Rossini with the Denver Pops Orchestra

I finally got around to posting this video of my performance with the Denver Pops Orchestra last October. It is better than I remembered. Not a technically perfect performance, but I think it has enough character and flash to compensate for any minor errors. To quote the great Ludwig van Beethoven, “To play a wrong note is insignificant, to play with out passion is inexcusable.”

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I’ve stayed pretty busy the last several months. I worked with a local high school marching band last fall that made finals in the state marching band competition, I launched a new website for the Denver Pops Orchestra (visit it here), and I became an affiliate faculty clarinet teacher at a private Christian college, also nearby.

I’m feeling inspired to write again but I’m not sure where I will find the time. I have so many unrealized ideas to explore on this publication and I am tempted to stay up late a couple evenings per week to flesh them out. Wish me luck. And feel free to post your feedback on the video, too.

Clarinet recital videos: Hommage a C. Debussy

An hommage is a piece of music written to pay tribute to something or someone. In this case, the tribute is being paid by Hungarian clarinet professor Béla Kovács to French composer Claude Debussy. Béla Kovács (b. 1937) is Professor of Clarinet at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music and performs in orchestras in Budapest, Hungary. Here is what Professor Kovacs had to say about these pieces:

My pedagogical activities inspired me to compose the Hommages. The pieces were Bela-Kovacs intended to be etudes or studies which students may use as supplementary material to the usual dry and mechanical – although indispensable – exercises. They contain various challenges. If performed with impressive dexterity, proper tone production and sufficient knowledge of styles, coupled with a sense of humor and a certain amount of fantasy, they could, hopefully, find success even on the concert stage. I recommend the Hommages to all my former, present, and future students, and also to those, who, recognizing their value, may wish to devote more concentrated attention to them.

Béla Kovács is an excellent replicator of various composers’ styles, such as that of Claude Debussy (1862-1918). The bulk of Debussy’s works fall under the category of French Impressionism, which was a movement in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century that departed from the more obvious, overt style of Romanticism. Impressionist music is much like impressionist art: it depicts the figurative meaning of a person, object, or scene rather than the literal portrait. The emotions are more subtle and covert. Also, the melodies are more difficult to identify because they weave together an atmosphere rather than a song or dance. Kovács directly quotes at least two of Debussy’s works in this piece for unaccompanied clarinet including his Premiere Rhapsody and Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, which is perhaps Debussy’s most famous work.

Serenity Now: Grieg

One of my inspirations for this series on Emotion in Classical Music was listening to the local Classical radio station’s “Road Rage Remedy.” On weekdays, at 7:20am and 5:20pm, they play a piece of Classical music that creates a serene atmosphere in the car. When listening to this music in the height of rush hour, it is difficult to get upset when someone cuts me off, breezes by on the shoulder, waits to merge until the last second, or drives slowly in the left lane. If I turn up the volume in my car, I can’t even hear the road or engine noise. It is quite pleasant.

Edvard Grieg‘s (1843-1907) Lyric Pieces for Solo Piano are an example of a Road Rage Remedy. The piano can be an incredibly calming instrument. It’s something about the way those hammers hit the strings that draws my ear. Pianos can sound like wind, rushing or bubbling water, a car engine, a full orchestra, a woman’s voice, or even children playing,

The tone in Arietta from Book 1 of the Lyric Pieces reminds me of my son, Bennett. He is eight months old and has a playful, innocent, content character (most of the time). In fact, it is not uncommon for the unique character of a piece of Classical music to remind me of specific people I know, famous people, or figures in history. Assigning a theme song to a specific person is called a leitmotif. It first appeared in Wagner’s operas and has been used in countless contexts, from Peter and the Wolf to Star Wars. I would love to do a series on leitmotif in the future.

I have put together a slide show to go with today’s clip. The serene atmosphere in the Lyric Piece is achieved again with a soft dynamic, a slow tempo, major chords, some rubato (the changes in speed at which the song is played), and the fact that it sounds a lot like the song Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Try singing the words of it to this clip. The rhythm and tempo are the same, but the melody is different. Of course, this was originally composed by Mozart in 1781 as the theme of Twelve Variations on “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman,” a French folksong.

