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Thursday, September 08, 2016

Sidney Homer and Samuel Barber: Letters to a Young Composer

I'm reading Barbara Heyman's magisterial book about Samuel Barber, a must -read for anyone who loves music and wants to know about process.

Barber (1910-1981) best known for Adagio for Strings, Knoxville Summer of 1915, Essays for Orchestra, School for Scandal Overture, the operas Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra,  and magnificent concerti for piano, for violin and for cello, was the nephew of the great contralto Louise Homer (1871-1947).

As much as an influence as 'Aunt Louise' must have been, she was Toscanini's Orfeo at the Met, it composer and educator Sidney Homer (18965-1953) that young Sam Barber found a nurturing influence. Heyman's book features many letters from 'Uncle Sid', filled with the kind of advice, encouragement and occasional kick in the pants any young person would be lucky to have from a mentor.

Don't miss Barbara Heyman's book. Sidney Homer's autobiography My Wife and I is a wonderful look at top level music making a century ago. There's alsoa  good discussion of Louise Homer's career in Andrew Davis's The American Opera Singer. Not to be missed is Anne Homer's biography of her mother, Louise Homer and the Gold Age of Opera. 

I can't date these letters from Sidney to Sam. Barber wrote to his Uncle from age 10 until shortly before Sidney Homer died in 1953.

Letters to Samuel Barber from Sidney Homer
c. 1925-1945

From Samuel Barber, the Composer and his Music  by Barbara Heyman

There are three things you must aim for definitely. The first is the development of taste that should, in time, amount to a passion for the best music in all forms.  Your whole life will be influenced by the forming of your taste in the next few years.

Taste is formed by coming into close and intimate contact with the great works of the masters. The way to do this is to look ahead and see what programs are to be given can't attend all the concerts, therefore you pick the best. Suppose for instance, the Flonzaly Quartet is going to play a Beethoven Quartet. You get your ticket and you buy a copy of the quartet beforehand. You then learn more in an hour at the performance than you possibly could learn in any other way in a year.

Everything depends now on the development of your taste and the refinement of your sensibilities. If you think of music from the point of view of sensationalism and publicity, your work will show it. If you learn to love the poetic undercurrent and the subtleties of beauty  and spirituality which have been expressed in music, your work will show it just as much.


The wonderful thing about art is that a man can conceal nothing; it reveals him as naked and unadorned...Sincerity and beauty seem to stand the test, but love for mankind and willingness to serve humbly seem to fill the world with joy.


You don't need opinions. A little praise is pleasant if you don't have to go too far out of your way to get it, but you will have to learn to get along without opinions.  Opinions don't change a note of add to your stature. If you can give pleasure, well and good. Your work is your own affair and yours only.  Depending on opinion means less independence in your work. It also means laying yourself open to pinpricks which may be boresome. It can result in uncertainty. Even too much praise can do things, introduce a smirk and too much gush in your style.

The paucity of titles in the musical world is alarming. It indicates a lack. Perhaps language is inadequate. If so, then young men like you must invent something and not go on serenading and suite-ing.


I can imagine how Beethoven felt when they stormed at him for writing the third symphony. If he believed all they said he could feel like a criminal, a debaser of public taste. I do not know a single man who hasn't had rocks in his life. Brahms had plenty. A good deal depends on how we handle them. They may not be so serious in themselves, but if we get flustered and lose our heads we can force them to do us considerable harm...Poise, equanimity, philosophy, a sense of proportion, gratitude for what we have, a "calm center", fixed determination and an inflexible purpose are all to the good.

Resentment, impatience, self pity, exaggerated self deprecation, an intense consciousness of the need of making good in the eyes of others, a lack of grit in meeting emergencies, a general complaining of spirit and weak sporting blood are all to the bad.

Take some boy you know and put him in your place. He wrote your sonata, and your serenade, and struggled with your concerto. How do you regard him, dispassionately? Do you congratulate him on his gifts and what he has achieved and feel that, with good sense and intelligent self-control, he can carry his powers to a high state of development, or do you feel that he is a broken reed, a cracked canoe, smashed on the rocks of a difficult concerto, a hopeless wreck because his teacher does not agree with his opinion of his latest work? Take a sincere, objective view of your friend and make up your mind how  you wish him to feel and proceed. Then act accordingly. Don't dodge. Be as strict with yourself as you would be with him.


