The Espansiva gets it’s balls knocked off

Before today, somehow I had managed to not watch this performance of Nielsen’s 3rd Symphony. You think I would’ve listened to it by now, considering I’ve been a huge fan of the work for quite a while now, and also considering its a performance by a Danish orchestra, and conductor (Thomas Dausgaard). Thank god I found it!

This is the best version of this piece I’ve heard, hands down. The first movement is damn perfect. The brass section is worth particular note. Also the wind section is of particular note, and the low strings too. Hell, everyone sounds great! The interpretation is perfect. It has the energy of Bernstein with more of the details and also more fidelity to the score in my mind. They really kick it up in the development section and the climax is earth shaking. The second movement has more of the astounding wind playing and the strings sound so rich and full in their big tuttis. The vocal soloists are wonderful, not completely overpowering the orchestra and fitting in the sound. My only issue is they are onstage, but that is very minor. The third movement gives the principal oboe plenty of time to shine, and shine she does, but again the whole group is magnificent. The only problem a listener could find with this interpretation is with the tempo in the finale. Most conductors don’t take it allegro as marked but instead focus on the broadness of the melody and take it slower. Dausgaard however decides to take the allegro route. As always the orchestra sounds awesome, but when it starts as fast as it does there is little room to grow. There is basically no perfect tempo for the last movement; it’s either to slow or too fast for my taste…

But overall, ignore my remarks about the finale and listen to this!!!! It is probably one of the best performances I’ve ever heard of any piece. The orchestra is just spot on. Also, the camera work is the best I’ve seen, so if nothing else, admire that.

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David Rose Recital

So far this school year I’ve been to quite a few concerts already. I’m well over half of my concert attendance requirement, and I’ll have got my 8 concerts in within a week. I’ve been hearing a lot of great free music, but tonight was something really special.

David Rose plays viola. Really well. I mean like holy-shit-that-sound-may-be-one-of-the-most-beautiful-things-I’ve-ever-heard well. He was at one point the assistant principal viola in the San Fransico Symphony, which is, you know, pretty good (from what I’ve read he played on the SFS Mahler cycle, which is, you know, pretty cool). He’s also from Saskatchewan, which proves that people do live there. Now he teaches out in western New York. His pianist was one of the piano teachers here Dmitri Novgorodsky. He is of Irish decent…but seriously though, he’s from Russia.

The first piece on the program was the Schumann “Marchenbilder” or Fairy Tale Pictures. This is the second Schumann piece I’ve heard here, so I’m pretty sure that is a sign…I liked them both, so I think the music gods are speaking. The work was in the less-than-common slow-fast-fast-slow form, but the last two movements were the ones that got me. The third featured some fancy finger work, which he made look like child’s play. The last movement was so beautiful. When a romantic composer gives the tempo indication “Slowly, with melancholic expression” you know you’re in for some heart rending music. Ol’ Bob Schumann did not disappoint. The next work was the Schubert viola sonata. It sounded like Mozart on acid with an intensely lyrical trip. It was the low point of the concert for me. That may be due to my personal musical preferences, but when a Schubert piece is the low point, that speaks something about the rest of the program.

I must have been sitting behind some of his students, because they were going nuts. Whenever he’d nail a killer passage they would look at each other and be like “Oh shit.” My jaw dropped several times. The man looked so serious the whole time, his face didn’t change at all. His bows were so awkward, he just sorta dipped his head a bit and held it there for a couple seconds. You have to be soulless to not just love him.

The second half of the program was devoted to a work by a composer I’d never heard of before: Rebecca Clarke’s Viola Sonata. The work was written in 1919, and is very much in a sort of post romantic idiom. The pentatonic melodies reminded me strongly of Vaughan Williams, and some of the non-pentatonic melodies reminded me of Vaughan Williams too. I swear there was one that HAD to have been stolen. Seeing as I love RVW, I didn’t think this was such a bad thing. It was played to perfection, with the big last movement being the highlight of the whole program. The whole piece was masterful. In spite of his rather unemotional appearance, Rose played with incredible passion and sensitivity, and his tone, oh my god. Dr. N (I’m not going to try to spell it again) should also be applauded. He played perfectly with Rose and his splashes of color in the Clarke made the piece. All in all David Rose’s two curtain calls and huge standing ovation was well deserved.