I think next time I’m in sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I’ll put on this music and think about my son, who doesn’t have a care in the world.

Keeping Score

I am getting closer to writing my first post about one of my favorite works of orchestral music: Barber’s Symphony No. 1.

Before I do, I have a quick influence I’d like to mention: the PBS miniseries Keeping Score. Again featuring Michael Tilson Thomas, Keeping Score is a show on PBS with 55-minute episodes that are spent analyzing works of classical music. There are 8 episodes so far that span 3 seasons, and the first six episodes are available from iTunes. You can buy all six for $8.99 or each episode for $1.99. Here is a list of the works discussed:

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”
Stravinsky: Rite of Spring
Copeland: various
Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique
Ives: Holidays Symphony
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5

In these episodes, MTT shows the viewer the historical significance of each work and they it was so revolutionary. He actually visits many of the settings in which the work was written, performed, and places it influenced. The scenes often cut back to the San Francisco Symphony performing each piece to illustrate the point MTT made. I enjoy the fact that in many of the episodes we get the performer’s take on the music. For example, orchestra members speak to what it meant to live in soviet Russia during the time Shostakovich composed Symphony No. 5 or what it was like to perform Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

If you only watch one episode, for $1.99 I recommend the Rite of Spring episode. This is another work similar to Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra that displays the full range of what a symphony orchestra is capable of. If you have heard this piece before and thought it strange and inaccessible, watch this episode and you will be sure to change your mind.

YTSO

Continuing in the series of influences for my Big Idea is the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. In 2008, YouTube announced that it was taking video auditions for an orchestra that would give a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York in 2009. Videos were posted of conductors and professional symphony musicians giving instructions for how the audition materials were to be performed. Many amateur musicians made their audition debut by simply downloading the music, watching the video master classes, and uploading their audtion to YouTube. The 101-member orchestra was selected and it rehearsed for a week in New York City before giving a concert. This concert may be watched in two parts: part one and part two. Other than several bad transitions, this concert was filled with great music and talent.

After the success of the first YTSO, another one was assembled in 2011 at a much grander scale. This time, the venue was the Sydney Opera House in Australia. There are three major themes associated with this orchestra that inspire me:

Great visuals. In both concerts, Obscura Digital provided digital projections that illustrated the music. Images were projected inside the concert halls as well as on the outside of the sails of the Sydney Opera House in dramatic fashion. As you can see below, they are absolutely stunning. During the 2011 concert, a sand artist illustrated one of the pieces. It is pretty impressive stuff. (see 1:47:42 below). As I said in my last post, there are no limits to what the imagination can make of this music.

Digital projections during “Mothership” by Obscura Digital

Personal stories. In between pieces were videos of various performers in the concert. Each expressed what being in the YTSO was like and what music meant to them personally. Here are three:

“Music puts out your fears, your deepest emotions, your angers, everything you have inside you.” – Maria Chiossi, harp (Brescia, Italy)

“I have always had music going on in my head. This is why I love being a musician. When you actually feel the audience feeling what you are feeling, it’s great!” – Xiomara Mass, oboe (Oberlin College, Ohio, USA – originally from Puerto Rico)

“I’ve put my entire career in the hands of the internet. These are my teachers. Musicians who are no longer alive, but who left their works behind, recorded in black and white. I learn from them. I incorporate their movements into mine. When I play a new piece, I upload it. I want people to know who I am, what I do, and to appreciate it.” – Stepan Grytsay, violin (Salta, Argentina – originally from Ukrane)

Knowing part of the performers’ stories helps establish a bond between the performer, the music, and the listener. I wish that our culture revered Classical musicians in much the same way as we do Hollywood actors. When I hear performances, it can be difficult to place the performance in context when I know nothing of the performer. I have an interest not just in the performer’s resume, as though he were applying for the job of my patronage, but I am interested in his influences and life experiences. I am interested in what lead him to this point to be playing this piece at this moment in time. Right now, the audience members have to do a lot of research to follow their favorite instrumentalist or singer.

