A few times a week, public radio listeners are treated to the world of Radiolab, a program devoted to an intersection of ideas within science, philosophy, and the arts. Jad Abumrad, the show’s creator and co-host, is an Oberlin-trained composer who began brainstorming ideas for a new radio show in the mid-2000s. Since then, he has gone on to receive the MacArthur Fellowship and Radiolab has been regularly distributed to over 450 NPR stations.
Considering Abumrad’s background in music, it is surprising how many weeks are devoted to topics outside of music – connecting science with human behavior, 21st century ways of applying classical philosophy to everyday life, and exposés of different cultures, for example. While the few episodes that are devoted to music sometimes pose far-fetched ideas, they are generally inspiring and offer a unique piece in the puzzle of understanding a work of art.
Recently, Radiolab rebroadcasted their 2009 attempt to tackle one of the most talked-about events in music history: the Rite of Spring riot. At first, the episode revolved around the effects of certain soundwaves on the brain. The interval of a perfect fifth, for example, contains more ‘pleasing’ soundwaves than a minor second. In fact, the show posed the idea that our brains have trouble even understanding the patterns of soundwaves in certain intervals, especially the first time we hear them.
After playing a recording of the famous “Dance of Abduction,” a part of the Rite that features sequences of bitonal, stacked chords, the show interviewed Jonah Lehrer, a science reporter.
“It’s one of the most difficult sounds you’ve ever heard…It hurts you,” he said. Perhaps it is the fact that Lehrer is not a musician that he describes the music in an overly-sensational way.
“What happened [at the premiere]?” asked the co-host.
“Well, after about three minutes of that, they rioted,” Lehrer answered.
Up to that point in the show (and even for the rest of the episode), none of the guests or hosts mentioned any other aspect of the Rite, which leads the average radio listener to believe the music, alone, was to blame for the riot – people just couldn’t understand the music because of the dissonance, the show poses. Since that infamous night in 1913, musicians and historians are keen in listing a variety of (real) reasons why the riot happened. Among these: the overtly sexual nature of the ballet’s story line, the move away from traditional ballet posturing, the stacking of certain audience members to create a scene, and the lack of a high performance quality from the musicians.
Perhaps these reasons would take too long to cover on a 30-minute radio show, or perhaps the music’s dissonance is simply the easiest way of understanding just how eye-opening the work was. However, Radiolab also failed to note that bitonality (and even polytonality) existed before 1913, as did dissonance. Even the fact that a riot occurred was not unusual – Beethoven, Schoenberg, Berg, Debussy, and even Wagner are just a few of the composers that experienced riots during premieres of their works.
The idea that certain types of soundwaves are difficult to understand is one that could explain a lot, especially in terms of understanding the public’s general dislike of contemporary music. Unfortunately, the way that Radiolab went about explaining Stravinsky’s masterpiece was misleading and promulgates a myth that has been debunked numerous times.
Find a station that broadcasts Radiolab: http://www.radiolab.org/stations
Another Stravinsky-related episode: http://www.radiolab.org/story/91512-musical-language/
June 1 marked the end of the Boston Ballet’s spring season. After 50 years in Boston, the organization has established itself as one of the leading dance companies in America, recruiting professional dancers from Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Their final show of the season, entitled “Jewels,” featured the genius of George Balanchine. When Mr. Balanchine came to America in 1933, his colleagues were the first to recognize the timelessness of what he was called on to create. It was this sense of timeless classicism that dazzled audiences in Boston during the show’s week-and-a-half run.
"Emeralds" began the program, which features the music of Gabriel Fauré. The relationship between music and dance was so closely knit that the dancers seemed to exude musicality, sophistication, and charming simplicity. Standout dancers during this production included the three leading men: Isaac Akiba, Yury Yanowsky, and Lasha Khozashvili. The latter, who was the lead in one of the Boston Ballet’s last shows, "D.M.J. 1953-1977," performed on Sunday with exceptional strength and unrivaled elegance. In both "Emeralds" and "D.M.J.," Mr. Khozashvili allowed his professional training to showcase emotive and deeply-felt storytelling.
"Rubies," a semi-populist creation, was second on the program. As the curtain rose, the set design — a pattern of huge, red-colored stones on the backdrop — caused excited gasps from the audience. Balanchine’s choreography included jazz styles and classical ballet, a fusing that secured Balanchine’s legacy as someone who brought European finesse to American styles. The music of Igor Stravinsky filled the Boston Opera House and heightened the athleticism of some of the dancers. While the execution of such a work was excellent, the storyline (if there was one) became difficult to follow and certain casting decisions gave the work a lower-brow feel. With the being said, Whitney Jenson’s small featurette was a standout — sensual, refined, and powerful.
