28 February 2009

Exquisitely Conflicted

The Beatles are turning awfully funny, aren’t they?
— Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 1967-ish

Even though he knows it’s all so wrong — and let him count the ways — Steven Hyden at the Onion AV Club figuratively wrings his hands over how well he likes “Illegal Alien” by Genesis.

That is past the time when I was following the band, so I recuse myself from the question. I know what I like (in their wardrobe).

26 February 2009

The Three Pieces Will Out

It is a delight to announce that the Three Pieces for organ solo, Opus 34, which Paul Cienniwa played both at First Church in Boston in November, and at the funeral of former Senator Claiborne Pell in January, will be taken for yet another outing. Dr Cienniwa will give a lecture at the 9th Annual UUMN Ballou Channing District Music Conference, and my Opus 34 will be a handout, an example of how organists should incorporate works by local composers.

(Organists outside of New England are also encouraged to program Henningmusick.)

25 February 2009

Making a Start

Long enough ago that I don’t recall just when, I promised a piece to Peter H. Bloom for bass flute and harp. (Strictly speaking, I should say that I made the suggestion to Peter; as a composer, though, it is for my own benefit if I actually write most of the pieces that I take thought to write.) At about that time I did begin a sketch which (actually) I probably don’t think much of, which must be the key reason why I let it sit in neglect. Recent hopes of perhaps hearing actual performances of Radiant Maples and Lost Waters have been something of a catalyst, probably, for getting a proper bead on the long-promised duet, at last.

For about a week, I had been plotting some of the piece mentally; so when I actually cracked open the notebook while riding the bus yesterday morning, the engine was not running cold. I started without a title; or rather, the title I had in mind . . . not that it’s a bad title (it may not be), but it was clear very quickly that the title did not suit the music I was writing. Nor did the shape that the overall piece was taking in my mind, promise at all to conform any better to the title.

This dilemma was solved for me (indirectly) by Mr Nicolella’s recital yesterday. The true title of the bass flute and harp duet came to me directly.

Here follow the first two pages of sketch for the score, and the broad ‘road-map’ for the piece I drew up this morning. The elements of the ‘road-map’ are not arbitrary, they’re all ‘clouds of musical information’ which I am waiting to fix into firm shape; and this outline is a tool I find useful (and, in its way, an ancillary sort of creativity). A tool which is used in the making, and yet not a part of the result, any more than a hammer is part of the chair that it is used to fashion.

24 February 2009

The Unfinished Tale of Radiant Maples

The instrumentation of Radiant Maples was determined by the occasion for which I composed, although (in the event) we did not perform the piece then.

Phil Michéal, the eminently bonhomous music director at the Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church in Detroit—it would not be overstating the case to describe him as a musical teddy bear, an illustriously agreeable gent—was organizing a musical program for a Sunday late in November of 2001, a ‘Service of Light’. He invited us out to Detroit for the occasion (all of us, as Maria and Irina would exhibit their luminous artwork in the church, as well), and an early musical decision of his was to include my setting of O Gracious Light for choir, harp & organ. Phil also had a piece or two for which he requested me to play clarinet; and we talked about an interlude I might compose fresh for the occasion. Phil also had a flutist engaged for the service; and his organist at the time was also a crack pianist. Thus, I was keen to write a quartet for flute, clarinet, harp & piano, reserving the right to require a little brilliance from the pianist. My working title for the quartet was from the prologue to John’s Gospel, although at this remove I’m a little unsure just which “light” phrase I adopted, unsure even whether the title at the head of my draughts was in English or Latin.

Probably the verse about light shining in the darkness; for the piece begins with a kind of murky tumult in the bass register of the piano, out of which there emerge bright “pings” of harp harmonics.

At the time I began composition of the quartet, I had been writing several sacred choral pieces, designed in some ways for musical restraint. In a welcome change of pace, I set to composing this instrumental quartet with turn-on-a-dime rhapsodic exuberance. The beginning (as mentioned) is almost a cadenza for the piano. Following a harp arpeggio, there are sinuous arabesques for the flute. Then, after some stops & starts, there is an extended passage of a sustained lyrical duet in the winds, underpinned by complimenting ostinati in the harp & piano.

