Scary Music and Henry Cowell

Every year at this time I think about appropriate Halloween music. There are all the usual suspects–“Night on Bald Mountain,” “Symphony Fantastique”,” Verdi and Mozart for hellfire and damnation, Beethoven for the dark night of the soul, Grieg for trolls, Chopin for autumn leaves and funerals. Mahler for schadenfreude, all kinds of horror movie scores…

But the all-time winner for music that provides that special scary thrill is Henry Cowell’s “Banshee” for piano. It’s a short piece, for prepared piano –which John Cage learned from Cowell– but makes up for it in intensity and, well, realism. There really is a demon inside that piano.

I’ve been reading about and listening to Cowell (1897-1965) since hearing his Quartet No. 4 (“United”) played by the Portland String Quartet. I’ve even bought some of his piano music, featuring his invention of “tone clusters,” groups of minor second chords played with the fist or the forearm, thinking my grandson would like to play them. (Bartok, whom kids also love, requested Cowell’s permission to use the technique in his own works.)

Cowell, born in California of philosophical anarchist parents, is one of a long line of quirky American composers of genius, beginning with New England’s own writer of hymns and fugueing tunes, William Billings,(1746-1800) who thought that there should always be twice as many basses as any other voice in the choir. (He was dead on.)

Home-schooled until the age of 17, Cowell was largely self-taught in music until he began to study at the University of California, Berkeley, under Charles Seeger, father of Pete Seeger, who recognized and nurtured his genius.

The list of Cowell’s achievements goes on and on. He wrote over 1,000 compositions, including 180 songs. He was a writer, whose prose, as well as his music, strongly influenced generations of composers, including both John Cage and George Gershwin. He was an ethnomusicologist who learned many of the world’s musical traditions and incorporated them into his own work, not quoting, but grafting his ideas on to their roots.

Schoenberg asked him to play for his composition class in Vienna.

Cowell worked with Leôn Theremin on machines that would realize his ideas about the relationship of harmony and rhythm. He invented rhythms so complex that they could not be played by a human being, but only by a specially designed instrument called a Rhythmicon..

He championed Native American music, which is nothing like what Dvorak imagined, or what any of us can imagine, more strange and “foreign” than anything recorded in far-off lands.

He wrote some of his best work from a cell in San Quentin.

It is hard to believe in today’s society, but in 1936 Cowell was sentenced to 15 years in prison for having a homosexual relationship. Although he served “only” four years and eventually received a full pardon from the Governor of California, the experience profoundly affected him. Opinions differ about whether he was a broken man. He never spoke about radical politics again, and may have made his works more accessible to a wide audience, but that could also have been a natural development with age.

The imprisonment, however, because of lingering prejudice, prevented his works from receiving the recognition they deserved, and still deserve.

A good dose of Cowell is just what is needed to improve audience reaction to “modern” music. It is accessible, interesting, inventive, melodic, and non-academic. He wrote a lovely piano concerto and 15 symphonies, any one of which would grace a Portland Symphony Orchestra concert. The full cycle has never been recorded. There’s an opportunity for someone.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net

Early Music Festival Enchants

Portland Early Music Festival
Portland Conservatory of Music
Oct. 24, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

After you read this review, I would strongly recommend attending today’s (Sunday’s) concert of the Portland Early Music Festival, at 4:00 p.m. in the chapel of Woodford’s Congregational Church, home of the Portland Conservatory of Music.

Saturday night’s concert was both satisfying and surprising; this afternoon’s promises to be spectacular, with a performance of the Bach Chaconne for unaccompanied violin (from BWV 1004) by Heidi Powell on a baroque (c.1550) violin.

The chapel is the ideal space for an early music concert—the right size for an intimate chamber-music gathering, with good acoustics. One could hear every note of Timothy Burris’ lute in three introspective pieces from the Sonata No. 11 in D minor of Silvius Leopold Weiss (1687-1750,) while the warm voice of mezzo-soprano Joëlle Morris effortlessly filled the hall with sound.

Her performances, of recitativos and arias from Vivaldi’s cantata: “Perfidissimo cor!” and the cantata “La Bella Fiamma of Johann David Heinichen (1683-1729) were the surprise of the evening. Heinichen’s writing was superior to Vivaldi’s and his style that of an entirely different era, even though the two composers were contemporaries.

