James Agee (1909-1955) had a difficult and comparatively brief life. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, his life was upended at age six when his father was killed in an automobile accident. Thereafter, Agee and his younger sister Emma were sent off to various boarding schools. Agee was a member of the class of 1932 at Harvard. Upon graduation, he went to work for Time, Inc.’s magazine Fortune. In 1934, he published his only volume of poetry, Permit Me Voyage.
In 1938 Agee wrote a brief prose piece, “Knoxville, Summer of 1915” that Samuel Barber later (1948) set for soprano and orchestra. In 1938, Barber had set another Agee text, “Sure On This Shining Night,” a brief untitled poetic fragment from Permit Me Voyage. Barber’s “Shining Night” setting is solidly in the core or standard repertory, both in its solo-voice and choral versions. More recently (2005), composer Morten Lauridsen’s choral setting of “Sure On This Shining Night” has earned worldwide currency for its soulful treatment of Agee’s enigmatic, pensive, yet I think ultimately hopeful lines.
Agee later participated in the writing of two of the most famous films of the era, The African Queen and Night of the Hunter. He was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1958 for his autobiographical novel A Death In the Family. Agee’s reputation as a writer is usually thought to rest upon A Death In the Family and his Depression-era journal Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. But it cannot be doubted that Agee was one of the most important English-language art-music lyricists of the 20th century. That is, as long as one judges by quality, and not merely quantity.
Text, commentary, and a news flash, all after the jump. Continue Reading →
Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel is scored for solo viola, solo alto voice, solo soprano voice, mixed chorus, and celesta; with percussion consisting of bass drum, chimes, gong, temple block, tenor drum, timpani, vibraphone, and wood block. Feldman (1926-1987) composed Rothko Chapel in 1971, specifically for the building of that name, in Houston, Texas, which was a gift to the public from the Ménil Foundation. The Rothko Chapel (Wiki) (Home Page) was designed to house and display 14 huge canvases the Ménil Foundation commissioned from the American Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970).
My personal opinion is that Feldman’s Rothko Chapel is one of the most magically organic pieces of modern music. But I can also easily envision the possible so-so (or negative) reactions, that the music was meant be the soundtrack to an aromatherapy session, or that the paintings are what happens when a depressive can only afford half-empty cans of house paint, in the dullest possible hues.
Both Rothko and Feldman declined to embrace the prevailing or at least most talked-about artistic trends—of self-conscious Modernism (such as Pop Art) in painting, and of 12-tone academic serialism in music. Even so, the challenging (or, numinous) nature of Rothko’s paintings and of the music they inspired does force one to confront the question whether some mid-20th-century art was only “the Emperor’s New Clothes.” More after the jump. Continue Reading →
Gustav Mahler and his wife Alma (née Schindler) had a marriage that was often troubled. Mahler started out on the wrong foot by insisting that his musically-talented (and, much younger) fiancée renounce her own ambitions to write serious music. (Alma had already composed some songs, and had worked on some instrumental music, as well as an opera sketch). Years later, a hammer-blow of fate befell Gustav and Alma with the death of their five-year old daughter Maria Anna. That shock was followed by the hammer-blow of Gustav’s diagnosis with the heart defect that eventually caused his early death.
Mahler only later discovered that, reeling from her daughter’s death (and, doubtless, also reeling from Mahler’s determination to isolate himself, so he could put on paper all the music that was within him, before it was too late), Alma had taken up romantically (and sexually) with a young architecture student named Walter Gropius.
My musically-astute friend and I had a wonderful time attending the lectures, discussion panels, recitals, and concert performances of this year’s Bard Festival. Each year, the Bard Festival focuses on one composer; this year’s model was Chopin. Of course, such a project also examines Chopin’s milieu and his formative experiences, his personal life (I learned a lot about George Sand), and his musical influences and musical contemporaries. Next year’s Festival is all about Rimsky-Korsakov and His World; it gets my highest recommendation for an in-depth, challenging, and rewarding cultural experience, all in a wonderful setting near the Hudson River.
Bard College, by the way, is where future rock band Steely Dan‘s co-founders Becker and Fagan met; I was bold enough to ask a Bard administrator where I could find the shrine to Steely Dan, and he smiled at me indulgently. By the way, a Bard-era, pre-Steely-Dan, Becker-and-Fagan group included future comedian Chevy Chase, on drums… . Continue Reading →
Trondheim Solistene: Reflections
(Music of Britten, Vaughan Williams, and Stravinsky)
SACD/CD +Blu-ray 2-disc set, 2L 125
CDQ; high-resolution stereo including MQA and DSD; and surround-sound downloads available from www.2L.no
Streaming available from various services linked to here.
Recorded June and August 2015, Selbu Church, Norway. Recording producer and balance engineer Morten Lindberg; recording technician Beatrice Johannessen.
Certain pieces of music just catch the ear. Some of those pieces even enter into the collective repository of culture—they become part of the sonic landscape (or the musical memories) of nearly everybody’s life.
A prime candidate for the title of “The Most Well-Known Piece of ‘Classical’ Music That Was Not Composed by Vivaldi, Beethoven, or Gershwin” is Samuel Barber’s Adagio, in its string-orchestra version. Barber’s Adagio for Strings combines striving with yearning (and grief with resignation) in a completely arresting and inescapably memorable way.
