is inspired essentially by its extraordinary soloist, Paul Neubauer, whose playing I’ve known over many years. Paul and I first worked together in 1993 when American Public Radio commissioned my Still Movement with Hymn for piano quartet which he premiered on air and toured. In some ways this new concerto follows up on the tone of that piece. I have always been drawn to the soulful character of the viola, and have been excited to write this work from the moment Paul asked for it.

read more →Knowing of Paul Neubauer’s interest in folk music, after our very first meeting I decided to base this movement on the well-known Yiddish song, Tumbalalaika, which I had known since my early childhood. I had always felt this song has very penetrating words and a sad melody, and was later surprised to hear it sung in many ways – as a romantic wedding song, wildly gyrating dance tune, and even in an ironic, comedic rendition. It can withstand so many interpretations! The words to the song (included below) are very soulful and deep. They are both light and dark in tone, playful yet very serious in intent. In the song a young man questions a girl who might become his bride, and she answer his simple questions with surprisingly deep answers. The relationship between them that these words hint at are at the center of the entire concerto. The melody of Tumbalalaika is used as the basis of the entire third movement (A Song My Mother Taught Me), and it is varied and presented in many different emotional contexts throughout its nearly 20 minute length. This movement is the longest and most substantial in the piece.

The use of the Yiddish tune is formed like a theme and series of variations, but the ten linked variations proceed backwards toward the tune, starting at their most fragmented and least melodic. The tune has been pulverized, made wildly improvisatory, and at times, very harsh and bitter. The melody is never heard in its original form, but there is late in the movement more of it is exposed against a background of strumming strings that suggest the sound of a balalaika orchestra. The shape of this movement could be construed to be variations in search of their melody.

Another important influence on the concerto was the music of Robert and Clara Schumann. I was drawn to this incredible music and unique relationship once again by Paul Neubauer’s splendid CD of transcriptions of Robert’s works for viola and piano. After hearing this disc I found further inspiration from Robert’s Opus 34 Fughetta and Clara’s Romance (both for piano), out of which grew my own Romance, this concerto’s second movement. My Romance is a lyrical, romantic intermezzo, which grows out of breathing, fluid gestures and harmonies that link to the Brahms/early Schoenberg tradition as well. This was the first movement I completed of the concerto, and hope with it was to fit Paul’s gorgeous singing sound like a glove.

So the entire work is steeped in personal relationships in one way or another, direct indirect and abstracted. Probably most abstract (but still lyrical in tone) is the opening movement, Braid, which I imagined as a constantly shifting and transforming relationship between the viola and orchestra. The fast moving line that opens in the vibraphone weaves around a singing melody that the viola introduces, building, redefining through a thickening gauze of colors that leads, at its peak, to a chaotic frenzy, winding down suddenly as the opening music returns.

I am so delighted that LACO is a partner in this commission. It has been many years since we’d worked together in person, when in 1998 my jazzy Double Concerto for Violin and Guitar was presented with Jeff Kahane conducting. (I was not able to attend last season’s performances of Musica Celestis). I so look forward to returning to Los Angeles and LACO after a long hiatus.

TUMBALALIAKA LYRICS

Transliteration of Yiddish Lyrics
Shteyt a bokher, un er trakht
Trakht un trakht a gantse nakht
Vemen tzu nemen un nisht farshemen
Vemen tzu nemen un nisht farshemen

((chorus))
Tumbala, Tumbala, Tumbalalaika
Tumbala, Tumbala, Tumbalalaika
Tumbalalaika, shpil balalaika
Tumbalalaika,freylekh zol zaynMeydl, meydl, kh’vil bay dir fregn,
Vos ken vaksn, vaksn on regn?
Vos ken brenen un nit oyfhern?
Vos ken benken, veynen on trern?

((chorus))

Narisher bokher, vos darfstu fregn?
A shteyn ken vaksn, vaksn on regn.
Libe ken brenen un nit oyfhern.
A harts ken benken, veynen on trern.

((chorus))

Vos iz hekher fun a hoyz?
Vos iz flinker fun a moyz?
Vos iz tifer fun a kval?
Vos iz biter, biterer vi gal?

