Lines of the Southern Cross (part two)

Hi folks! Welcome my LACO Blog posting #2, where we’ll move on to exploring the music in much more detail …

I approached the structure of “Lines of the Southern Cross” like a ballet. The Prologue is an exposition, introducing the recurring thematic material and the didgeridoo-like drone in the solo cello and double bass, then after a short Grand Pause, we travel through three distinct landscapes and the Epilogue, each section or movement flowing seamlessly into the next without a break.

read more →LAKE COOTHARABA

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The first of these landscapes is Lake Cootharaba, a saltwater lake on the Noosa River approximately 100 miles north of my home town of Brisbane. Wikipedia describes the lake as being roughly 6 miles long by 3 miles wide. It is close to the Pacific Ocean (separated by a mere mile of sandy scrubland) but does not drain directly into it. Instead the Noosa River enters from the north via the Everglades Wetlands and exits at the south via a navigable channel to meet the sea at Noosa Heads. Amazingly, it only has an average depth of about 5 feet … so it is shallow enough for people and larger animals to wade or walk through in spots. Brimming with wildlife and native vegetation that flourish in the surrounding Cooloolah National Park, Lake Cootharaba is (fortunately) one of the most protected wetlands areas left in my home state of Queensland.

My partner of 22 years (and spouse for 6!), Darrin McCann, and I were lucky enough to spend a few glorious days on Lake Cootharaba on a houseboat in 1994. The 2nd movement of “Lines of the Southern Cross” was inspired by an evening laying out on the roof of the wheelhouse, entranced by the sky full of stars spread out above us. The gentle breeze whipped up small waves which lapped rhythmically against the sides of the boat and being a long way from any city lights, the Milky Way arched magnificently and brightly across the sky. As always, the Southern Cross and the Pointers winked down at us too. The violas open the movement with a wavelike repeated half-step figure, providing a gentle bed for the violins, who enter with a dreamy melody that floats high above. Both violin sections are divided into numerous choirs which exchange harmony and melody back and forth. Solo double bass playing pizzicato and glockenspiel then enter, answering each other and occasional violin interjections in short rhythmic figures, like flashes of light on the surface of the water. Other sounds of the night, like the calls of birds and frogs, interject in the distance. In my mind’s eye, the warm night breeze picks up, the waves become more insistent and the solo viola plays an intense theme which carries the listener east across the dark mysterious waters. Then, as if on the back of a large sea bird, the violins take flight with the tune, high and joyful, and over echoes of the didgeridoo, we cross the small land bridge between Lake Cootharaba and the beautiful beaches of Great Sandy National Park to be presented with the extraordinary vista of the ….

K’GARI COAST

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K’gari or Gari (pronounced “gurri”) is the traditional Butchulla (also spelled Badtjala) Aboriginal name for Fraser Island. Fraser Island is about 185 miles north of Brisbane and is situated a little over 9 miles off the Queensland coast just north of Lake Cootharaba. Fraser Island is the world’s largest sand island and is an area of remarkable natural beauty. It is about 75 miles long and 15 miles wide, with a diverse array of stunning geographical features ranging from towering sand dunes, giant walls of colored sands, sparkling freshwater dune lakes, and a diversity of vegetation ranging from luxuriant rainforest to eucalyptus woodland, mangrove forests and heathlands, all of which grow in only sand with relatively little nutrient.

Wikipedia informs us that archaeological research and evidence show Aboriginal Australians, the Badtjala people, occupied Fraser Island at least 5000 years ago. Tragically though, the arrival of European settlers in the area in the 1840s was an overwhelming disaster for the Indigenous people. Overwhelmed by weapons, disease and lack of food, Aboriginal numbers were reduced to only about 300 people by 1890. Most of the remaining Aboriginals left the island in 1904 and were relocated to missions on the mainland. It is estimated that up to 500 Indigenous archaeological sites are located on the island.