Lastly, the third act was entitled “Diamonds” and featured the wonderfully romantic music of Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony — a work that the Boston Ballet Orchestra handled dramatically. The choreography features an homage to the old Russian school of dance. A large-scale dance, featuring nearly every member of the company, began “Diamonds” before two featured dancers took the stage, alone. Without a doubt, Kathleen Combes and Alejandro Virelles were the highlight of the entire afternoon. Mr. Virelles’s focus on line was truly remarkable to watch and his leaps landed with such ease and softness. His masculinity was the perfect match with Ms. Combes, whose excellence was heightened during the perfectly-cast, humble partnership.
All three productions received well-deserved, elongated applause and even standing ovations after each set. Throughout the season, they have truly been a pleasure to experience. The company’s next performance, a new production of “Swan Lake” by director Mikko Nissinen, is in November 2014 and should not be missed!
Art helps us realize what humanity is capable of.
Sean Chen must be doing something right.
In the past two years, he has received awards from some of the highest-profiled international piano competitions, has released two CDs, and has performed in cities across the United States and Europe.
On Saturday evening, the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts hosted Mr. Chen at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall in Boston — a concert marketed as the Boston debut for the 25-year-old pianist. Boston’s regular concert-goers should remember, however, Chen’s appearance at NEC honoring Hung-Kuan Chen, his teacher, last November. At this event, he stunned the widely-diverse audience with his own arrangement of Ravel’s La Valse — an arrangement that unites Ravel’s orchestral, duo piano, and solo piano versions. “Horowitz is turning over in his grave!” exclaimed one audience member, afterwards.
With this performance in mind, it was easy to feel the excitement in Jordan Hall for Mr. Chen on Saturday evening. After coming on stage wearing his signature “million dollar” smile, he started the program with a Bach Adagio. The piece was originally written for violin but was transposed while being arranged for piano. Mr. Chen explained afterwards that he had re-transposed it back to its original (violin) key so that it could be paired, tonally, with Bach’s Ricercar a 3. The intent was to present a Bach set without reverting to programming a prelude & fugue or a suite — the intent was noble and well-executed.
Next, Chen visited the repertoire of Debussy in a performance of Suite Bergamasque. This was an interesting choice, as Debussy’s early work is generally regarded as a student piece, only moderate in difficulty. However, Chen’s impeccable chord voicings allowed Debussian jazz harmonies to permeate Jordan Hall. The space is generally too wet, acoustically, for a solo piano to provide a clear sound for audiences. However, Chen’s clear pedaling and variety of touch made each movement crystalline and sentimental.
Next, a piece that went surprisingly well after Debussy was Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations, a masterpiece from the 1930s. The work was a product of Copland’s venture away from populism and into absolute music — a descriptor that goads many pianists into playing it too seriously. Chen, however, approached it masterfully & virtuosically. Through the eleven-minute swirl of harsh dissonances, characters were presented through the music and Chen’s expert ability to balance absolute music with excitement was highlighted. This could quite possibly be the greatest interpretation of the piece since Gil Kalish’s iconic recording. Never has serialism been so lively!
After intermission, Chen presented a Scriabin waltz and all of the Chopin impromptus. Each was exceptionally performed, yet somewhat predictable. Even the decision to program the two composers, back to back, seemed outdated. The interpretation was too close with his competition roots: expertly crafted phrases and stunning technique, yet a lack of originality.
Chen’s arrangement of La Valse concluded the program. It is a work that is as stunning the second time as it was the first. Whatever lack of originality Chen had in the previous set, he made up for it in La Valse — the audience agreed, as he received cries of glee from the crowd. The work is a perfect pairing of Ravel’s pianistic showpiece with the richly-orchestrated instrumental version. Somehow, Chen achieved specific instrumental colors in his technique.
Perhaps my biggest problem with the performance, overall, was the programming. For one, nothing seemed to go well together (with the exception of Debussy and Copland). The first half felt more fresh & innovative than the second, but the two together just didn’t make sense. This generally non-cohesive programming seems to show Mr. Chen being pulled in two different directions — the way of finding himself as an artist vs. the way of the establishment. He is, after all, a product of international piano contests, which can be unforgiving in their rejection of individualism.
