Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Elijah, Get Thee Hence, Elijah

The Columbus Symphony Orchestra and Chorus present Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah in the Ohio Theater April 1 and 2 at 8 p.m. Your humble author gives pre performance talks in the theater at 7 p.m. Ronald J. Jenkins is conductor of the Columbus Symphony Chorus. Rossen Milanov,  Music Director of the Columbus Symphony, conducts both performances.

If you were a composer in mid 19th century Germany it would be easy to get lost between the death of Beethoven in 1827 and the death of Brahms 70 years later. Schubert does well. Robert Schumann holds his own. I sometimes worry about Carl Maria von Weber ( 1786-1826) and Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Weber's operas Eurytanthe and Der Fresichutz should be performed more often. Mendelssohn might have the same problem as Haydn:  a prolific composer who excelled in every genre. It's less a question of what to perform then where to begin.

Elijah is one of Mendelssohn's last works, and is probably his best loved today. It was commissioned by England's Birmingham Choral Festival, which had been the musical home of Handel's oratorios in the hundred years since that composer's death. Birmingham was a choral society in the best sense, open to member of the community from every class and station, as long as you could hold a tune and probably sing loud. We're told the Society made a lot of sound, and went for splendor in its performances. No bad thing this, since Mendelssohn was a true romantic. He loved program music. His overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream was premiered when the composer was just 17. It was an instant hit and made the young mans' name.

Mendelssohn at the piano with Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort
The oratorio had been in decline since Haydn's The Seasons and The Creation were introduced in the beginning of the 19th century. Schubert's Lazarus was left incomplete. Liszt was toying off and on with Christus, but Mendelssohn had had a success with St. Paul. But gone were the days when Handel would produce a new biblical-themed choral extravaganza every year. The last, The Triumph of Time and Truth was written in 1757.

Mendelssohn, one day reading the bible,  came across tales of the prophet Elijah in the first book of Kings. In 1838 Mendelssohn wrote to his friend Julius Schubring

    I picture Elijah as a grand and mighty prophet of a kind we would do well to have in our own day.
Powerful, zealous but also harsh and angry and saturnine; a striking contrast to the court sycophants  and the rabble; in antithesis, in fact virtually to the whole world, yet borne on wings of angels.

Schubring assisted Mendelssohn in putting together a German language libretto based on the Old Testament. The years over which the composer worked on Elijah saw him as the music director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, and serving as de facto music director for the new German Emperor. There was a lot of administrative work and a lot of "court sycophants". Mendelssohn's regular trips to England, where his music was loved,  must have been a refreshing change. Likewise the admiration of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort, who attended Mendelssohn's concerts and entertained him at Windsor.

Mendelssohn was no stranger to oratorio. He grew up on Palestrina as a child in the Berlin Singakademie. He singlehandedly brought J.S. Bach out from academia with his performances of the St. Matthew Passion, a work long neglected. Suddenly Bach was recognized as the father of Western music. St. Paul had been sung brilliantly in Birmingham, and a triumphant return to a fine chorus with a new work was too good to resist. Elijah, conducted by Mendelssohn had its premiere on August 26, 1846,  two weeks after he complete ed the score. It was hoped that Mendelssohn' s colleague Jenny Lind would sing. She did not, then. Nevertheless Elijah was a crowd pleaser then and now. Mendelssohn set Schubring's German texts from the Old Testament, I and II Kings and some of the Psalms. At the same time, an English text was prepared by William Bartholomew. The premiere was sung in English, the German text used at home.

The best one word description I can come up with for Mendelssohn's music is melodic. The man knew how to write a tune.  He also had an uncanny dramatic sense. Elijah opens with a granitic recitative for the prophet, establishing immediately who is boss. Then there's a symphonic overture The chorus begins with the cry Help Lord! Why have you forsaken us?

Go to the concerts this weekend if you want to hear more. Elijah himself is musically isolated with slow, dark music. The soprano,  tenor and mezzo each have splendid, lyrical (tuneful ) arias to relieve the dramatic tension.

My favorite moments in the score come toward the end of part 1. Elijah and the followers of Judah get into a shouting contest with King Ahab and the followers of Baal. Which god can relieve the drought? Elijah jeers on the Baalites, whose god does not respond. Call him louder!