Even these several years later, I clearly remember an evening when I had taken Maria & Irina to the Home Depot Expo Center, where they needed to do some shopping & price-checking on one of the design projects they were then engaged on at the First Congregational Church in Woburn, Massachusetts. While they were about their business, I sat on a sofa in a lounge area with my notebook, constructing the interlocking patterns for harp & piano.

It was about this stage of the work’s composition, as I was playing bits of the work-in-progress to Maria, that we decided to amend the title. Even with the inclusion of the word ‘light’, the working-title came to feel too gloomy and static, and wasn’t suited to the character of the piece which was emerging. It was then high autumn, and the foliage was in brilliance, and with visions all around me of westering sun shining through the leaves, I chose instead the title Radiant Maples. (That new title, I wound up needing to explain to Phil, who felt I’d done a mild switch on him . . . we sorted things out.)

After I had finished the piece, and as the occasion drew nearer, unfortunately the organist fell terribly ill. There was no time to rustle up a substitute pianist at Thanksgiving time, and my eagerness to write a pianistic challenge resulted in a piece which was beyond Phil’s abilities. So, the piece joined others on my shelf.

The story doesn’t end there (just yet).

The New England chapter of the American Composers Forum sent a call for chamber works, which the ensemble Brave New Works would read at Northeastern University in November, 2007. Radiant Maples was accepted, and tape would be running during the reading. Unfortunately, of the perhaps ten pieces which the group bravely read over the course of the hour or two, mine presented more technical challenges (mostly in terms of ensemble, fitting things together) than most, and it did not prove possible to get a clean take of my piece from start to finish. Audience response to the piece was positive, however.

So, I have not yielded over hope.

But, the piece is still on the shelf. And an accommodating shelf it is.

Scarlatti Never Failed Me Yet

At lunchtime today, I passed a delightful hour at King’s Chapel where guitarist Michael Nicolella played a fine recital which included well-known favorites such as the Sevilla from Albéniz’s Suite española, and Nicolella’s own guitar transcription of an E Major Scarlatti sonata (K.380, for those who keep score). Also on the program were a piece written for him by Frank Wallace, Dreams on a Lullaby, and a Toccata and Fugue of the guitarist’s own writing. I listened to the latter with especial interest, as it seems to me an especial challenge to write a fugue for a fretboard instrument, and I wondered how he would approach it. In this case the Fugue serves as a contrasting middle section, does not run too long, and then there is a return to the toccata; compositionally a satisfying solution.

EDIT: To help support a deserving fellow artist, I bought one of three compact discs available for purchase (naturally, I chose the one with an Elliott Carter piece, Shard, whence the disc takes its title). I've just been listening, and Nicolella plays a very nice pun on the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” at the end of his four-movement Guitar Concerto. Pulls it off almost better than did George Martin, he does.

23 February 2009

“a modernist zealot”

There’s plenty of parties I’m late to, but it seems injustice when it’s a premiere an hour’s drive away (just not making it out to Rockport enough these days). Matthew Guerrieri reviewed the premiere of Charles Wuorinen’s Second Piano Quintet (and by tidy coincidence, he published on the date of Wuorinen’s seventieth birthday), which was commissioned for the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. I’m planning to go hear a performance myself, though it means having to cross several state lines to do so now.

Separately, inching closer to bringing Lost Waters out to the public.

22 February 2009

Painting light onto canvas

Maria at work yesterday.

Symphony Announcements

BSO and James Levine announce 2009-10 Symphony Hall season and recordings.

I have been looking forward to Elliott Carter’s Flute Concerto ever since James Sommerville played the premiere of the Horn Concerto, and I first knew that a flutely counterpart was in the pipeline.

21 February 2009

Wish I Might Be There Dept

This evening (Crumpets Time) will see the premiere of Luke Ottevanger’s Elegy & Ascent. Luke shares the bill with Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto and Fifth Symphony. Especially with such company on the program, it is heartening to see that Elegy & Ascent are programmed afterward. Program a new piece before, and the bluster of the Beethoven (which of course is part of what we like about LvB) were apt to drive all thought of the new work out of the audience’s mind. This way, the last music the audience will have in their ears is the Ottevanger, and it is that piece which they will be talking about as they exit the space.

EDIT: Well, next best thing. Guido's eyebrows very rightly rose figuratively to this scheme. According to this listing, Elegy & Ascent follow the concerto in the first half. An even sweeter spot, as Luke’s piece will have been the talk at intermission.