The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Benjamin Zander, kicked off its 35th season Thursday evening with three performances of an all-Russian program. The concert took place in Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre, a performance space that’s rich history is matched by its reverberant acoustics.
First on the program was Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan & Ludmila. The opera, as a whole, was written from 1837-1842 and faced an unfortunate premiere, due to illnesses of the cast. Since then, the overture has become much more popular than the opera itself, perhaps due to the Russian culture’s preference of Italian music over Russian in the mid-1800s. The Boston Philharmonic’s rendition of the overture was full of the gusto that 19th century Russian music deserves. The clarity of the strings, led by concertmistress Joanna Kurkowicz, was like the workings of a finely-tuned Swiss clock. Melodically, each phrase throughout the ensemble seemed to grow increasingly expressive through Maestro Zander’s clear ideas of their structure. The piece is in clear sonata form and, although it is short in breadth, it provided an exciting start to the concert.
Next came Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, featuring Chinese pianist Jue Wang. The work was written by a budding composer in his early 20s and received extremely polarizing views at its premiere. One critic called it “a cacophony of sounds that has nothing in common with civilized music,” while another proclaimed that it would take ten years for the composer to be applauded in the European tradition. The work is one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire, arguably greater than other war horses (Rachmaninov’s Third comes to mind). It is easy to understand why the concerto is not played often – the number of pianists who can actually play it are limited! With this being said, it is unfortunate that Zander programmed the piece to be played just a few months after the Cliburn Competition, one of the most followed international piano competitions in the world. At the Cliburn, two of the six finalists performed Prokofiev’s Second as their final’s concerto repertoire. Both of these performances received internet broadcasts, Youtube streaming, and media publicity. Thus, it was somewhat difficult not to compare Mr. Wang’s BPO debut with these competitors (namely, silver medalist Beatrice Rana’s stunningly cold and stylistic performance of the work).
The concerto begins with a series of slow, pizzicato notes in the strings, followed by a meandering accompaniment pattern in the left hand of the piano. Over this pattern, Mr. Wang played the hauntingly beautiful melody that dominates the first movement. His playing was sensitive and beautiful but not necessarily stylistic, perhaps overly cautious. Even as the movement rose to a formidable cadenza, the stylistic aspect improved but remained too concerned with the music’s structure rather than the “colossale” quality that Prokofiev writes into the score.
Moving onto the second movement, both the orchestra and soloist were given a chance to show off their technical chops in a near-perfect flurry of perpetual notes. It is this movement, along with the third that are sometimes considered to be intermezzi – the length of the two movements together is still far less than the first and fourth movements. The third movement (actually marked “Intermezzo”), was extremely well conceived and executed. Until the end of the movement, the piano and orchestra contain snippets of harsh, dissonant thematic material. The dry, sardonic quality of Prokofiev’s writing was immediately apparent in Mr. Wang’s interpretation and there was a compellingly thoughtful structure to the movement, accumulating in intensity and brashness at the very end.
The last movement showcases the genius behind Prokofiev’s ideas of tonality and orchestration, as well as his demand for unstoppable virtuosity in the piano. The movement begins in a flurry of octaves and jumps from the upper range of the keyboard as impetuously as a hammer striking a nail. After a settling of these initial gestures, the pianist plays a new theme that is reminiscent of the first movement’s melody, and is imitated by the winds. Just after a final cadenza, Prokofiev writes a series of G-minor to A-major triads and A-flat to D minor triads, creating a whirlwind of dissonance before hammering out one final G in both the piano and orchestra, marking the end of the piece. As in the third movement, Mr. Wang’s conception of the movement was apparent and well-achieved. His sense of pulse never strayed, as if the finest army were marching (or, rather, stomping) into war. After an extended and well-deserved applause, Maestro Zander invited the soloist to perform an encore, which was introduced as “a piece by another Russian composer.” Embraceable You by George Gershwin floated ethereally throughout the hall like a ribbon undulating through air. This encore performance certainly won over even more hearts, as Mr. Wang received another rousing applause.