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Happy Birthday Dmitri Shostakovich!

DSCHOne hundred and six years ago today, in St. Petersburg, Russia, Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich was born, and a wonderful chapter in the history of music was begun. His music has touched so many people, and is incredibly popular. One of those people so touched is me. I still consider hearing his first symphony as one of the most important moments in my life, not just my musical life, but my whole life. So, on this special day I celebrated by listening to some of my favorite scores.

Most folks would say that Shostakovich’s 5th, or 10th symphonies are his crowning symphonic achievements, but I would have to disagree. I’d say his 8th is my number 1. Seriously, that first movement monumental, one of the greatest movements in the lit. if you ask me. Again, most folks would say the 8th string quartet is his greatest string quartet. Again, I’d disagree. The 9th string quartet might be one of my desert island pieces. The last section of that big last movement always gets me. It’s an amazing piece. I also listened to the 10th quartet because it was there. The second movement is nutty, and very well lives up to the furioso tempo indication. In one of the first things I wrote on this blog I remarked that there were moments that sounded like the music from “Schindler’s List.” I have no idea why I said that, and I take that back. Regardless, good score. And as I type this I am listening to the piece that started this love affair, Symphony 1.

Here’s to another 106 years of amazing and profound music from Soviet Russia’s golden boy!

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Arbitrary Countdowns: Top 10 Most Beautiful Pieces

Beautiful is a word that gets overused way too much in music for me. It gets used to describe almost any slow, generally tonal piece of music, which bothers me, mostly because I think there should be a special realm for beauty; that kind of heart wrenching passion, or full rich harmonies that always gets you. Of course it’s objective, but I don’t care, it’s my blog.

10) Nessun Dorma – Puccini

The melody is absolutely unforgettable. and the quiet chords behind it add to the feeling. It’s a song of victory (No one shall know my name, and I’ll then get to marry the hot princess). Man than high B at the climax. It’s good shit. It pretty much was Pavarotti’s signature song, although interestingly Calaf was never a signature role for him, so I’ll let him sing it.

9) Ombra mai fu – Handel 

I didn’t intend to start off with two arias, but that’s how it works. I don’t know why, but for whatever reason this one always gets me. The line is so simple and pure, and memorable, unlike most baroque music. The simplicity of the line and the harmony are what I think makes it so pretty. I’d always heard it sung my a woman, but sorry ladies, this guy gets the win. Falsetto!

8) 2nd Movement of Symphony 1 – Kalinnikov

Why did Kalinnikov have to die so young? He had written so little and what he had written was amazing! He lives on through the much to uncommon performances of his two symphonies. The second movement of the first symphony has perhaps the most gorgeous melody written. English horn + very melancholy theme + Russian composer is a win every time. The music is so Russian, much like the Mighty 5, but more classical, like Tchaikovsky. And when the tune (spoiler alert) shows up again in the last movement, that’s something special.

7) O Sacrum Convivium – Messiaen 

Vocal music is pretty well represented given my instrumental tastes. It’s not often we think of beautiful and Messiaen together, but this piece is an exception. The harmonies and not simple, and there is no time signature, but the whole effect of everything together is absolutely rapturous. I want to go to whatever sacred banquet Oliver is eating at.

6) 4th Movement of Symphony 5 – Mahler

We all knew this one would end up on the list. It isn’t the best movement in the symphony (the funeral march got that designation, for me at least), but it has the most passion of anything Mahler every wrote. Alma was such a lucky girl, but not really since the guy who wrote her this beautiful love music was also a controlling husband.  But still though, the adagietto is pretty great. Bernstein made it over 12 minutes long, so that’s to much for me. I linked the Solti reading.