((chorus))

A koymen iz hekher fun a hoyz.
A kats iz flinker fun a moyz.
Di toyre iz tifer fun a kval.
Der toyt iz biter, biterer vi gal.

((chorus))

Translation:
A young lad stands, and he thinks
Thinks and thinks the whole night through
Whom to take and not to shame
Whom to take and not to shame

((chorus))
Tumbala, Tumbala, Tumbalalaika
Tumbala, Tumbala, Tumbalalaika
Tumbalalaika, strum balalaika
Tumbalalaika, may we be happyGirl, girl, I want to ask of you
What can grow, grow without rain?
What can burn and never end?
What can yearn, cry without tears?

((chorus))

Foolish lad, why do you have to ask?
A stone can grow, grow without rain
Love can burn and never end
A heart can yearn, cry without tears

((chorus))

What is higher than a house?
What is swifter than a mouse?
What is deeper than a well?
What is bitter, more bitter than gall?

((chorus))

A chimney is higher than a house
A cat is swifter than a mouse
The Torah is deeper than a well
Death is bitter, more bitter than gall

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celebrate…with music, of course!

I haven’t seen a wedding band play in years. I’ve attended my share of weddings, but in the last couple of decades, I’ve noticed that the popularity of wedding bands has waned in favor of the lone DJ, who plays the hits just as you remember them. I’ve also been to weddings where the couple compiled an epic playlist beforehand and left an iPod to play their choices while the rest of us danced and ate. But think back to a time when recordings were not an option. Think back to Europe in the eighteenth century, a time when music had to be played live by skilled musicians. If you liked to listen to music back then, your choices were somewhat limited. I came across an interesting tidbit the other day when looking up some information about Antonio Salieri. In the 1700s, Salieri went to Vienna and found work in a chamber orchestra run by Emperor Joseph II. Joseph was such an enthusiastic music lover that he employed a group of musicians to play for him while he ate dinner. And not just once in a while either; these musicians played for him every evening. Such a thing would only be possible if money were no object.

read more →For most people, then, daily music-making fell to individuals. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, piano lessons were very popular. The piano was a focal point of many homes. There were also public concerts to attend, if one had the time, inclination, and resources. (Location was also important.) Although not strictly for entertainment value, churches provided music, and indeed, some of the most talented composers and musicians worked at the churches in Europe. Opera was the most popular musical entertainment of the day, of course, and a composer’s career could be made or broken in the opera house. Another place to hear music was at special events like weddings.

One of the pieces on LACO’s upcoming concert is a Serenade by Mozart that was composed for a wedding celebration. A Serenade is a piece for orchestra, usually in many movements (more than the typical four movements of a symphony), reserved for some light entertainment. The instrumentation for a serenade is chosen with two practical concerns in mind: the music had to be heard wherever the musicians were placed, which was sometimes outside; the musicians were sometimes called upon to stand and play their instruments. (Cellists were always exempt from this for obvious reasons.) The “Haffner” Serenade by Mozart—so named because it was composed for the occasion of the wedding between Elisabeth Haffner and Franz Xavier Spaeth—is scored for instruments that would do well both in the outdoors and with standing instrumentalists. There are strings, pairs of oboes, bassoons, horns, and trumpets.

The music for a wedding celebration, or any serenade or divertimento from the Classical period is light and airy, but not without substance. Mozart had a knack for making such carefree music interesting. For those who were socializing and eating while the music was going on, they would have enjoyed pleasing background music, but for those who cared to listen more closely, they would have been treated to some charming and clever pieces. Mozart used dance forms, which was a common practice when writing such light entertainments. Often lively and catchy, dance forms have the advantage of seeming familiar, even if they are quite new. Hearing the “Haffner” Serenade and its accompanying march—which would likely have played while the bride and groom made their entrance, or while guests were arriving—in a concert setting allows one to really appreciate the nuances of Mozart’s composition. And best of all, the orchestra will likely be seated as well. (I’m sure they appreciate that!) The couple for whom this piece was composed married in 1776. That makes this year their 238th anniversary!

