By American Public Media
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Composers Datebook™ is a daily two-minute program designed to inform, engage, and entertain listeners with timely information about composers of the past and present. Each program notes significant or intriguing musical events involving composers of the past and present, with appropriate and accessible music related to each.
||CleanDeems Taylor and David Del Tredici in Wonderland||In February of 1919, members of the New York Chamber Music Society gave the premiere performance of this music—an instrumental suite by the American composer Deems Taylor, titled "Through the Looking Glass." A few years later, Deems Taylor landed a job as music critic for the New York World, and following that, became known coast-to-coast as the radio commentator for New York Philharmonic broadcasts, and as the host of a popular quiz-show titled "Information, Please." His voice was also heard as the commentator for the 1940 Disney film, "Fantasia." On today's date in 1980, another American composer premiered a musical work inspired by "Alice in Wonderland." This was David Del Tredici's "In Memory of a Summer's Day," first presented by the St. Louis Symphony conducted by Leonard Slatkin. By 1980, Del Tredici had already composed several successful works inspired by the Lewis Carroll books, but "In Memory of Summer's Day" capped the lot, and won that year's Pulitzer Prize for Music. Del Tredici was a protégé of Aaron Copland, and recalled how Copland would react to Del Tredici's compositions. "He'd say something noncommittal at first, such as 'It's very nice.' Then maybe an hour or so later, at dinner, he would turn to me, apropos of nothing, and say, 'I think the bass line is too regular, and the percussion should not always underline the main beat and would you please pass the butter.'"||2/22/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanBernstein conducts Ives||On today's date in 1951, Leonard Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic in the premiere performance of the Symphony No. 2 by Charles Ives. Ives was then 76 and living in Connecticut. Heart disease and diabetes left him far too weak to attend the Carnegie Hall premiere. Nicholas Slonimsky recalls once asking the thin and pale Ives how he was feeling, to which Ives replied he felt so weak that (quote): "I can't even spit into the fireplace." Ives didn't own a radio, so he visited his neighbors, the Ryders, to hear Bernstein conduct the Sunday afternoon broadcast performance of music he had composed some 50 years earlier. "There's not much to say about the Symphony," Ives said at the time. "I express the musical feelings of the Connecticut country in the 1890's. It's full of the tunes they sang and played then, and I thought it would be a sort of a joke to have some of these tunes in counterpoint with some Bach-like tunes." Ives' neighbor, Mrs. Ryder, recalled how he reacted to the radio broadcast: "Mr. Ives sat in the front room and listened as quietly as could be, and I sat way back behind him, because I didn't want him to think I was looking at him. After it was over, I'm sure he was very much moved. He stood up, walked over the fireplace, and spat! And then he walked out into the kitchen and said not a word."||2/21/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanMilhaud and Frisell write for silent screen comedians||On today's date in 1920, an evening of modern ballet in Paris included the premiere performance of a jazzy romp called "Le Boeuf sur le Toit," a title that literally translated means "The Bull of the Roof." The music was by a 27-year old French composer, Darius Milhaud, who had spent the last year of World War I as an attaché at the French embassy in Rio de Janeiro. "Still haunted by my memories of Brazil," wrote Milhaud, "I assembled a few popular melodies, tangos, sambas and even a Portuguese fado and called this fantasia 'Le Boeuf sur le toit,' the title of a Brazilian popular song. I thought this music might be suitable for an accompaniment to one of Charlie Chaplin's films." But Milhaud's friend, the poet Jean Cocteau, convinced him this music would make a great ballet score, and concocted a surreal scenario worthy of a manic Chaplin two-reeler for its 1920 premiere. Closer to our own day, in 1995, the American jazz guitarist Bill Frisell prepared a brand-new score for the classic 1925 Buster Keaton silent-screen comedy titled "Go West." Frisell's country blues sensibility resulted in a score as droll and deadpan as Buster Keaton's unique brand of cinematic comedy. Frisell and his band provided live accompaniment to Keaton's film at movie theaters in San Francisco, New York, and elsewhere around the country, and recorded the score for Nonesuch records.||2/20/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanHarbison's "Olympic Dances"||In 1996, the American composer John Harbison received an unusual commission—a ballet for dancers and symphonic winds. The commission came from a consortium of 14 wind ensembles, all members of the College Band Directors National Association. Maybe the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta had something to do with it, but Harbison's imagination turned in that direction: he titled the resulting work "Olympic Dances," and Atlanta also happened to be the venue for the work's premiere performance on today's date in 1997, with the Pilobus Dance Theatre and the University of North Texas Wind Symphony performing. "When asked to do a piece for dancers and winds," said Harbsion, "it immediately suggested something 'classical,' not our musical 18th century, but an imaginative vision of ancient worlds… I thought of an imagined harmony between dance, sport and sound that we can imagine from serene oranges and blacks on Greek vases, the celebration of bodies in motion that we see in the matchless sculpture of ancient times, and perhaps most important to this piece, the celebration of the ideal tableau, the moment frozen in time, that is present still in the friezes that adorn the temples and in the architecture of the temples themselves." Harbison's ballet is an austere, rather than flashy score, reminiscent of Stravinsky's austere, neo-classical scores like "Agon" and "Apollo," which—like our modern Olympics—were also inspired by ancient Greek ideals.