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Archive for the ‘Sam’s Music Reviews’ Category

sibelius

Sculpture of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, whose ‘Finlandia’ is one of classical music’s most beloved compositions.

by Sam Juliano

The Ridgewood Symphony Orchestra have been performing for seventy-six years in the affluent Bergen County, New Jersey town that bears its name.  Their annual concert schedule usually allows for three full venues, which are usually organized by way of form, common instrument, composer or theme.  The concert of Friday, November 7 brought together two famed organ compositions – Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and Camille Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3, also referred to as the “Organ” Symphony.  Completing the classical quartet that comprised the concert were two renowned nationalistic works: Finlandia by Jean Sibelius and The Moldau (Vltava from Ma vlast).  While no classical music lover attends these local venues because they are expecting the polish, expertise and experience of the New York Philharmonic, they usually are able to revel in the passion and commitment of an ensemble that includes talented music students from local high schools and orchestral free lancers who are thrilled to secure such opportunities.

The idea of nationalism has been subverted in recent years, as the intended spirit has been hijacked by fanatics, who equate patriotism with terrorist acts against innocents.  Yet as he grew up Sibelius lived in a Finland controlled by Russia.  He also lived in a time when his countrymen were expected to speak Swedish.  Sibelius dodged these resented influences to attend a Finnish School, where he later developed an appreciation of his country’s rich literary tradition, which many years later he turned to when he wanted to write music to express his opposition to the Russianization of his country.  The patriotic poem, “The Melting of the Ice on the Ulea River” served as an inspiration for a four-episode tone poem, which eventually came to be known as Finlandia.  One of the most stirring compositions in the classical repertoire, this “tone poem for orchestra” has long been regarded as the unofficial Finnish national anthem, and it debuted at the Paris World Exhibition of 1900, where it was performed by the Helsinki Philharmonic.  The piece opens with repeated brass turbulence which projects a measure of foreboding.  Ridgewood’s players were fully up to this provocative opening statement, which segues into a benign calm before the storm, and then on to a brisk and energetic passage in celebratory mode before the rapturous and expansive main theme makes its appearance – a theme of incredible emotional power that would rouse even those in a coma with its hymn like coda that beckons it’s listeners to offer their undivided attention and reverence. You don’t have to be Finnish to be moved to tears.  One of western music’s most renowned melodies then yields to a comparatively bombastic passage which encores the rapturous hymn at the start, but it is clear what passage has won its listener’s hearts. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

When a freak accident claimed the life of Polish composer and jazz pianist Krzysztof Komeda at the age of 38 in 1969, the film community lost an invaluable talent at the peak of his artistic powers and a young man was cut short well before his time.  Indeed, director Roman Polanski, in the liner notes to a 1997 Komeda tribute album wrote: “Krzysztof Komeda was not only a valued professional collaborator but a close and dear friend, and it is my abiding regret that his untimely death robbed me of him in both those capacities.”  Komeda developed a personal style that brought the jazz form a new prominence in a communist country that frowned on what was seen as an American creation.  Komeda expanded the jazz parameters by injected a generous dose of ‘slavic lyricism’ and poetic atmosphere that eventually gained the young composer a following in his native country and abroad.  One of Komeda’s most enthusiastic fans was none other than Polanski himself, who courted the fellow Pole to score his first film, Knife in the Water, after engaging the composer on his student film, after many months of attending him on the nightclub circuit.  By that time the composer had received a few other offers (which he accepted) and he came through for Polanski with a low-key jazz score to serve as a counterpoint to the mounting tensions in Knife, employing saxophone and a string-bass driven sound.  The mournful romanticism of the main theme is what most remember most compellingly from the score, but the music throughout is exceptionally applied.  Polanski again called on Komeda for his 1963 Cul-de-Sac, allowing the composer to again write a nifty  jazzy composition, with a dominant use of the moog, bongo and warbling horns.  At around that time Komeda was also composing for the Danish director Henning Carlsen, contributing scores to Kattorna, People Meet and Sweet Music Fills the Heart and the director’s masterpiece, Salt (Hunger), for which a provocative chamber music design was written.  Komeda’s most famous album to this day remains his landmark jazz work “Astigmatic” (1965) which is noted for it’s extraordinarily sublime coordination of piano harmonies and rhythms.  Komeda also worked with Polish titan Andrzej Wajda, penning the score to Innocent Sorcerers, which exhibited the experimentation of form and dark tonalities typical of some of his earlier film music. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

This post is a contribution to the third annual For the Love of Film blogathon and fundraiser, which will be running from May 13-18. This year, hosts Marilyn Ferdinand, Farran Smith Nehme and Roderick Heath have dedicated the week to Alfred Hitchcock, whose early (non-directorial) work “The White Shadow” will be the beneficiary of any money earned during the event.  The film preservation theme of course is at the center of this cinematic lament.  We can certainly hope for  a miracle. Be sure to donate!]

