Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Ojai Music Festival 2012: Northern Lights & Dark Shadows

Review by Rodney Punt

Tucked in its idyllic pastoral valley north of Los Angeles, the annual Ojai Music Festival has earned its well-deserved reputation for adventurous music in a laid-back setting -- a yin-yang suspension between stimulus and serenity. For its 66th edition this month, however, music director Leif Ove Andsnes and artistic director Tom Morris packed four days with seven of the longest concerts in memory, plus an overflowing slate of lectures, talks, films and events. Call it a sincere, if severe, case of ambition creep that put at risk the festival's delicate balance.

Concerts were dense and diverse, sometimes oddly matched; their moods could swing from seraphic to somber or visa versa. Nordic evocations, Austro-German Weltschmerz, Slavic and Hungarian folk influences and American iconoclasm were just some of the joy rides taken at the occasionally unfocused musical theme park that was Ojai’s Libbey Bowl this year.

Much admired as a pianist in these parts, Andsnes also founded and served for two decades as impresario of the Risør Festival of Chamber Music in his native Norway. He brought to his one-season Ojai visit an artistic cohort centered around the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra (NCO), under violinist/leader Terje Tønneson; it would reconfigure like a Lego set into smaller musical groups as needed. Other NCO-associated artists included Canadian-American pianist Marc-André Hamelin, Swedish clarinetist Martin Fröst, and two Dutch artists, mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn and conductor-composer Reinbert de Leeuw. Local talent included percussionist Steven Schick and soprano Lucy Shelton.

Northern Lights

Nordic works came from a smorgasbord of Scandinavian composers, one each from the Icelander Haflöi Hallgrímsson, Norwegian Eivind Buene, and Swede Anders Hillborg, and several from the Dane Bent Sørensen. (Finland, tellingly, was not represented.) Proceeding on a polar route north by northwest were three works by the Alaskan John Luther Adams, two of which kicked off the festival. 

Self-described as an environmental composer, Adams seeks in hypnotic percussive sounds to attune to nature’s music. His Inuksuit received its West Coast premiere in Libbey Park’s tree-studded grounds, conducted by Schick, with 48 percussion and piccolo players spread out amongst an enchanted standing audience. "Inuksuit" refers to the anthropomorphic stone markers used to guide the Inuit peoples on journeys across the vast sub-arctic tundra from Siberia to Greenland.

Two other works of Adams, the piano-percussion Red Arc/Blue Veil, opened the program at Libbey Bowl Thursday evening, its low rumble rising like flood waters to a peak and subsiding again into nothingness. The more somber Dark Waves was featured in the last concert in a version for two pianos and tape. While the memorability of this elemental music may be subject to a short half-life, it cannot be denied that its momentary engagement in the here and now is intense.

After the zeal of this environmental start, the festival’s tone shifted to melancholic, with Russian and Austro-German composers prominent. Works of angst-ridden romanticism and expressionism followed over the next two days.

Dark Shadows

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Six Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva are bitter, late in life settings of six poems with stark, even desiccated, piano accompaniments. They found Stotijn's voice subdued, and Andsnes, with little to offer her, struggling to support. Tsvetaeva’s lyrics are rueful or angry musings at personal attractions and public atrocities. The composer took them a step further into outright nihilism.

Marc-André Hamelin’s penetrating, introspective rendition of the Charles Ives Concord Sonata followed like an interloper. "Transcendentalism" was an otherwise absent theme in this year’s programming. (Jeremy Denk, an Ives specialist who gave the rarely performed first piano sonata an outing here in 2009 and who returns as music director in 2014, would be the more logical one to take up the Concord, considered by many to be Ives' greatest work. Why it was given here this year remains a mystery.)

Friday early evening’s featured work, one of the more talked about in the festival, was Reinbert de Leeuw’s Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, a remix of Romantic song-cycles, taking its name from the first line of Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe, and using also Franz Schubert’s Winterreise and other songs. I reviewed it separately earlier.