There is one thing that I want to make clear  to you and that is that resentment does not get us anywhere. It only eats the heart out of the resenter, and what good is there to that? I often think that a good friend could have saved Bizet's life at the time Carmen was produced. Patience and a sense of humor are wonderful lifesavers...Through it all a rhinoceros hide is a good thing. The bigger the talent the tougher the hide, say I....Resentment eats the heart, but philosophy is an armor that protects the source of future work which is the one thing that must be kept inviolate.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Mother Teresa

Watching the canonization mass for Mother Teresa of Calcutta, I realize there are many who do not think well of her. She took money from dictators.. She did not provide adequate medical care. She traveled the world fostering her own cult of personality and left the destitute behind her. I've heard these things said about her, and worse. In particular there are medical personnel who have been appalled at the conditions at the House of the Dying in Calcutta. The Church in desperate need of positive PR has glommed on to her.

I've never been to Calcutta and what I know about Mother Teresa I've heard from sympathetic reports. It has never been my understanding that Mother Teresa intended to take the dying destitute off the streets and cure them. In 1949, there were no cures. Except the need of a cure for poverty and loneliness, and we are still not there. Instead, I always thought Mother Teresa's goal was to insist that all persons when they come to die do so in love.

I have worked in hospitals and I have worked among the dying. It is often sad, exhausting, messy, gross and disgusting work. How many doing this work have been repelled, even as they work so hard toward compassion?

Mother Teresa got the most unloved people in India off the streets, into shelter and in surroundings far better than they would ever had had. Far worse than most of us can imagine, but far better than the streets to which they had been abandoned. People were washed and fed and cared for. Was this revolutionary in India, anywhere in 1949?

Her point was not medical cure but spiritual comfort. That's hard to understand but I believe this to be at the center of her mission.

It's a comfort to know that Mother Teresa herself struggled for years with doubt an loneliness. Acknowledging these doubts may have allowed this tiny woman to persevere. I'm not sure I believe in saints, or heaven, or sometimes even in God. Maybe I have that in common with Mother Teresa. I can't imagine what she'd make of being called a saint.

But somehow she was energized to do what no one had done before in taking in that first dying man .
She found mission where others found abhorrence. She channelled despair of her own crises of faith into service. And she kept doing it until she died, and she got others to do it, and continue doing it. Call it sainthood or call it charity or call it nuts. I watched the canonization of Mother Teresa with a full heart.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Too Twisted or Twisted Too

(The spell check is busted!)

They put a mic in your hand and a film crew behind you. You are told to go into the crowd and ask people, random passersby, quesitons that will lead to pithy remarks promoting Twisted 2. What would you ask people? I have to do this on Frday, so any pointers would be helpful.

Central Ohio mavens may remember Twisted, a wonderful production from the Columbus Symphony, Opera Columbus and Ballet Met, given at the Ohio Theatre two years ago.

Now, it's time for Twisted 2:

Ohio Theatre

September 22 7.30 pm
September 23 8 pm
September 24 8 pm
September 25 8 pm

The original production sounded wonderul of course, but my God it looked fantastic, too.
I was the host/emcee/circus barker, clad in a tux expertly fitted on portly me by the wonderful Ballet Met wardrobe staff. Only one snarky remark about my avoirdupuis (awesome word, yes?) and that NOT from wardrobe, those tactful and gifted people.

Twisted 2 opens with the Ride of the Valkyries with me on a white horse and chain mail...not. There'll be selections from Schonberg's Verklarte Nacht, music by Smetana and Haydn, selections form Turandot, Barber of Seville, Carmen and Porgy and Bess.

Even better, the fabulous Columbus Symphony conducted by Rossen Milanov-I'm agog to hear them in wagner, finally-and nothing-but beautfiul Ballet Met, thank you Edwaard Liang. Opera Columbus's Peggy Kriha Dye formulates the perfect program to have the ommunity humming-literally-and returning to the box office.

Me? I get to open and close the show. Hello, thank you slam bam thank you all. What's different is the video produciton. This Friday I repair to the Gateway plaza near OSU, WOSU's expert TV staff in charge, to ask you kiss a tenor?...could you do a jetee?....what the hell (I have to say hell, not ...well...) is a jetee?....Can you name three operas, not counting Phantom.....If I told you the orchesrta includig a crumhorn, maracas and a virginal, would you be inclined to go?

I'm told CD 10-something (are there other radio stations in Columbus? I wasn't aware) will be at a beer garden at the Gateway Friay night. That'll make for intersting ambient sound, but a liquored up random passerby is not a bad thing.

C'mon down to Gateway plaza near campus Friday night around 6 and be part of the show. We'll
talk aobut the Columbus Symphony as a perfect date night, how in most operas everyone shtups the wrong person and everyone usually dies-great music, too-and how the ballet looks more beautiful than anything you've seen this side of a newborn's tush.