||2/19/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanMorton Gould's "Spirituals"||In February of 1941, New York City radio station WNYC organized a Festival of American music, which included a series of orchestral concerts and several premiere performances of brand-new works. One of these was by a 27-year old composer named Morton Gould. On today's date in 1941, Gould himself conducted the first performance of what would become one his best-known pieces, a work entitled "Spirituals for Strings." Years later, Gould recalled that the premiere was "the most disastrous performance you ever heard." In 1941, New York was embroiled in a bitter union dispute, and so it happened that Gould rehearsed his new work with one orchestra, but when he arrived for the concert, was faced with a completely different set of musicians—who had to sight-read his new piece! Despite this shaky beginning, Gould's music was taken up by major conductors of his day, including Leopold Stokowski and Arturo Toscanini. Over the next five decades, Gould himself was much in demand as a conductor, composer, and arranger for radio, television, and the concert hall. In 1994 he received the Kennedy Center Award, and, in 1995, the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Gould died in February of 1996, while serving as artist-in-residence at the newly established Disney Institute in Orlando, Florida. In May of that year, 55 years after its premiere, Kurt Masur chose Morton Gould's "Spirituals" as a memorial tribute at New York Philharmonic concerts.||2/18/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanMusic by and about telephones||On today's date in 1947, Gian Carlo Menotti's opera, "The Telephone" premiered at the Heckscher Theater in New York. The story involves a young man who keeps trying to propose to his girlfriend, but, well, she's always on the phone. So the young man, deciding "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," goes to the corner and from a pay-phone calls in his marriage proposal! Now, these days, he would probably have just used his cell phone. A welcome convenience in most circumstances, cell-phones have become the bane of concert halls, interrupting musical performances with unwelcome beeps and those annoying little melodies. One young American composer, Golan Levin, has even composed a 30-minute work titled "Dialtones: A Telesymphony," scored for 200 cell-phones. Levin spend nearly a year working out the technology that would download customized sounds to cell-phones placed in the audience and allow them be played on cue. 200 members of the audience for the premiere were asked to bring their phones and register their numbers before the performance of the 3-movement work. Some audience members reportedly felt guilty when their phones rang, even though they were supposed to, and one of the "performers" confessed that he was jealous that the woman seated next to him was called more frequently than he was! Hmmm... that might make a good storyline for a sequel to Menotti's opera!||2/17/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||Clean"Variations on a Nursery Tune"||On today's date in 1914, a new work by the Hungarian composer, piano, and conductor Ernst von Dohnányi received its premiere performance in Berlin. It was for piano and orchestra, and entitled "Variations on a Nursery Tune." For its premiere, Dohnányi himself was the piano soloist, with the foremost conductor of his day, Artur Nikisch, leading the Berlin Philharmonic. Now, Dohnányi provided a subtitle to his new work, or a kind of dedication if you like. He wrote: "For the enjoyment of people with a sense of humor—and for the annoyance of others." You see, the tune Dohnányi had chosen as the theme for his variations was the French nursery song "Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman," known on this side of the Atlantic as "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." In Dohnányi's hands, the childish theme sparkles in witty piano solos set against lush, late-Romantic orchestral textures. Dohnányi was born in 1877 in what is now known as Bratislava, the modern-day capital of Slovakia, but back then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He died in 1960 in New York City, but was buried in Tallahassee, Florida, since he had been living and teaching there for the last decade of his life. Dohnányi wrote a respectable body of operas, orchestral works, chamber music, and solo piano works, but his "Variations on a Nursery Tune remains his best-known and best-loved work.