5) Prelude to Tristan and Islode – Wagner

Seeing as I’ve recently written about this opera, it shouldn’t be surprising that this is on here. Along with being one of the turning points in western music, with the whole break up of the tonal system as was known, the music is pure and utter rapture. From the impassioned cello opening to the very end, it is all passion. Mahler took a page from Richie’s book here, and I can see why.

4) Adagio for Strings – Barber

If you’ve heard the piece I really don’t need to explain it. It’s been called the saddest piece of music ever written, and with good cause. (Side note: generally Bb minor isn’t a “sad key” or a “key most composers use” but it works.) It’s been played at funerals for public officials, it was used as a tribute to those who died in the 9/11 attacks, it’s been used in movies. Barber himself arranged it for chorus as a Agnus Dei setting. But it seems to be at it’s best when played by the full string orchestra.

3) Clair de Lune – Debussey

I’m not even sure how to go about explaining this one. The music is evocative of the night. I get the feeling of being at a cafe at night with someone you love looking at the moon over the Eiffel Tower. To specific? Yes. It is just so pretty. Piano gets represented on the list. Just listen to it and try not to cry. Classic major melancholy.

2) Lever du Jour from Daphnis and Chloe  – Ravel

I could’ve just as easily put down the whole ballet, but that’s overkill, plus there’s the part with the pirates which generally isn’t “beautiful” (I apologize to any pirates I may have offended). The ballet is perhaps the best orchestrated piece ever in my mind. Often there is a lot of ink on the page, but it is so perfectly put together. The main theme that shows up throughout the ballet is so ambiguous as to major or minor, it’s great, and full of passion. What’s up with love music? Why is it so pretty? Bass clarinet except with lots of notes! The whole daybreak section!

1) Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis – Vaughan Williams

I mentioned earlier the idea of full rich harmonies. This was the piece was what I was thinking of when I said that. I’ve been on a big RVW kick for the last, well I don’t know, three months. Maybe that bias is playing a part, but I’m pretty sure I’d say that any day from now until I die. The theme itself is gorgeous, and in the phrygian mode! The harmonies and so modal, and so Vaughan Williams. I keep saying the word rapture, but I really mean it here, and thusly it is the most beautiful piece of music on my list!

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Dipping my toes into Tristan

I'll take your swag hat and raise you a Tristan and Isolde

I’m an asshole, but the Ring Cycle, amirite?

For a while I’ve sort of wanted to get into opera. There are so many things wrong with the very idea of opera; always singing, drama takes the backseat to singing, no simple dialogue but instead lots of singing. Also, personally, I find nothing beautiful about the wavering wobbling vibrato of all opera singers. Nothing beautiful at all. So I’ve sort of been putting listening to an opera off for a while. I saw “The Mikado” about a year ago, but that really isn’t a full on opera. But at long last I listened to my first opera: Tristan and Isolde.

Maybe Wagner wasn’t my best choice for a first opera, but it is what it is. The prelude is literally one of the most beautiful and rapturous things I have ever heard. The suspended harmonies and colorful chromaticism, oh my. I can see why it was such a big deal. However after such an amazing opening, it is pretty easy to go downhill. The first act is full of singing and full of intervals my composition professor is telling me not to use. This really is descriptive of the whole opera. But after the leads drink the love potion and the music from the prelude comes back, it’s like lightning. That’s a moment worth remembering. For me the second act left me questioning wether I wanted to go on with this whole opera thing. Maybe it was the english translation, but all the night/day symbolism seemed really hokey and very obvious, and not very sublime. There were a few spots throughout the opera where I thought, wow the text actually sounds really cool, but the night/day stuff, nope. Also I was not a fan of the whole “love duet” which to me was just Tristan and Islode shouting each other’s names in their highest register. I could handle the male voices okay, but the female voices, not so much. It just sounded like shrieking to me when Isolde would shoot up to a high G or A and stay up there for three bars. The third act on the other hand was something else entirely. It was amazing. Maybe it was the general absence of female voices until about 2/3 of the way through, maybe it was the brilliant prelude, maybe it was the cool english horn stuff, but whatever it was I loved it. I thought it was amusing that Tristan basically spent most of the act dying, but at the same time he was singing all this hard music. Little whisps of the opening prelude come back, and other little ideas from out the opera reappear and disappear. When at last the music reaches a resolution after about four hours it is the most satisfying thing. For whatever reason B major seems the right key to be in.