Andsnes was pianist and Stotijn the singer on Friday’s late-night survey of music based on lullabies and memorials, joined occasionally by members of the NCO. Three piano lullabies by Danish composer Bent Sørensen, pieces he composed for his own children, reminded that Andsnes is a new father. Yet their context here focused more on eternal separations than childhood slumbers. Three larger works that were paired up with the lullabies one-by-one began with Mahler’s Rückert Lieder, likewise reflections on life’s tenuous hold. Busoni’s gentle Berceuse élégiaque and Alfred Schnittke’s meltingly lovely Piano Quintet were both tributes to their respective composers’ mothers. As if to drive home that all births are death sentences, the lullabies preceded each work without interruption. Andsnes, on piano in the lullabies, joined by Stotijn in the Mahler, applied delicacy and restraint, as did the NCO in the Busoni and Schnittke works, but the grim narrative implications of each of the three couplings could not go unnoticed.

In similar fashion, Saturday morning’s splintered couplings of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with Berg’s Four Pieces for clarinet and piano continued the Ojai Festival’s fanciful contrivance of slicing and pairing unrelated works. (Last year it was Webern and Crumb subjected to the same treatment.) The four epigrammatic Berg pieces are more suggestive than revealing. Tucked inside the five Wagner lieder bursting with amatory desire, they serve as discreet reflections on long-ago incidents of a love affair.

The Wesendonck Lieder were, in part, a study for Tristan und Isolde, and their poems by Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of Wagner's friend and patron, chronicle the dangerous romantic attachment the two shared at the time of the work's composition. Originally for piano and voice, the five songs were arranged for chamber orchestra by Andreas Tarkmann. Stotijn's voice opened up during the course of the cycle and she and the NCO performed the songs with both intensity and tenderness.

Eivind Buene’s string orchestra piece, Langsam und Schmachtend, taking its title from Wagner’s “slow and languishing” markings for the Tristan prelude, and incorporating themes from the opera, served as an apt overture at the beginning of the combined sets.

Serving as coda, Berg’s Four Songs Op. 2 followed, expanding on the dream-like lieder with melting chromatic harmonies. Joined by the sensitive piano of Marc-André Hamelin, Stotijn, with her voice in full bloom at this point, imbued them with warmth and conviction -- her finest outing at Ojai.

In another program anomaly, at the end of this Romantic Liebesschmerz, Andsnes provided a floating, aristocratically poised performance of Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata. Placed last in the program, this optimistic icon of the Classical Enlightenment negated the mood of neurotic love-sickness so convincingly nurtured before, almost declaring it a passing trifle of no serious concern.

Nordic Landscapes, Folksong and Jazz, and a Beguiling Clarinet

With Saturday evening’s program, the mood of the festival began to lighten. Haflidi Hallgrímsson’s Peomi was a lexicon of string techniques (the program had wrongly identified it with wind parts) that set an intriguing dialogue between violinists Per Kristian Skalstad and Tørje Tønnesen, with string ensemble support.

Sørensen’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (“La Mattina”), much anticipated in its American premiere, proved less convincing. Described by its soloist Andsnes as a “dreamlike landscape”, its portentous opening Bach chorale lead to colorations, glissandi, and clusters from low brass to high strings to claves (wood sticks that sound like castanets) in alternatingly lugubrious, luminescent, and misterioso effects, but with motivational connections that lacked a discernable architectural structure on first hearing.

Three oddly matched pieces with the unifying thread of Martin Fröst’s brilliant clarinet work followed. The most attention grabbing of the weekend was Anders Hillborg’s Peacock Tales for solo clarinet and tape, a spoof on vanity (in a drastic reduction from its original concerto with orchestra form), which the technically dazzling Fröst served up in dance gestures wearing a satyr mask and preening like a peacock.

Two other contributions, Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio and György Kurtág’s fairy-tale inspired Hommage à Robert Schumann (both with a sympathetic Andsnes on piano and Antoine Tamestit on viola) provided additional whimsy, with gorgeous clarinet and viola playing, although at this point Fröst’s bobbing and weaving next to his more placid colleagues began to look like grandstanding.

Sunday morning’s concert provided two more virtuoso outings from the indefatigable Fröst, both with folk and jazz infusions. Hungarian folksong and American jazz techniques blended wonderfully in Béla Bartók’s Contrasts, with Øyvind Bjorä’s spicy violin and Hamelin’s spiky piano adding their touches to Fröst’s paprika.