||2/16/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanA Romance for Bassoon||Famous composers have been, on occasion, famous performers as well. Think of Bach on the organ, or Rachmaninoff on the piano. And if Mozart’s father is to be believed, young Wolfgang could have Europe’s finest violinist – if he had only practiced more. But how many famous composers can you name who played the bassoon? Well, the British composer Edward Elgar, for one. As a young musician in Worcester, played the bassoon in a wind quintet. While never becoming famous as a bassoonist, Elgar’s love for and understanding of the instrument is evident in all his major orchestral works, and he counted one skilled player among his friends: this was Edwin F. James, the principal bassoonist of the London Symphony in Elgar’s day. In 1910, while working on his big, extroverted, almost 50-minute violin concerto, Elgar tossed off a smaller, much shorter, and far more introverted work for bassoon and orchestra as a gift for James. Since Elgar was working on both pieces at the same time, if you’re familiar with Elgar’s Violin Concerto, Op. 61, you can’t help but notice a familial resemblance to his 6-minute Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra, Op. 62. The Romance was first performed by Edwin F. James at a Herefordshire Orchestral Society concert conducted by the Elgar on today’s date in 1911.||2/15/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanA belated Elgar premiere||We probably have the irrepressible playwright, music critic, and ardent socialist George Bernard Shaw to thank for this music—the Third Symphony of Sir Edward Elgar. Shaw had been trying to persuade Elgar to write a Third Symphony, and, early in 1932, had written to Elgar: "Why don't you make the BBC order a new symphony. It can afford it!" A few months later, Shaw dashed off a postcard with a detailed, albeit tongue-in-cheek program for the new work: "Why not a Financial Symphony? Allegro: Impending Disaster; Lento mesto: Stone Broke; Scherzo: Light Heart and Empty Pocket; Allegro con brio: Clouds Clearing." Well, there was a worldwide depression in 1932, but the depression that had prevented Elgar from tacking a new symphony was more personal: the death of his beloved wife in 1920. Despite describing himself as "a broken man," unable to tackle any major projects, when Elgar died in 1934, he left behind substantial sketches for a Third Symphony, commissioned, in fact, by the BBC. Fast forward 64 years, to February 15th, 1998, when the BBC Symphony gave the premiere performance of Elgar's Third at Royal Festival Hall in London, in a performing version, or "elaboration" of Elgar's surviving sketches, prepared by the contemporary British composer Anthony Payne. It was a tremendous success, and, we would like to think, somewhere in the hall the crusty spirit of George Bernard Shaw was heard to mutter: "Well—about time!"||2/14/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanOrff's "Trionfo di Aphrodite"||Happy Saint Valentine's Day! On today's date in 1953, a new choral work by the German composer Carl Orff received its premiere performance at the La Scala opera house in Milan, Germany. "Trionfo di Afrodite" was the title of the new work, intended to be the final panel in a triptych of choral works celebrating life and love, a tryptich that included Orff's famous "Carmina Burana," based on medieval texts, and "Catulli Carmina," based on love lyrics by the Roman poet Catullus. All three pieces were given lavish, semi-staged performances at La Scala, led by the Austrian maestro Herbert von Karajan, and with German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda as the star soloists. For the world premiere performance of "Trionfo di Afrodite," Schwarzkopf and Gedda portrayed a bride and groom on their wedding night: the texts they sang were pretty hot stuff—if you understand Latin, that is! "Triofi di Afrodite" shows Orff's indebtedness to Stravinsky, and his repetitive rhythmic patterns seem to anticipate the "mimimalist" movement by several decades. At the 1953 premiere, Schwarzkopf's husband, record producer Walter Legge, gently suggested to Orff that he might consider a few cuts to the new work. Orff's response? "Oh, I know very well the effect of my rubber-stamp music!" In any case, Legge decided not make a recording of the new work—which seems a shame, considering the all-star cast assembled at La Scala for its premiere!||2/13/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanJohann Strauss and Philip Glass in 3/4 time||Webster's defines a waltz as "a gliding dance in 3/4 time." But for most people, THIS music defines "waltz." It's the "Blue Danube" by Johann Strauss, Jr, first performed on today's date in 1867 at a Carnival concert of the Men's Choral Society of Vienna. The society's "house poet," one Joseph Weyl, a police officer by profession, provided the words for the original choral version of the "Blue Danube" Waltz. It was a flop, and even the choral society urged officer Weyl not to quit his day job. Strauss sold the rights to his waltz to a Viennese publisher—and six months later regretted it. At the 1867 World's Fair in Paris, the "Blue Danube Waltz" became an international hit and soon became the unofficial National Anthem of Vienna. In 1963, the American pianist and composer Robert Moran found himself in Vienna, where he heard the strains of an unfamiliar waltz melody coming though the open door of the Bösendorfer Piano Company. Moran's Viennese friends assured him that, yes, there were still composers writing brand-new waltzes. Intrigued, Moran tried his hand at it himself, and soon was asking his composers friends to give it a try. The result was "The Waltz Project," a collection of 25 short waltzes by famous and not-so-famous contemporary composers published in 1978. Philip Glass's contribution, for example, was entitled "Modern Love Waltz".