It’s hard to look back at Wagner and make a fair judgement on the music, because it has been copied so much. It’s sort of like Star Wars in the sense that it has been imitated so much, we can only see the original as sounding/looking like the copies. The urgent chromatics and rhythms sound unoriginal, but this was the original! I can see why so many people fell under the Wagner spell. I can detect some of this influence in Mahler. The gorgeous suspension that comes up so often in the prelude, is the same thing that comes up at the climax of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. Also some of the orchestration is similar. In Wagner I heard a couple of those color shifts where one instrument finishes another’s line, which Mahler did so often and so well.

So at long last I’ve now listen to an opera, and a Wagner opera no less. I’m not sure when I’ll be going back into those waters again, but at least I can say I’ve gone swimming.

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Franck: Symphony in D minor, or the result of too much time and too many scores

King of the mutton chops, which is not the best title to hold...

King of the mutton chops, which is not the best title to hold…

So I’ve moved off to college and I’ve settled down nice and good. What does the really entail? Basically I’m spending most of my time either in music classes, writing music/practicing, or in the score library. I visited the library twice today; the first time I was there I listened to the first half of Boulez’s “Le marteau san maitre” until I realized I couldn’t tolerate it any longer, and Bartok’s 3rd String Quartet, which I had no trouble tolerating, and quite enjoyed. Later I dived into Stravinsky’s “Histoire du soldat” which I had somehow forgotten how awesome that piece is. I still had nothing to do so I just grabbed the Franck D minor symphony (of which there were about 15 copies of the score. Also there were 10 of Histoire, which by the way is really fucking awesome, I think I mentioned that…) I had heard of the symphony and composer before, but had never heard any music by Franck. I had read that he has gotten a good deal of hate from some critics, especially on the present symphony, so I mostly wanted to see what the ruckus was about.

In one way I can see why some people don’t like it. The forms are a bit open ended, which isn’t a bad thing, and sometimes, the chromatic harmonies are overly saccharine. But I still think the work is really great. I knew it was a cyclic work so when the theme from the second movement came back in the finale I thought “Jeez, why did he choose the lamest music to recapitulate? Why didn’t he use that cool theme from the first movement?” and then later he did actually use the aformentioned cool theme, when the music went into B-flat. Throughout the finale there are so many places that were so much like other themes. I kept hearing something that was so close to the creeping bass intro, but it wasn’t, but it was so close! There were several places that were very Bruckner-esque, and it’s easy to draw the comparison between the two: both were organists, and late romantics coming from the Wagner line. Some of the orchestration is similar as well, but I still think ol’ Anton did it better, just me though.

All and all, despite it’s faults, Franck’s D minor symphony isn’t a bad piece of music. When the harmony isn’t overly sweet, it’s actually really good, and there are several really big powerful powerful spots. Give it a listen if you haven’t, and hell, even if you have, try it again. There is something in there.

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How many contrabassoons is too many?

This is one of the most horrifying things I have ever seen. It’s not that it’s bad, but the fact that this exists is disturbing. Nine contrabassoons, and bagpipe, or at least I think that’s a bagpipe, because what it looks like is a infant deer that was taxidermied and turned into some musical instrument. Mostly what is disturbing is how happy the music is. According to the uploader, every year in the the village of Zadní Třebaň a piece for a bunch of contrabassoons and voice is commissioned, based on the text of a absurdist poem. So as I said, every year, since 2004. So that means there is more…This one is sort of cute, but only because it has a couple little girls playing recorder, accompanied by, yes, nine contrabassoons…

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