I’ve been fortunate to have visited K’gari a couple of times during my life. One of the things that amazed me each time, was Seventy Five Mile Beach, which runs literally for 75 miles along the east coast of the island up to Indian Head. It is used as a landing strip for small planes and an informal highway for four-wheel-drive vehicles and is truly an awe-inspiring site … pristine sand and magnificent Pacific waves stretching as far as the eye can see in both directions. It is this coastline that inspired the 3rd movement of “Lines of the Southern Cross.” Featuring solo cello with the orchestra, this movement, like the 2nd, also begins with a musical suggestion of waves … but in this case, they are large and powerful, a force of nature to be reckoned with. The motivic harmonic progression of C major7 to E-flat major over a C pedal gives the piece a kind of major/minor uncertainty throughout. The expansive cello tune that enters over this repeated major/minor figure, carries the listener up the broad windswept coastline, dodging breakers as they rush up the beach and fording freshwater creeks that empty out into the surf. Soon a darkness seeps into the music and the mood changes. The cello begins a series of turgid arpeggios and the movement assumes a sense of urgency, reflecting the drama of a sudden squall or the appearance of a dangerous rip current close to shore. The movement climaxes with a full orchestral outburst suggesting the waters being whipped into a frenzy of foam. All quietens down to a reintroduction of the didgeridoo-like drone in the solo cello and double bass … laying a foundation for a rhythmically-augmented version of the waves from the opening of “Lake Cootharaba” in the low violas and celli. A solo viola plaintively sings a reprise of the melody from the Prologue, expressing my profound sadness for the Indigenous people and their loss of this paradise as their home. The rumble of the mighty Pacific diminishes into nothingness and a solo violin holds a high harmonic to introduce our third landscape …

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Lines of the Southern Cross (part one)

Hi folks! Welcome to my first blog entry on LACO’s website. I can’t tell you how thrilled and honored I am to have the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra presenting the premiere of my new work, “Lines of the Southern Cross” this September.

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Lines of a Southern Cross

Music Director Jeffrey Kahane first approached me with the possibility of writing a newly-commissioned work very early in January of this year. He’d been in touch regarding another piece of mine, “Impressions of Erin,” which was commissioned and premiered by the Camerata of St. John’s Chamber Orchestra in Brisbane, Australia in 2012. Initially, our conversations were about the possibility of LACO performing “Erin” in an upcoming concert, but clocking in at around 30 minutes, it was too long to fit anywhere on the new season’s programs. Jeffrey then floated the idea of me writing a piece for September 2014. What can I say? … I was immediately excited at the prospect, even though scheduling the work for the first concert of the 2014-15 season only gave me about 5 months to craft something from scratch. Luckily, Jeffrey also had some very strong ideas about the makeup of the work: it should be 12-15 (and no longer than 17) minutes long, it should be for strings and percussion, and subject wise: explore the spirituality of the Australian landscape.

Now these parameters were incredibly helpful insofar as they focused my thoughts very quickly in a very specific direction. The “spirituality of the Australian landscape” had me a little stumped for a bit … what a broad topic! I started reading and researching … trying to find an approach … and relatively quickly (thankfully!), found a common thread in discussions of stories from across the spectrum of world religions and spiritual paths: for millennia, human beings have spoken and recorded tales of encounters with the divine … of incredibly powerful spiritual experiences … in association with specific geographical locations. Most often, the place, through its combination of physical attributes, gave substance to the faith generated there … intertwining landscape and spirituality forever for the person involved and anchoring the experience in their memory of that place.

This struck a very real chord (please excuse the pun!) for me. I started thinking … when a place makes an impact on you, you don’t just see it with your eyes, but with your whole body. You feel part of that picture emotionally for the rest of your life. I thought … okay, so I was born and spent the first 23 years of my life in Australia and have been fortunate to do a lot of traveling in my homeland … why not cast my mind back over all of those journeys, sift through photos, maps and memories and compile a list of the places that affected me profoundly on both a spiritual and emotional level?

Jeffrey and I had also talked about the music of the Australian Aboriginal people and whether we could somehow incorporate a thread of a reference to Indigenous culture in the piece. I wanted very dearly to celebrate and recognize the inseparable connection between the continent’s Indigenous peoples and the land itself. We discussed iconic Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, whom the world just lost a few weeks ago on August 8, and his evoking of “typical” Australian natural sounds like birds and insects, as well as his use of “Aboriginal melodic shapes, rhythmic patterns and instrumental sounds” … and the possibilities of exploring that avenue further (Deborah Hayes: Visions of the Great South Land in Peter Sculthorpe’s Opera ‘Quiros’). I understand how important it is to be sensitive to the issue of referencing Aboriginal cultural material in other forms of media and also understand that if I were to use direct quotes of specific musical material or sacred property, it would be important to gain permission of Aboriginal elders or spokespersons before embarking on a project. I didn’t want to reference Aboriginal music merely as some sort of badge of legitimacy … to make it “sound” Australian. It was more to honor in some small way the many voices of the people who’ve walked before me on the land I was referencing. Consequently, I decided that rather than directly quote Aboriginal music, I would use strings and percussion to evoke Indigenous sounds.