Printed prominently on the CD artwork and in the elaborate booklets included in the “Brigham University Film Music Archive Collection” launched in 1995 and still running series of film music releases is this specification: All proceeds from this limited edition compact disc go towards the acquisition and preservation of film music elements.  The series now includes a relatively-scant 14 releases, each a miracle of production, in almost all instances produced from master tapes and manuscripts that were donated to the university, and are presently managed by the curator, James D’Arc, who has sereved as producer for each of the releases.  The published “mission statement” of the project reads:

The Film Music Archives (BYU/FMA) exists to acquire, preserve, catalog, and make 
available to scholars and other interested parties original motion picture music manuscripts and recordings that document the history of music composed and recorded for motion pictures. (more…)

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Philidor: Sancho Panca (CD) ~ Perry Cover Art

by Sam Juliano

The appearance of eighteenth-century opera on CD is a blessing for both fans of opera comique and those looking to broaden the horizons of  a form that takes risks far too infrequently.   The French composer Francois-Andre Danican Philador is thought to be the first to achieve real distinction in a style that eventually merged with Italian opera in the early nineteenth century, in the form of comedy buffa.  Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Mozart’s Don Giovanni are seminal works in the later category.  Philador’s major contribution to the emergence of the opera comique as a respectable musical genre, is the application of realistic characters and situations.  It can be concluded that he handled his limited orchestral resources cleverly, and the vocal lines are rich, melodious and descriptive.

History does relate that there were charges of plaguerism against Philador, published years after his death from the likes of Berlioz and other music critics that he had plundered the work of Gluck, Galuppi, Pergolesi and Jommelli.  The fact that Philador had actually seen Gluck’s Orfeo opened him up for accusations for music that he wrote for Ernelinde and Le Sorcier, two operas that bear more than remarkable similarities.  But both the dubious degree of intent and the non-consumation of such charges should stop the skeptics in their tracks, and allow Philador’s standing to hold sway for this style and time period.  The composer’s most famous (and best) opera is Tom Jones, composed in 1765, and presented in three acts.  Sancho Panza, which was recently recorded and released by Opera Lafayette with Ryan Brown conducting, is considered a more obscure Philador work, but it has gained in reputation over the past decades.  Antoine-Alexandre Poinsinet (1735-1769) created the libretto of Sancho Panca from a particularly mean-spirited passage in Cervantes’ Don Quixote.  The knight of the mournful countenance has promised his simple-minded squire, Sancho Panza, the governership of an island for his faithful service – a dream that the duke and dutchess features in Part 2 fullfill as part of an elaborate series of tricks played on Don Quixote and Sancho.  When faced with the real demands of governing the imaginary land -the island of Barataria – Sancho quickly renounces all interest in being a governor. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

One of Western culture’s most famous contradictions is an oddity that broaches but never solves one of life’s greatest mysteries.  Richard Wagner, celebrated creator of a brace of philosophically complex “music dramas,” and most influential composer who ever lived, was also a well-known anti-Semite, and a mean-spirited and abusive family man.  That such a person could write what is quite possibly the most ravishingly beautiful and spiritually infused music of all-time is a testament to to the concept that beauty can emanate from the most unlikely sources, where the most soulful kind of artistic expression takes no sides in choosing its creator.