Aaron Copland’s jazz-infiltrated Concerto for Clarinet, Strings, Harp and Piano with the NCO and Hamelin took as its spice the folk music of Brazil, sending the audience to lunch and Fröst off to his next engagement, a welcome if rambunctious Ojai guest. Christianne Stotijn’s festival farewell came in a selection of William Bolcom’s Cabaret Songs, letting her hair down with their witty texts, not always idiomatically sung, but crowd-pleasers after the heavy fare that preceded them.

Sunday evening’s concert concluded with the NCO’s fine performance of Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane and a particularly vigorous account of John Adams’ famous Shaker Loops. Credit De Leeuw’s conducting for bringing out the best in the NCO, as he had in earlier performances, including his own work.

Closing the festival was the two-piano version of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps with insightful piano colorations, particularly from Hamelin on higher register duties, with Andsnes providing a steady rhythm on the lower-range part. It was a penetrating structural revelation of Stravinsky’s singular masterpiece. Having recently heard a fine one-piano-four-hand version of this piece at Jacaranda’s Music at the Edge in Santa Monica, I can report that this two-piano version, with more expansion for each pianist, allowed for more emphasis on colorings, but the four-hand version with two performers in the same space, enabled more propulsion.

Problematic Janáček

String quartets arranged for string orchestras are occasionally enlightening as comparisons with regular symphonic string writing. The late Beethoven quartets performed by string orchestras sound more advanced in many ways than his symphonies. But the two Leoš Janáček quartets, featured in string orchestra versions earlier in the festival, were ill served in both the decision to program them thus-arranged and in their haphazard, often ill-tuned performances.

The two works have programmatic narratives that rely on exact scoring and the sound of one instrument per part. The String Quartet No. 2 (“Intimate Letters”) chronicles Janáček’s infatuation with a younger woman. The String Quartet No. 1 (“Kreutzer Sonata”) was based on the eponymous novella of Leo Tolstoy, a tragic love story. They contain effects -- jagged lines, sul ponticello passages, nervous tremolos and characterizations of single characters – that are not appropriate in multiplicity. In both subject matter and sonics, the intended edginess was softened by a mushy orchestral sheen. Hearing these plush versions at Ojai was akin to public-sponsored voyeurism onto a private matter.

While the two Janáček quartets proved poor vehicles to employ the idle strings of the NCO when their woodwind counterparts were involved in other assignments, the strings did redeem themselves with a thoroughly polished version of Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite, one of the Norwegian composer’s more carefully crafted works, if not his most melodically inspired. Performed from memory and with most of its stringed musicians standing, the performance gave welcome opportunity for this ensemble to prove its considerable mettle and cohesion.

By the end of the concert, the NCO strings were ready for a little fun and let their collective hair down with a twirling contrabass dance that mimicked the antics of just-departed clarinetist Martin Fröst.

Let’s Go to the Movies

Three documentaries of musical artists in the festival enhanced the audience's perspectives. Pictures Reframed, following the multimedia collaboration of the pianist Andsnes and video artist Robin Rhode, was brilliant up to and including Andsnes’ magisterial piano version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in a backdrop of enveloping visuals, climaxing with the drowning of a piano in a storm-tossed sea. Matchstick Man confirmed that, while the music of Hungarian composer György Kurtág is great, his inarticulate explanations of it are not so great. Sometimes it's better to preserve a master's mystery. Strange and Sacred Noise, documenting composer John Luther Adams’ wilderness performance of relentlessly hammering percussionists in the expanse of the Arctic tundra was a terrifyingly loud indulgence at the expense of the Arctic wildlife.


This year's the festival was extravagantly full. It raised a question not often asked in lean times: Can we have too much of a good thing? No one could complain they didn't get their money's worth, yet the programs sometimes challenged meaningful absorption: density nearly smothered intensity.

The festival needs spaces between its programs and compatibility of emotional tone within them to allow one later to cleanse the mind, breathe in serenity and recharge the desire for more music. Silences and continuities, along with its sounds, are what make Ojai a special place.


As with last year, the Ojai Music Festival took much of this program north to U.C. Berkeley's "Cal Performances" series shortly after the Ojai residency was completed.