If celebrating a two-century-old wedding wasn’t cause enough for jollity, LACO’s upcoming concert also features a piece that was thought lost to history. Haydn’s Cello Concerto was for years misattributed to Anton Kraft, the cellist for whom the piece was written. The work was there, in plain sight, just with the wrong composer’s name on it. Some suspected that Kraft’s Cello Concerto might have been the missing concerto that Haydn included on a list of all of his works. The proof didn’t come until the mid-twentieth century when an autograph score of this piece was finally found, confirming Haydn’s authorship of the Cello Concerto. Better late than never, I suppose.

LACO’s upcoming concert will have the upbeat mood of a celebration, which is a wonderful and fitting thing. Every time we get to support this music and orchestras like LACO, it is a celebration. We have the privilege of experiencing live music played by skilled musicians, which means we have something in common with those music-lovers from the eighteenth century. Sure, we have streaming music, YouTube, radio, television, and recordings, but there is simply no substitute for being there, in the theater, watching and listening to the magic of live music. ↑ less ↑

california adventures

I am very much looking forward to returning to the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra for my second visit. My first was many years ago – more years ago than I care to admit. I was playing the other Haydn concerto – in C major – with the orchestra under the direction of its then artistic leader, the late, much-missed Iona Brown. I’m afraid that my dominant memory of that evening is one of fear, panic and despair. Iona had very kindly put me on in the second half of the programme, which is always nice; but in this case, I just had not got over the jet-lag, and I felt that my brain was closing down for the night well before I went onstage. I went out into the night as the orchestra played the symphony in the first half, and breathed in copious amounts of smog, hoping that it would wake me up. It didn’t. I walked onstage in a state of frozen dread, sure that I would forget the music and have to walk off-stage midway, to a cacophony of cat-calls and hisses. Thank goodness, that didn’t happen; I got through it, and people even seemed to enjoy it! At the dinner afterwards (no matter how exhausted a musician may be, we still have to eat after concerts – an absolute necessity!) Iona turned to me. ‘That’s amazing, Steven – I’ve never seen anyone look so relaxed coming on stage!’ If she had but known…

read more →However, I’ve now been here in California for some ten days, so hopefully the lag will have past before I tread the boards for these concerts. And I’m definitely succumbing to the magic of LA: having begun my trip at one of my favorite houses in the world, the home of my friends Aaron Mendelssohn and Marcia Adelstein, who run the Maestro Foundation (for whom I gave a recital a few days after I arrived, with Ya-Fei Chuang) and then given a class at the impressive Colburn School of Music, I went to San Francisco (a little-known, rather sun-deprived city on the north of California – you may not have heard of it) for concerts with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra under Nic McGegan. (It seems to be my time for playing with Scottish conductors – both Nic and Douglas Boyd are old friends, as well as being wonderful musicians.) Now, as I write these immortal words, I am preparing to come back to LA, where I hope to do many things, apart from the little matter of playing one of the most challenging of all cello concertos. I plan to see many friends (including the daughter and son-in-law of my grandfather’s favourite piano pupil in Vienna from the 1930s); and my girlfriend Joanna (who is coming over for the week) and I are going to visit Bill Marx, the son of my hero of heroes, Harpo – that will be a thrill. I hope also to examine the Piatigorsky archive at the Colburn School. In fact, if fate hadn’t intervened, I would have been living in LA for a few years in my late teens (ie at least two years ago). I was all set to come to study with Piatigorsky, when, alas, the great man died. At least I got to meet him several times, and fell completely under the spell of his irresistible charisma.

But I shall also be practicing Haydn! Papa Haydn demands a lot of attention – all of which is fully rewarded when we start playing those glorious, life-affirming melodies. What a composer! I’m sure that he and Harpo would have been firm friends – perhaps now they are? ↑ less ↑

9 things you never knew about the cello

The program for LACO’s upcoming Mozart Serenade (October 18 and 19, buy your tickets now!) features a George Benjamin piece and (spoiler alert!) a Mozart Serenade. But since the concert will also feature Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D major, featuring guest cellist Steven Isserlis, it’s the perfect time to bone up on cello trivia. Whet your appetite with these 9 Things You Never Knew About the Cello! 

read more →The Cello’s Full Name. Cello is actually an abbreviated word. The full name name for the instrument is violoncello, which translates to “little violone.” The violone, which was larger, is the direct ancestor of the double bass.

