Classical Music Round-Up: January through March 2016

I’ve been on blogging hiatus for almost two months.  Here’s the low-down.

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Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (photo via)

It was announced that Gianandrea Noseda will take over the helm of the National Symphony Orchestra next season, while Jaap van Zweden will join the New York Philharmonic at the podium.  Two more white men in charge of major American orchestras?  No big surprise there, but Marin Alsop might have something to say.  Meanwhile, in Britain, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be the City of Birmingham Symphony’s new leading lady, at only 29 years old.  *applause*  And another young conductor on the rise: 25-year-old Jordan de Souza will be heading up Komische Oper Berlin.

We lost some greats in recent months: business mogul turned self-taught conductor Gilbert Kaplan; pioneering composer Pierre Boulez; Pulitzer-winning composers Leslie Bassett and Steven Stucky; Dallas Symphony leader Louis Lane; conducting pedagogue Otto-Werner Mueller; and — just today — maestro Nikolas Harnoncourt.

Now some feel-good stories: a Berlin horn player reflects on collaborating with Simon Rattle before the conductor relocates to London; Tafelmusik’s rendition of Beethoven 9 left one Toronto critic with nothing to criticize; bassist Jane Little just became the longest-serving orchestral musician ever, after 71 years with the Atlanta Symphony; and Ennio Morricone just won his first Oscar after working on the scores for over 500 films.

Mahan Esfahani’s harpsichord recital was interrupted by Baroque-head “rioters,” while scholars have discovered that the taxi horns in Gershwin’s An American in Paris might be pitched in the wrong key, and the Yale School of Music launched its first ever MOOC on Coursera.

As 2016 got off to an alarming start (Donald Trump, anyone?), diverse voices shone — from a powerful performance in a Harlem crypt in solidarity with Black Lives Matter; to violinist Rosemary Johnson and the UK’s Paramusical Ensemble making music through disability; to Julia Wolfe’s big-deal commission — a piece about American women in the workforce — for the New York Philharmonic’s 2018-19 season; to composer Georg Friedrich Haas’ open sexuality.

In U.S. politics, WQXR explored classical music on the campaign trail, while Bernie is, apparently, a gifted maestro.  And in the classical crime beat, an opera singer’s “screams” alerted Amsterdam police, a former St. Paul cellist was caught in a massive drug bust, and a rare French horn stolen six years ago was reunited with its owner.

In Iran, the women of the Tehran Symphony face oppression.  In Germany, an emergency refugee camp is filled with the music of a children’s choir.

Gustavo Dudamel led the Youth Orchestra L.A. at Superbowl halftime.  Grammy-winning violist Kim Kashkashian shares the woes of her name.  The Telegraph had a really interesting conversation with Renée Fleming, Anne Midgette profiled musicians who take time off from performing, and drama continues to unfold in the Buffalo Philharmonic oboe section.

A new Mozart opera was discovered and performed, while for the rest of the opera world, it’s same-old, same-old.

And finally, to end this round-up with a smile: watch a Bach duet played by a 90-year-old husband and wife.

Classical Music Round-Up: 11/6/15

Classical Conditioning presents this week’s worthwhile reads.

Orchestra Updates

The New York Times takes us inside the Kronos Quartet with 3D point capture, linked below. (image via)
The New York Times takes us inside the Kronos Quartet with 3D point capture, linked below. (image via)

Interviews & Introspection

Interesting Reads

Just for Fun

Classical Music Round-Up: 11/1/15

Classical Conditioning presents this week’s worthwhile reads.  (Actually, two weeks’ worth of worthwhile reads — I forgot to post last week!)

Breaking News

Live performances of video game soundtracks, such as ‘Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses’ (above), promise to offset declining ticket sales for U.S. orchestras, according to the Wall Street Journal article linked below.  (image via)

Deep Thoughts

In the Spotlight

Historical Proportions

Just for Fun

Classical Music Round-Up: 10/18/15

Classical Conditioning presents this week’s worthwhile reads.

Orchestra Updates

The incredible Zuhal Sultan speaks with NPR about founding the Iraqi Youth Orchestra, linked below. (photo via)

Deep Thoughts

We Are Young

Just for Fun

Suggested Listening: “Piano Miniature No. 11, ‘For Syria'” by Mohammed Fairouz

Today’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC is a topical one: Piano Miniature No. 11, “For Syria,” by Mohammed Fairouz, performed below by pianist Lara Downes (US).