PROGRAM Link to Ojai Music Festival 2012

Photos by Timothy Norris are used by permission of the Ojai Music Festival. From top to bottom: NCO and Martin Fröst in Copland at Libbey Bowl, two aspects - piccolo and drums - of the Inuksuit performance, Leif Ove Andsnes in a Sørensen lullaby, Christianne Stotijn and Marc-André Hamelin in Berg songs, Fröst in Peacock Tales, NCO players clowning at end of concert.

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Rodney Punt can be contacted at: [email protected]

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Reinbert de Leeuw’s Im wunderschönen Monat Mai

Revisionist Liebesschmerz at Ojai Music Festival

Review by Rodney Punt

The most talked about work of this month's 66th annual Ojai Music Festival was Reinbert de Leeuw’s Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, a remix of early Romantic song-cycles, using excerpts from Franz Schubert’s Winterreise and songs with Rellstab and Goethe texts, and excerpts (and opening line as title) from Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe . De Leeuw’s challenge, described by program annotator Chris Haley, was “How to capture the flood of sentiment and Weltschmerz that swept over Europe in the early decades of the 19th century, this Byronic age of the solitary wanderer? That age is gone - its feel and texture, its fashions, mores and habits of speech.”

The Dutch composer’s approach was to reimagine and orchestrate the songs in the style of early 20th century cabaret, capturing the more worldly, even cynical outlook of an era that experienced the collapse of civil order and social cohesion under the doomed Weimar Republic. De Leeuw patterned his cycle after Arnold Schoenberg’s theatrical melodrama, Pierrot Lunaire, using the same chamber music ensemble and 21-song format. He divided his songs into three sets of seven, with each a kind of theatrical act, focusing on love, rejection, and resignation. His actor-singer emotes in Schoenbergian Sprechstimme -- a half-spoken, half-sung hybrid that emphasizes expressivity over tonal purity. The style recalls the gravel-throated theatricality of a singer like Lotte Lenya.

In an earlier conversation with Ojai Talks director Ara Guzelimian, De Leeuw justified his new cycle as liberating the truth of the texts from the prettiness of their accustomed singing and recital etiquette -- with a singer’s folded hands and prim manner -- and infusing them with more rawness and danger. It was to be a migration closer to the popular songs people might hear on the streets rather than in the concert hall. An intriguing premise. Inappropriate, however, to air as a foil a video of just-deceased Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the singer who did more than any other in our time to resurrect, shake off the fustiness and widen interest in the lied. Given the amount of daringly staged original versions of Winterreise (two recent gritty ones at the Long Beach Opera) and its cutting edge recital performances by artists of the stature of Ian Bostridge at UCLA two years ago, the assertion that today's lieder recitals have Margaret Dumont-like singers posed in grand hauteur seemed something of a straw dog.

Expectations of a lieder recital shake-up at the later performance were high, but the resulting work, while intriguing and certainly worth the attempt, was a bit of a letdown. Hearing these already familiar songs in other than lieder contexts is hardly novel; one encounters Schubert’s Ständchen in bowdlerized versions from shopping malls to office elevators. The original version of Der Erlkönig, properly sung and played, is scarier than anything done to it in De Leeuw’s set. Also, using so many of the most familiar Schubert and Schumann tunes, charged as they are with vivid prior associations, infuses De Leeuw's piece with the scent of pastiche.

To be sure, De Leeuw, who conducted the performance of his work, is a master orchestrator. He found just the right instrumental mix to capture and color the psychology of each song, the tunes of which resided not so much with the singer as in the chamber ensemble. Motivic variations, when the composer occasionally let his fancy fly, could achieve telling development. And the members of the NCO, particularly its winds, did a bang-up job with what they were given. The spinning wheel in Gretchen am Spinnrade appeared to come off its psychological axle in disturbing ways. In Ich grolle nicht, perhaps the most haunting of the treatments, the pretense of the non-complaining protagonist was soon exposed as totally unhinged anger.

With many of the songs orchestrated but not much developed, the heavy lifting of interpretation fell to the singer-speaker. In this regard the performance did not fully achieve its potential. The originally scheduled Barbara Sukowa -- the unique theater personality who helped create and who premiered the work -- was forced to cancel just two weeks before its performance due to a family illness. Substituting for her was veteran soprano Lucy Shelton, who three years ago gave a whopper of a Pierrot lunaire in a staged version at Ojai with the group ‘eighth blackbird’.