See you Friday. More important, see you in the Ohio Theatre in September.

Monday, May 23, 2016

A New Blog to Check Out

This blog emphaiszes equal opportuniy for all.
It's a passionate rerad, updated often.
Of interest to anyone who has ever been told 'No' despite best efforts.


Thursday, May 19, 2016

Columbus Symphony May 20, 21 2016: Latin America! Piazzolla, Golijov, Ginastera

Rossen Milanov conducts the Columbus Symphony in two concerts of music by composers born in Argentina, Golijov, Ginastera and Piazzolla in the Southern Theater, Friday May 20 and Saturday May 21 at 8 PM. Violinist Bella Hristova joins the Orchestra in Piazzolla's Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.

Pre-concert talks one hour before each concert. This is the 2015-2016 season finale.

Osvaldo Golijov
Tango! The duple meter dance craze that European and african traditions sent to Argentina in the mid 19th century! I've had more than one friend born in Latin American tell me that all music made south of he border is intended to be danced. Latins don't sit and gaze into space in concert hall.Their music came from Africa, from Spain and from Italy. Rhythm and color are more important that tunes or contemplation.This weekend's Columbus Symphony concerts feature music by the master of the nuevo tango, Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), by his teacher Alberto Ginastera (1916-1982) and by Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960)

Of the three,  Piazzolla became a Latin American wide sensation, a popular star. He was the true successor of Carlo Gardel, whose sexy tango singing made him a heart throb on three continents before his untimely death in a place crash in 1935. Indeed, the young Piazzolla was encouraged by Carlo Gardel, who went so far as to invite the boy to tour, and its a very good thing Astor didn't get on that plane.

Piazzolla was born in Argentina but spent his formative years in New York.  He was known as a brawler, a ladies man and as an exemplary musician. Not wishing to by typed as a popular entertainer, Piazzolla studied with Ginastera and later went to Paris to work with Nadia Boulanger. That auguste lady, mentor to Stravinsky and Copland, was unimpressed until he played her some original tangos. The lady sent him packing. There is your future. Go and pursue it. He did.

Piazzola wasn't afraid to incorporate the rhythms and the sounds of the waterfront dives of New York and Buenos Aires into his music. Estancios Portenas The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires,  was written between 1966 and 1970. The composer did not intend the works to be played together. He enjoyed performing and riffing on these pieces with his own ensemble, with guitar, piano, rhythm, sometimes flute and always Pazzolla on the bandoneon.

The four seasons were knitted together into one piece after Piazzolla's death by Leonid Desnyatikov.   You'll hear delightful references to Vivaldi's Four Seasons buried in Piazzolla's fire and smolder. I'll bet Astor Piazzolla, who wanted to study counterpoint with Boulanger, would have been delighted.

Osvaldo Golijov, of Argentine, Jewish and Arab background, wrote Last Rounds  for string ensemble in 1991. He had just heard of Astor Piazzolla's debilitating stroke, leading to his death the following year. Piazzolla was a known pugilist, hence the title 'Last Rounds' in his honor. For Golijov, Piazzolla had been a national hero, and his death marked an ending point,  a "we'll never see the likes of him again" in Argentina's music. The second section of Last Rounds, lentissimo,  subtly quotes Carlos Gardel's Mi Buenos Aires Querido.

Alberto Ginastera
Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) became an international figure. His opera Don Rodrigo opened the New York State Theatre at Lincoln Center in 1966, starring a chubby Spanish tenor called Placido Domingo. Ginastera came to the U.S. in 1945 to study with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood. He was always very good at 'netwroking' and wasn't shy about self promotion. Ginastera often used the dance rhythms of Latin America in the most modern musical forms. His music is often astringent but grabs the listener with its vitality. He is never dull. Of our three composers, Ginastera was probably the most sophisticated and sometimes the least audience friendly.

Variaciones Concertanes comes from 1953. This is similar to the orchestral suites of Bach and Haydn. We are presented with  a theme that is later explored by small orchestral ensembles featuring a solo instrument. We begin with Harp and cello, and later feature the flute, clarinet, trumpet and horn. Finally, there's a wild 'perpetual motion' for violin' and a concluding rondo for orchestra. This is the popular Ginastera, leading into a period where he favored the twelve tone method and looked toward ultra-modern music. But that's another story.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Columbus Symphony April 22 and 23: A Scandal Concert and Mozart!