||2/12/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanThe Brothers Johnson write an anthem||On today's date in the year 1900, the principal of Stanton Elementary in Jacksonville, Florida was asked to give a Lincoln's Day speech to his students. Stanton was a segregated school for African-American children, and was the school that its principal, James Weldon Johnson, had himself attended. Johnson decided he would rather have the students do something themselves, perhaps sing an inspirational song. He decided to write the words himself, and enlisted the aid of his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, who was a composer. "We planned to have it sung by schoolchildren, a chorus of 500 voices," Johnson recalled. "I got my first line, 'Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing"—not a startling first line, but I worked along, grinding out the rest." Johnson gave the words to his brother as they came to him, not even writing them down as his brother worked at the piano. By the time they finished, Johnson confessed he was moved by what they had created: "I could not keep back the tears and made no effort to do so." The song was a great success on February 12th, 1900, and then was pretty much forgotten by Johnson—but not by the children who sang it. They memorized it. Some of them became teachers, and taught it to their students. The song spread across the country, and soon became the unofficial National Anthem of Black America. "We wrote better than we knew," said Johnson.||2/11/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanMusic for Two Big Instruments||If the bassoon is rather unkindly known as the “clown” of the orchestra, what does that make the poor tuba? Just say “tuba” to someone, and they turn into a mime – at least that was the experience of American composer Alex Shapiro when she mentioned that she was writing a new work for tuba and piano. “The response was usually one of surprised and barely muffled laughter,” said Shapiro. “The exclamation ‘Tuba, eh? What a funny instrument!’ was often accompanied by exaggerated hand and mouth gestures that somewhat resembled a trout attempting to inflate a balloon.” Shapiro wanted to show how nimble and lyrical a tuba could be. She gave her finished piece – for tuba and piano -- a punning title: “Music for Two Big Instruments.” And that’s spelled “T-W-O” -- not “T-O-O,” folks! The new work was commissioned by Norman Pearson, Principal tubist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who premiered the work with wife, pianist Cynthia Bauhof-Williams, on today’s date in 2001 at Alfred Newman Hall on the campus of University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Grateful tubists have taken up Shapiro’s piece since then, and this West Coast commission’s first recording was made by New York Philharmonic Principal tubist Alan Baer, so one could say – with a bit of a stretch – “Music for Two Big Instruments” has been a coast to coast success!||2/10/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanHanson's "Merry Mount" at the Met||On today's date in 1934, the audience at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City demanded—and got—50 curtain calls for the cast and conductor of the new opera that had just received its premiere staged performance. The opera was "Merry Mount," based on a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story set in a Puritan colony in 17th century New England. The music was by the American composer Howard Hanson. The performers for Met Opera's premiere included the great American baritone Lawrence Tibbett as the Puritan preacher Wrestling Bradford, sorely tempted by the Swedish soprano Gösta Ljungberg in the role of Lady Marigold Sandys, his VERY unwilling leading lady. Despite its setting in Puritan New England, Hanson's opera included plenty of the lurid sex and violence that fuels the all the best Romantic opera plots, and the score was in Hanson's most winning Neo-Romantic style, with rich choral and orchestral writing, capped by a fiery conflagration as a grand finale. What more could an opera audience want? Strangely enough, despite its tremendous first-night success, "Merry Mount" has seldom—if ever—been staged since 1934. To celebrate the centenary of Hanson's birth in 1996, the Seattle Symphony presented "Merry Mount" in a concert performance conducted by Gerard Schwarz.||2/9/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanMozart starts keeping track||On today's date in 1784, in the city of Vienna, Wolfgang Mozart finished one bit of work and started another—which he would continue until the end of his life. After Mozart put the finishing touches to his Piano Concerto No. 14 in E flat, he entered this work as the first item in a ledger, which he titled, "A List of all my works from the month of February, 1784 to the month of..." Mozart then left a blank space on his title page for the concluding month and wrote just the number "1" in the space left for the concluding year of his catalog—with the reasonable expectation that he would live long enough to see the turn of the new century. He then signed his title page: "Wolfgang Amadé Mozart by my own hand." On the catalog's unruled left-hand pages Mozart wrote the date and description of his subsequent works, and occasionally, in the case of his operas and vocal pieces, the names of the singers who premiered them. The right-hand side of the page was lined with music staves, and here Mozart would write the opening measure of each piece. The very last entry in Mozart's ledger book is dated November 15, 1791, just one month before his death. This final entry notes the completion of a cantata written for Vienna's "New-Crowned Hope" Masonic Lodge.