But the composer’s final work, Parsifal, which premiered at Bayreuth in 1878, yields further incongruities connected to its reception and political standing, both of which seem to suggest that Wagner purged himself of his demons and embraced ideals that were in diametric opposition to his inner self.  Adolf Hitler, whose adoration for Wagner’s previous work -especially his monumental Die Ring der Niebelungen and Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg- was infamous, banned any performances of the opera in 1939, presumably because the work’s message of pacifism and its seeming promotion of the Christian ideal of suffering ran counter to the ideologies of the Third Reich.  Hence, Parsifal has never been a work to attract tame response, and the opera has been variously described as sublime, heinous or decadent, which specifically some critics have simultaneously embraced its epic wonderment while still judging it as  “a profoundly inhuman spectacle, that glorifies a barren masculine world whose ideals are a combination of militarism and monasticism.” (Peter Wapnewski)  Considering the suggestive allegory Wagner designed for what he called his ‘last card’ and ‘farewell to the world’ the controversy is hardly surprising.  However, whether Parsifal is a sinister militant fantasy about the redemption of an Aryan Jesus from Judaism or just a feeble Armeggedon cocktail with a strong twist of Shopenhauer, critics of its supposed humanity will never be able to solve the magisterial beauty of its score nor account for the fact that aggression is completely contrary to the opera’s central idea.  Indeed, the opera’s first act overture is among the most sublime passages in all of music with it’s slow tempo mid-way coda, one of the most ravishing themes ever heard by the human ear.  The theme is encored generously through the work, and basically serves as it’s musical identification, with it’s majestic sweep and melodious flow evincing an unusual but indellible blend of bliss and melencholy. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Ingmar Bergman was laid to rest on a misty morning in early August, 2007 on the island of Faro, where he spent the last years of his life.  At the cinema master’s request the ceremony was short and attended by only 70, including celebrated Bergman stock company thespians, Liv Ullman, Max Von Sydow and Erland Josephson.  Eulogies were noted for their brevity and the musical itinerery was a sparing employment of J.S. Bach by way of organ and cello.  This modest presentation may be been selected for it’s simple purity, but it underscored a deep passion for classical music that manifested itself from the very earliest films.  Music in Darkness (1948) tells the story of a young pianist left blind by a shooting accident; To Joy (1950) narrates the misfortunes of an ambitious violinist, and Summer Interlude (1951) recounts the life of a ballerina at the Stockholm Opera.  Generous excerpts from Beethoven, Mozart or Mendelssohn are found in these films.  In the opening feature of the celebrated “Faith Trilogy”, Through A Glass Darkly, the extensive use of classic compositions completely supplanted the original film music that was more common during the late 50’s period when Smiles of a Summer Night and Wild Strawberries appeared.  In Darkly the ‘Sarabande’ from Bach’s Cello Suite no. 2 appears four times.  It’s usage here signaled a marked upsurge in classical accompaniment all the way up to his final film Sarabande in 2003.  While it’s clear that a number of the pieces were vital structural and metaphorical components in his deep philosophical inquiries, there was a clear enough passion for the intrinsic beauty of the music that was deftly used as a mood device.  Robert Schumann’s ravishingly beautiful and gloriously romantic Piano Quintet in E-flat major set the tone for Fanny and Alexander under the film’s lengthy credit sequence, and underlined the film’s brighter contexts.  Conversely, there is telling use of Bach’s Partita in Shame, The Passion of Anna and Hour of the Wolf that connotes despair in its rawest constriction, and the Bach passages in Cries and Whispers are used to piercing effect.  Bergman connects characters to music a number of times, including the sequence in Autumn Sonata when Charlotte sketches the figure of Chopin, before beginning to play the Prelude, and the one where Johan listens at full blast to the scherzo of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony in Sarabande.  Lastly, Bergman experiments his sense of musical analysis during an entire film with In the Presence of a Clown, which recounts Schubert’s last days, in both a free and erudite manner. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

    Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny developed both the subject matter and the musical style of the opera comique in the middle years of the eighteenth century.  The composer is known to have been greatly influenced by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona, an ‘opera seria’ that exerted enormous influence on the direction of music during this period of rapid expansion, in which the genre was transformed from a marked reliance on popular melodies to a time of exceeding musical creativity.  The Italians introduced the French to the idea that libretti be designed to serve and enhance the music, reforming the role of the composer, who had a subservient role in the earlier comedie en vaudevilles.  Monsigny’s earlier works, composed circa 1759 to 1761, were basically comic intrigues revolving around disguises, deceptions, misunderstandings and reconciliations.