About the Composer:

Mohammed Fairouz (b. 1985) just might, maybe, possibly, be one of the most important composers of his generation.  That’s a sweeping claim (minus the might‘s and maybe‘s), but hear me out: the Arab-American composer’s expansive output represents a thoughtful and thought-provoking response to social and geopolitical issues rarely addressed in the concert hall.  Educated at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music and Boston’s New England Conservatory, Fairouz has received tutelage from such famed composers as György Ligeti, Richard Danielpour, and the late Gunther Schuller.  At only thirty, he is the youngest composer to ever have a Deutsche Grammophon album dedicated entirely to his music; has served on the music faculty at Northeastern University; and is among the most widely performed and commissioned living composers.  Fairouz’s music delves into difficult themes, from his 9/11-inspired fourth symphony, In the Shadow of No Towers, to the piano work featured here today — all with an artistic voice that is youthful, honest, and world-wise.

About the Piece:

Syria has been embattled in brutal civil war for over four years, resulting in staggering loss of life, a heartrending refugee crisis, and frightening political tensions.  Al Jazeera recently reported that 25% of an estimated 80,000 civilian casualties comprises women and children; the United Nations documented the horrifying case of 100 people — including forty-nine children — shot at close range in the city of Homs.  Fairouz composed his eleventh piano miniature, For Syria, in 2012, shortly after the Homs massacre.  “Throughout 2012,” Fairouz writes in his program note, “Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been murdering men, women, and children who have been asking for change in Syria.  A recent news report displayed dozens of children found dead in Homs.  The reporter commented on how they looked peaceful, ‘as though sleeping.'”  The image of those sleeping children inspired Fairouz to craft a lullaby — “a lullaby that [the children] have been robbed of the chance to hear” — as the piano takes on an elegiac sensibility, weaving a simple, singing melody over darkly unsettled harmonies.  The work is sweetly sorrowful, a cinematic commentary on lost innocence, and a reminder that music is connected — stringently, inexorably — to the world it inhabits.

If you enjoyed For Syria, you might also like…

Some accessible resources for understanding Syria:

Suggested Listening: “Ukom” from Talking Drums by Joshua Uzoigwe

Today’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC comes from a fantastic album I recently stumbled upon, Senku: Piano Music by Composers of African Descent by Ghanian-American pianist William Chapman Nyaho.  Bradley Bolen, a reviewer on Amazon who enjoyed the CD as much as I did, had this to say:

Every now and then a recording comes along that is as important as it is unique….I approached this CD with a desire to explore a back road of art music, in the hopes that I might find a hidden gem of inspiration, or even a piece to perform myself (I am also a pianist). What I found instead was a superhighway of talent and creativity that has somehow remained overlooked by the “mainstream” art music world….I highly recommend this CD to anyone wishing to enrich their musical life.

Well said, Mr. Bolen, well said.  I would definitely encourage my readers to listen to the whole album, an unexpected and entirely enjoyable wealth of little-known music performed with precision, pizzazz, and perspective… but for now, let’s take a listen to “Ukom” from Talking Drums by Joshua Uzoigwe, performed below by Mr. Nyaho.  (Unfortunately, the video can only be accessed in the U.S.  To listen globally, don’t hesitate to purchase Mr. Nyaho’s album — it’s well worth it!)

About the Composer:

When Joshua Uzoigwe (1946-2005) was born, his country of Nigeria was struggling to find voice.  In 1946, Nigeria had outlawed slavery only a decade earlier; a British colony since 1800, it wouldn’t gain independence until Uzoigwe was a teenager; and within seven years of independence, the young nation would face brutal civil war.  Uzoigwe was a member of the Igbo ethnic group, which was the target of a horrific 1966 pogrom that escalated the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War and resulted in the slaughter of over 3 million Igbo.  The massacre took place in southern Nigeria, however, while Uzoigwe grew up in the east, distanced from the heart of the violence but not unaffected.  After studying at the University of Nigeria in the central city of Nsukka, Uzoigwe headed abroad.  He trained at London’s famed Guildhall School of Music and Drama from 1973-77 before receiving his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from Queen’s University, Belfast, in 1981.  His return to Nigeria was triumphant: he received faculty appointments at the Universities of Nigeria and Uyo, composed an immense output of chamber and piano works, and contributed to a Nigerian cultural renaissance that lent strength, imagination, and identity to a nation with a bloody past and an uncertain future.