Classical music advocacy. The scope and grand scale of these videos reminds me of the Olympics. It gets me excited about Classical music, art, world cultures, and God’s unique creation in each artist the way that the Olympics excite me about sports and athleticism. The diversity of instruments, sounds, and styles that the symphony orchestra displays may be easily compared to the diversity of humanity. I’ll be sure to write more about this in a future post. Michael Tilson Thomas opened the 2011 concert with this statement:

“Classical music is a wonderful 1200 year-old tradition that witnesses everything that it has meant and what it means right now to be human.”

– MTT

I have embedded the entire Grand Finale Concert below. Just in case you do not wish to watch the entire two hours and twenty-two minutes, I have prioritized in order of those I believe are a “must see” with some brief commentary:

1:25:00 (intro at 1:23:08): Bates: Mothership – Mason Bates, composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (13:42) – Mothership is a great example of the really cool things modern composers are doing with orchestras. This is one of the highlights of the concert because it includes the world premiere of a brand new composition that features improvisation, electronic music, virtuoso soloists, and incredible visual projections. For the studio recording of this work with other example improvisations, watch this video. Even though improvisation was a major part of classical music, it seems it fell away in the interests of preserving the music in its original form. As Mason Bates puts it, Mothership brings that back. Here are the featured soloists:

John Burgess (Canberra, Australia), electric double bass
Ali Bello (New York), violin
Paulo Calligopoulos (Sau Paulo, Brazil), electric guitar
Su Chang (Beijing, China), guzheng

1:08:01: Barton: Prelude – William Barton, didgeridoo (5:07) – I love William Barton’s improvisation here. Listening to his playing is sheer joy and impresses upon me the incredible number of sounds one instrument can make, such as the didgeridoo.

48:13 (intro at 46:51): Brittan: Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (16:35) – If you haven’t heard this piece, be sure to check it out. It features each of the instruments in a modern symphony orchestra and helps audience members match the sound with the instrument that produces it. This is as good a performance of Young Person’s Guide as any I’ve heard. Watch the intro (46:51) if you get a chance.

Renee Fleming

41:20: Mozart: Cara Bell’idol Mio (3:07) – Renee Fleming, soprano with the Sydney Children’s Choir – I forgot how beautiful children’s choirs can be. They convey such a great sense of purity, innocence, and a sweetness that only children’s voices can. When I think about how broken and stressed this world is, listening to this music makes that melt away. This piece features Renee Fleming, opera star extraordinaire, and the Sydney Children’s choir. Check out Renee Fleming’s website – it is very classy. Her voice is captivating, as is this piece by Mozart.

17:56 – Grainger: Arrival Platform Humlet (3:07)
As with all of Grainger’s dances, this one is very playful. It has a mysterious energy as though the character in the piece were plotting something mischievous. I appreciate the contrast between playful, carefree sections and intense explosions of sound.

36:30: Ginastera: Estancia, Mvt 4: Danza Final (3:26)
This is some great music from Latin America. The Danza Final really gets my blood pumping and reminds me of one of my favorite drum & bugle corps shows of all time – Blue Devils 1999: Rhythms at the End of Time (click to watch)

1:47:42: Abbas & Jackobsen: Ascending Bird: Suite for String Orchestra – Richard Tognetti and Colin Jackobsen, violinists; Kseniya Simonova, sand artist (7:15)
1:58:56: Stravinsky: Firebird Suite, Mvts 5, 6 & 7 (13:06)
3:15: Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture (8:17)
1:20:32: Strauss: Fanfare for the Vienna Philharmonic (2:19)
22:18 – J.S. Bach: Toccata in F major (7:04) – Cameron Carpenter, organ
32:41: Ginastera: Estancia, Mvt. 2: Danza del Trigo (3:09)
1:37:33: Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto, Mvt. 3 – Stephan Jackiw, violin (6:48)
1:13:08: Constable: Suna – Synergy Percussion Ensemble (3:59)
2:14:46 (encore) Schubert: Rosemunde Overture

Did you like any of these pieces? What stood out to you?