Another topic we discussed was songlines. A songline is a “musical expression of geographical movement … usually associated with ancestral journeys across vast distances.” It is essentially an oral map in which the singer describes a path’s physical features, such as a bend in the river, the rise of a hill … even a meteorological event or the flora and fauna in a particular area. For eons, songlines or “dreaming tracks” have guided Aboriginal Australians across the continent. The songs generate a sense of place for the listener, usually telling of a locale far away and the singer spends a “great deal of time using his skills to creatively evoke an image of places in the mind’s eye of his audience” (Peter Toner, Sing a Country of the Mind: The Articulation of Place in Dhalwangu Song).

So … short story long … I adapted this concept to compose an original musical “map” … my own version of a songline … to “sing” my own personal experiences through parts of the Australian landscape. These are journeys of my mind’s eye and I’ve drawn on memories of these places to take the listener on not just a physical path, but an emotional one as well. Of course, I’ve had to choose certain places over others (turns out I had a lot of wonderful travel experiences!) … otherwise I would have a piece that was 7 hours long!

The title, “Lines of the Southern Cross,” is drawn from a combination of sources. The Southern Cross, of course, is the constellation in the Southern Hemisphere which appears on the Australian Flag. The “Lines” part of the title refers to the concept of the piece as a series of songlines … and the following celestial factoid that I’ve carried with me since I was a kid (and I paraphrase from Wikipedia here):

In the Southern Hemisphere, the Southern Cross is frequently used for navigation in much the same way that the Pole Star is used in the Northern Hemisphere. If a line is constructed perpendicularly between nearby Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri (often referred to as the “Southern Pointers” or just “The Pointers”), the point where this line and a line drawn between the top and bottom stars of the Southern Cross (known as Acrux and Gacrux respectively) intersect, marks the Southern Celestial Pole. Tying the title of this piece to the celestial line that points due south seemed also very appropriate!

I’ve always grappled with the role of being an outsider in the Australian outback. As a city-born non-Indigenous Australian, I felt like a visitor, a tiny insignificant speck of dust, in a land which could swallow me up in an instant. I always felt like the rock beneath me, like some incredibly ancient, slightly malevolent intelligence, was watching me … but at the same time, in a nurturing way, that the original inhabitants were always still there watching over me too. These two emotional responses to the Australian bush manifest themselves in the opening Prologue. The piece begins with a duet of solo cello and solo double bass, playing a drone figure that evokes the sound of the didgeridoo. This motif appears often throughout the piece and acts as a reminder that at every turn, one is treading the paths of the original inhabitants. The opening tune played by the 2 solo violins, also returns in various guises throughout the work. The figures in the violins … and the percussion (which includes claves evoking the sound of Aboriginal clapsticks) … build towards a full orchestral statement of this theme. The overall sense of darkness in this initial outburst is a direct reflection of the fear and healthy respect I hold for the Australian outback.

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farewell, Rosa!

My experience as the marketing intern at the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra has been very exciting and eye opening. I have learned and gained an incredible amount of valuable information. From learning to write copy for brochures and program books to using excel to create response reports; from scanning the music library of past performances for new podcast audio material and creating music clips to collecting biographies from musicians; from getting the opportunity to photograph antique harpsichords to giving my input during a promotional ideas marketing meeting. At LACO, I got the opportunity to really understand the ins and outs of what it takes to run the marketing department and the significance and importance of it within the organization. I even got to attend the annual board meeting and to help clean during the annual “grubby day;” a day on which instead of working at our desks we clean all day. It was tons of fun and I got to keep a bunch of cool things that were otherwise going to be thrown out (like CDs, posters and a pink stuffed Valentine’s Day elephant!).