[ The composer's notes on the piece ]

Elegy and Ascent (2008)

Elegy – Memorial Trio and Chorale
Ascent - ...towards Ishaan...

Elegy is made of up two orchestrated extracts from Memorial, a long, unfinished piano piece of mine dating from 2001. That piece is strongly bound-up with the idea of ‘fate’, and for this reason every note of it was chosen by chance operations (the drawing of cards giving the notes and the order in which they are to be played). The advantage of this process is the way in which it tends to throw up odd correspondences – hints of other music, familiar musical gestures etc. – and to grant the composer glimpses of mysterious avenues which would otherwise have been unseen and unexplored. In the case of Memorial the thousands of chance-determined notes at times coalesced into particularly unified sections I called ‘trios’. The first section of Elegy is the first of these trios, whilst the second section is a chorale which closes the completed portion of Memorial. To me, the original Memorial is inseparable from the idea of ‘memory’, not just because the music itself is concerned with remembrance but because it is an old work of mine which was lost, found, lost again and finally given a place here in Elegy. Among other memory-filled gestures suggested to me by the cards, you will hear a violin shyly tuning up, horn calls – a typical Romantic signifier for memory and distance – and, entirely coincidentally but fittingly given tonight’s programme, the ‘fate’ motive of Beethoven’s Fifth.

In contrast with this collection of memories and familiar gestures, Ascent is entirely concerned with a movement towards a single point of ‘now-ness’, a point equivalent to Eastern concepts of enlightenment, to Western (Jungian) ones of the individuation of the Self, and indeed to any journey towards a state of integration, coherence, completion, including an artist’s journey towards a personal style. Ascent is therefore also piece of ‘now’ in that it uses modal techniques and other compositional approaches which I have developed in the last few years – techniques and approaches which are in tune with my own musical character but which I don’t imagine would be appropriate for anyone else, and which are in themselves the result of this search for (musical) Self. ‘The new’ is thus presented here growing out of ‘the old’, but in fact Elegy prefaces Ascent simply because I found that it had to: I was unable to compose the literally Self-centred second piece until it had been balanced and contextualised by a more communal one.

At its simplest this ‘modal technique’ uses small collections of pitches which are never transposed and which leave tonal implications present but ambiguous and fluid, creating a harmonically floating, circling effect. A more complex version, suitable for writing larger pieces such as Ascent, uses the various intersections and negations of a number of different modes (that is, the notes they share, the notes they don't include, and other combinations of this sort) to create more sets of notes, and therefore to give unlimited structural possibilities akin to those created by the various key centres in a piece of tonal music. In Ascent this structure is based on the fundamental concept of reduction towards a single point. Three basic modes are used, of 7, 6 and 5 notes, selected so that their various intersections are of 4, 3, 2 and 1 notes - in other words, the notes used tend towards a unity, the single note G which all the modes share. As the music progresses from a seven-note mode to a single note, so the rhythmic structure of the piece contracts, from 7/8 to a final bar of 1/8 (odd-number metres - 7/8, 5/8, 3/8 - are characterised by more propulsive, ostinato-driven music than the reflective even-number metres, which feature the piano prominently).

The abstract concerns outlined above are objectified for me in the shape of Mt. Kailash, a Tibetan peak sacred to four religions. My long-standing fascination with this mountain is probably connected to my interest in the idea of the elusive centre (or the Self), and the way in which it is implied by my ‘circling’ modes. The looming, unattainable Kailash is seen as the omphalos, the axis mundi, the centre of everything - to climb it would be sacrilegious; instead pilgrims circle it in a long high altitude route called the Kora or Parikrama. The four faces of Kailash point towards the cardinal points of the compass and in Hindu iconography have their own names and specific qualities - destroyer, creator, sustainer, compassionate one. But there is a fifth face, Ishaan, which faces upwards, showering blessings on mankind - the summit of the mountain, where the four lower faces merge into one unity. Though no one climbs Kailash this symbolic ascent is thus implied, and it is the ascent my piece draws on. In my mind, the notes of the three modes and their first three intersections – the sets of 7, 6, 5, 4, 3 and 2 notes – which are physically present on paper and under the players’ fingers, are analogous to the physical faces of Kailash, facing out for all to see. But the final G, like the summit, Ishaan, faces upwards, and like Ishaan it showers out invisible blessings - at this point a G bell is struck, radiating not tangible, written notes, but a haze of harmonics, as if, on reaching the summit, the note itself has been transfigured into new dimensions.