Rossen Milanov conducts Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony no. 1; Liszt/Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy and Mozart's Symphony 41, Jupiter Southern Theater, 8 p.m. this Friday and Saturday in the Southern Theatre. Pre-concert talks at 7. Stewart Goodyear is piano soloist.
Stewart Goodyear

The Columbus Symphony 's Vienna Festival continues this weekend with a more than century trajectory of music this weekend. We'll be moving from Mozart's last symphony, not performed in his lifetime, to a synthesis of a Schubert lied which grew into a fantasy for solo piano and was refigured by Franz Liszt, on to what Rossen Milanov refers to the "Mt. Everest of romantic music", Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony 1.

WHEW! Fasten your seatblets.

Let's start at the end. Arnold Schoenberg  (1874-1951) produced a concert in Vienna on March 31, 1913, to introduce some of his own music and that of his pupils, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. This was the Vienna where Mahler had recently died, and the Vienna of Sigmund Freud. Thoughts turned inward were finding their way into deeply personal, often highly chromatic music. The older order passeth, the old Emperor, the waltzes, the pretty tunes and pretty sensations became earthy, dangerous and Schoenberg.

Schoenberg had been working in a rich, heavily romantic style, writing music of well cushioned
Rossen Milanov
beauty mixed with eroticism. His expansive lines nevertheless embraced conventional tonality, providing the listener points of rest and direction throughout. This was about to change.

The Kammersymhonie presented by Schoenberg that night in Vienna is scored for fifteen instruments and runs about twenty minutes. There are tunes, there are points of reference. But such points are presented in short bursts, and seldom repeated. Later on Schoenberg was to say that musical motifs/melodic gems/tunes needed to fulfill their function quickly and move on. This deprived the listener of a road map. Listeners willing to explore get carried away by rapidly shifting sounds and themes. They may sound chaotic at first, but begin to make sense as you listen further and expect more:

About that Scandal Concert. The audience rioted on hearing two of the five Altenberg Songs by Alban Berg. Composer Oscar Strauss was sued for slugging a music critic. Said critic went on to write that the punch was "the only good sound in the entire evening".

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) lived half as long as Beethoven and was twice as prolific, maintaining an astonishingly high quality. The Wanderer Fantasy for solo piano, was suggested by Der Wanderer, Schubert's song to a text by Georg Phillip Schmidt. A lot of romantic poetry, reflected in music, has to do with sehnsucht, or yearning. This can be sexual, or it can mean moving toward a goal, an ideal-- and failing to arrive. That which we love and need the most in unattainable. Such seems to be the thought behind Der Wanderer. 

The piano fantasy flows from one movement to the next, each "riffing" on a different section of the lied.

The adaptation for piano combines sonata form and sets of variations. The adagio part of the song becomes the adagio movement of the piano fantasy. The finale is such a killer that Schubert himself couldn't play it. "It's the devil's own music" he said.

Franz Liszt (1811-1876), classical music's first mega-star who wasn't a castrato singer, adapted the Wanderer Fantasy for piano and orchestra in 1851. Liszt was an old hand at putting his own spin on other composer's music, while not neglecting his own. Rossini, Schubert and later Verdi were favorite subjects. I doubt any of these composers would have minded. They would have appreciated Liszt's ear and his skill at the keyboard, along with his notoriety. Getting those tunes out there was good box office.

Will Mozart's music be a relief as it ends this weekend's programming? It fascinating to work backwards, from Freud's Vienna with his seeming chaos nearing war, to Mozart's expert soothing classicism. Never forget that Mozart had no problem considering himself an entertainer. He didn't set out to make grand personal statements in his music. He set out to write the best music, and he did. The Jupiter was Mozart's last Symphony. It was not played in his lifetime. It is the product of the astonishing summer of 1788, where he wrote his final three symphonies in quick succession. Astonishing too is that fact that Mozart, was passe by 1788. His music was no longer in favor. The nobility who supported to him were off fighting wars. Mozart's final three years, which saw two more operas among several magnificent works, were lonely, difficult and poor. Yet hear what he accomplished in that summer. Even Woody Allen said in Annie Hall "the slow movement of the Jupiter symphony makes life worth living!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

And Here's to Mahler!

Rossen Milanov conducts the Columbus Symphony this weekend, in Mahler's Symphony 4, Johann Strauss's Fruhlingstimmen and Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra by Osvaldo Golijov. Dawn Upshaw is the soloist. April 15, and 16 8 p.m. in the Ohio Theater.

Mention a Mahler symphony to anyone who has never heard a Mahler symphony and the reactions run the gamut from interest to running from the room with horror. Listen once and you'll find them addictive. A good addiciton. A life giving addiciton. I promise.