While Heinichen’s heightened drama, restrained ornamentation, and well-defined melodic line were new, the accompaniments, by Gavin Black, harpsichord, Charles Kaufmann, bassoon, and Burris, were familiar from many works of J.S. Bach. Who imitated whom?

It seems likely that Bach ran with Heinichen’s ideas, since an early Bach Praeludium/Fantasia (BWV 922) performed earlier by Black, showed none of them. The harpsichordist commented that friends had told him that the work sounded like Phillip Glass, and it did. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Charles “Chip” Kaufmann is best known in Maine for his association with the Longfellow Chorus, but he is also an artist on the baroque bassoon, an instrument that is both more agile and considerably less comic than its modern cousin. It can easily substitute for the cello, with a rich baritone voice that can be taken quite seriously.

Kaufmann’s rendition of the Bassoon Sonata in C Major, by Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688-1758), revealed all of these characteristics admirably.

Black played his own harpsichord in the Bach Preaeludium and “Uranie: Partita in 8 movements,” from the “Musikalischer Parnassus” of J.F.K Fischer (1656-1746). The instrument, by Keith Hill, is distinguished by its clarity, which sometimes made it sound almost like a piano, and its ability to change tone quality between two keyboards.

Black is also an advocate for the instrument itself, patiently explaining its workings to my eight-year-old grandson, Jordan Seavey, who, so far, only plays the piano and recorder.

Behind the “Alice” Symphony

When the Portland Symphony Orchestra released its plans for the 2015-2016 concert season, one item stood out: a symphony that commemorates one of the strangest love affairs in the history of music, between American composer David Del Tredici (b. 1937) and “Alice in Wonderland.”

Since 1968, a great deal of Del Tredici’s work has been devoted to the ‘Wonderland” books and their author, Lewis Carroll, beginning with settings of “Turtle Soup” and “Jabberwocky,” juxtaposed with a Litany and a Bach Chorale.

“Jabberwocky” might well appeal to a contemporary composer, with its musical use of nonsense and “portmanteau” words., but there seems to be a much deeper connection between Del Tredici and Carroll.

The key lies in Martin Gardner’s “The Annotated Alice.”

Gardner provides detailed historical background, sketches of the people involved and the originals of the Victorian poems that Carroll parodied. The combination of the original verses with their distorted reflections triggered something in the composer’s rebellious nature.

Del Tredici, born in 1937, has always been known as a maverick. In a musical world dominated by 12-tone serialism, especially at Princeton, where Del Tredici studied, he eventually returned to the music of Bach, Beethoven and the Beatles, prompting horrified reactions from the critics, followed by acceptance and eventually enthusiasm.

There was also a personal aspect to his fascination with the “Alice” books. When the composer was growing up, homosexuality could be punished by a prison term. The great American composer, Henry Cowell, was sentenced to 10 years for such an offense. Carroll’s affection for little girls, such as Alice Liddell, may have seemed equally transgressive.

The first large-scale work to emerge from this inspiration was “An Alice Symphony,” (1969) which the Portland Symphony Orchestra will play on November 10. One of its most famous sections is “The Lobster Quadrille.” The composer’s original program notes about its construction provide an idea of his methods of work on the “Alice” material:

“What particularly caught my fancy in this scene was the possibility of musically blending together both its humor and it grotesquerie.” For this effect he added a mandolin, a banjo, an accordion and two saxophones. “These are very common instruments indeed; however, in the more rarified symphonic realm their presence is somewhat bizarre, and creates a juxtaposition suggesting to me a kind of musical equivalent to the special atmosphere of the dramatic scene.”

Finding what the composer calls the “folk instrument group” of the quadrille may have the PSO scrambling, but they already have a good ukulele player in hornist Nina Allen Miller, who founded the ukulele group FLUKE.

The quadrille also employs the human voice, accelerando, to portray the lines: “‘Will you walk a little faster?’” said a whiting to a snail. “‘There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail.’”

Del Tredici set himself a contrapuntal problem in its composition: “that of writing two different sections (Dance I and Dance II) which would make musical sense not only separately but also when superimposed one upon the other.” In ordinary contrapuntal writing, two or more musical lines are superimposed harmoniously. To superimpose two separate compositions is orders of magnitude more difficult.