read more →I am very grateful that I got the opportunity to be a part of such a great organization. Not only does it strive to bring great classical music to all ears but it also offers it to public elementary schools for free and to college students at the amazing $30 all access price. When I found out I could go to ALL the concerts for that price I almost had a heart attack! I am so glad that they make it affordable to students and I can’t wait for the season to start so that I can take advantage of this deal and see the results of my work in the program book. I feel very privileged to be working alongside very talented people both in the office and on stage. I am definitely going to miss LACO now that the internship is over, but an everlasting experience will remain in me. My appreciation for music (a cellist at heart) and for non-profit art organizations has grown even deeper. ↑ less ↑

the finish line

Have you ever trained for a race? You know—you sign up for a big race, immediately feel giddy and you start to anticipate what it will be like when you cross that finish line. You’ll probably pat yourself on the back (metaphorically speaking, of course—unless you have a friend to help you out) and you’ll smile with pride because you’ve done something that you probably never thought you could. With two half-marathons under my belt and a third one in the works, I know that feeling all too well.

read more →There’s this hard-to-explain thrill about it all. The months of painstaking training leading up to it, waking up early to do your long runs and dreading the thought of doing speed work after a long day at work. Then race day is upon you and suddenly all you can think is “Finish strong. No matter what happens—just finish strong.”

So what does this all have to do with LACO? Well, we’re in the “just finish strong” phase of a marathon giving campaign—#LACO205. Back in September, LACOchallenged you, our family and friends, to donate every day for the length of our concert season. We asked you to keep the streak alive and any donation, no matter the size, made all the difference. Summer is now upon us and we’re nearing the end of #LACO205 but there’s still time to give. There’s still time to help us finish strong! Much like marathon training, you can’t move on to the next big training run until you’ve nailed every training session along the way. Here at LACO we can’t move on to next season until we’ve reached all of our goals for this season. There’s a certain excitement in knowing that through your support we’ve been able to keep the giving streak alive and there’s certainly a buzz about the office in knowing that we’re rounding the last corner of this marathon giving campaign.

Just like we did for every month of #LACO205, this month’s giving comes with a special LACO treat. A donation of any size made online before June 30 gets you access to a Jeffrey Kahane/John Adams podcast from LACO’s vault. In the podcast, you’ll hear a little bit about Shaker Loops which you’ll get to see in the 2014-15 season.

Give your gift online today and join us next season to see firsthand how your generosity helps LACO. Let’s rally together and finish strong!

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welcome Patty!

Every summer, LACO welcomes a new high school intern from the Constitutional Rights Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to “assuring our country’s future by investing in our youth today.” I am happy to introduce you to this summer’s intern, Patty Sanchez, who works withLACO through mid-July:

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“All my summers have given me memorable moments, but I believe this summer with the LACO family I will have the most memorable and learning experiences of my life. Although I may not call myself a musician, music has always been there for me. Music has been my way of expressing myself, it has allowed for me to be whom I am and express what I feel. Even though I played the violin for a brief time, I can say it was a very rewarding experience. It taught me that practice and hard work always pay off. Music is an important part of my life because it has helped me through stressful times.

LACO has given me one of the biggest opportunities to grow as an individual and I am forever grateful. I believe that I will learn from this experience, I will become a more responsible young adult. Having been accepted into this internship I hope to give back more than I will gain. The older I get the more I realize the importance of growing as an individual. LACO has given me a chance to show how much of a hard worker I am and how much I am willing to do in order to learn and be more responsible. There are many things I hope to gain from this internship, but most importantly I hope I will be helpful and show that I am here to do whatever it is they need. Thank you LACO, I appreciate this grand opportunity.”

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a silent tribute to los angeles

I’m still smiling from my excellent weekend – one that was capped by a sensational Sunday night performance by LACO. The occasion was the annual Silent Film Gala, where classic films are screened at Royce Hall, with LACO performing the scores live. This year’s festivities, which featured two Charlie Chaplin films (“Modern Times” and “Kid Auto Races in Venice”), were especially noteworthy, as they marked a number of milestones, including the 25th anniversary of the first Silent Film Gala, and the 125th anniversary of Chaplin’s birth. I suspected I might leave Royce Hall feeling jubilant, but I didn’t anticipate leaving with a desire to explore the city around me. But that’s what LACO concerts will do to a person: they’ll change you, and in ways you don’t expect.

read more →The Silent Film Gala is a big deal, and if you go next year (and I highly recommend that you do), get ready, because there’s about 20 minutes of introductions before the orchestra even enters the auditorium. In addition to thanking and honoring the many donors and board members who worked to put this event together (including event co-chair Hanna Kennedy, who’s been working tirelessly on Silent Film Galas since their inception), much was said this year about how the Silent Film Gala benefits and enriches the entire city. For some reason, this little morsel planted itself in my brain.