A Workout For Your Calves. The wood or metal spike at the base of the cello that allows the cellist to rest their instrument on the floor is called an endpin. Even though the cello dates back to the 16th century, endpins weren’t commonly used until the beginning of the 20th century. The first to attach an endpin to their cello was Belgian composer and cellist Adrien-François Servais, who did so around 1845. He must have been tired of holding his cello between his calves, which was the standard practice for hundreds of years.

Pluralize It! There are two acceptable ways to pluralize the word “cello”: cellos and celli.

You Sound Like a Cello. Many musicians and experts have claimed that, of all the instruments that make up an orchestra, the cello is the one that most closely sounds like the human voice. Tod Machover, a composer and Professor of Music and Media at MIT, explained why: “The cello range is identical to the human voice – that is, the male and female voice combined. The lowest cello note is at the bottom range of a basso profundo, and although the cello can scream higher than any singer, it has a more normal top range that competes with a diva coloratura.” (from Machover’s essay “My Cello,” included in the book “Evocative Objects: Things We Think With”)

Expensive…and Broken! In 2012, a Stradivarius cello thought to be worth $20 million dollars was broken when it fell off a table during a photo shoot at the Spanish Royal Palace in Madrid. It’s part of a set of instruments known as ‘The Quartet’ that were acquired by King Philip V of Spain during the 1700s. 

Spruced Up. The top plate of a cello is commonly made of spruce, a softwood that’s known for having good sound radiating qualities. Spruce is popular among manufacturers of many stringed instruments, including violins and guitars, because of its high stiffness-to-weight ratio.

High Fashion Cello. What’s famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s connection to luxury fashion icon Louis Vuitton? The Louis Vuitton Foundation has loaned Ma the Davidov cello, which was made by Stradivarius in 1712. It’s one of many cellos that Ma uses during performances, and one that he frequently performs Baroque music on. The Louis Vuitton Foundation has at least three other instruments that they loan out to musicians: two violins (the Zahn and the Reynier), and a cello (the Vaslin).

Medical Testing. The oldest surviving cello, called the ‘King’ and made by 16th-century luthier Andrea Amati, recently entered a hospital for testing. In 2013, researchers at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota, used a CAT scanner to examine the condition of the ‘King,’ and to try to identify the originality of the materials used during construction.

24 Hours of Cello. There’s one cello-centric Guinness World Record, and it’s for Longest Cello Marathon. The current record was set in 2005 by Shamita Achenbach-König, who played the cello for 24 continuous hours on November 5th and 6th, 2005. Her day-long concert included pieces by many of the biggest names in music, including Bach, Chopin, and Dvorak, as well as folk songs and spirituals. The record was set at the Impossibility Challenger Games in Munich, which celebrates the limits of the human spirit and body. Achenbach-König’s record wasn’t the only one set during the Games: a Swiss bodybuilder tore a 960-page phone book in half in under 3 seconds, a Slovakian man juggled three 20-pound balls for 25.66 seconds, and Jennifer Davies from Canada set two Guinness World Records for whistling the highest and lowest notes ever whistled in history. ↑ less ↑

shaky snakes / THE INTIMIDATOR!

Welcome back to a new season of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and thus a new season of my “Newbie Blog”. Although I’ve been doing this for three years now, I’d still say I’m a classical newbie. Maybe I’ve learned enough to be called “Somewhat Seasoned-ie” but that doesn’t sound great so we’ll just stick with newbie.