The result, according to Harry Neville of the Los Angeles Times, requires no knowledge of counterpoint to appreciate: ”The music is suffused with infectious good spirits — a rare quality these days — and altogether struck this listener as one of the most successful attempts yet to combine ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ musical elements.”

”An Alice Symphony,” written when Del Tredici was initially exploring the possibilities of combining tonality with dissonance, is the most modern sounding of the four symphonic works.

The “Acrostic Poem” for soprano in “The Final Alice” (the last of the four full-length “Alice” works), is written in triads (three-note chords), like a Beatles song. The aria does descend into chaos at the end, but is pulled back by the soprano counting slowly, in Spanish. “An Alice Symphony” is of particular importance since it marks Del Tredici’s initial break with academic tradition in music.

A special aspect of its performance in November will be a staged accompaniment by dancers from the Portland Ballet Company, with choreography by Roberto Forleo. Part of the Portland Symphony’s program of collaboration with local arts groups, it promises to be spectacular.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Quality in Music

Since I no longer subscribe to the Press Herald, I have taken to getting my morning news from National Public Radio. One of the more annoying features of NPR news is its regular interviews with pop singer-songwriters and “artists” of whom no one has ever heard. There was one the other day, with an aging female rock star whose rudeness was off the charts. The interviewer continued with his polite obsequiousness, when anyone with a brain in his head would have terminated the conversation immediately.

The other instant turn-off feature of NPR’s Morning Edition is the Writer’s Almanac, whose compiler once decided, on air, to make Kipling’s “If,” which I learned as a child of six, politically correct.

What has all this to do with classical music? I know only two popular songs that have withstood the test of centuries. One is ”Greensleeves.” and the other isn’t. The truth is that, like money, bad music drives out good, and the perceived decline in the audience for the latter has much to do with the “seriousness” accorded the former

I thought, many years ago, that musicology applied to bad pop music was a vampire that had been exposed to the light of day. In the days of 45’s, when I was in college, there were parodies of this kind of exercise all over campus. Alas, no one had driven a holly stake through its heart.

It is hard to believe, but not too long ago most people thought that music, because of its very nature, could not portray evil. Said the Greek philosopher: “Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless, dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.” Plato (c. 428—c. 347 B.C. )

We have learned, to our dismay, that not only can music portray evil; it can be evil. See certain forms of Rap, which some people believe is music, and automobile boom boxes, which can permanently damage the sense of hearing in half an hour.

I am not intending to dismiss music that appeals to a mass audience, merely to point out that the notion that “all musics are created equal,” which now seems a media truism. is fatuous nonsense, and does real harm. In another recent NPR interview, the music directors of two of Maine’s symphony orchestras also succumbed to the leveling virus, one going so far as to entertain the idea of programming concert versions of background music for video games.

Sir Percy Scholes, author and editor of the Oxford Companion to Music, an indispensable reference, lists the characteristics one should look for in evaluating a piece of music: vitality, originality, workmanship, proportion and fitness, feeling, personal taste, and the test of time. Except for the last item, music for mass audiences may show some or even all of these characteristics. But it is just this final one that makes the best of popular composers aspire to the classical.

Scholes tells of overhearing a conversation in Blackpool, in which one girl complained to another that music in a shop window was out-dated, being at least a year old. He pointed out that at that moment, Schubert had been dead for a century, but still endured.

“Probably bad popular music now lives a shorter time than ever before, since its incessant repetition by radio, television, juke-box, cinema and taped music tends to speed the judgement of Time” he writes. I-Tunes, Pandora, and the like have further speeded the process, while reducing the value of even good music, by making it a commodity available upon demand.

The opportunity to hear good music, played live, still exists in Maine. Some of the performances are free, and everyone, young or old, should take advantage of them while they last.

A Musical Enormity: PSO Tackles the Berlioz Te Deum

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Oct. 11, 2015

To paraphrase Lady Bracknell: “A work crowded with incident, I see, but somewhat too loud for Merrill Auditorium.” The Berlioz Te Deum, performed by the Portland Symphony Orchestra before a large audience on Sunday, Oct. 11, is the 19th Century equivalent of a boombox. A few minutes more and the result would have been mass hearing loss.