I’ll be honest and say that I got a little antsy during the pre-concert speeches. I appreciated Leonard Maltin providing cultural context regarding the films we’d be watching, but let’s get on with the show! Soon enough, the orchestra pit was filled with dozens of musicians, and conductor (and composer) Timothy Brock made his entrance.

“Kid Auto Races in Venice” is a short film that can’t be more than 15 minutes long. Brock had written an entirely new score for it that highlighted and showcased the laughs and captured the energy and spirit of the film, and it was a joy to watch (and listen to).

“Modern Times” is feature length (clocking in at just under 90 minutes), and if you’re not aware of the importance of this film, than stop what you’re doing and go read about it. (You can finish reading this blog post first.) (And after you’re done reading about it, go watch it – it’s available on YouTube and DVD.) The film is joyous to watch. It’s funny and smart, clever and nuanced, broad and specific. The musicians sounded wonderful, and with a story so engrossing, I actually forgot, at times, that they were there!

It was at some point during “Modern Times” that I was overtaken by a hunch. I suspected that Chaplin likely filmed this masterpiece all over Los Angeles. I did a little research when I got home, and my hunch was confirmed. The scenes at the harbor and shipyard were filmed at the port and in San Pedro. The department store exteriors were at Sunset and Vine in the heart of Hollywood. A sequence where the Tramp and the Gamin escape the cops was filmed in Santa Monica. The dream house where the Tramp and the Gamin imagine their perfect life was in the valley, near Universal City. And the final scene, where the Tramp and the Gamin walk towards the horizon to begin a new life, was filmed on a stretch of the Sierra Highway beyond Santa Clarita, outside a little town called Acton.

I found it fitting that during this milestone year for the Silent Film Gala, a film that embraced a variety of Los Angeles locales was chosen, because that’s exactly what LACOdoes. One of LACO’s slogans says that they “bring great music to life,” and that idea could be expanded upon to include the fact that, chances are, they also bring that great music to you, no matter where you live. Their orchestral series is performed both in Glendale and Westwood. They do an annual event in Pasadena, and smaller concert series downtown and in Santa Monica. You’re never too far from a LACO venue, just like you’re never too far from a “Modern Times” location. I’ve attendedLACO concerts at most of these venues, and I get a kick out of visiting new-to-me neighborhoods and seeing what’s around. Now, thanks to Sunday’s Silent Film Gala, I have a new goal:

I enjoy exercise, but sometimes I need external motivation to get me on my feet. One of the things I love to do is go and work out in places featured in classic films. I’ve run two 10k races through the backlots at Universal Studios, and ran the public stairways featured in classic Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy comedies. Next on the to-do list? I’m going to run down Sierra Highway, along the same stretch of road that Charlie Chaplin walked almost 80 years ago. I enjoy feeling connected to my surroundings, and if I have a good workout in a location immortalized in a classic film, well… that will be a greatday.

So thank you, LACO. Thank you for a beautiful evening. Thank you for making me think about the city around me. And thank you for inspiring me to take another healthy step. It’ll probably end up being hundreds of steps along the Sierra Highway’s shoulders, but who’s counting?

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charlie chaplin’s modern times

This year, LACO’s annual silent film screening features Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times and Kid Auto Races in Venice.

Kally Mavromatis of WelcomeToSilentMovies.com offers a bit of history into both the films and the man himself.

read more →It’s an enduring image: A man, trapped in a machine, rolling along the cogs, seemingly trapped into becoming a part of the machinery itself.

Pink Floyd may have welcomed us to the machine in the ‘70s, but Charlie Chaplin introduced it to us in the ‘30s with his film Modern Times, and it’s as remarkably relevant today as it was when it first premiered in 1936.

Modern Times is the story of the Little Tramp who, driven mad by his mind-numbing job in a factory, goes on a rampage and is taken to a hospital. Later he is mistaken for a Communist agitator and thrown in jail. Pardoned, he tries – and fails at – a variety of jobs, along the way meeting the “Gamine” (Paulette Godard). Just when all seems to be going well for the pair, they are forced to go on the run, but are confident that as long as they are together, they will be just fine.

Modern Times is Chaplin’s first foray into social and political commentary. By the time he began production in 1934, he was deeply dismayed by the depths to which the Depression had left scores of people unemployed, accelerated by the dehumanizing increase in industrialization.