The program was concluded by Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor. It is a work that has remained an audience favorite for over a century and has even pervaded the popular music world. Like the Fourth Symphony, the Fifth seems to be a journey from the darkness of fate to the majesty of triumph, soaring with beautiful melodies and rich orchestration. The sound and meld of the ensemble was astounding and the expression of each performer was boundless. The only criticism is of the Maestro, himself. Zander seemed set on his tempi and had obviously thought them through with utmost care. Consistently, however, these tempi felt entirely too slow, at times laborious. Again, the ensemble rose to the occasion and made music of the highest quality with what they were given – at times, the slower tempi even added a heightened sense of clarity. Too often, though, the energy became stuck with an unwillingness to move forward.
As a whole, the BPO’s season kickoff was highly successful. Zander has spent 35 years building this orchestra into a world-renown group. Later in the season, the BPO has programmed a variety of pieces, from Bartok to Brahms to Ravel. It’s a group in the peak of their potential, not to be missed!
Note: I also posted this concert review on wherearewenowmusic.com, a blog devoted to reshaping ‘classical’ music into a 21st century art by emphasizing smart musicianship, management, marketing, and entrepreneurship. Check it out!
Refined. Sublime. Pure.
These were the first three words I used after last night’s concert at Symphony Hall in Boston. DCINY presented the Eric Whitacre Singers under the direction of Mr. Whitacre himself. Initially, when I realized I would be going to the show, I had mixed reactions: I love his music vs. it all sounds the same; he leads a wonderful ensemble vs. he is so pretentious. However, after the first piece (a Whitacre arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner), I knew it would be a concert to remember.
One thing that was especially humbling about the show was the diversity of repertoire. Of course, most of the works were Whitacre’s own, but they did have a good deal of Bach, Lauridsen, and Corigliano to keep things from sounding too monotonous. After The Star-Spangled Banner, an arrangement full of Whitacre-isms, the ensemble undertook Whitacre’s Alleluia. This piece was written within the past five years and is essentially a choral arrangement of “October,” originally for concert band. The lush, reoccurring melody translated very nicely to a choral setting and the simplicity of the words (simply “Alleluia, Amen”) allowed the audience to appreciate the music alone. Whitacre mentioned before the piece that it was written to show admiration towards the Christian religion & church architecture in Cambridge, England, where he is currently composer in residence.
Certainly one of the most interesting pieces on the program, When David Heard, provided such a deep contrast to several of the preceding pieces. Whitacre explained that his intent for the piece was to create a profound sense of sorrow, mourning, and shock through the words (II Samuel 18:33) and music.
When David heard that Absalom was slain
He went up into his chamber over the gate and
wept, and thus he said: my son, my son, O Absalom
my son, would God I had died for thee!
By repeating the words “my son,” and allowing the melodic lines to integrate into each other, the sorrow and depth of the work could be felt throughout Symphony Hall. The richness of each voice and the clarity of the polyphony added to the effect. After the final pitch faded, there were several full seconds of meditative silence as the audience took a collective breath.
Another of the most memorable moments of the night came during JS Bach’s Come sweet death, arranged by Edwin London. During this piece, the Whitacre Singers sang through the original chorale once before repeating and slowing the notes down in order to take each measure out of context. It allowed each individual singer to sing at his/her own pace, within the given structure of measures and ending at a selected cadence point. During this thick cluster of melting notes, the performers utilized their arms to create various gestures to show where they were within the phrase. The piece ended with a single, unison note which decrescendo-ed effortlessly into silence.
Next, the group did another Whitacre piece called Animal Crackers, a set of pieces based off of Ogden Nash’s animal-based poems. Each of these short poems were definitely crowd pleasers, mainly for Whitacre’s creative version of text painting and the texts themselves:
The panther is like a leopard,
Except it hasn’t been peppered.
Should you behold a panther crouch,
Prepare to say Ouch.
Better yet, if called by a panther,
I don’t mind eels,
except as meals,
and the way they feels.
The concert’s last programmed piece was a Whitacre arrangement of a Depeche Mode song (Whitacre explained the he always dreamed of being the fifth member of Depeche Mode). After thunderous applause, the group had no choice but to proceed with (not one, but) two encores. The first, a Moses Hogan tune, and the second, Sleep. As soon as he began conducting the first bar of Sleep, the audience gasped with excitement — this was the only piece of the night that many consider among his “ultra-popular” works (the others being Lux Aurumque and Water Night). Their performance of this staple was of CD quality, prompting another extended standing ovation.