During the final Judex crederis (the last judgement), tenor René Barbera, who has a rich, powerful voice that could fill La Scala, was totally drowned out by the massed forces of a full orchestra (with plenty of harps), the Kotzschmar Organ, played by Ray Cornils, and three large choruses-—the Masterworks Chorus of the Choral Art Society, the Boston Children’s Chorus, and members of Shannon Chase’s Vox Nova Chamber Choir.

The Te Deum begins with orchestra and organ exchanging fortissimo chords like the blows of heavyweight boxers at the beginning of a bout, and continues that way until all parties, including the audience, are exhausted.

There are a few respites, most notably the great tenor solo in Te ergo quaesumus, but for the most part Berlioz simply tries unsuccessfully to outdo, in volume and cataclysmic dramatics, his opening passage.

The composer gives the organ every opportunity to demonstrate its magnificence—the first performance, in 1855, commemorated the installation of a new organ at the church of Saint-Eustache in Paris, during that year’s World’s Fair—but is much less successful in the few pensive moments of the score, when the chosen organ stops sound like background music at a funeral parlor. An organ always sounds like an organ, no matter what its maker is trying to imitate.

There is not much attempt to differentiate the choruses, although the children’s voices and Vox Nova stood out at times, and there were some characteristic Berlioz effects, such as an unusual interaction between the brass choir and the basses. There was also a fine, distinctive Latinate chant in the Christie, rex gloriae.

The entire Te Deum was beautifully performed, by all parties, but as Ravel said of his Bolero, ”unfortunately, it is not music.” Still, like a performance of the Bolero, the audience, this writer included, enjoyed it immensely, as evidenced by a prolonged standing ovation.

I urge anyone who can do so, to get a ticket for Tuesday night’s (Oct. 13) performance. This is music that can only be experienced live, and it will probably not be heard again in Maine for a very long time.

Music director Robert Moody paired the Te Deum with a charming performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21, emphasizing its similarities with the work of his predecessors. The minuet movement, which is supposed to mark Beethoven’s break with tradition, sounded like something straight from the pages of Haydn.

I mention this about the symphony only because it was so odd: a pizzicato note from the violin section before Moody indicated the downbeat. The first time was merely a regrettable error, but it happened again before the minuet. Not enough to spoil anything, but a little intrusive nevertheless, and perhaps rattling to other musicians.

Cumming Honors Glazer at Bates College

Pianist Duncan Cumming
Olin Hall, Bates College
Oct. 9, 2015

Pianist Duncan Cumming’s tribute to his teacher, the late Frank Glazer, Friday night at Bates College, was a compelling musical evening. (You can judge for yourself tonight—Saturday— at USM’s Corthell Hall). It also raised some fundamental questions about concertizing in the electronic age: the role of memory and standard vs. innovative performance of the classics.

The program consisted of popular works in the repertoire that Cumming, now on the music faculty of the University of Albany, studied with Glazer, artist in residence at Bates College from 1980 until his death in January at age 99.

Cumming. like Maine-based pianist Martin Perry, is one of the pioneers at playing from the score, rather than relying on the memorization now expected of every concert pianist. I couldn’t notice any difference in tempo or technique, compared to Gilmore Award-winning pianist Rafel Blechacz, who was brought to Merrill Auditorium by Portland Ovations on Oct. 4.

Comparison was easy, since Blechacz and Cumming both played the Brahms Intermezzo, Opus 118, No. 2, and the Chopin Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53.

I found Cumming’s Brahms a bit more “authentic” -—Glazer was a Brahms specialist who once played all of the master’s piano works at one concert– and Blechacz is an iconoclast who has his own thought-provoking take on everything he plays.

Cumming’s rendition of the lesser-known “Edward” Ballade in D minor, Op.10, No.1, emphasized the young Brahms’ dramatic tendencies.

In the famous Polonaise, which became a pop song with the title “‘Till the End of Time,” Cumming’s technique was actually superior, but Blechacz’s version more interesting, with a distinct Polish flavor.

The influence of Glazer was most notable in the Beethoven “Moonlight” Sonata, Op. 27 No. 2. The presto agitato was taken at breakneck speed, as advocated by Artur Schnabel, Glazer’s most notable teacher, but without Schnabel’s characteristic wrong notes.