read more →Opening night began with a new piece commissioned by LACO called “Lines of the Southern Cross” and conductor Jeffery Kahane explained that the piece was about Australia and would feature a bit of aboriginal influence. He also mentioned that aboriginal Australians are the oldest living culture in the world which I didn’t know. Classic newbie move. Anyways, “Lines of the Southern Cross” like most modern compositions had it’s fair share of dark, foreboding parts. These parts were broken up in cool unexpected ways thanks to the use of a number of unusual instruments some of which I don’t know the names of so I made up some new ones. The first I’m going to call “shaky snakes”. “Shaky snakes” are quite similar to rain sticks (long hollow sticks partially filled with beans that make a rain like sound when you flip it upside down) but more slithery and shifty sounding…like a snake. I could be wrong but I think I heard three distinct types of “shaky snakes” used during the performance. Or perhaps one can adjust a “shaky snake” to three different settings. The other mystery instrument were “wheat sticks”. “Wheat sticks” look like a big old piece of wheat and unsurprisingly make the sound of foliage moving ever so slightly. I have to commend the “shaky snake”/”wheat stick” players Wade Culbreath and Kenneth McGrath who had to also play a ton of other instruments including chimes, a drip sound (I have no idea what they used to make this sound), xylophone, AND my favorite instrument the triangle. These guys have to be the most stressed players in all of LACO. Having to switch between multiple strange instruments at just the right time would probably be the end of me. I could only handle triangle at best.

Next up was Camille Saint Saëns’ Piano Concerto #5 op 103 in F Major aka “The Egyptian”. A bit of a tangent but I must say that I absolutely love it when complicatedly named pieces get a cool nickname like “The Egyptian”. In fact, I’m going to think of a cool one for Beethoven’s 5th by the next paragraph. I had never heard of Saint Saëns before but I absolutely loved “The Egyptian”. The piece was at times light, dreamy, airy and never held the completely serious / somber weight that some classical pieces do. It felt accessible and adventurous. Like something that could be enjoyed at a bar (in the 1890s) or concert hall: a little fancy yet still approachable. According to the program notes Saint Saëns loved to travel and that vibe really came through in the piano performance by soloist Juho Pohjonen. Pohjonen did an excellent job and looked like he was having a lot of fun playing this lovely piece.

After a break, it was time for the big event of the night: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor Op. 67 or as I will now call it “The Intimidator”. “The Intimidator” storms right in with the iconic DUN DUN DUN DUH then slowly subsides only to come back again fiercely hence it’s new nickname ala Saëns. The thing I enjoyed most about hearing “The Intimidator” live was the surround sound feeling. By that I mean one side of the orchestra with the violins would be playing and then suddenly the other side with the cellos would respond making it the feel like the sound was darting back and fourth around the room. Like Audio table tennis. In conclusion, here are two excellent paintings of Beethoven by great friend of the blog Dr. Taghi Tirgari.

Beethoven IMG_2098

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what i did on my summer vacation

Everyone remembers those “What I did on my summer vacation” assignments teachers would dole out at the beginning of September. Back in the analog days, we might have passed around some pictures or postcards, and perhaps we even had a souvenir or two for show and tell. These days we can post an album of pictures on Facebook instantly, Instagram every vacation meal, and tweet about the wonders of nature. And while the craftiest among us still scrapbook on actual paper, the opportunity to reflect on our travels and adventures seems to be something of a lost art. We take our trip, write and comment on it in real time, and when we return, it’s immediately back to business-as-usual. When I was a child, it was always so fun to relive the vacation a few weeks later when our rolls of film finally got developed. But that feeling of reminiscence, of looking back at those travels, those adventures, is leaving us. Back before cable and Netflix and the Internet, I remember making popcorn and sitting down with the family to look at slides of vacations past. I suppose I can still look back at my own recent travels, but that means me heading back to Facebook or Twitter and scrolling through pictures on my phone. Doesn’t quite have the same romanticism, does it?

read more →Camille Saint-Saëns became a great fan of travel on his first visit to Italy when he was in his early twenties. Because he didn’t have our modern conveniences, he commemorated some of his more fascinating journeys by writing music inspired by the places he visited along the way. We have one such piece on LACO’s opening concert this season. The Fifth Piano Concerto is nicknamed “Egyptian” because Saint-Saëns composed the work while in Luxor. (He often spent winters in Egypt.) Not only was he inspired by the landscapes and the grand monuments, he wove music that he heard into the new composition. In the second movement of the Fifth Piano Concerto, we hear a song that Saint-Saëns heard while sailing on the Nile. What a wonderful way to reflect on that experience. Much better than flipping through a photo album!