. . . mit 13 Bläsern

The Penitent Wagnerite goes a little Enregistrement de Boulez, que me veux-tu? The Berg Chamber Concerto is a piece which helps me as a musician, by refusing to let me settle into any fixed opinion on’t. When I first heard it as an undergrad, it fired my musical imagination to a degree comparable to my first audition of Le sacre du printemps. Yet as I have revisited the concerto from time to time, that fire has proved elusive. My ears, and their dance with the Berg Chamber Concerto: an ongoing lesson. And as a good student, I don't yet know the end.

(Love the wind scoring of the accompaniment, for only one thing.)

Come on, baby, don’t be cold as ice!

Well, when you’ve had enough, you’ve had enough. (All I should add is, I make no objection to the specific choice of five.)

20 February 2009

Text for chorus

it isn’t too much to ask
is it?
is it too much to ask?
so many questions
nor time enough to seek
proper answers
leave the uneasy question
tethered in the yard
it isn’t too much to ask
is it?
a question
a hunger
perhaps no answer
or is there?
(... madrigal, 19.ii.09)

Then let us say you are sad, because you are not merry

Just when you thought no further indignity could be sloughed off onto Shakespeare: a staging of The Merchant of Venice which sets the play — in 16th-century Venice.

Thank goodness no such atrocity would occur to anyone staging an opera today . . . .

13 February 2009

12 February 2009

The Power of Dada

Headline seen on the Internet:
Dada and surrealist masterpieces make US stop
Make the US stop what?

Not Quite Spring, But Hoping That Winter May Be Passing

An exciting, preparatory time . . . partly spurred by a young guest's guileless request to see the clarinet.

A time not of activity so much, as of designs for activity.

Mulling for cello ensemble continues. Thoughts, too, of a spare piece for two flutes and a clarinet. Renewed (if no less faint) hopes of getting Radiant Maples and Lost Waters performed.

09 February 2009

casual paintbrushes

she doesn’t have a cat
so she stencils paw-prints
on the floor the paint brown
like the mud which in fact
she is glad the cat she doesn’t have
doesn’t track
she pulls out her phone
so words float like stars
on a still pool
sunfish dart
beneath the stars

not poetry but studies for poetry
an insistent inability to set pencil to paper
spurred by the vague desire
to record racing thoughts
there are letters you drop into slots
even though you don’t understand the signs

eternally misrehearsing a phone number
few or none of the buttons look right
turn off the moonlight
dial quickly
scattering the sunfish
before i awoke to your white night
and could brush my hair in the blues of your eyes
i saw mirrors in icicles surrounding my sunglasses
i answered a knock at the border with incorrect papers
i wrapped the cast on my arm in a plastic bag
to join men i didn’t know in a country sauna
i sank into a subway though i couldn’t see bottom
she gave me a photograph
from the future of a kitten
the cat has a young girl
you can see in the girl’s eyes
she is thinking of the cat
and even (possibly) of me
(there’s that look in her eyes)

you can see in the cat’s eyes
the girl & the photographer are less
than the sunfish trying the phone
she’s disconnected

deep in the background
in the cat’s paw you can see

(... casual paintbrushes)

04 February 2009

Getting to Know Sergei Vasilyevich

Rakhmaninov composed his Third Concerto as an impressive vehicle for his tour of America. He composed the piece in the tranquillity of the family estate at Ivanovka, finishing the score on 23 September O.S. (6 October N.S.) 1909. He dedicated the work to Joseph Hoffman, though it turned out that Hoffman would never perform the piece.

Rakhmaninov played the premiere of the Third Concerto on 28 November 1909 with the Symphony Society of New York conducted by Walter Damrosch, at the New Theatre, New York. (His American debut, however, was a recital of solo works in Northampton, Massachusetts, on 4 Nov 09) On 16 January 1910, he played it again, at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Gustav Mahler. On this tour, he also conducted his Second Symphony, and the tone-poem The Isle of the Dead. In the course of the tour, he was invited to become permanent conductor of the Boston Symphony, but declined, returning to Russia in February 1910. On 4 April 1910 he gave the concerto its Russian premiere, with the Moscow Philharmonic conducted by Evgeny Plotnikov.