||2/8/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanVirgil Thomson and Wallace Stevens in Hartford||On this day in 1934, an excited crowd of locals and visitors had gathered in Hartford, Connecticut, for the premiere performance of a new opera entitled "Four Saints in Three Acts." The fact that the opera featured 16 saints, not 4, and was divided into 4 acts, not 3, was taken by the audience in stride, as the libretto was by the expatriate American writer, Gertrude Stein, notorious for her surreal poetry and prose. The music, performed by players from the Philadelphia Orchestra and sung by an all-black cast, was by the 37-year old American composer, Virgil Thomson, who matched Stein's surreal sentences with witty musical allusions to hymn tunes and parodies of solemn, resolutely tonal music. Among the locals in attendance was the full-time insurance executive and part-time poet, Wallace Stevens, who called the new opera (quote): "An elaborate bit of perversity in every respect: text, settings, choreography, [but] Most agreeable musically… If one excludes aesthetic self-consciousness, the opera immediately becomes a delicate and joyous work all around." The opera was a smashing success, and soon opened on Broadway, where everyone from Toscanini and Gershwin to Dorothy Parker and the Rockefellers paid a whopping $3.30 for the best seats—a lot of money during one of the worst winters of the Great Depression.||2/7/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanHoward Hanson's "Laude"||On today's date in 1975, "Laude," a new work for symphonic winds by American composer Howard Hanson received its premiere performance in Berkeley, California, by the California State University Long Beach Band conducted by Larry Curtis. The new work was a commission from the College Band Directors National Association. The notes supplied for the occasion by the 78-year-old composer were unusually eloquent and reflective: "As one comes toward the end of a long life," wrote Hanson, "one realizes how many influences go back to early childhood. In my musical and religious life the greatest was, undoubtedly, the chorales which I heard as a young boy growing up in Wahoo, Nebraska… 'Laude' [is] based on a chorale of praise… I took my cue from the 150th Psalm: 'Praise Him with the sound of the Trumpet, With Psaltery and harp, With timbrel and dance, With string instruments and organs, Praise Him upon the loud cymbals, the high-sounding cymbals, Let everything that has breath praise the Lord'… when the chorale melody appears, working up a crescendo which becomes, I hope, a veritable avalanche of sound, with, literally, 'everything that has breath' praising the Lord." An ardent champion of American classical music, Howard Hanson taught for some 40 years at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and once estimated that over 2000 works by more than 500 American composers were premiered during his tenure.||2/6/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanStephen Paulus and the Commissioning Club||For most of the 18th and 19th centuries, commissioning new musical works was the exclusive prerogative of the Church, royalty, and the wealthy nobility. More recently, Foundations and big corporations have gotten into the act. But even today, individuals can make a difference. In 1991, six couples in Minneapolis and St. Paul decided to form a Commissioning Club, modeled along the lines of an Investment Club, to spark the creation of new works in a variety of genres and promote the work of composers they admired. On today's date in 1996, one of their commissions, the "Dramatic Suite" by American composer Stephen Paulus was premiered by flutist Ransom Wilson and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. It was played first in Minnesota, and subsequently at Lincoln Center in New York City. Later that same year, the Club arranged for another Paulus commission: a new Christmas Carol, titled "Pilgrim Jesus," that was premiered on the BBC radio broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College, Cambridge. That 1996 broadcast, heard by millions of radio listeners worldwide, marked the first time that an American composer had been chosen to contribute a new carol for that famous Christmas Eve service—not a bad return for the Commissioning Club's investment!||2/5/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanVerdi's "Otello" premieres||One of the greatest of all Italian operas had its first performance on this day in 1887. "Otello," by Giuseppe Verdi, was a musical version of Shakespeare's tragedy, "Othello." The opera was written when Verdi was in his 70s, years after he had supposedly retired from a long and successful career as Italy's most famous opera composer. It was one of the greatest triumphs of Verdi's career. The premiere took place at La Scala, Milan, with famous singers in the lead roles, and the cream of international society and the music world in the audience. Even the orchestra was distinguished: among the cellists was a young fellow named Arturo Toscanini, who would later become one of the world's most famous conductors. Two of the violinists had the last name of Barbirolli—they were the father and grandfather of another famous conductor-to-be, Sir John Barbirolli. Both Toscanini and Barbirolli would eventually make classic recordings of Verdi's "Otello." And speaking of recordings, in the early years of the 20th century, the Italian tenor Francesco Tamago, who created the role of Otello, and the French baritone Victor Maurel, who created the role of Iago, both recorded acoustical phonograph excerpts from Verdi's "Otello"—the technological marvel of the 20th century—preserving, belatedly, a sonic souvenir of a 19th century Verdi premiere.