The Beethoven was the greatest test of reading from the score. It would seem virtually impossible to play it at tempo without storing most passages in the memory bank. Perhaps having a reference handy reduces anxiety about becoming lost, which has happened to many world-renowned pianists at awkward moments (most of them know how to fake it.)

Cumming used an electronic tablet similar to a Kindle, on which pages can be turned by pushing a button. It was so unobtrusive that one could not tell it was there, lying flat on the folded-down music stand. I foresee a day when pianists wear glasses with the score right in from of their eyes, advancing at a predetermined tempo.

Schubert was represented by the great Impromptu in C minor, Op. 90, No. 1, which is always a delight to hear. I just wish all pianists, not just Cumming, would pay more attention to the delicious modulation to C Major near the end of the work, as Paul Badura-Skoda used to do.

The most moving performance of the evening was the encore, an arrangement of “Annie Laurie” played at the funeral of Ruth Glazer in 2006.

Rafal Blechacz at Merrill

Portland Ovations Concert
Pianist Rafał Blechacz
Merrill Auditorium
Oct. 4, 2015

The playing of Gilmore Award-winning pianist Rafał Blechacz, brought to Merrill Auditorium Sunday by Portland Ovations, was characterized by clarity, precision and elegance. His program was characterized by daring.

What other pianist in this day and age would program a recital to include works that everyone in the audience had heard hundreds of times and perhaps played themselves? It is to invite comparison with Rubinstein, Horowitz and Dinu Lipatti (for the Chopin waltzes). But Blechacz showed that he could hold his own in such company, while introducing some new ideas.

A critic once said that abstract expressionists should submit a test painting to show that they could execute works in traditional style, reassuring viewers that their more characteristic work was not mere scribbling. Blechacz opened with a first movement of the Bach ”Italian” Concerto in F Major (BWV 971) that was a model of decorum in its precise rhythm, sharp delineation of melodic lines and restrained dynamics (besides being breathtakingly beautiful.)

The slow movement departed from the usual Bach renditions in its coloration and dreamy style, while the third took off in a long accelerando that, although not in the score, added significantly to the excitement of the work. Bach, not having the piano’s dynamic range on the harpsichord or clavichord, might have done exactly the same thing, as if carried away on a torrent of notes.

Innovations were even more pronounced in the following Beethoven Sonata in C minor, Op. 13 (“Pathetique”). I have a score on which my teacher has written “Sforzando very important in Beethoven!” Blechacz has that explosion of sound down pat. He also lets the notes of the chord ring out, so that what comes after seems like the coalescence of the overtones; raindrops into a flowing stream. If that requires a fermata (pause) that seems to last forever, so be it.

The famous slow movement included the central theme over a heavily accented waltz that sounds like elephants dancing, if it’s played right, and a glorious finale that, as in the Bach, had more than a hint of accelerando.

Following intermission, the program, as befits a Polish pianist, was all Chopin, beginning with the Opus 64 Waltzes, the most famous of which is the “Minute Waltz.” I didn’t have my stopwatch out, but I’m sure that Blechacz met the requirement without losing any of his grace under pressure.

The coloration and shading of that miniature, as well as the two others in the set, were exquisite. Rubinstein used to say that some, at least, were not for dancing, but Blechacz conjured up a ballroom as active and varied as any for an evening of Strauss. The late Dinu Lipatti was the acknowledged master of these effusions, but in these three at least, Blechacz is his equal.

I very much regret that I am not able to appreciate the Chopin Mazurkas as I should. If anything could overcome that deficiency, it would have been Sunday’s performance of the three in Opus 56, with their fine coloring, subtle exchange of voices and authentic rhythmical structure.

The Polonaise is another matter, especially the A-flat Major, Opus 53 (’Til the end of time…”) which, after all these years, is still enough to wake the dead, and cause instant, foot stomping standing ovations. Blechacz has the power and precision of Horowitz, with a little more finesse.

As a final act of daring, Blechacz played the Brahms Intermezzo in A Major, Opus 118, No. 2, as an encore. There is nothing showy about it. It is simply one of the most inspired works for piano ever written, and one of the most difficult to interpret. I would trade all of Wagner for it. Last summer, at a Bates College memorial service, Duncan Cumming played it as an appropriate tribute to his teacher, Frank Glazer.