On this occasion, game as she was to take on the role, Shelton's voice was not at its freshest and her lovesick protagonist did not fully inhabit the drama; one detected a performer switching gears between the singing, shrieking, whispering and howling. Her choreographed meandering up and down the stage was gestural and unconvincing. It is possible there was not enough rehearsal time to do more, or that the De Leeuw-Sukowa piece is simply one of those works so tailor-made for a particular artist, it cannot easily be translated to another personality.

From the perspective of the early 21st century, the notion that updating songs from the early 19th to the early 20th century is an act of “modernizing” seems quaint. Pierrot lunaire, this work’s model, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, but it is still as fresh as a newly minted coin, because, like the songs of Schubert and Schumann, it is an original work of genius and can never be replicated. The exaggerated atmospherics of De Leeuw's Weimar Republic era are reimagined and recreated. In many ways they are more removed from us today than are the direct emotions of the original Schubert and Schumann songs. The wry observation applies that there is nothing more dated than yesterday's vogue.

With Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, authentic historic songs of Romanticism’s early flowering have become ersatz historicist songs from Expressionism’s late decay.


Photos by Timothy Norris are used by permission of the Ojai Music Festival: Top, soprano Lucy Shelton. Below, composer-conductor Reinbert De Leeuw.

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Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

Friday, June 22, 2012

Glendale Noon Concert Featuring Susan Svrcek

By Stephen Cohn

I am not a music critic - I’m a composer, an appreciator and, I guess, a child at heart because I still get very excited and inspired when I hear exceptional performances of intriguing music. Such was the case yesterday when I attended a Glendale Noon Concert, programmed by Jacqueline Suzuki. It was only about 40 minutes in length which is great for people like me with a cultural case of 21st Century ADD. I was drawn to the event because the featured performer was Susan Svrcek of Piano Spheres, whom I had heard at Zipper Hall recently and was quite taken with her playing and her choice of music.

The program consisted of one solo piano piece, LA Times by Edward Cansino, which I had heard and liked at Piano Spheres and two piano quartets which I had not heard: Mahler’s Piano Quartet in A Minor and Schnittke’s Piano Quartet in A Minor (After Mahler). What I learned from the program notes was that the Mahler quartet is the only piece of chamber music he wrote and is the first movement of a larger work which was not completed – his work on it was interrupted by his death. The Schnittke is based on the incomplete second movement of the Mahler – so hearing the two quartets in sequence was quite fascinating. Both are beautiful, very dramatic pieces. The Mahler is rich and complex and quite Mahleresque; the Schnittke has a powerful dramatic curve which starts with quiet, Mahler-like material, then increasing in dissonant lines, harmonies and intensity, it builds to a powerful climax – then stops dead, takes a breath, and returns to the quiet Mahler-like material to a subdued, resigned ending. It feels like a peaceful acceptance of death and given the historical context, it may be so. The performances by all were passionate, powerful and articulate and the Glendale Baptist Church added a nice reverb which fattened the sound and enhanced the blend of the ensemble.

Incidentally, Susan Svrcek said she thinks the Mahler Quartet was a sketch for an orchestral work – she said the piano writing is very dense and unpianistic and looks orchestral in nature. However, in spite of this, she played beautifully on everything yesterday. Her performances, besides being very expressive and powerful, projected a sense of confidence and command of the material. The string players were Jacqueline Suzuki, Violin, Adriana Zopo, Viola and Simone Vitucci, Cello – all played with wonderful energy and accuracy, giving the ensemble a rich, full sound which heightened all the colorful harmonies.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Górecki Night at the LA Master Chorale

by Douglas Neslund

Silesian-born composer Henryk Górecky was given the posthumous honor of closing the Los Angeles Master Chorale's 48th season, together with a motet by Johannes Brahms serving as a palate refresher.

Maestro Grant Gershon chose Górecky's "Lobgesang" (Song of Praise) and the five devotional songs that comprise "Piesni Maryjne" (Marian Songs) before concluding with the composer's "Miserere." The overriding mood of these a cappella items is contemplative. As Lobgesang was composed to mark the 600th anniversary of the birth of Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of moveable type, the debut performance of which was presented four years ago by the Master Chorale . The work is accompanied by glockenspiel, played by the redoubtable Theresa Dimond, which spelled out "Gutenberg" in musical terms in three iterations over the German word "ewig" (forever), sung in an almost inaudible pianississimo by the choir. One scarcely breathes in such magical moments.