||2/4/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanThe passing of Iannis Xenakis||Many 20th century composers were scarred by the violence and turmoil of their times—but none quite so literally as the Greek composer, engineer, and architect Iannis Xenakis, who died at the age of 78 on today's date in the year 2001. In the early 1940s, Xenakis was a member of the Communist resistance in Greece, fighting first the German occupation, then, as the war ended, the British. In 1945, when Xenakis was 23, his face was horribly disfigured by a shell fragment fired by a British tank, resulting in the loss of one of his eyes. Two years later he was forced to flee to Paris. As he himself laconically put it: "In Greece, the Resistance lost, so I left. In France, the Resistance won." Xenakis wanted to write music, but earned his living as an architect and engineer in Paris at Le Courbusier's studio. Xenakis designed and was involved in major architectural projects for Le Courbusier, including the famous Philips pavilion at the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels. As a composer, Xenakis wrote highly original music that was meticulously ordered according to mathematical and scientific principles, but sounded intensely emotional, almost primeval. His music might even be described as "Pre-Socratic," as Xenakis seemed to echo the theories of the early Greek thinker Pythagoras, who saw a relationship between music, mathematics, and religion.||2/3/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanMichael Torke's "Ash"||The American composer Michael Torke was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1961. In the 1980s, while still a 20-something composition student at Yale, Torke wrote two orchestral works with playful, "colorful" titles: "Ecstatic Orange" and "The Yellow Pages." Both proved successful, and a string of other works with color-themed titles followed, such as "Bright Blue Music" and "Green." All these pieces might be described as "post-minimalist," meaning they employed the repetitive musical structures and patterns of Torke's slightly-older "minimalist" contemporaries Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams, but also added something new. That "something new" might be due to Torke's upbeat Midwestern personality and his wide range of musical interests and curiosity. For example: what might happen, Torke wondered, if a 20th century minimalist mindset somehow merged with the sound-world of an early 19th century Beethoven symphony? Well, on today's date in 1989, we all found out. That's when fellow composer John Adams led the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in the premiere performance of a new Torke work entitled "Ash." Presented originally as a purely orchestral work, "Ash" also serves a successful ballet score. Its punchy, energetic forward motion sounds like Beethoven, but the shifting structural patterns are pure Torke. A critic for the Los Angeles Times described "Ash" as being "an ingenious homage to Beethoven, a quarter hour of trickily juxtaposed shards of melody, rhythm and (mostly) two-chord fragments, a gallop in search of a bolero."||2/2/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanHaydn's "real" Miracle Symphony||On today's date in 1795, Haydn was in England and about to conduct one of his new symphonies at The King's Theater in London. An early biographer recounts what happened next: "When Haydn entered to conduct the symphony, the curious audience left their seats and crowded towards the orchestra the better to see the famous Haydn. The seats in the middle of the floor were thus empty, and hardly anyone was there when the theater's great chandelier crashed down and broke into bits, throwing the numerous gathering into great consternation. As soon as the first moment of fright was over and those who had pressed forward could think of the danger they had luckily escaped and find words to express it, several persons uttered the state of their feelings with loud cries of 'Miracle!' 'Miracle.'" And thus, one of Haydn's symphonies, his symphony No. 96 in D Major, came to be called "The Miracle" Symphony. It's a nice story, but it actually occurred just before the first performance of Haydn's Symphony No. 102 in B-flat. Somehow or another the nickname got stuck to one of Haydn's earlier London Symphonies, and simply refused to become "unstuck." In his book, "The Symphony: A Listener's Guide," musicologist Michael Steinberg suggests an elegant solution: He still lists Haydn's Symphony No. 96 as "The Miracle" but give the Symphony No. 102 a new nick-name: "The REAL Miracle."||2/1/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanBrahms in New York||On today's date in 1862, while President Lincoln was fretting over General McClellan's unwillingness to confront Secessionist rebels, New York concert-goers could find some relief from Civil War headlines by attending a New York Philharmonic concert at Irving Hall. Conductor Carl Bergman had programmed some brand-new music by a Hamburg composer named Brahms, whose Serenade No. 2 in A Major received its American premiere at their February 1st concert—a concert that took place almost 2 years to the day after the Serenade's world premiere in Hamburg in 1860. Give the New York Philharmonic some credit for daring programming. After all, it would be another year before the same Serenade would be performed in Vienna. Moreover, in 1863, during the Vienna Philharmonic's final rehearsal of this "difficult" new music by a composer nobody there had ever heard of, open mutiny broke out. The first clarinetist stood up and declared that the music was too darn hard and the orchestra simply refused to play it. Conductor Otto Dessoff, who had programmed the Brahms, turned white with anger, laid down his baton, and resigned on the spot, joined by the Vienna Philharmonic's concertmaster and principal flutist. Alarmed at the threatened disintegration of their orchestra, the Viennese rebels capitulated; and the performance of Brahms' Serenade No. 2 took place as scheduled and was, to the mutineers' chagrined astonishment, a tremendous success.