The Russian audience and critics received the new work rather more warmly than their American counterparts; but European reaction generally was that the Concerto was more admirable as a performance exhibition-piece, than as composition. Nonetheless, the piece garnered enough popularity in the years immediately following, that even the notoriously impertinent Prokofiev was intimidated, and 'faced his fear' by matching it with his own Piano Concerto No. 2.

Rakhmaninov himself would wind up permitting (sometimes in consideration of the timing restraint of recording technology of the day) a total of six cuts in the score.

Vladimir Horowitz recorded the Concerto in 1930.

New York Sun, Nov 1909: "Sound reasonable music this, though not a great or memorable proclamation."

When preparing the Concerto with Gustav Mahler and the New York Philharmonic, Rakhmaninov said that Mahler "Devoted himself to the concerto until the accompaniment, which is rather complicated, had been practiced to the point of perfection, although he had already gone through another long rehearsal. According to Mahler, every detail of the score was important — an attitude too rare among conductors. Though the rehearsal was scheduled to end at 12:30, we played and played far beyond this hour and when Mahler announced that the first movement would be rehearsed again, I expected some sort of protest from the musicians but I did not notice a single sign of annoyance. The orchestra played the first movement with a keen or perhaps even closer application than the previous time."

This time critical response was more positive. New York Herald: "The work grows in impressiveness upon acquaintance and will doubtless take rank among the most interesting piano concertos of recent years, although its great length and extreme difficulties bar it from performances by any but pianists of exceptional technical powers."

(Pagination throughout is the Boosey & Hawkes pocket edition HPS 18)

First Movement

I very much enjoy the games Rakhmaninov plays with sonata-design in the first movement. Also, there is a little bit of tongue-in-cheek, I think, in the fact that that the introductory figure (which plays a big role in the development) is something of an echo of the first theme from the first movement of the Second Concerto.

Also . . . consider how, since the Concerto (and especially as Rakhmaninov handles it) is something of a virtuoso's playing field, this first movement brings the soloist in with probably the least demanding technique imaginable: a simple melody in octaves. (I.e., meet the soloist, but all the fireworks are yet to come, where's the hurry?) Then, consider the beginning of this opening theme: for almost four complete measures, the melody turns upon itself within the narrowest intervalic compass which still allows movement — a diminished fourth (from F-natural to C-sharp, enharmonically equivalent to a major third). Then, apart from that eighth-note lower-neighbor of a B in the fourth bar of the tune, it stays within that diminished fourth for another two bars, so that then, when at the start of the seventh bar, the melody leaps up a fourth to the G . . . it feels a bit like Big Space.

This opening theme (and a goodly portion of the material in the movement is drawn from the three-note stepwise descent, and the immediately consequent three-note stepwise ascent) is so simple, yet well-wrought. After exploring this narrow intervalic space, the melody makes its chromatic way up to an arrival on B-flat (and a subito piano arrival, after a three-measure crescendo . . . and B-flat will be the key of the Subordinate Theme here in the Expo). Then, the melody concludes by telescoping its range back down, a sequence of scalar descents to the tonic [ B-flat > D :: A > D :: G > D :: . . . ]

And when this sequence (to use the term generally) brings us back to the range of the opening four bars, Rakhmaninov adds the E-flat to make it completely chromatic for the cadence [ F - E - E-flat - D - C# > D ]. And while the rhythm of the entire melody has been nicely organic and forward moving, that one bar of 2/4 is a very sweet metrical 'stretch'.

The First Theme area draws up to a ‘mini-cadenza’ which is a half-cadence in D Minor. Then the bassoons double the bassi (celli and contrabasses) in a variant on the First Theme, bringing in deliciously scored winds, and arriving at F, a half-cadence in B-flat, the key of the Second Theme. The arrival at B-flat is a charming passage; we don’t actually start with the Theme per se, but with an antiphonal game between first strings, then winds, and the soloist, on a figure which, first, was subtly introduced in the winds at figure [4] and, second, anticipates the opening of the Second Theme.

The Second Theme begins with a lower-neighbor figure (D - C - D) which permeates much of the later development nearly as much as the descent/ascent of the First Theme. The Exposition ends with a subtle restoration of the dotted Introduction.