In 1875, more than twenty years before he composed that Fifth Piano Concerto, Camille Saint-Saëns, then almost forty, married nineteen-year-old Marie Truffot. His mother, Clemence, did not approve of the union. The marriage produced two sons, however, both died—one from a childhood illness, one from an accident—within six weeks of each other. Six years after the wedding, Saint-Saëns simply left his wife while they were on holiday, and never saw her again. He did not remarry, but instead found a surrogate family with fellow composer Gabriel Fauré, to whom he was something of a father figure or “benevolent uncle,” as some have described him. Saint-Saëns was deeply devoted to his mother Clemence, who became a widow just three months after the birth of Camille. Clemence and her aunt, Charlotte Masson, raised the young boy by themselves. In fact, it was Masson who gave young Camille his first piano lessons at the age of two and a half. Masson died in 1872, and Clemence in 1888. Once they were gone, Camille perhaps felt that he had no reason to stay in one place anymore. His travel increased, and his writing slowed down a bit. Saint-Saëns became a mostly solitary traveler. Only his manservant Gabriel and his beloved dogs accompanied him on his trips.

In addition to spending time in Egypt, Saint-Saëns was quite fond of Algeria. It was a French colony at the time, and a popular travel spot for Europeans. When Saint-Saëns was devastated over the death of his mother, it was to Algeria that he fled, to help him find the strength to return to his life. He was comfortable there, and indeed, this place filled him with life and ideas. The Suite algerienne (1880) was written on the occasion of Algeria becoming a Department of Metropolitan France. He also composed a fantasy for piano and orchestra called Africa in 1891.

In addition to lengthy stays in North Africa, Saint-Saëns traveled through Europe and South America. He composed a patriotic hymn called Partido Colorado for Uruguay’s national holiday. He undertook many concert tours, playing series of concerts everywhere from the Canary Islands to Scandinavia to Russia. He became friends with Tchaikovsky. He came to the United States after the turn of the century. His popularity in his native France was waning, but the Americans revered him as France’s greatest living composer. He performed in New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. In 1915, he composed an orchestral piece called “Hail! California.” He was also a favorite in Great Britain, where he studied the works of Handel and played for Queen Victoria. The Philharmonic Society commissioned his Third Symphony, and he was made a Commander of the Victorian Order.

Saint-Saëns’ travels gave him a unique perspective on composition, and allowed him to see the value in music that was familiar and that which was exotic. This does not mean that he liked everything. Far from it. His thorny attitudes towards some of the composers around the turn of the century made him some enemies. He spoke out against Debussy’s Impressionism and, during the First World War, he called for a ban on German music (especially Wagner). His controversial views aside, it is interesting to hear the music of a person so well traveled, and so curious about other cultures. His experience of the world certainly enriched his own art, and helped make him the important historical figure we know today. It almost makes me want to write music to commemorate my summer vacation…or I could just go back and read my tweets. ↑ less ↑

Lines of the Southern Cross (part three)

Hi folks!  Welcome my LACO Blog posting #3, where we’ll finally move inland … at least for a bit … and look at one of the Australian outback’s most famous features … the

NULLARBOR PLAIN

Back in 2002, Darrin and I were fortunate enough to take one of the world’s great train journeys: the trans-continental trip across Australia from Sydney (on the east coast) to Perth (on the west coast) aboard the famous Indian Pacific. Part of that trek (which includes the world’s longest straight stretch of railway track) is across the Nullarbor Plain. A vast, almost treeless semi-arid plain, the Nullarbor has the distinction of being the largest single exposure of limestone bedrock in the world. Covering an area of 77,000 square miles, it stretches from the Great Australian Bight coast in the south to the Great Victoria Desert in the north and straddles the border region of South Australia and Western Australia. The word “Nullarbor” is not of Aboriginal origin, but rather derives from two Latin words: “nullus arbor” … literally meaning “no tree.” The local Mirning people referred to the area as “Oondiri,” which is said to mean “the waterless.”  A place of extreme temperatures (from scorching days to freezing nights), it is extremely flat and what vegetation there is consists of low saltbush and blue bush scrub.

read more →The coastal cliffs where the Nullarbor meets the sea are the magnificent Bunda Cliffs. Ranging from 200 to 400 feet high, these sheer rock faces extend approximately 60 miles along the Great Australian Bight and were formed when Australia separated from Antarctica approximately 65 million years ago.

