Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Writing about music and poetry: Samuel Barber and Robert Lowell

Here's my latest review for Cleveland Classical, about Holst's Planets and Barber's beautiful Cello Concerto.  As you'll see, I keep thinking of ways to link music and poetry -- here, the 1946 Cello Concerto kept reminding me of the great Robert Lowell, whose book Lord Weary's Castle came out in that year as well. These American artists, trying to deal with World War II, with the mid century angst (it's not just the end of the century that matters), writing about torment and yet also trying to put it into a formal relationship, to write with meter and sometimes rhyme, like Barber, writing melodies and yet pushing them beyond what (say) Holst might have thought of doing, pushing beyond towards doubt and anxieties.

Here's an excerpt from Lowell's Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket -- notice how it's still formally exact -- meter and rhyme -- and yet how dark it is about his own New England history, and the history of the whalers. Not pleasant, and yet ... unmistakably lyrical. That "flail" in the fourth line could have been from one of the early preachers of New England, for it's a biblical image -- and also one from 19th century New England farming.

The bones cry for the blood of the white whale, 
the fat flukes arch and whack about its ears,
the death-lance churns into the sanctuary, tears 
the gun-blue swingle, heaving like a flail, 
and hacks the coiling life out: it works and drags 
and rips the sperm-whale's midriff into rags,
gobbets of blubber spill to wind and weather.
Here is the second movement from the Barber concerto, played by Raya Garbousova, who premiered it. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Amherst Early Music

I'm with Sue at Amherst Early Music Festival, which is not in Amherst, Mass., where it originated, but in New London, Connecticut. The weather is as beastly hot as I guess it is everywhere except San Francisco this summer. But the trees grow big and rich, Long Island Sound is blue and lovely (and produces a breeze), and the nubbly surface of the Connecticut topography is fascinating to one (like me) who normally lives at the edge of the Great Plains where a little dip and rise in the road is a major event.

Here are some of the trees, on the campus of Connecticut College. 
I went walking this morning at 6:30 along the "Old Norwich Road," on the west side of campus. 
The road is, according to the sign, the second oldest "turnpike" in the USA. Quieter than the Ohio Turnpike! 

The first day is mostly over: four classes in which I am singing and playing recorder. I'll try to get some pictures of classes for tomorrow. Lots of learning!

A meta-note: I am blogging here as an experiment in various blogging platforms and possibilities, with an eye to what my students might do. I'm interested in the pedagogy of digital multi-media: that is, how to encourage extending the analysis that I normally restrict to paper-writing (one medium, essentially) to include visuals, audio, video, drawings, maps, etc. This one is produced with Blogspot, a pretty standard blogging platform. I'm also wondering what other ways of producing text, image, etc, in combination, would be like. Tumblir, maybe?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Summer Music

I'm spending this week as a student (studying recorder playing) at Oberlin's Baroque Performance Institute, founded in the 1970s and responsible for producing (or at least stimulating) many of the great early music performers of the subsequent four decades.
This year: "In the valley of the Danube" -- the Austrians who preceded Haydn and Mozart. I'm working on Telemann, though, even though he's not a Danubian composer!

One of the great things about BPI is that they welcome old amateurs like me and put us in ensembles with excellent young players. Keeps me going, for sure.

On Sunday, after auditioning for my ensemble placement, I went to Cleveland for the ChamberFest concert: now in its second year, a pretty fabulous collection of young musicians from around the country. It's organized by Cleveland Orchestra principal clarinetist Franklin Cohen and his daughter Diana, concertmaster at Calgary.

Here's my review of that concert at ClevelandClassical.

Now back to practicing!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Leaving Paradise

Massaccio, The Expulsion
I wrote the poem below to keep pace with my students in my Milton course, who were creating poems, paintings, and pieces of music based on/working off their reading of Milton.

It's my way of putting a new spin on the ending of Paradise Lost (the last four lines of which are quoted as the epigraph).

It wasn't till after the course ended, on Sunday, that I realized it was not just about Adam and Eve leaving Paradise, it was also about me leaving this course on Paradise Lost and Milton.

Adam and Eve Walk Out of Paradise
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.
-- Milton, Paradise Lost

We left that evening, late, on foot.
The sun had set, but there was light
enough to see our way. We put
our faces east, to the coming night.

Looking back west, we saw the path
was guarded: angels watched us leave.
Who had arranged for all that wrath?
And why? To reinforce our grief?

To our surprise, the apple trees
had burst in bloom like white-hot balls
of flame against the darkening sky.
Some petals had begun to fall.

We had no clue of where to go,
but, really, we thought, how hard
could exile be? there was a road,
there were the trees, the earth, the stars.

We knew so little then, and yet,
the only things that mattered were
that we were there; that something lay ahead;
that nothing, then or now, was sure.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Admissions: Warning: spoilers and harsh critique

The supposedly 'feel-good' film Admissions (directed by Paul Weitz, with Tina Fey as Princeton admissions director Portia Nathan) seemed to me a gratuitous set of cruelties perpetrated on any woman unfortunate enough to be in camera's range. (Read on with spoilers...)

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Space and the Vespers of 1610

 This post is motivated by the spectacular Vespers performance by the Green Mountain Project, Jolie Greenleaf, artistic director, and Scott Metcalfe, music director. I heard them in Cambridge, Mass., but they also sang in New York City. Here is the New York Times review by CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIM.

Monteverdi apparently wrote his Vespers to get out of Mantua—some say, to get a job in Rome, some think in Venice.

He wanted some breathing room, literally: Mantua was unhealthy, surrounded by stagnant water, and becoming too provincial for Monteverdi. Working for the Duke, his primary musical space would have been the beautifully decorated but small assembly rooms in the duke's palaces.

So one might well imagine that space was on his mind as he thought about his musical portfolio.

What spaces might he have thought about? In Rome, surely, the Sistine Chapel. As the Papal chapel, that would not have been the right space for the Vespers, but Monteverdi included a more appropriate piece in his dossier publication, the Mass for six unaccompanied voices, in the conservative musical tradition favored by the Pope. Not as exciting as the Vespers  — or as flamboyant as Michelangelo's ceiling!— but safe and elegant.

And also in Rome, surely St. Peter's would have come to mind — vast, grand, not so much solemn as stirring. It would have been a great place for Monteverdi's newly theatrical music to resonate in.

But no job surfaced for Monteverdi in Rome. He did end up, though, in one of the greatest spaces of Italy for music: Saint Mark's in Venice. And for that acoustically and historically resonant space, the Vespers were a perfect job-application piece. The space, like the music, was versatile and complicated: capable of big gestures and intimacies alike.

Here is a clip of part of the Vespers, starting at the tenor solo, "Nigra Sum," performed in Saint Mark's (Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner). You can hear the wonderful reverb that supports the tenor and the theorbo. Added bonus: you can see some of the gorgeous mosaics. And notice one of the many ways Monteverdi has written space into the music: the tenor sings "Surge" -- "get up!"—on a repeated rising scale. Vertical space is right there in our ears!

More about this wonderful piece in another post!