The Development begins with a clear return to the beginning, and it just as clearly begins to go Elsewhere. Won’t go into detail about the Development, or I won’t know where to stop; but of course it culminates in the huge cadenza.

Why is the cadenza huge?

Rakhmaninov here manages an ingenious switch on Mozart. The classic Mozart model of the concerto springs from the convention of repeating the Exposition: there is first an orchestral (tutti) Exposition, and then a soloist Exposition. Rakhmaninov here writes, not a double Exposition, but something of a double Recap. In the middle of the cadenza, there is a clear return to the tonic, and a Solo Recap of the First Theme (and, actually, this Retransition and Recap are just what Rakhmaninov gives two versions of, with the two cadenze); solo winds subtly assist in the transition to E-flat, where there is a Solo Recap of the Second Theme. This winds up with Mozartean cadential trills, and then we ‘slip’ magically (I use this adverb advisedly) from E-flat to the tonic D Minor, and we have a Tutti Recap, a literal return to the start. A brief Coda winds the movement up, and the final cadence is soft and sweet.

Second Movement

The Intermezzo is combination of ternary form (A-B-A') and sonatina. There is no single set ‘method’ for reducing sonata down to sonatina, and Rakhmaninov manages to bring the concerto and the sonatina ideas together delightfully.

The contrasting B section is what I hear as the Scherzo, if the concerto were a symphony. (Of course, it is comparatively brief, by the clock . . . perhaps one full minute out of the movement.)

The key signature of the movement is A major; this makes it relate very clearly to the D Minor of the outer movements. But really, the key of the sonatina is D-flat major, a key ‘scandalously’ distant from D (but, the inverse to E-flat which is of such importance in the outer movements . . . it was the key for the Second Theme in the Recap of the First Movement, and will be the key at the start of the Recap in the Third). And even the key of the Scherzo middle section, is F# Minor.

The Intermezzo begins in that modal sort of A major, which feels like the dominant to D Minor; and in fact, the first note to sound, in the firsts, is D; and when the harmony is filled out on beat two of the first measure, the chord is D Minor.

After this one measure of introduction, the oboe carries the first phrase of the orchestral Expo. The characteristic gesture of this theme is a descending second, following by a descending third. In bar five, the oboe is doubled at the unison by the clarinet; the simplest touch, but brilliant . . . and in fact all the wind scoring in this movement is expert. After a string choir answer, there is a lush page in which there is a chain of the [desc. major second + desc. minor third] ending with something of a pitch-allusion to the First Theme of the first movement, I think, in the violins in the fourth bar of the Un poco più mosso (3b_1 p.3): F-natural, E, C-sharp. (Oops! The first horn plays a written C rather than B in that rising arpeggio in the first bar, in Rakhmaninov’s own recording!)

When the soloist comes in, he seems first to draw us to F-# Minor (which will be the key of the ‘B’ section); but the key we settle into is D-flat Major, and a maggiore version of the Theme. After a brief cadenza, the soloist takes us into B-flat Minor, and there’s a half-cadence on F.

Here is the awful cut in the Rakhmaninov recording, shearing off a return of the First Theme from the first movement. Then, further discourse on the Intermezzo theme.

The Scherzo passage introduces a brilliant sixteenth-note-triplet figure in the piano, which spins off from a transposition of the first movement’s First Theme: C# - E - D - C# - B - C# - D - C#. And the tune in the clarinet and bassoon for which this serves as accompaniment, is a slowed-down version of the same theme (3b_2 p.2). The key is F# Minor, so even as this passage ends on a half-cadential C#, it sets up a return to the Interemezzo theme in the orchestra, in a transposition from its Exposition, but in the ‘true key’ of the Intermezzo (D-flat = C#).

But . . . the concerto is in D Minor, how do we get back? When the soloist first entered in this movement, the key ‘slipped down’ a third from A to F#; and in parallel, here at the conclusion of the Intermezzo material, the key slips from C# to an A Dominant-Seventh harmony. Still, part of the harmonic footprint here is the half-tone relation . . . and there is a big crescendo in E-flat major, before the [ i 6/4 – V ] brings us attacca into the third movement.