Gustav Mahler (180-1911) was a big personality who worked in large forms. During his lifetime he was one of the most celebrated conductors in the world. Before his early death, he had served directorships in Hamburg, and been music director of the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna Hofoper, the New York Philharmonic, and with Toscanini was the dominant musical personality at the Metropolitan Opera. Mahler's musical word was law, wherever he worked. Add to this a difficult marriage to Alma Schindler and the death of two young children and its a miracle he lived as long as he did.
As a composer, Mahler is remembered today for his enormous symphonies and his volumes of songs. There is no chamber music, there are no opera and no sacred music. There are nine numbered symphonies, part of a tenth, and his final work Das Lied von der Erde often classified as another symphony.

What about the Symphony number 4?

It's a curious work. This symphony is the spring time Mahler. He seems less mired in the struggle between life and death, light and dark, breath and no breath . Work began in the summer of 1900. When else was he going to write music? On the train between conducting gigs all over Europe (yes) ? But Mahler counted on idyllic summers in the Austrian Alps for his work. When a local band began practising within earshot, the composer thought he'd have to bid farewell to the Symphony until he could move. One day the band left. Three days later work began and three weeks later the symphony was complete.

Almost. We have a first moment that opens with sleigh bells and offers a soaring early theme for the violins. A second movement he-I imagine gleefully called a dance of death, with he violins a scordatura, tuned higher than the other instruments, giving a rough, almost nasty sound. Then the most sublime adagio. Richard Strauss told Mahler, I could never ave written music like that. Mahler himself imagined "St. Ursula, the most serious of the saints, presiding with a smile."
Mahler's obsession with larger forms brought him literally to the heavens. It was as if he had no other way to out write himself, in the time he he had left.

Mahler intended to end his third symphony with a child's vision of heaven, a poem from the German folk collection, Des Knaben Wunderhorn. 

The Third went a different way. But there's a lovely interlude with three angels

Three angles sang a sweet song...they shouted joyfully the whole...that Peter was free from sin...

But there's a theme here Mahler used again in the Fourth: Du sollst ja nicht weisen/Ach komm und erbarme dich uber mich:  Thou shall not weep/O come and have mercy on me...becomes the refrain in Das himmlische leben:  Saint Peter looks on...The Angels bake bread!....Saint Martha must be the cook!  The angelic voices cheer the senses, so that all awake to joy!

Mahler needed a finale for his fourth symphony. The work began larger, ran into a raucous dance, and settled into that gorgeous adagio. The finish was provided by another setting of the Wunderhorn songs, which he had completed ten years earlier. It is not an anti climax, but a pendant. A child's vision of heaven, Das himmlische Leben, The Heavenly Life

The Fourth became the most accessible of the Mahler symphonies. At just under an hour it is the shortest. It does not predict the end of the world. Instead, after a storm it suggests peace, with a child's smile.

Osvaldo Golijov was born in La Plata, Argentina in 1960. He studied there, and later in Israel an the States. Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra are part of the composer's output written for soprano Dawn Upshaw. Golijov has a sophisticated background, but his tone it seems to me is more at home with the Wunderhorn songs of the Mahler Fourth than the high drama of the later Mahler Symphonies. Golijov brings to his music the influences of the Far East, French sophistication and downtown grunge. What he also has is a gift for the sublime.  He can create music which is not slow, but timeless, as if time  is  unnecessary, the music filling every need:

Golijov spent a week at OSU a few years ago. He was a charming and modest gentleman and very generous with his time. I found him happier discussing the other people's music than his own. Still, I was about to discover for myself his terrific klezmer themed The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, and his oratorio La pasion segun San Marco. The St. Mark Passion was recently heard on Classical 101s Musica Sacra. I was lucky enough to catch a performance of his opera Ainadamar in Boston, another work written for Dawn Upshaw. (Note to composers:If Dawn Upshaw want sing to sing your music, DO NOT SAY NO)

Lua descolorida are verses by the Galician poet Rosalia de Castro (1837-1885)

 Moon, colorless, like the color of pale gold; though you see me, I'd like you not to see me from the heights; Take me in your rays, silently, to the space where you travel

The other songs in this set are How Slow the Wind to poetry by Emily Dickinson, and the lullaby Night of the Flying Horses, Close Your Eyes by Sally Potter, sung in Yiddish and used in Potter's film The Man who Cried. There's a sense of space, time and culture in all of Golijov's music, along with a healthy entertainment-quotient. He transcends the tango, the downtown grunge, and yiddischkeit.