The only down side to the Elijah premiere was the appearance of the composer himself: thin, bald and stooped. He died a year later. He had endured the death of his beloved sister, the composer Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. Not even a happy marriage and five children got him over this shock. Mendelssohn died on November 4, 1847, sixteen months after Elijah's first performance.

"We were horrified, astounded and distressed to read in the paper of the death of Mendelssohn, the greatest musical genius since Mozart, and the most amiable man."

So wrote Queen Victoria, who was known to love a good funeral. More to the point, in thirty- eight years,  Felix Mendelssohn accomplished more than many a monarch.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Mary, Mary

Tomorrow would have been my mother's 95th birthday.
She would tell you she was really 81 "and don't I look wondahful?"
She did, and she would today, even at 95!
It's hard to beleive she's been gone for thirty years.
She'd insist she was in heaven, "Hiding from your poor father and his sisters, who were all lovely women. Could never live with them."

She was a piece of work was Mary Duddy Purdy.
She was a small woman, strong, tough, vulnerable, troubled, smart and funny.
She was a lioness to me, her only child, even though her mantra to me,  her only child,  was always: "Take up thy mat and walk".

No whinig allowed.

She dispproved of my love life, though I imagine her to have been secretly relieved I had one. "If you
want to marry that lovely fat girl, suit yourself. She has quite the mouth on her."
Said woman, with whom I was involved all through college, sang I know that my redeemer liveth as the processional at my father's funeral in 1981. We all had to stand. And stand. The singing was beautiful and the music sublime. But, in a stage whisper from the new widow I -and the entire church-heard "This is very long! You know I got people comin' back to the house afthah!"

My mother had three brothers. Army/Navy veterans, tough guys. I expect they were all afraid of her.
Her parents lived to be very old. Into her fifties she would march into her childhood home to clean curtains, arrange furniture, leave meals and lists for my Uncles...who had lives of their own-too bad, they shoulda asked first.

Mother loved her beer, and God help you if you took the last one.
God help you even more if you took the last one on a Sunday, when back in the day beer sales were prohibited. More than once I was send down to Uncle Jack's basement, where it was well known he hid a stash "down cellah."

That this was technically breaking and entering was of no cocnern to her. She made me do it.

She adored her brothers, her parents, her nieces and nephews, and me.

At her death one of my cousins cried out, "Who will run our lives?"

That she knew neither her daughter in law or her only grandchild is a lasting sorrow to me.
Her granddaughter is the image of her.

She endured the years of my father's long, long decline, and a lonely widowhood. She was beginning to  lose her memory when she died suddenly. God was good to her.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

MYCincinnati Ensemble at Wild Goose Creative in Columbus

That's not a typo. It IS MYCincinnati.
The MYCincinnati Chamber Ensemble is an El-Sistema inspired orchestra program based in Cincinnati. You'll recall that El Sistema is the music education program for young people begun some years ago in Venezuela.  The program has gone worldwide, with conductor megastar Gustavo Dudamel the poster boy. 
It's great that El Sistema has developed such fantastic programs, and has inspired similar efforts.
The MYCincinnati Ambassador Ensemble is a string sextet of young musicians led by MYCincinnati Director Eddy Kwon.  The Ensemble will play at Wild Goose Creative in Columbus, 2491 Summit St., on Sunday March 20 at 2 PM. Admission is free.
The chamber ensemble describes itself as "A radical youth string ensemble committed to social justice, collective action through avant performance, and experimental collaborations."
Sounds like heaven to an old Leftie like me. A documentary film on the ensemble,  produced by Michael Wilson and Harry Wilson will be shown at Wild Goose, along with a 'live' performance.

MYCincinnati is a free, daily youth orchestra program that uses music as a vehicle for youth development, community engagement and social change. Over 80 young musicians meet for at least 2 hours every weekday learning violin, viola, cello, double bass and playing in an orchestra.
Come to Wild Goose Creative this Sunday at 2 pm to see and hear a group of kids, ages 13-18, play music and work toward making an inclusive world. You can sit by me.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Columbus Symphony: Haydn, Dvorak and Theofanidis

Robert Moody

Christopher Theofanidis

The Columbus Symphony performs Dvorak's Symphony 7 in D minor, op. 70; Haydn's Cello Concerto in C, HobVIIb No 1, and Muse by Christopher Theofanidis. March 18-19 in the Ohio Theater. Guest conductor is Robert Moody, with Mark Kosower, cello.