(The writing of these thoughts was a little piecemeal over the course of a few days, and I want to emphasize that, notwithstanding this choppy presentation of a bunch of ideas which give probably a diffuse impression at best, my ear finds that the whole movement flows beautifully, simply, naturally.)

In short, Rakhmaninov is doing enough with this piece compositionally, that it isn't nearly as straightforward a 'charmer' as the Second Concerto, perhaps. And since it really is both a big piece (even with the five cuts, Rakhmaninov's recording of the Third runs a few minutes longer than the Second), and an 'elephantine' challenge for the soloist . . . maybe it is not every top-notch concertizing pianist who is going to be able to master this.

Third Movement

The third movement feels sonata-rondo-ish, but . . . the paired occurences of the A ritornello material in each of the Expo and Recap don't straddle the B theme:

[ Expo ]

rit.[1] :: p. 69
rit.[2] :: p. 73, marking [41]
B :: p. 78 (second system)

[ Recap ]

rit.[1a] :: p. 104
rit.[2] :: p. 114
B' :: p. 119 (last measure)

Also, the development develops, not the material of the third movement, but hearkens back to the second theme of the first movement. Charmingly, I think, Rakhmaninov uses a scherzando voice for the contrasting sections of both movements two and three . . . but in the second movement, the scherzo intrusion is a more rapid tempo; in the third, a relaxation of tempo. Both of them refer back to a theme from the first movement, though.

B is recapitulated with a different accompaniment and pace (marked Più vivo in the Recap, where the marking in the Expo had been Meno mosso).

After the rollicking 6/4 section (Vivace, p. 124) which (call me weird) reminds me just a shade of a section of the Shostakovich Fourth . . . the steeplechase accelerates into a brief cadenza, and then comes the full-bloom version of B. Study those pages, as a hundred Hollywood film-scorers have studied them before us . . . .

But the piece does not linger there forever, and picks the tempo back up, and pulls up to a neat halt.

There are, in the historic recording of the composer playing the Concerto accompanied by Ormandy & the Philadelphia Orchestra, five cuts (maybe I missed one while I was making note of these):

First Mvt

1. From Tempo precedente (p.19) to [11] (p.20)

2. The two bars of cadenza before the bar marked accelerando (p.38)

Second Mvt

3. From più vivo (p.51) to the measure before that marked a tempo, più mosso (p.53)

Third Mvt

4. From [45] (p.79) to Allegro molto (p.82)

5. From Meno mosso (p.91) to A tempo [54] (p.95)

You can sort of almost get away with the cuts in the first movement (although it is still musical loss); but the cuts in the second and third are arrant butchery. There's something I find horribly sad in these five cuts, 'documented' by the composer's own recording; they feel obviously wrong, and how he endured them is beyond me.

(Rakhmaninov here plays the scherzando cadenza.)

A turn of the wheel

Some composition on the bus ride in the morning. In the evening, trying to remember what little I had managed to learn about the Sibelius software, by inputting this morning's work.

And there was morning, and there was evening. . . .

Getting a bit snow-weary now. There is a kind of latent optimism in operation, I think, in the fact that I've listened to Le sacre du printemps some four or five times, yesterday and today.

Viz. Sibelius (the software) . . . I am (or, I suppose I must say at this point, was) enjoying it. The score for The Angel Who Bears a Flaming Sword was a First Exercise in teaching myself the software; and then Second Exercise was taking the Overture to White Nights and building a new score in Sibelius . . . in which task I had got to page 14. I probably have found occasion to take that back up, and carry it through to completion, in order to send the score somewhere. (Nothing will probably come of that, but at least, [a] I will have a score even neater than I had created in Finale, and [b] I shall have re-learnt Sibelius, and learnt yet more . . . and perhaps it will stick a bit better.)

Now, it is not so much a case of not enjoying Sibelius (of course), as of some annoyance that I've retained so little, from my first bout of 'training'. I must try to remember that I am probably not so dully stupid as I feel just at present.

03 February 2009

Snow, Then Flute, Then Snow Again

[Matisse] was interested neither in fending off opposition,
nor in competing for the favor of wayward friends.
His only competition was with himself.