||1/31/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||Clean"Old Churches" by Michael Colgrass||In the rarified world of contemporary music, composers are expected to “challenge” performers—to push the envelope of instrumental technique and difficulty. But in the fall of 1999, it was the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Michael Colgrass himself who was challenged: He was commissioned by the American Composers Forum to write a piece for their BandQuest series, intended to provide high-quality new music for young performers. Specifically, Colgrass was asked to write for the Winona Drive Senior School Band of Toronto. Far from professional musicians, some of these were kids just learning to play their instruments. Their conductor—no jet-setting superstar—was the hard-working Louis Papachristos, who, in addition to leading 3 bands, also coached boy’s and girls’ basketball. Colgrass rose to the challenge, and the resulting work, “Old Churches,” was premiered on this date in 2000. Colgrass employed elements of Gregorian chant to evoke an ancient monastery, and easy graphic notation to introduce students to improvisation and involve them in the compositional process itself. “Keeping the music simple was a challenge,” says Colgrass, “but it struck me that Mozart and Beethoven wrote music for amateurs without ‘dumbing down’… am I a good enough composer to write a simple theme that can be genuinely exciting or moving, the way they did?” As a result of the experience, Colgrass suggests that writing for middle school bands should be a required project in university composition programs—as training for composers. “Writing for eighth grade band is like walking in four-pound shoes, says Colgrass, “if you can move gracefully with that weight on your feet, you'll fly when you put on the four-ounce runners.”||1/30/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanHerbert L. Clarke||Today a salute to a remarkable American composer and performer—the cornet virtuoso Herbert Lincoln Clarke. Clarke was born in Wolburn, Massachusetts, on September 12, 1867, into a peripatetic musical family. He began to play his brother’s cornet and was soon earning fifty cents a night playing in a restaurant band. At age 19, Clarke won first prize at a cornet competition in Indiana, and, in 1893, after many years on the road, Clarke got the call from John Philip Sousa to join his illustrious organization as its star soloist, a position he held for over 20 years. From 1900 on, Clarke began to compose and make recordings of his own music. In 1904, while on a return voyage from England with the Sousa Band, Clarke completed one of his best-known pieces, a work originally titled “Valse Brilliante”—but while waiting to dock in New York, at Sousa’s suggestion Clarke changed the title to “Sounds from the Hudson.” In 1923, Clarke accepted an offer to direct the Municipal Band of Long Beach, California, performing a new work at his debut concert there, entitled—appropriately enough—“Long Beach is Calling!” Herbert L. Clarke died in California on today’s date in 1945. But the much-traveled composer and performer was buried on the opposite coast—in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.—near the grave of his lifelong friend, John Philip Sousa.||1/29/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanJohn Williams in the concert hall||The American composer John Williams has written dozens of classic film scores, providing the music you hear when ET calls home, or Indiana Jones runs for his life, inches ahead of that huge boulder that threatens to burst out of the movie screen and land right in our laps. Writing for the movies means working fast AND working hard. The music has to meet firm production deadlines and fit specific cinematic requests. Despite the frantic pace, Williams somehow managed to find the time to lead the Boston Pops orchestra for many years, and even compose a substantial body of work for the concert hall as well as for the silver screen. On today’s date in 1981, Leonard Slatkin conducted the St. Louis Symphony in the premiere performance of this Violin Concerto by John Williams. Williams began work on this concerto in 1974, and completed it in 1976, dedicating it to the memory of his late wife, an actress and singer. Considering the quantity and quality of modern violin concertos by master composers like Walton, Bartok and Stravinsky, says Williams, it was a bit daunting to tackle one himself, but he couldn’t resist the challenge... and then he went on to write concertos for flute, tuba, clarinet, bassoon, cello, trumpet and horn! When does this guy find time to sleep?||1/28/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanSir John Tavener||Late in 2013, the musical world was gearing up to celebrate the 70th birthday of British composer John Tavener, but sadly he died in November of that year, so his 70th birthday, which fell on today’s date in 2014, became a memorial tribute instead. Tavener had suffered from ill health throughout his life, including a stroke in his thirties, heart surgery and the removal of a tumor in his forties, and two subsequent heart attacks. In his early twenties, Tavener became famous in 1968 with his avant-garde cantata entitled "The Whale," based loosely on the Old Testament story of Jonah, a work that caught the attention of one of The Beatles, and so an LP recording of the work was made and released on The Beatles' own Apple label. Tavener converted to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977, and his music became increasingly spiritual in nature. Millions who watched TV coverage of the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997, were deeply moved by his "Song for Athene," which was performed to telling effect as Diana's casket left Westminster Abbey. Taverner was knighted in 2000, becoming Sir John Tavener. This music, from his "Ikon of Eros" was commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra and violinist Jorja Fleezanis on the occasion of the Orchestra's Centennial, and premiered in November of 2003 at St. Paul's Cathedral—the one in St. Paul, Minnesota, that is, not the one in London—and Tavener came to Minnesota for the event.