In mining these dark themes for comedy, Chaplin chose to use his “everyman” character, the Tramp, who struggles to find his place in this modern world.

It’s a world we could easily recognize today: Layoffs. Strikes. Increasing mechanization. Income inequality. Yet in the face of so much change, turbulence and turmoil, by the end of the film the Tramp manages to maintain a ray of optimism: The final intertitle is of Chaplin’s Tramp, telling the Gamine, “Buck up – never say die! We’ll get along.”

Modern Times can be taken not only as a commentary on modernization, but as an elegy to a lost world, as well.

Not only does it bid farewell to a lost art – silent filmmaking – but it bids farewell to a world that saw the creation of the Tramp, Chaplin’s enduring persona, and to the character itself.

By the time Modern Times was completed in 1936, the silent era was long over. The first all-talking picture, “Lights of New York,” had premiered in 1928 and by 1930 even stars such as Greta Garbo had made the transition.

But for Chaplin, the talkies presented a unique challenge. His type of comedy, he felt, was best expressed through pantomime, the “language” of silent film. It allowed his character to be understood by everyone, without relying on words or dialogue, and thus was more universal in nature.

Chaplin fought long and hard against using all synchronous dialogue in his films, but by the time he was ready to make Modern Times he was ready to experiment with this new medium.

Originally intending Modern Times to be a talkie, Chaplin initially wrote dialogue for his characters and even recorded some test scenes.

But unsatisfied with the outcome, he opted to stick to what he knew best: pantomime. However, there are numerous examples of the use of synchronous sound throughout the film including sound effects, which Chaplin enjoyed creating and were made part of the overall music score.

More famous, however, is a scene in which the Tramp, hired as a waiter, is pressed into service for a missing tenor and asked to sing Léo Daniderff’s comical song Je cherche après Titine; Chaplin’s own voice is heard singing a mish-mash of French and Italian to great comic effect.

Despite its limited use of sound, Modern Times is in many ways the last major silent film. It carries on the tradition of using intertitles to convey what the actors can’t, and was shot in silent film’s traditional 18 frames per second; when played at “sound speed” of 24 frames per second it only emphasizes the frenetic nature of Chaplin’s slapstick comedy.

If Modern Times is the Tramp’s Omega, then “Kid Auto Races in Venice” is its Alpha.

While the Tramp character was “born” in a Mabel Normand short, Mabel’s Strange PredicamentKid Auto Races in Venice is the first of Chaplin’s films to feature the Tramp in a starring role. It’s a 6-minute short with a thin plot: The Tramp continually finds himself in front of a movie camera that is filming a soap box derby race, much to the dismay of the cameraman and the racers.

Modern Times was a critical and commercial success, and Chaplin would go on to create talking pictures, but without the Tramp. In many ways, Modern Times serves as a bittersweet farewell to a character, a way of life and a style of filmmaking that gave way to…modern times.

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a whole lotta pianos

Man, if you love pianos, than the Alex Theatre was the place to be this past Saturday. LACO’s program for theBach & Mozart: Double Concertos concert featured not one pianist, not two pianists, and not three pianists. It hadfour pianists! They ranged in age from 12 to significantly older than 12, and they were backed by the orchestra in a glorious array on concertos from the masters of classical music. Plus, there was a program switcharoo that really kept me on my toes!

read more →Let’s address the switcheroo first and get it over with. I had time to peruse the program notes before the concert began, and my ears perked up, Scooby-Doo style, when I read this sentence: “[Gyorgy] Ligeti’s Piano Concerto is scored for a small orchestra with some non-traditional instruments, including slide whistle, alto ocarina (a small, egg-shaped flute) and harmonica.” Get out! Slide whistle?The same slide whistle that’s used at the circus when a clown’s pants fall down will be gracing the LACO stage? In theory, yes. In actuality, no. And that’s because at some point after the program book was published months ago, there was a program change, and the Ligeti Piano Concerto was booted off the list and replaced by a concerto by Beethoven.

I don’t know when it happened, and I don’t know why it happened, but it was a bummer for me, since the program already featured two old-timey concertos (ones by Bach and Mozart), and it would have been nice to hear a more modern take (the Ligeti concerto was written in the ’80s). You know who else was bummed? The slide whistle player, who, for all we know, was elated for a chance to graduate from kids’ birthday party gigs to the major leagues, only to get a call saying not to come. “We’re not playing the Ligeti anymore,” the slide whistle player might have been told, “and that jerk Beethoven didn’t include any slide whistle in his concerto.”

