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 →
John Coltrane would leave for a road trip with the Quartet carrying nothing but his horn case and the Slonimsky book.
John Coltrane (1926-1967) is generally recognized as one of the most significant saxophonists in music history. However, at times I wonder whether the famous phrase applied to his playing—”Sheets of sound”—actually might lead the unwary to underestimate his talent, work ethic, and achievements. Such is the problem with music-history courses graded via multiple-choice examinations. “Coltrane???” “Oh, yeah—Sheets of sound!” A bit reductive… .
In truth, Coltrane was quite a Music Theory Nerd. He owned a copy of Nicholas Slonimsky’s fearsome Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, and had memorized much of it. (That book, first published in 1947, includes more than a thousand musical examples, the majority being not in traditional Western major or minor scales.)
The title track of Coltrane’s LP Giant Steps (recorded 1959) moves through three keys separated by major thirds… hence the giant steps. The tight structuring of this brief musical gem should dispel the impression that Coltrane was just making random noises. The animated graphical representation by Michal Levy is in its own way a great work of art, too.
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There’s not too much to say about this… the music so confidently speaks for itself.
I first became aware of John McLaughlin upon seeing and hearing his third solo album My Goal’s Beyond. Woober Joobers. I had never heard an Ovation “Roundback” guitar before; and the fact that the original LP album cover showed McLaughlin’s meditation room (and a portrait of his guru, Sri Chinmoy), intrigued me.
Years later, attending Vanderbilt Law School, at an overstock sale at the University bookstore, I bought a book of Meditations by Sri Chinmoy; and: it cut me to the quick.
Quoting from memory: Chinmoy stated that Jesus knew in advance and even predicted that Peter would deny him three times.
But: Chinmoy goes on to say, Jesus chose no one else as the Rock upon whom He would found his church. Continue Reading →
Photo Thomas Zwillinger, courtesy of Harmonia Mundi.
Joel Fredericksen and Ensemble Phoenix Munich: Requiem for a Pink Moon
CD Harmonia Mundi HMC 902111 (recorded 2012)
(No high-resolution download available, apparently.)
Joel Fredericksen, bass voice and lute; Timothy Leigh Evans, tenor voice and drum; Domen Marincic, viola da gamba; Axel Wolf, theorbo and archlute; producer and engineer not credited.
Back in December, in my coverage of the Wilson Audio/MSB event at Fidelis AV in New Hampshire, I mentioned how the late-stayers were moved by the cuts I played from Joel Fredericksen and Ensemble Phoenix Munich’s Elizabethan Nick Drake tribute Requiem for a Pink Moon. You could have heard a pin drop. If that album is unknown to you, here’s a brief précis:
The idea of classical bass singer Joel Frederiksen and Ensemble Phoenix Munich’s putting together an early-instruments Elizabethan tribute album to Nick Drake might strike you as daft, as it did me. But, it works. It’s the real deal. There was a melancholic plaintiveness to Drake’s music that is not at all far from the Elizabethan temperament. Frederiksen of course sings both beautifully and un-selfconsciously. But what makes this recording one of the most affecting I have heard in years is that the interleaving of Elizabethan laments and parts of a Gregorian Chant Requiem Mass with Drake’s songs makes such a powerful connection to the universal human experiences of loss and grief, and not just to one particular artist or album. Buy one for yourself, and buy several to give as gifts.
I am working on reviews of new-ish recordings of Edward Elgar’s two published symphonies, so, this video of Sir Colin Davis with an unidentified orchestra playing the slow variation from the “Enigma” Variations is timely. (My guess as to the identity of the orchestra is that it is the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, judging by the façade pipes of the organ. I also deduce that the movement was played as an encore… .) I was privileged to hear Davis conduct Elgar’s masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius twice, twenty-five years apart, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. There is no question that Davis was one of the most important Elgar conductors of the modern era. His live “Enigma” Variations recording with the London Symphony is available on SACD for only $14.99; the CD is $9.99. The “Enigma” Variations is one of those pieces that should be part of everyone’s cultural awareness.
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Johannes Brahms’ Op. 53 Alto Rhapsody (1869) for female solo voice, male chorus, and orchestra neatly divides into three parts: Yearning, Striving, and Imploring Divine Aid.
Brahms wrote the Alto Rhapsody as a wedding present for Robert and Clara Schumann’s daughter Julie. One cannot help but think that Brahms chose Goethe’s craggy text as a self-portrait hiding a declaration of love.
The Alto Rhapsody has always been very well-represented on recordings. My fave rave is Dagmar Pecková with Jirí Belohlávek and the Prague Philharmonia, in a 2-CD set that includes some very fine Wagner and Mahler. Above we have a very fine version featuring Italian contralto Sara Mingardo with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and (surprise, surprise) Andris Nelsons, rounding out our unofficial Andris Nelsons Brahms week here at The Tannhäuser Gate. This video is from a concert that includes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 and Serenade No. 2. The DVD is here and the Blu-Ray here.
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I am a bit of two minds about this video. I’ve had a positive impression of John Mayer ever since I happened across his Room for Squares CD (Sony CK 85293), which I wrote about in Stereophile in 2003, thusly:
Rock singer-songwriter-guitarist Mayer is often compared to Dave Matthews, but for me
his combination of bedevilment over the fair sex, wry wordplay, smooth arrangements,
and low-key vocal delivery strongly calls to mind Michael Franks’ early work.
So, I start out predisposed to whatever John Mayer feels like doing at any time–even though I have not been wowed by all of it. Therefore, to hear him in the “Rock Power Trio” format with totally committed bass player and drummer is good, and to hear them cover one of Jimi Hendrix’ strongest self-penned numbers is even better. Continue Reading →
According to pop-song authority Mark Steyn, there exist more than 100 recordings of Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine“—by Chet Baker. Baker recorded the song as a trumpeter with Gerry Mulligan in 1952, re-recording it as a vocalist in 1954, a breakthrough performance that has been widely anthologized. I gather that for the remainder of Baker’s checkered career, audiences continued to demand it, because his last recording of it was in 1985.
The 1937 musical Babes in Arms (set in the imaginary town of Seaport, Rhode Island) is famous not only for “Valentine” (the name of the male romantic interest the song is sung to) but also the standards “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “Where or When.” Less well known but equally significant is that the show included a “dream ballet” by George Balanchine.
The song starts in C minor, and in emotional tone is both pensive and a bit anxious. The girl knows that her guy is a bit of a ditz, but the idea of losing him upsets her no end—the climax comes on the words “Stay, Valentine, stay.” Standout versions include those by Anita O’Day; Miles Davis; and Bill Evans with Jim Hall. And, of course, Keith Jarrett, here with Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock.
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