— Françoise Gilot

Back home after an MBTA journey through the snow. Met after work with flautist Peter Bloom who read through the alto flute version of The Angel Who Bears a Flaming Sword; I clarified some aspects of the piece, and via Peter's reading, I am confirmed in liking the piece entirely. We agreed that the piece is rather more trying for the trumpet (for which instrument I originally composed it); still, even as a flute piece it resists sight-reading . . . Peter's a brave player. I certainly need to lay it out fresh with proper page-turns (which I am aghast to find I failed to do earlier).

Hopefully, we may make something of the piece hereafter.

02 February 2009

A Conversation with Miró, on Klee

“I have been told,” continued Miró, “that Klee was always working, and that even when he was talking to his friends his drawing hand was busy,” he made the movements of doodling, “wherever there was a scrap of paper.”

While I was at the Düsseldorf Academy, I had studied under Klee for a time. I had plenty of opportunity to watch him. I never noticed him drawing while talking to friends. On the contrary, absent-minded and unapproachable as he appeared when alone, he gave his concentrated attention to anyone he happened to be talking to in his studio, a café or his large room in the boarding-house beyond the Academy garden. Every word he uttered, even his witticisms, bore witness to profound thought. I never heard Klee chatting conversationally.

I told Miró how I used to be able to look from my studio at the Düsseldorf Academy, which was on the third floor, into the window of Klee’s studio in a projecting section of the building one storey lower. I often used to see him sitting there bent over his work. His drawing table was close to the window. He could spend hours at it, looking, meditating, drawing. Every movement was made slowly, as though every fraction of an inch cost him an effort.

Miró looked at me approvingly. “I could never believe it. Everything in his works looks prepared and planned. The painter must be alone when he is working, mustn’t he? He needs a quiet room — and order. I need order, otherwise I can’t do anything. When I think of Picasso’s studio . . . !” He clapped his hands together. “What chaos!” He drew a deep breath. “That would be impossible for me!”

Walter Erben

01 February 2009

Peer Review

Here are a few more thoughts, after I've had a chance to listen several times. It's hard for me to characterize other composers, because our methods can be very different. However my impression is that he states and develops a series of motives which can later evolve into complete melodies (whereas my own style is to create full-bodied melodies, and then chop them up). His music also seems to be tonal and quite rich when he wants it to be, but his tonalities can also be very free. Square Dance (for clarinet quartet) is a good example of this. It's not a yeehaw hoe-down by any means; instead the title refers to the interplay of 4 similar instruments, although there is a nice little waltz in the middle.

Murmur of Many Waters for percussion ensemble also seems to be built on a series of motives. It's a nice shimmering work, but also quite lyrical which is surprising for percussion. The wood blocks were a bit too prominent, but otherwise this is a fine performance. I tried not to look at the titles before I heard these pieces, and this one seems like the gradual awakening of Earthly life at dawn. The motives stated at the outset are the first stirrings, and gradually the music builds on them into a lovely interplay.

To expand on what I already wrote about Canticle of St Nicholas, it is quite beautiful, with a sense of halting, poetic yearning. Personally it was a little too halting for me because I would have ultimately built it into a gradual final crescendo with the strings rising higher and higher to a final victory (much like Serious Song: Lament for String Orchestra by Irving Fine). However this illustrates the dangers when one composer auditions another composer's music, even a rank amateur like me. We tend to project our own ideas onto the music, which can be very misleading (no wonder Brahms and Tchaikovsky didn't care for each other, ha ha). Come to think of it, maybe I enjoyed this work the most because it engaged my own thought processes more than any other on the CD. If I strip away my own thoughts, I'd say that this is a very successful work, with almost a sense of Man's reach exceeding his grasp, always aspiring for something higher. No final victory, but perhaps something greater is implied. The opening chorale is particularly moving, as is the meditation for full strings from about 3:45 to 4:45, just before the modified restatement of the opening chorale. I was about to describe this meditation as a dramatic soliloquy because the full string ensemble speaks almost as a single multi-layered voice. No doubt about it, this piece is a gem, and I put it on repeat about 5 times when I first heard it. Karl, whatever you're doing, it's working!

I Sang to the Sky & Day Broke for concert band is another winner. The motives are stated immediately over rhythmic percussion. Once again, before looking at the title, I was reminded of the gradual awakening of Earthly life at dawn, and this time I was right. While this is a triumphal procession, it is gently restrained with a quiet exuberance, and all the better for it.

David Stybr, Engineer and Composer (9 Jan 05)