Fantasia and imagination

I turned 16 years old on January 1, 2000 – Y2K. While many people were huddled in their bomb shelters at home surrounded by months of non-perishable food stuffs due to the Y2K scare, my family and I went to the local IMAX theater to see Disney’s Fantasia 2000. This event changed my life.

Fantasia is another form of music in motion. Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski teamed up to select seven orchestral works that were animated for the movie theater. Some of these animations were abstract, some depicted real stories with characters, and some featured Disney characters, such as Mickey in the The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas. It was released in 1940 and was to be the first of an on going series of Classical music pieces set to animation that would rotate in and out of the theater. No pieces were added, but Fantasia was re-released in theatres again in 1985 and it was remastered for a 1990 release for VHS as well.

Roy Disney, producer of Fantasia 2000

Roy Disney (Walt’s nephew) used the profits from the re-release of Fantasia to produce Fantasia 2000. While the original Fantasia used many new animation techniques and “Fantasound,” one of the first multi-channel recording systems, Fantasia 2000 used many new techniques as well. Most notable among them were IMAX technology and computer animation. The commentary and special features on the DVD are fascinating.

For this new Fantasia, Roy Disney teamed with James Levine to select these eight pieces:

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5, Mvt. 1 (shortened version)
*Respighi: The Pines of Rome, Mvts 1, 3 & 4 (shortened versions)
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2, Allegro
Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals, Finale (shortened version)
Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Grieg: Pomp and Circumstance, Marches 1-4
*Stravinsky: Firebird Suite, Mvts. 4-7

*Works I’d like to discuss on this blog in detail.

Here is the official movie trailer:

This film demonstrates something I call “mutual inspiration.” When art media are crossed, such as Classical music and animation (visual art), the artists from both sides may be inspired by one another. Many of the animators for Fantasia 2000 noted that they chose to pursue a career in animation because they had watched the original Fantasia and saw how the music could inspire great visual art. I pursued a career in music in part because of how exciting Classical music became when I learned to use my imagination and picture in my mind what the music was depicting. Disney’s achievement in this film was his use of animation to enhance the tangible emotions found in Classical music.

In future posts, I want to explore the way Classical music expresses emotions in ways that few other art forms can. One possible format is to pick one emotion per week and choose a different piece each day that expresses that emotion in a profound way. Emotions may include anger, rage, fear/suspense, ecstasy, peace/tranquility, and the various emotions wrapped up in love.

Getting back on topic, Fantasia 2000 is an influence because it demonstrates the great potential of human imagination in relation to Classical music. Between the two Fantasias, 15 pieces were animated out of the thousands of powerful, inspiring works the genre has to offer. This is not to mention the thousands of ways these pieces could be animated.

In my experience, it is impossible to enjoy Classical music without using my imagination and developing specific images, ideas, or characters in my mind. To me, the music has no meaning if it does not speak to some part of human experience, including my specific memories: love gained, love lost or love missed, elation in success or depression in failure, innocence or the loss of it, loneliness, personal intimacy, and divine transcendence.

Get it? Use you imagination!

Here is a quote from my next topic, the YouTube Symphony Orchestra:

“Classical music is a wonderful 1200 year-old tradition that witnesses everything that it has meant and what it means right now to be human.”  – Michael Tilson Thomas

Music in Motion

Marcus High School Band – Flower Mound, Texas

I gained exposure to much of my favorite Classical music through my experience in public school performing arts. Like Disney’s Fantasia and Fantasia 2000, marching bands and drum & bugle corps animate music with formations, props, and various forms of choreography and dance. These marching ensembles combine art forms in the same way that the opera genre combines vocal and instrumental music, visual art, theater, and technical theater. I am most inspired by those ensembles who choose symphonic pieces such as the Marcus High School Marching Band, Phantom Regiment Drum & Bugle Corps, and Star of Indiana Drum & Bugle Corps.