Brahms was well represented by his motet "Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz" (Create in me, O God, a pure heart - Psalm 51). After the essentially nonharmonic opening, it was something of a relief to hear a bit of traditional harmonies, thesis, if you will, after the arsis.

"Piesni Maryjne" are devotions to Mary, the Mother of Jesus in the Polish language, written in the late communist era but first performed two decades later, after the fall of the regime. The tunes around which four of the five devotions were written were pre-existing melodies that Poles would instantly recognize. The overarching mood of these songs are contemplative and prayerful. As such, they present the underrepresented opposite end of the choral dynamic spectrum from most other choral compositions appearing in a season's listings, and served as something of a challenge to our stalwart choral corps, one which they handled with exquisite touch.

After intermission, the audience was treated to the full monte, the entire Master Chorale, in all their glory, to sing Górecky's "Miserere," begun four years before the Marian Songs. The eight Chorale sections sang in an increasing amplitude, starting with the second basses singing three simple words, "Domine, Deus noster" (Lord, our God),  with the first bass section joining them in a repeat, and so on until we finally arrive at all eight sections joining together in the final iteration.

The Master Chorale sang with all its usual great tone and close attention, which allowed Maestro Gershon to shape phrases literally at will. If it were possible that the singers paid even closer attention to his direction, it should be said that the same repertoire was scheduled for recording sessions in the days to follow, with issuance of a CD scheduled for the fall.

Master Chorale tenor and composer-arranger Shawn Kirchner was appointed as the Swan Family Composer in Residence beginning July 1st. The first commission from this appointment will be heard in next season's "The American Concert" on June 2, 2013. His compositions and arrangements have been heard over many recent seasons to great acclaim.

The final concert of each season brings with it a wistful note of farewell to Chorale members who sang their last concert. This year's valedictorians included (in descending length of service): Kyra Humphrey (23 years!), Robert Lewis (21 years), Emily Lin (20), David Tinoco (19), Deborah Briggs (12), Stephanie Sharpe Peterson (11), Jay Kenton (6), James Callon (4) and Steven Chemtob (3). They will all be missed.

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Monday, June 18, 2012

Hollywood Master Chorale concludes its 17th season

by Douglas Neslund

No decently performing, nonprofit, volunteer, amateur community chorus ought to perform under the title "Master Chorale" no matter the best intentions or how urgent the financial pressures. But alas, many do. If truth be admitted, there is but one Master Chorale in the County of Los Angeles ... the magnificent ensemble that performs in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

But does a presumptuous name serve to defeat a noble purpose? Not at all. Does plumped-up publicity diminish the need for such community organizations? Also, not at all.

Given the very nature of such an organization, the Hollywood Master Chorale deserves the highest praise and support for concluding its 17th season of music making with an innovative, creative project known as "Voices of LA" in which four young composers (three of them composition students at USC, the fourth from UCLA) were tasked with setting four "Songs of Innocence" by William Blake into song.

Joshua Fishbein, Jordan Nelson, Mark Popeney and Saad N. Haddad were winners of the competition and each provided music to four Blake poems, respectively: "Piping Down the Valleys Wild," "The Echoing Green," "Night" and "The Little Boy Lost / The Little Boy Found."

The impression made by these four works was generally positive, but for better or for worse, the young composers seem determined to avoid anything approaching a major or minor chord, much less a melody. One entertains the notion that once they shed the need to be "different" from composers contemporary or ancient, they will begin to appreciate the value of other works performed on the same program composed by Eric Whitacre.

We will find out a year hence, when these same four will each be paired with an established composer from the Los Angeles region who will mentor them through another of William Blake's poems, "Songs of Experience."

The Chorale sang with inconsistent sound, although given the complex and unknown material en debut, the singers seem to have met most of the challenges. Their music making was strongest in the aforementioned Whitacre songs, "Animal Crackers, Vol. I" and "The Seal Lullaby" and weakest in the opening William Billings song, "Modern Musick." Samuel Barber's and Morten Lauridsen's respective settings of "Sure on This Shining Night" neither inspired nor repelled.