||1/27/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanRorem's concerto for the "English" Horn||“English Horn” is an odd name for an instrument—for starters, it’s not English, and, it’s not a brass instrument, like the French horn. The English horn is, in fact, a double reed instrument, a lower-voiced cousin of the oboe. The “English” part of its name is probably a corruption of “angle,” since it has a bend to its shape. Until late in the 20th century, its primary role was to add a darker tone color to the reed section of the orchestra, and performers who played the English horn had precious few solo concertos written to showcase their dusky-voiced instrument. One performer, Thomas Stacy, decided to do something about that. He’s commissioned and premiered dozens of new works for his instrument. This is one of them —a concerto by the American composer Ned Rorem that Stacy premiered on today’s date in 1994 with the New York Philharmonic. Ned Rorem is perhaps best-known as a composer of art songs, but has also composed successful orchestral and chamber works. “Why do I write music?” asks Rorem—“because I want to hear it. It’s as simple as that. My sole aim in writing the Concerto for English Horn was to exploit that instrument’s special luster and pliability… to make the sound gleam through a wash of brass and silver, catgut and steel.”||1/26/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanPaine's Symphony No. 1||Today’s date marks an important anniversary in the history of the American symphony. On January 26, 1876, the Symphony No. 1 in c minor of John Knowles Paine was premiered in Boston. This was the first American symphony to be generally acknowledged by the musical community here and abroad as being on a par with the symphonies of the great European composers. American musical life in the 19th century was heavily influenced by German models—and Paine’s Symphony No. 1 takes its key and much of its musical style from Beethoven’s Fifth. The contemporary American composer and conductor Gunther Schuller once quipped that Paine’s First was “the best Beethoven symphony that Beethoven didn’t write himself.” Even so, Paine’s 1876 Symphony is a landmark in American musical history, as was one of Paine’s earlier works—a grandiose Mass in D Major for vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra, which was premiered in Berlin in 1867, and successfully revived by Gunther Schuller in Boston in 1972. Paine is remembered for other reasons as well: He founded the music department at Harvard and became the mentor for a new generation of native composers. He was also one of the founders of the American Guild of Organists, and wrote an influential textbook titled, “The History of Music to the Death of Schubert,” which was published one year after Paine’s death in 1906.||1/25/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
||CleanPaul Schoenfield's "Cafe Music"||Many a political work of art has had its origin in a smoke-filled room, but not all that many piano trios can claim such a venue for their inspiration. On today’s date in 1987, composer and pianist Paul Schoenfield joined a violinist and cellist from Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for the premiere performance of a new piano trio the orchestra had commissioned, a work Schoenfield eventually titled “Café Music.” Here’s how Schoenfield explains it: “The idea came to me in 1985 after sitting in one night for the pianist at Murray’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge in Minneapolis. Murray’s employed a house trio which played entertaining dinner music in a wide variety of styles. My intention was to write a kind of high-class dinner music—music which could be played at a restaurant, but might also (just barely) find its way into a concert hall. The work draws on the types of music played at Murray’s: early 20th century American, Viennese, light classical, gypsy, and Broadway style are all represented.” Much to Schoenfield’s surprise, “Cafe Music” became a concert hall hit, performed and recorded by many classical chamber groups. For his part, Schoenfield confesses two lasting memories of that night he filled in at Murray’s: first, a realization of what hard work it was to play dinner music for hours on end, and, second—in the days before smoke-free restaurants—how his clothes smelled of cigars and cigarettes for days afterwards!||1/24/2017||Free||View in iTunes|
As a music student in college and a young composer, I find this podcast to be very informative. If you enjoy this podcast, you should check out Naxos' Classical Music Spotlight Podcast as it goes more in depth (average length of 20 minutes).
At last, from my email to my iPod
I have enjoyed this as an email for a long time. It's good to see it as a podcast. As always, I wish the music portion would be longer.
This is a wonderful snippit. I always enjoy it. I also wish the music portion was longer. Maybe it's just long (short?) enough for many people. I have followed through on many of the works mentioned.