While Star of Indiana no longer exists, they produced a show called “Blast!”. Instead of performing on a football field with over a hundred people, a couple dozen took the show to the stage. Blast! includes professional brass players, percussionists, and dancers who perform shows on Broadway in the style of drum & bugle corps, but more refined and varied than a typical marching show. Their repertoire includes various famous Classical works as well as jazz, rock, and even techno music. For many young people, just seeing this DVD is inspiration enough to start to play and instrument or take dance lessons.

Many consider Classical music to be boring. These marching and dance ensembles bring out the sheer excitement, electricity, and intense emotion intrinsic in this kind of music. When I write about Classical music, I want to draw from the excitement and show just how much of an incredible experience listening to and performing Classical music can be. I want to set music to videos and slide shows of related paintings, photography, even animated GIFs to convey the meaning and emotion of the music.

Big idea

I want to create a multimedia presentation, perhaps an eBook, on the pieces of music that are most meaningful to me. I want to narrate what is happening in those pieces and what I listen for. I would include pictures, audio clips, videos, and related pieces that remind me of the works being presented. I would discuss some of the music theory behind it, but only in order to shed light on how the composer achieves the affect of the music or to explain why that particular piece is unique.

While I believe presenting facts about the music and its composer is important to developing and enhancing the listener’s appreciation of it, I want to tie in people’s personal experiences with the music. I hope to include prominent reviews of the music and perhaps some short interviews with music professors, performers, and composers. I am also interested in the opinions of those who may not be trained in classical music, but appreciate it as well.

In order to choose the format of my presentation, I plan to do a survey of related literature. This will help me find inspiration and narrow what it is I have to contribute.

Influences:

Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra
My wife and I attended Fort Worth Symphony concerts on and off for the last several years we’ve lived in Texas. For me, each concert was a delight and I was fully engaged. For Dawn, her levels of delight varied. The times where she enjoyed the concerts the most are when a visual element was added, not to upstage the music, but to enhance the audience’s understanding and imagination of the music. Her appreciation grew when time was taken to highlight sections of the music with imagery.

Two examples are of concerts with Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite, and of Holst’s The Planets. For the two suites, which are both based on mythology, paintings of ancient Russian mythology and the story of Daphnis and Chloe were displayed on a large screen above the orchestra. With The Planets, the most recent images taken by NASA of the other 7 planets were displayed in high definition in the most dramatic way. The slide shows were timed to the music so that paintings that inspired greater emotion displayed at an emotional high point in the music.

It gave me much pleasure to see her excited about Classical music. I want to incorporate a visual element to my presentation of classical music if not so others can appreciate it better, than just for her. I love you, Dawn!

Benjamin Zander’s Ted Talk
In this brilliant presentation, Zander used a Chopin piano prelude to prove that everyone can “come to love and understand Classical music.” He spoke about what it is like to perform the music, gave a very simple framework for the form of the music (going from the note B to the note A, the C is played to make the B sound sad, etc), mentioned a few related works (Mozart Symphony No. 40, Shakespeare’s Hamlet), and spoke of vision and following the long line from the beginning to the end (a life lesson).

I appreciated how he validated that many don’t have an interest in classical music, some are lulled to sleep, and some lost focus after a couple minutes and wonder “What’s for lunch?” I think it is important to validate people’s objections to listening to and appreciating it. The way Benjamin Zander overcame this is by relating the music to something personal to the audience. He told a story of how a listener was impacted by this and was able to mourn the death of his brother for the first time by listening to the Chopin prelude. This is one approach that I want to use in advocating for classical music.

Those are the two biggest influences. In future posts, I will discuss other media that influence my desire to write, including:

Fantasia and Fantasia 2000
Blast!
Keeping Score (PBS)
The Philadelphia Orchestra filing for bankruptcy
Dan Pink – TMEA Keynote speech (from his book, A Whole New Mind)

Until then, thanks for reading!