Pre-concert talks one hour before each performance.

MUSE by Christopher Theofanidis is a 12 minute piece for strings and harpsichord. It was written for The Brandenburg Project, sponsored by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestras. Six composers were selected to write pieces based on each of Bach's Brandenburg Concerti, with the idea of creating a catalog of concerti for the 21st century. Theonfanidis (b. 1967-) was told to use the 3rd Brandenburg. Muse uses an especially lovely pulse in the second movement (below @ 3:00)

Antonin Dvorak's Seventh Symphony, considered by many his greatest works,  owes its existence to a 'perfect storm'. Dvorak by the 1880s had become a well regarded musician and composer whose career was confined to the Slavic countries. His use of Czech folk music, the titles given some of his works (Slavonic Dances) isolated his career from the mainstream: the German-Austro world of Schumann, Brahms and Wagner.

It was Brahms who became a mentor to Dvorak and recommended him to the Viennese publisher Fritz Simrock. Herr Simrock was a businessman first. He expected a more worldly composer than Dvorak but was happy to publish the Slavic spiced short pieces which were good sellers for home music making. Added to this was the encouragement of music's mightiest music journalist of the time, Eduard Hanslick, who wrote Dvorak,

It would be advantageous for your works to become known outside of your narrow Czech fatherland, which in any case does not do much for you.

But you don't become a world famous composer by writing Slavic Dances.

Antonin Dvorak (1840-1901)
Dvorak's Stabat Mater had made a big hit at several of the large British choral festivals, and by 1884 the composer had been invited to write a new work for the London Philharmonic Society. Here at last was the big time. He was also trying to complete an opera for Vienna, but when that project stalled he went to work on his Symphony. The first performance of the 7th, conducted by the composer in London was a smash. The Vienna premiere conducted by Hans Richter put Dvorak on the intentional map.

The Seventh Symphony is pure music. It was inspired by Brahms Symphony 3, and Brahms was adamant that none of his symphonic music had a program. It wasn't supposed to be about anything. He had encouraged Dvorak to eschew the folk music style that had guaranteed his career to date. Outside of the Czech countries Dvorak had seemed provincial. Not with the 7th in London and in Vienna.

The work is in four movements and is scored for large orchestra. The theme of the first movement came not in a dream or in a lightning flash of inspiration, but at the railway station. Dvorak loved trains almost as much as he loved music. It was the arrival of a band of Hungarian artists at  Prague that Dvorak said gave him the Symphony's principal theme. Brooding, expectant, dramatic.

The second movement in particular is the source of lovely melody. It is only in the third, with the use of the furiant, a dance rhythm in 3 subdivided with in 2-3 or 3-3 that he nods more toward Prague than Vienna

Dvorak fell out with Simrock over billing. He insisted that his name be spelled in the Czech way, Antonin. Simrock said the German Anton was better business. I just wanted to tell you that a composer has a homeland which he must serve with faith and which he must love. 

It wasn't easy to give up a nationalistic style, and Dvorak often returned to the dance rhythms and colors of Czech speakers. Ironically, Dvorak later made a career in America, where he was considered the most cosmopolitan of composers. But that's another story.

If Dvorak's Seventh Symphony owes trains, Brahms, Hanslick and Simrock for its inspiration, Haydn's Cello Concerto in C wasn't known to exist at all until 1961  (Haydn died in 1809) .  The score was found among musical detritus in the Prague National Museum by musicologist Oldrich Plunkert.
Mark Kosower

How to authenticate the work unknown for so long? The first movement, not in Haydn's hand had been listed in the composer's own catalog of his works. The pages found had initials and a dedication to Joseph Weigl, who we can authenticate served as cellist of the Esterhazy Orchestra during the 1760s.

We have a three movement work enhanced by the use of ritornelli, a principal theme that keeps 'returning' usually for full orchestra. The cello is not an easy instrument for which to write a concerto. The instrument's low, mellow tone was not designed to cut through an orchestra. By giving the tutti-the entire band its own opportunities to shine,  Haydn can give pride of place to the cello,  either in the long lines favored in the second movement, or the intricate filigree of the first, and the finale. Whether discovered in 1760 or 1961, Haydn's Cc Major Concerto for Cello is another work loaded with that composer's skill and wit. And remember, Haydn was writing as composer in residence of a wealthy, noble family. The greater the music, the greater their prestige.