Enough talk about what wasn’t played on Saturday. Let’s focus on what was played. The evening began with Bach’s lovely and lively Concerto No. 2 in C major for Two Pianos, and those two pianos were played by Music Director Jeffrey Kahane and 12-year-old guest Ray Ushikubo. Yep, you read that right, 12 years old. The kid’s clearly a star, and if I had any thoughts that he was out of his league playing with all these grown-ups, those thoughts dissipated in 2 seconds. The concerto has a never-ending piano part, and Kahane and Ushikubo traded off playing it, passing it back and forth like tennis players. You could close your eyes and not know who was playing what, even in the second movement, which is basically a piano duet, with the orchestra not playing a single note.

Next up was Mozart’s Concerto No. 10 in E-flat major for Two Pianos, with Mr. Kahane being joined by the second guest pianist of the evening, Joanne Pearce Martin. My favorite movement of this piece was the third one, which had the catchiest hook of the evening (to use a phrase common in current popular music). Mr. Kahane pulled double duty during this piece, standing up when he could and conducting the orchestra before sitting back down and tackling his next piano section.

The only non-concerto piece in the program was a selection of 3 Ligeti Etudes, a solo piece played by guest pianist Jeremy Denk right after intermission. I’m usually grateful that a modern piece was included, as I do like variety, but these kinda stuck out like a sore thumb, because 1) everything else was a concerto, and 2) nothing else was solo. Mr. Denk’s introduction of the Etudes provided some much appreciated context, but I found myself awaiting the next concerto.

That next concerto was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, with Mr. Denk tackling the piano part, and Mr. Kahane conducting everyone else. Mr. Denk proved to be my favorite pianist of the evening to watch, because he was very animated and invested. I must confess, though, that I held a bit of a grudge during this piece, as it was this Concerto that knocked the modern Ligeti concerto off the program. My mind wandered and I kept thinking of the slide whistle player, cold and alone, strolling through the streets, with nowhere to play his instrument. Maybe LACOcould make things right and include a slide whistle solo piece among next season’s offerings. It’s not too late to make that change, is it? Have the program book been printed?

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beethoven the pianist

LACO’s upcoming concert features “double concertos” by Mozart and Bach and a selection of Etudes for Piano by György Ligeti. The finale of the evening will be Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, played by the incomparable Jeremy Denk and the talented musicians of LACO. Beethoven’s piano music is fascinating to me because I know he wrote most of it to show off his own talent as a pianist. To closely study these concertos, sonatas, and piano trios is to understand Beethoven the performer. And one cannot help but feel a little melancholy in looking at these pieces because we know that Beethoven had to give up his performing career sooner than he wanted to because of his hearing loss.

read more →Beethoven (1770-1827) lived almost to the age of 57. His made his first public appearance as a pianist at the age of seven, although his father—wanting to tout his very own musical prodigy—advertised him as a six-year-old. Music was his career from these early days, and he grew in fits and starts as a performer and a composer through a difficult childhood and early adulthood. He studied with local teachers and some relatives as well. Around the time Beethoven was about ten years old, he became the assistant to the new court organist in Bonn, Christian Gottlob Neefe. In a write-up in the Magazin der Musik in 1783 Beethoven is described as:

“a boy of eleven years and a most promising talent. He plays the piano very skillfully and with power, reads at sight very well….[Neefe] is now training him in composition and for his encouragement has nine variations for the piano, written by him on a march, engraved at Mannheim. This youthful genius is deserving of help to enable him to travel. He would surely become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart if he were to continue as he has begun.”

When Beethoven was 18, he took it upon himself to become the head of the family when his mother’s death and his father’s subsequent alcoholism caused a shift in family dynamics. Beethoven petitioned for half of his father’s salary (his father was let go from his singing job) to support his younger brothers. In return, Beethoven sometimes played viola in the court and theater orchestras. This experience would be invaluable to him as a composer. His orchestral works show sensitivity to the roles of the instruments in the orchestra, something he witnessed firsthand from the string section.

Beethoven left Bonn behind for Vienna in 1792. He studied with Haydn for a time, but more importantly he was intent on establishing himself as a pianist and composer in the new city. His connections from Bonn helped him greatly in these endeavors. Also, the members of the Viennese aristocracy who recognized Beethoven’s talent were more than happy to provide him with accommodations and commissions. Beethoven excelled at displays of virtuosity in the salons and private performances held in the houses of these aristocrats. By 1795, he was showing off his talents in public concerts, playing his own piano trios, piano sonatas, and his first piano concertos.