BUNDA CLIFFS NULLARBOR PLAIN

As we travelled across the wild landscape of the Nullarbor, I was struck by the fact that without any trees or defining geographical features to compare anything to … just low scrub and dusty ground as far as the eye could see … distance and depth perception were completely thrown out the window.  It wasn’t until the train made its one stop on the Plain itself … at the tiny station town of Cook, South Australia (resident human population: 4) … that we were able walk around for a bit and try to comprehend the extraordinary scale of the vast empty space that stretched around us in every direction.  I remember being awed by the enormousness of the sky above our heads and fantasizing that it’s weight could so easily crush us into the ground!

The movement opens with a high unison harmonic in the violins. Representative of the searing heat of the outback sun, this piercing harmonic returns a few times throughout. Other features of this movement include use of a bowed crotale, bowed gong and Japanese binzasara … unusual sounds which help underscore the total alienness of the landscape.  Static layered harmonics in the violins, punctuated by the above-mentioned percussion instruments, lead to the introduction of the theme which forms the basis of the movement. To me, there was an overwhelming sense of melancholy to the Nullarbor and this melody (first played in octaves by the solo violin and solo viola) embodies what I felt as I looked out across the emptiness surrounding us.

Intertwined with this sense of isolation and desolation is the notion of musically-generated waves … which crops up again here as it did in “Lake Cootharaba” and “K’gari Coast.” Suggested by arpeggiated figures in the solo second violin, as well as oscillating tones from the vibraphone, the wavelike motion in this case is not representative of water, but of the distant shimmer of the heat haze … visible on every horizon as you stand on the Plain.

The main theme ebbs and flows in intensity as my mind’s eye travels south across the barren landscape, building to a violent outburst from the timpani as we reach the Bunda Cliffs.  Magnificent remnants of an event that literally tore the continent asunder, they provide my imagination with a platform from which to turn inland and gaze once again into the vast red interior of the country.  Undulating triplets in the solo violins, like a lightly buffeting hot dry wind, caress the final statement of the theme, now played in octaves by the solo viola and solo cello, and provide a transition to the …

EPILOGUE

As with the Prologue, the Epilogue is not based on a single specific landscape. It represents an expression of both the pain inflicted by industry and urban encroachment on the environment; and a celebration of the powerful life force which enables that very same environment to regenerate and repair itself despite the harm visited upon it by human greed and folly. Having spent so much of these past months exploring … both musically and metaphorically … the areas of the Australian landscape that inspired this piece, I wanted to move beyond just my personal reactions to these places and open a window to the notion that as inhabitants of this Earth, we’re all interconnected with the land and responsible for understanding and caring for it.

This finale is built from both the thematic material and the low didgeridoo-like drone motif originally presented in the Prologue. The solo first violin starts the movement with a development of the triplet figures with which it concluded “Nullarbor Plain” … gradually ascending to a cry of anguish which soars above a bed of intense tremolo and a return of the drone motif, played this time by the double bass section. The angst subsides through a short solo violin cadenza to an even more powerful invocation of the drone motif, now played by the entire cello and bass sections.  Using the “is-it-major/is-it-minor?” harmonic motif introduced and developed in “K’gari Coast,” the second violins and violas play a strummed pizzicato figure over which the first violins jubilantly sing a tune derived the from opening material. Evolving into a raucous dance celebrating renewal and the awesome ability of the natural world to regenerate and reassert itself over man, the first violins, second violins and violas toss the tune playfully back and forth.  Both percussionists enter the fray and the piece blossoms into a joyful chant intoned by the cellos and violas.  The low strings and percussion then descend to begin a powerful repeated ostinato as the violins cascade around them. The excitement builds, culminating in a grand rendition of the Prologue’s opening melody, now played by the whole orchestra. The climax melts away and the drone motif is reintroduced, once again played as a duet between the solo cello and solo double bass accompanied by percussion as it was in the Prologue (claves being used to evoke the sound of Aboriginal clapsticks).  The work concludes very softly, with the two string soloists fading to silence … ↑ less ↑