All of the above was professionally directed by Artistic Director M. Lauren Buckley, and wonderfully accompanied on the piano by Irene Gregorio. Ms. Buckley kept choristers and piano moving forward with few lapses noted in ragged phrase attacks and releases. As is the case with almost all volunteer choruses, rehearsal time is limited, and a performance of such challenges exponentially increases the need for rehearsal. Hopefully, Ms. Buckley, a graduate of Princeton University, will find additional time with her choristers to meet the challenges of the coming season.

As to the ever-present issue of fund raising and finding new resources in a problematic market in which cash is difficult to find, it is imperative that such projects as "Voices of LA" are fully subscribed and supported by those with the means.

Inasmuch as HMC is providing an unique opportunity for young composers, it could also benefit from the services of additional competent singers. Auditions are pending in the fall.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Pocket Guide to Dresden’s Musical and Political History

by Rodney Punt

[As a first installment of a report on the music scene encountered in the German city of Dresden earlier this month, I am providing short overviews of both the city's musical legacy and its tumultuous history.]

Dresden, the capital of Freistaat Sachsen (Free State of Saxony, a "Land" in German), was for centuries the royal seat of a duchy within the German Holy Roman Empire. Its dukes and kings drew to their courts the finest artists, architects and musicians Europe could offer, but of all the arts, music was to hold special prominence.

Kapellmeisters Heinrich Schütz, the “Father of German Music”, and his colleague Michael Praetorius, both of whom studied in Italy, virtually invented the early German baroque style in Dresden by synthesizing techniques of the German and Italian schools. Schütz's Dafne (music now lost) was the first German opera and launched Dresden as the city most closely identified with German-born opera composers.

Smitten with Dresden a century later, Leipzig Kapellmeister J. S. Bach offered sections of his B-minor Mass to the Saxon king in a long (and finally successful) pursuit of the title of court composer. Bach's contemporary, Gottfried Silbermann, who built organs and fortepianos for the city’s churches and salons, prompted Bach's side-speciality of testing and recommending further refinements to them.

Dresden’s eighteenth century Italian opera productions were admired throughout Europe. George Frideric Händel, one of Saxony's most famous citizens (born in nearby Halle), created a scandal when he raided his monarch's most famous singers for the London stage.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Carl Maria von Weber, Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss composed or premiered increasingly sophisticated works for the Dresden opera (most at one of two versions of the Semperoper). Though the roots of German national opera sprung from the Viennese singspiel tradition, including Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Die Zauberflöte, with attempts by Franz Schubert to match Weber's later innovations, it was in Dresden that German national opera took hold and came into its own, evolving into a tradition comparable to and frequently more technically advanced than its longer-standing counterparts in Italy and France.

The line of German operas with a Dresden connection is extensive. They trace from Weber’s Der Freischütz (premiered in Berlin in 1821 and soon after in Weber's home town of Dresden) and Marschner’s Der Vampyr, premiered in 1828. A qualitative leap came with Wagner’s Rienzi in 1842, Der fliegende Holländer in 1843, Tannhäuser in 1845 (all composed and premiered in Dresden) and Lohengrin (composed in Dresden but premiered in Weimar in 1850 after Wagner's participation in the civil uprising of 1849 prompted his banishment from Germany). Though Dresden was no longer a base of operations for Wagner, he found his individual voice there. Schumann’s Genoveva was composed for but refused by the Semperoper and premiered in Leipzig also in 1850. Richard Strauss’s nine premieres at the Semperoper ushered in the twilight of romanticism, beginning with Feuersnot in 1901, Salome in 1905, Elektra in 1909, Der Rosenkavalier in 1911, and five others concluding with the 1938 opening of Daphne. The Semperoper was subsequently destroyed in the infamous WWII firebombing of February, 1945.


Dresden’s location astride the winding banks of the river Elbe tied it to other German cities. Its proximity to the Czech and Polish borders positioned it also as one of Europe’s most fecund creative crossroads. But these close encounters also led to setbacks from social hazards and political conflicts that might have broken the spirit of a lesser city.