Most music lovers don’t realize that the version they know so well is a transcription—that the “Adagio” of movie and pop-culture renown started out life as the slow movement of Barber’s Op. 11 string quartet.
The point of this blog entry then, is to tell as many people as possible that if you love Barber’s Adagio, you will love Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The Tallis Fantasia has the same sweeping grandeur and emotional intensity as Barber’s Adagio, but I think it is even more rewarding to engage with over repeated hearings.
More background, a making-of video, and sound bytes, after the jump. Continue Reading →
Morten Lauridsen: Lux Æterna and other works
Los Angeles Master Chorale and Sinfonia, Paul Salamunovich, conductor
CD Rubedo Canis Musica RCM 19705
Recorded June 1997 to January 1998, Sacred Heart Chapel, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles; Peter Rutenberg, producer; Fred Vogler, engineer.
This recording of Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Æterna was nominated for the Grammy award in its category in 1999. A quick listen to the beginning will tell you why. (A Robert Shaw CD won the award, understandably as it was the year of his death.) Lux Æterna starts with a stroke of genius, and then goes on from strength to strength. The first thing you hear is one of the tallest yet emptiest chords in concert music—the string basses lay down a granite foundation while the high strings harmonize from, it seems, light-years away. And there is nothing in between.
That inspired gesture announces the work as hugely ambitious, while being completely self-assured. Lauridsen is making his personal statement about the meaning of human existence, and nothing less than that. Lux Æterna is one of the masterpieces of the 20th century, and you are really missing out if you have not heard it.
Generous sound samples and more, after the jump. Continue Reading →
José Gallardo, piano; Friedemann Eichhorn, violin; Julius Berger, cello; José Bragato and Osvaldo Calo, arrangers; Peter Steiber and Sabine Fallerstein, producers; Angela Öztanil, engineer.
Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) was best known as a performer of his own modernized tango music. His instrument was an unusual concertina (button accordion) called the Bandoneón. The Bandoneón was originally designed (in Germany) as an inexpensive substitute for a church organ, providing chordal accompaniment to congregational hymn singing. That intended use dictated the inner logic of its workings. So the Bandoneon plays different notes from the same fingering, depending whether the bellows was being pushed together or pulled apart. That quirk makes Piazzolla’s brilliant solo work even more impressive… .
But Piazzolla was more than an electrifying live performer; he was a serious composer. The Hungarian classical pianist Bela Wilda, who introduced Piazzolla to Bach, himself had been a student of Rachmaninoff’s. Piazzolla briefly was a student of Nadia Boulanger’s (she sent him on his way, though, urging him to find his own path). Piazzolla spent five years studying orchestration with Alberto Ginistera. Piazzolla put that training to use over the rest of his life, eventually writing more than 60 film scores. That sensibility is what makes this very well recorded, infectiously listenable album a “must-buy.” Just buy it! Continue Reading →
Sergey Schepkin: J. S. Bach: The Six Partitas, BWV 825-830
2-CD set Steinway & Sons 30069
(No high-resolution download available at present)
Recorded September 2014 and September 2015, Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston, Massachusetts; Sergey Schepkin, producer; Patrick Keating, engineer.
Even if your only exposure to Bach’s great keyboard works played on the modern piano is one or another of Glenn Gould’s recordings of the Goldberg Variations (there are three, you know), you really should consider buying this new set of the Partitas on Steinway & Sons’ CD label. Don’t be scared off by the technical term “Partita.” All that means is that these are multi-movement works made up of parts; specifically, sections that usually were named after dances. Bach’s contemporaries would have understood the dance names such as “Sarabande” as giving an idea as to the tempo and feeling of each segment. The liner notes make the important point that this is not music to dance to; it is music for its own sake, about the idea or the ideal of dancing.
Sergey Schepkin’s playing is technically as good as anyone else’s out there, and his interpretations are a moveable feast—by turns fleet, witty, and playful; or, delicate, subtle, and pensive (or even serious or solemn). This music can mind its own business in the background at Campari time, but it is also worth your undivided attention late at night.
Backstory, details, and elaboration after the jump; and with generous sound samples, of course. Continue Reading →
Recorded January 22-26, 2013, Schloss Bad Krozingen, Germany; Jonas Niederstadt, producer.
What a wonderful project and what a wonderful recording! Catalina Vicens is an immensely talented and very hard-working Curtis Institute graduate, originally from Chile. She won an international early-keyboard competition hosted by the Bad Krozingen Castle. As a result, the Cultural Office of the City of Bad Krozingen and the the Fritz Neumeyer Historical Keyboards Collection made possible this, her début recording.
This is one of the most impressive and engaging keyboard recordings I have heard in years. The recorded sound is pristine and very dynamic and satisfyingly reverberant—even better, the recording was made to audiophile standards using DPA 4006 microphones, and there are 24/96 and 24/192 FLAC downloads available. Just go for it!
More, and generous sound bytes, after the jump. Continue Reading →
It almost goes without saying that the mainstream media long ago fell into a sensationalist rubric of, “If it bleeds, it leads.” So a Jeremiad from me about that would be almost pointless.
Please click for the continuation. Continue Reading →