About the Piece:

Talking Drums is one of Uzoigwe’s most celebrated works, a multi-movement suite for piano rife with rhythmic intrigue.  Each movement is meant to emulate a particular style of Igbo drumming, the study of which was the focus of Uziogwe’s Ph.D.  The first movement, “Ukom,” depicts the ukom drumming used by the Igbo when a prominent woman in the community passes away, commemorating her accomplishments and helping to guide her to the afterlife. The drum used in ukom music is, aptly, a talking drum: with its two drumheads connected by cords stretched along its hourglass shape, the player can manipulate the tension in the cords to produce sounds and tones that mimic the contour and prosody of human speech.  Talking drums are unique to West Africa, woven into the cultural identities of distinct communities ranging from Igbo to Yoruba, and master talking drummers not only create artful music, but can also convey complex messages using drumming as a “language.”  The Igbo’s ukom drums can produce ten different pitches, a range of color and vibrancy which Uziogwe captures in his playfully percussive melodies.  Minimalistic and mesmerizing, the music is a harmonious interleaving of Western pianism and Igbo tradition, a fond salute to the composer’s heritage.

If you enjoyed “Ukom,” you might also like…

Suggested Listening: “Presto e leggiero” (Instructive Study No. 1, Op. 6) by Benna Moe

Since apparently I’m on an obscure-Nordic-composers kick (see June 2’s post), this week’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC takes us to Denmark for Benna Moe’s Instructive Study No. 1, Op. 6, performed below by pianist Catherine Penderup (DK).

About the Composer:

Benna Moe. (source)

Benna Moe (1897-1983) was a force to be reckoned with.  A virtuoso organist, pianist, and mezzo-soprano, she got her musical start at an all-girls’ school in the affluent town of Gentofte, Denmark.  It was there that she first began composing at the age of twelve, her early output ranging from simple songs to an orchestral overture.  She grew up in a bourgeois household, the only sister among brothers, all of whom supported her talents (and one of whom — a bookseller and publisher — ensured that her music went to print).

Moe ranks among the greatest women in Denmark’s history, and her music is intertwined in the stories and lives of other important Danish women.  In 1913, for instance, she composed a piece celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Johanne Luise Heiberg, star of 19th-century Danish film and theatre.  When Margarethe II of Denmark (then, heir presumptive to the Danish throne; now, Queen) was married in Copenhagen in 1967, Moe composed a wedding waltz in her honor.  (As an interesting feminist side note, Margarethe II became heir presumptive in 1953, when Parliament altered the Danish constitution and allowed for a new law of succession; prior to that year, only men could ascend the Danish throne.)  Following a performance of Moe’s music at Copenhagen’s National Scala, one reviewer commended her “ladylike attitude [as] she directs her own compositions.”

Though I couldn’t dig up much information on Moe, what I did find reveals an interesting character and important cultural figure.  As I’ve discussed in past posts, women composers receive far too little attention, so I was delighted to stumble upon her wonderful music and feature it here today.

About the Piece:

The album Romantic Piano Works by Danish Women Composers (how’s that for specificity?!) features two sets of Moe’s “instructive studies,” her opuses 6 and 9.  An instructive study, or étude, is exactly what it sounds like: a “teaching” piece of music, often challenging, for a student to practice with the goal of improving his or her technical and musical skills.  While Moe’s Op. 9 set of three instructive studies presents lighthearted sketches of Italy (titles include “Venezia” and “Tarantelle”), her Op. 6 is a much heavier, more formal trio of works.  “Presto e leggiero” (Italian performance instructions meaning “very fast and delicate”) is the first of the three Op. 6 studies.  Brooding and undulant, it challenges the pianist with swelling waves of notes in constant motion, while a plaintive melody is woven into the music’s billowing texture.  About a minute in, the key transforms from minor, hushed and urgent, to a hopeful and nostalgic major mode.  The respite is short-lived, however: by two minutes, the darkness of minor has seeped back in, tugging the musical narrative once more toward a place of despair.

If you enjoyed Instructive Study No. 1, Op. 6, you might also like…