The Bubonic Plague of the Middle Ages decimated the city’s population, as did the later Thirty Years War. Fully recovered by the nineteenth century (arguably its most resplendent musically), Dresden survived the First World War at great loss (the Zwinger Palace’s massive four-part Otto Dix painting of trench warfare bears witness). But the Second World War’s firebombing (graphically documented in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five) destroyed much of the city’s historic core. Reconstruction projects from 1945 -- embraced by both the drab, resource-challenged German Democratic Republic and, from 1990, the more robust German Federal Republic -- have painstakingly rebuilt Dresden stone by stone.

It took two decades to restore the Zwinger Palace art museum, four to mend the Semperoper, and six to return the city’s emblematic landmark, the stately baroque Frauenkirche, finally finished in 2005. Not content to simply attain a previous status quo, Dresden has in recent decades reinvented itself as it rebuilt. It calls to mind the role of its historic intelligentsia in leading Germany’s progressive political and artistic movements, as with Wagner's involvement in attempting a reform government in 1849.

Vying today for attention with baroque buildings are modern architectural developments in outlying districts, including Daniel Libeskind’s Museum of Military History project that reimagines the Neustadt district’s former military barracks, a sobering reflection on the destructive ends of war. Opened in 2011, it is both Germany's largest museum and the official one of the German Armed Forces.

Since the national reunification two decades ago, Dresden’s restoration has accelerated and its rise as a cultural center has once again made it one of the most beloved and frequently visited cities in Germany.


Photos by Rodney Punt. Top: Altstadt with the Koenig-Johann-Denkmal and nearby catholic church of the royal court (Dresden is otherwise a Lutheran city); bottom: The  Museum of Military History as reimagined by Daniel Libeskind. Punt can be reached at [email protected]

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Rosemont Middle School celebrates Americana

by Douglas Neslund

"Pied Piper" does not adequately fit Mr. Rod Yonkers, Director of Music at La Crescenta's Rosemont Middle School. One may start with such an appelation, but where the original Pied Piper led a generation of children astray, Mr. Yonkers is leading that lucky school's students, challenging them and urging them to excellence. Music in this school is head and shoulders above the best of the rest, and incredibly superior to the image of "music in the public schools" as the woebegone, vanishing, underfunded and forgotten subject portrayed in the public press.

Indeed, Rosemont Middle School is a cornucopia of student talent, no doubt attracted by the personal talents of Mr. Yonkers that are so obviously supported by the school's principal, Dr. Cynthia Livingston. Naysayers may point to the school's mostly upper middle class clientele to inject a bit of class warfare in order to discount the achievements of these children; nevertheless, ethnic and social balance were absolutely in evidence.

On a chilly June night, friends and families gathered for "Rosemont Bowl XVII" at the school's amphitheater, treated first to a college-level drum line that was as crisp and thrilling as any. Smartly marching into and out of position, in perfect rhythm as well as stick management, the drum corp looked sharp and received well deserved applause.

What followed thrilled the patriotic: Mr. Yonkers, smartly dressed as George Washington and accompanied by Mr. Lynn McGinnis portraying Benjamin Franklin while reciting "America, the Beautiful" (but forgetting the final critical line: "Confirm thy soul in self control, Thy liberty in law!") The combined Advanced Strings and Concert Band then attacked John Philip Sousa's immortal "Stars and Stripes Forever" with piccolo solo by Amy Choi. At the repeat, audience members were invited to provide fireworks by shooting "poppers" into the air:

The program continued through "Hoe Down" by Aaron Copland, danced by the entire Advanced Chorus, to "Rolling In The Deep" arranged by schoolgirl Emily Hayhurst, to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" danced by schoolboy Isaac Sims-Foster, and much, much more, including an excellent Jazz Band of 18 members. Every item on the program was well prepared and performed.

In a world increasing in cynicism and doubtful leadership, Mr. Yonkers stands out and in his outgoing way, brings students, parents and visitors along with him, reminding us that music can heal and inspire. Proof is encapsulated in a box at the end of the evening's program entitled "Rosemont Musicians in Outside Music Groups." Typical are Ernie Carbajal, Principal Cellist, who has been taken under the wing of the San Fernando Valley Symphony Orchestra, and Trombonist Cole Davis, who is a member of the Colburn Wind Ensemble.

If you feel a need to rejuvenate your hope for the future, just take in a concert by the Rosemont Middle School, and after your spirits have been lifted, take a moment to thank Mr. Yonkers for his dedication to that future.