As for the performance as a whole, I was blown away by the grace and clarity of the 28-voice ensemble. There were many times when the fine tuning of dissonances created such beautiful overtones, that chills visibly ran from one audience member to the next. Most of these moments, capitalized by Elin Thomas, lead soprano, were breathtaking. Because of these moments, by the end of the night, my qualms with Whitacre & his music seemed trivial. It was an experience that won’t be forgotten. Like him or not, if ever you find the chance, go see this wonderful ensemble!
This season marks the 198th concert season of the Handel & Haydn Society in Boston, making the ensemble one of the oldest performing arts organizations in the country. Through diverse programming of Baroque and Classical repertoire, the group prides itself on the use of period instruments, performed at the highest artistic standards.This past weekend, the group provided a very entertaining afternoon of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music and Clarinet Concerto in A, as well as Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. The latter, which possibly attracted the most amount of people, is a piece that has a history with the Handel and Haydn Society. Perhaps because of its popularity, a few years after the work’s original premiere, the Handel & Haydn Society commissioned Beethoven to write an Englsih oratorio for their 1824-1825 season. A Viennese newspaper was even cited at the time as listing several anticipated compositions, the H&H’s oratorio being one of them. Unfortunately, Beethoven (though delighted by the demand for his music in America) was unable to fulfill the commission due to his failing health.
The first piece performed was one that Mozart wrote soon after becoming a Mason in 1785, and was probablycomposed for a memorial service of two fellow members. Richard Egarr, the program’s conductor, entered the stage and engaged the audience with a short speech about the first two pieces. “Don’t worry — the Funeral Music that we’re about to play is dark… but short,” he said. Indeed, the music was dark for Mozart, but it offered a depth that immediately interested the audience. The woodwinds were on point for this piece, creating somewhat of a dialogue between their melodic lines and the strings’.
Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A was written for Mozart’s musician friend (and fellow Mason) Anton Stadler. The two first met during weekly salon-visits that involved music and conversation. Because of Stadler’s fascination with the lower range of the clarinet, he came to own a basset clarinet, which allows the player to play four half steps lower. Mozart jumped at the opportunity to write for this instrument and the result was the Concerto in A Major.
The piece is very melodic & follows the Classical era’s ideals of concerto form. The second movement was the most memorable, with its lush melodies and effortless ornamentations. The basset clarinetist, Eric Hoeprich, seemed to capture the elegance of the Classical mood during this movement, while still retaining his own style of interpretation. The last movement of the piece, a rondo, returned to the lightness of the first and allowed Hoeprich to show off his virtuosity.
After an extended intermission, Egarr walked onto the stage and began Beethoven’s 7th in attacca style, which suddenly hushed the applause for his entrance. The piece was originally composed in 1812 and premiered alongside the 8th Symphony. It is a piece that has been successful since it’s debut, most likely for the memorable melodies and dance-like movements. Wagner even described it as an “apotheosis of the dance.” The performance of it was deserving of the wholehearted standing ovation it received. The interpretation contained depth but was always energetic, moving forward, as in many of Mozart’s compositions. Even Beethoven spoke of his dream “to go to Vienna and receive the spirit of Mozart,” which he fulfilled. In Mozart’s music, he found a sense of dramatic clarity — which can certainly describe the 7th Symphony.
Harvard University and the Silk Road Project have shared a partnership during the past few years in an attempt to bring people of different backgrounds together to educate and inspire others. Led by Yo-Yo Ma, the group seeks to engage communities through discussion and music making to create an “imagination platform.” This past weekend, the Mahindra Humanities Center of Harvard hosted a panel discussion entitled “Cultural Citizenship,” which involved performances by the Silk Road Ensemble. The discussion revolved around ideas of culture — how one’s cultural citizenship can be stronger than political or even social citizenship. Yo-Yo was quick to point out that the goal of the Silk Road Project is to bring together different cultures in creating music that is uniquely theirs. “To do this, each of us must come to the table already knowing something, already having a foundation in our own background,” he explained. His statement fostered much discussion from the other panelists (Homi & Jacqueline Bhabha, Diane Sorensen, and members of the Silk Road Ensemble), who explained how each has allowed his/her cultural background to help foster who they’ve become. This “foundation” that Yo-Yo spoke of comes with a willingness to tweak around the edges, while trusting that it’s essence will naturally remain constant.
It was a discussion that resonated with most all who were in attendance, and one that should be fostered by people in any part of the world. The Silk Road Ensemble went on to perform two numbers — some gypsy music and a large-ensemble piece. It is a group that has certainly bought into the idea of cross-cultural exchange and inclusiveness.