Beethoven was about 26 when he began have troubles with his hearing. He continued to play throughout these struggles, and to compose as well. By 1801 he was finally ready to share the news of his infirmity, which he had kept secret for some time, with his close friends and his brothers. The enormity of this problem caused a crisis for Beethoven, who wondered what effect his encroaching deafness would have on both his professional life and his personal relationships. To his old friend, Franz Gerhard Wegeler, he wrote the following in a letter:

“For almost two years I have ceased to attend any social functions, just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf. If I had any other profession it would be easier, but in my profession it is a terrible handicap. As for my enemies, of whom I have a fair number, what would they say?”

Beethoven’s skills would have to shift, and he would eventually concern himself entirely with composing because he could not continue as a performer. By 1814, when Beethoven was in his forties, he was almost totally deaf. It was in April of this year that Beethoven last appeared in public as a soloist. The concert was a benefit for the military, and it was organized by Ignaz Schuppanzigh, violinist and friend of Beethoven. Beethoven’s last public performance was of the Archduke Trio, op. 97. Louis Spohr, the composer and violinist, gave an ungenerous account of the rehearsals, saying, “on account of [Beethoven’s] deafness there was scarcely anything of the virtuosity of the artist which had formerly been so greatly admired.” In truth, Spohr hadn’t heard Beethoven play in his prime and had no firsthand experience of this virtuosity. Friend and fellow pianist Ignaz Moscheles was far kinder, explaining that the piece was wonderful and new, and that the playing, although not as clear and precise as it could have been, still contained “traces of the grand style of playing which I had long recognized in his compositions.”

In addition to writing the large-scale works of his middle and late periods, Beethoven attempted to compose one final Piano Concerto, a sixth. We think he began sketches for it in 1814 or 1815. About seventy pages of music exist for the first movement, but the scoring peters out, and Beethoven left this work unfinished. Perhaps it was put on the back-burner as Beethoven knew he could not himself perform it. In 1987, Nicholas Cook reconstructed the work and provided a completion for this movement.

We can look at Beethoven’s deafness and consequent retirement from performance as a tragedy. It is possible, however, that we can think of this circumstance as nudging Beethoven into his maturity as a composer. One wonders what his output would have been like had he been able to play into his fifties. On the occasion of hearing Piano Concerto No. 1, it is an opportunity to look back at Beethoven at the beginning of his career in Vienna: full of hope, full of talent, and showing unlimited potential. No doubt his career didn’t end up as he planned, but his legacy as one of the greatest composers that ever lived was already in place before his death in 1827. That’s no small feat, considering that some of the most important composers in music history died in obscurity. Catch a glimpse of the young Beethoven in Piano Concerto No. 1, and see that limitless potential for yourself.

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roll the dice

What is aleatoric music? Before today, I had never heard of it; but, I don’t think I’m alone. As I write this blog, spell check is alerting me of a misspelling and has “no suggestions.”

aleatoric ˌā-lē-ə-ˈtȯr-ik, ˈtär music

Music in which some element of the composition is left to chance, and/or some primary element of a composed work’s realization is left to the determination of its performer(s). The term is most often associated with procedures in which the chance element involves a relatively limited number of possibilities. Wikipedia

read more →In other words, roll the dice and see what happens.

Sounds like a disaster, right? Wrong! There are many successful examples of aleatoric music in classical music and otherwise. Let’s run through some of the top contributors:

Henry Cowell Experimental classical music, Aleatoric music

Mircea Florian Psychedelic folk, New Wave, Avant-garde jazz

Leo Brouwer Folk music, Film score, Atonal music

Also, in this category is 20th-century Polish composer Lutosławski, who was inspired deeply by the aleatoric methods of American composer John Cage. In this month’s #LACO205 podcast, music director Jeffrey Kahane and composer-in-residence Andrew Norman compare the aleatoric methods of John Cage and Lutosławski. The podcast concludes with a live rendering of aleatoric music featuring Kahane and Norman on piano performing a 25 second composition by Norman.

The #LACO205 podcast is not to be missed and available only for a limited time. Make a $25 #LACO205 online contribution during the month of May to receive this exclusive podcast.

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