     In 1762, Monsigny departed significantly from this overtly comedic style to a one that incorporated elements of humanism and moral enlightenment.  Indeed, the virtues of the common folk, and more importantly personal freedom and equality were themes then embraced by the philosophers of this period.  The musical content of Monsigny’s works – unsurprisingly – became more complex as a result, and a number of vocal ensembles were added.  It can’t be denied that the composer’s style is repetitive, but his skills as a melodist, the comic spirit evident in his earlier work and the immediacy of dramatic expression his his later works made his a formidable figure in French opera from any period. (more…)

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Louis Langree and Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra in Avery Fisher Hall

by Sam Juliano

     The dynamic Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra and the vibrant veteran French conductor Louis Langree performed an all-Mozart venue on the evening of Saturday, August 14 to a wildly enthusiastic sold-out crowd at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall.  Langree and Finnish pianist Antti Siirala performed three of the composer’s most beloved works with Symphony No. 25 in G minor, Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K.466, and Symphony No. 40 in G minor K.550 to a crowd largely composed of summer tourists and festival faithful at the renowned concert hall standing across the courtyard from the Metropolitan Opera House and the New York State Theatre.

     Siirala received four curtain calls for his spirited reading of the piano concerto, one of the greatest of all classical compositions.  In 1784, at the peak of his fame in Vienna as composer and pianist, Mozart composed no fewer than six immortal piano concertos for his insatiable public, one of the most “spoiled” audiences in history, at least rivaling  J.S. Bach’s Sunday morning congregations at St. Thomas’ Church.  Mozart, buoyed by the success of his piano work, decided to embark on a new concerto, more personal in expression than any of its predecessors.  The first Mozart concerto written in a minor key is assessed by musicologist C. M. Girdlestone in his classic study of the concertos as a work to stir the soul, specifically the emotions: “the story here becomes more stirring and more full of color, and there enters into it a sense of adventure and heroism, hitherto unexperienced.”  The work includes a mysterious, sycopated throb of violin opening, and segues into the timbre of menacing bass, eventually giving way to the piano as a lonely protagonist with a plantive new theme.  Throughout this musically dazzling opening movement Mozart preserves a sense of antagonism between piano and orchestra, avoiding blended ensemble writing for them.  The cadenza that concludes this movement was not written by Mozart (who never wrote one) but by Beethoven, who added it years after Mozart’s death. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano
    
     Philip Glass is widely regarded as the most influential composer of the late part of the 20th century, yet his reputation was anything but secure during his maiden period, where many continued to liken his style to overt minimalism.  Glass himself has since distanced himself from such a constrictive, even unflattering appraisal, choosing instead to define many of his main lines as following patterns of ‘repetitive structure.’  While some listeners have tuned out to the composers pulsating redundancy, others have found the music oddly infectious, building in Ravelian intensity, to soul-stirring climaxes.  Rock bands, film composers and his stylistist compatriot John Adams have all testified to Glass’ considerable influence on their own work. 
     
     Glass has written for a wide variety of forms, including instrumental and opera, and has penned some celebrated film scores, three of which received academy award nominations.  But it was his modernist operas that have, perhaps, left their most lasting mark on the musical landscape.     With Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten, Glass completed in the early 80’s what he described as his “portrait” operas, which are works that portray men whose personal vision transformed the thinking of their times through the power of ideas rather than by “military force.”  The music in these opera blends mathematical clarity with a kind of mysterious beauty, that some have seen as mystical.  The music showcases a circular process that evolves into a repeating cycle that continuously delays resolution.  The process employs both additive and subtractive formulas.  The result, like most of Glass’ music before and since is slow to engage, but it builds to almost spiritual intensity. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

     Composed during the peak period of Mozart’s career, in the last months of his life, the four horn concertos remain today as a major section of the horn player’s repetoire.  Written for the composer’s friend, Joseph Leutgeb, the compositions have always been though as particularly difficult to perform, even on the period instruments of the day.  It is a testament to Leutgeb’s considerable skills, that they were successfully negotiated.  Comparatively speaking, the ‘French horn’ was a newer instrument for Mozart to write for, as it generally began appearing in the early 1700’s with chromatic enhancement in baroque orchestras, after it made its debut as a hunting device in France.

    Leutgeb was a noted virtuoso, who was known to serve as the principal horn in Salzburg during Mozart’s earlier years.  By 1770 he was largely involved in solo work, and was having a successful run in Paris, where the Mercure de France praised his ability “to sing an adaggio as perfectly as the most mellow, interesting, and accurate voice.”  He is reported in February 1773 to have joined Wolfgang and Leopold Mozart on part of their Italian tour, and in 1777 he moved to Vienna, where he kept his musical activities on track, while simultaneously managing a cheese store.  Mozart’s manuscripts reveal both a mischievious humor and deep respect for his childhood companion, whom he described as ‘unswervingly loyal.” (more…)

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