flashback to 1985 before the LACO season premiere

What an exciting time: the new LACO season is almost upon us! On Sept. 20 and 21, LACO will kick off their 46th Orchestral Series with Beethoven 5, a concert that celebrates the classics while ushering a new masterpiece into the world. The program includes the world premiere of Cameron Patrick’s Lines of the Southern Cross, Beethoven’s iconic Symphony No. 5, and Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 5, known as his “Egyptian” concerto. It’s no surprise that LACO hasn’t performed Lines of the Southern Cross before, as it is a world premiere. I was surprised, however, to hear that the other two pieces have only been played once before on the LACO stage. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 was introduced to LACO audiences in 2009 (as the inaugural piece in their compelling and unique “Discover” format), but Saint Saens’ “Egyptian” Concerto hasn’t been performed since 1985 – 29 years ago! Thinking back to 1985 doesn’t yield many memories from outside my home or school, but then again, I was only six years old. Turns out, though, that 1985 was a notable year in many regards. Are you ready for a flashback? 

read more → Two popular orchestral pieces were heard for the first time in 1985, both thanks to commissions by major American symphonies. The Milwaukee Symphony commissioned American composer John Adams, and the end result was The Chairman Dances, which has since been recorded at least three times. 1,000 miles to the east, the Boston Symphony Orchestra commissioned English composer Peter Maxwell Davies, who delivered Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, a popular work that’s known for being one of the few classical pieces to feature a bagpipe solo.

If you tuned your radio to the top-40 stations, you’d likely hear hits from some of the biggest names in music. Madonna released Like A Virgin in late 1984, and her smashes “Material Girl” and “Into the Groove” were played throughout most of 1985. Bruce Springsteen also had a hit 1984 album, Born in the U.S.A., with hit singles “I’m on Fire” and “Glory Days” hitting airwaves in 1985. Phil Collins’ third solo album, No Jacket Required, hit store shelves in January 1985, and it would go on to be the #1 album in the country for seven weeks, and eventually win three Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year.

Film audiences craved adventure, with Back to the Future and The Goonies filling theaters coast-to-coast. If you were in an action mood, you could buy a ticket for Commando or your choice of Sylvester Stallone sequels: Rambo: First Blood Part II or Rocky IV. Meanwhile, classical music fans celebrated when Amadeus cleaned up at the 57th Annual Academy Awards (handed out in March 1985) – the Mozart film won 8 statues, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director.

Those who opted to stay home had plenty to choose from, with laughter being a likely outcome. Five of the top ten highest-rated television shows were comedies: The Cosby Show, Family Ties, The Golden Girls, Cheers, and Who’s The Boss?. 1985 also saw the debuts of many television staples: David Letterman presented his first Top Ten List on September 18th (topic: “Top Ten Things That Almost Rhyme With Peas”), Elmo made his first appearance on Sesame Street on November 18th, and CNN introduced a new nightly interview show, Larry King Live, on June 3rd.

A couple new products were introduced into the marketplace, with differing results: Coca-Cola tinkered with its 99-year-old formula and released New Coke, but public backlash and savage reviews forced the company to reintroduce its Classic beverage just months later. At the other end of the spectrum, Microsoft introduced the first version of Windows, called Windows 1.0, and the product is still going strong nearly 3 decades later.

Some final fun facts about 1985: It was the year that Michael Jordan was named NBA Rookie of the Year, the year that the cost of a first-class stamp rose from 20 to 22 cents, and the year that the English version of the immensely popular musical Les Miserables premiered (in London). And if you wanted to fill up your gas tank? The average price, per gallon, was only $1.09.  ↑ less ↑