About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Schubertiade Chicago!

Schubert at the piano
The Schubertiade Chicago will be held this Saturday, January 29, at the historic Fine Arts Building, 410 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago. You can get more information and the schedule here. I'm very excited to be playing not only the 5 Duets for horns that I wrote about in an earlier post, but Auf dem Strom, the song for soprano, horn and piano.

Alexis Magarò, soprano, and Helen Raymaker, piano, and I will be performing Auf dem Strom at 8 pm in Curtis Hall.This will be the first time I have done this song with a soprano. It is different than performing it with a tenor. I believe the horn and tenor blend more, being in the same range, but the soprano and horn contrast each other well.

Earlier, at 4:45, Nancy Orbison and I will be playing the 5 Duets. Because they are also songs, the pieces being written for voices or horns, there are words. We thought it would be helpful to us in interpreting the duets and interesting for our audience to know something of what the songs were about. I wrote something about the songs previously on this blog, but the two final songs were puzzling to both Nancy and me. I had taken the lyrics and tossed them into Google translator, which translates quite literally. Some of the results were pretty strange. I don't know German, so I went to someone who does, Ben Hebebrand. Ben (who is my boss) was born in Germany and was able to interpret the expressions in the two hunting songs. Lützow's wilde Jagd was especially puzzling. It was obviously about a heroic figure, but also included mysterious references to "black fellows, black riders, black fallen." He did some research and found that both hunting songs were written about the Napoleonic wars, which were happening at the time Schubert wrote the songs. In response to Napoleon invasions, the countries that would eventually become Germany began to band together to fight back. The two songs have a strong nationalistic theme. This was so interesting that I did a little research myself. I found a reference to the poet Theodor Körner, who wrote the lyrics to both hunting songs and Morgenstern, in a biography of Schubert written by Elizabeth Norman McKay. Schubert met Körner one time only, in 1813 after an opera performance. They had a memorable conversation, but shortly after Körner joined the Lützow corps to fight France. He was killed a few months later.

Next I googled Lützow and found Adolf, baron von Lützow. He formed a calvary "free corps" of volunteers to fight behind French lines. Though he is described as largely ineffectual, he and his troops are clearly the bold heroes of Lützow's wilde Jagd. Lützow's corps was also known as "the Schwarze Schar (“Black Band”) after its uniform, which was a symbol of mourning for enslaved Germany." This explains the mysterious references in each verse to the "black fellows," "black riders," "black swimmers," and so on. It is a brash, heroic poem. Here is a sample:

What shines from the forest there in the sunshine?
Hear it roaring closer and closer.
it runs down in dark rows,
And shrill horns sound in it.
... And if you ask the black fellows:
Who is,
This is Lützow's wild, reckless hunting.

What draws up quickly thorugh the dark forest
And stripped from mountain to mountain?
It lies in night ambush
The Hurra rejoice, and fires the rifle,
...And if you ask the black hunters:
Who is,
This is Lützow's wild, reckless hunting.

I did not expect to learn so much history when I went in search of some Schubert to play!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Gong Show

The conductor of the Waukegan Symphony is always finding unusual, interesting pieces for us to play. For example, we played Reve Angelique by Anton Rubenstein and Overture to Struensee by Meyerbeer, two pieces I had never heard of, on our fall concert. (We also play standard repertoire.) Last night was a first for me as 4th horn. As you can see in the photo above, the 4th horn part to Berceuse elegiaque by Busoni is for Horn IV and Gong! Talk about unusual doublings!

Thanks to our 2nd horn, who ran into the percussion room to find a gong, I played the gong part after a brief lesson by my husband (a school band director who plays tuba in the orchestra). Gong is not easy. You have warm it up by hitting it gently so that it doesn't make a sound but starts to vibrate. Then you have to hit it in the right spot or you don't get much of a sound. Then there was the roll with crescendo-decrescendo at the end of the piece. Once you get the gong to crescendo, it's like a runaway train; very difficult to stop. So there wasn't much of a decrescendo last night.

The real percussionists will play the gong on the concert, but it was fun!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

VOTE! for the Top 10 Composers

Anthony Tommasini started an interesting project earlier this month. In this Sunday article, he announced he was going to determine his Top 10 Classical Composers list. He would not only choose 10 from the hundreds of possibilities, but he would rank them. He did narrow things down somewhat by beginning with the Baroque period and excluding any living composer from the list, the reason being that we are too close to these composers' works to accurately judge them. The Renaissance was eliminated because hardly anyone plays it or listens to it anymore. If you haven't read the article, I recommend it.

Mr. Tommasini also discusses criteria for the list, which was my first mental question when I heard about it. It's not a favorite composers list, so one would need other parameters. Do you choose by how much influence a composer had on music after him? Then Arnold Schoenberg would have to be on the list, even though his music gets played only slightly more than Josquin du Pres (a leading Rennaisance composer). Do you look at the body of work the composer left? This eliminates the "one-hit wonders," Gustav Holst, for example. (Even though Holst has been called a one-hit wonder, The Planets being the hit, he did in fact compose other works, notably the First and Second Suites for Band, that are frequently played. By bands, not orchestras.) And what about composers who died young? Do they get penalized? And then, some composers wrote mainly orchestral music, others wrote operas almost exclusively. Is it fair to lump them altogether in competing for a spot on the Top 10 List?

Mr.Tommasini wrote a series of articles and made several videos in which he discusses the composers he is considering, their work, and their importance.  These are excellent discussions. He clearly explains his reasoning about each of the composers he discusses and plays excerpts on the videos. He also talks about why no women are on the list. Anyone who is interested in learning more about classical music would enjoy these articles and videos.

And, we can also vote for our own Top 10 composers! Click on the Vote link on either of the other pages and you will be able to pick from a list of composers. (I don't know how long this will be open, as Mr. Tommasini revealed his Top 10 on January 21.) I voted for Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, Strauss, Brahms, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky. I admit to being influenced by what kind of horn parts each composer wrote, perhaps because I know those works on a deeper level because I have played many of them, but I also thought about the influence each had on other composers and music in general. Some, there was no question about: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky. I was swayed by Mr. Tommasini's articles to vote for Verdi. I decided to vote for Schubert because even though he died at 31 and wrote mostly songs and piano solos, his output was amazing for such a short life and his influence continues to this day. He songs and other works are not only frequently programmed, but musicians are adapting and re-creating with them. Example: Sting used one of the songs from Schubert's Winterreise on his album If on a Winter's Night

Who's number 1? You can read about Anthony Tommasini's choices here. My number one is Mozart.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Schubertiade 2011!

The Pianoforte Foundation's annual Schubertiade Chicago will be on Saturday, January 29 at the Fine Arts Building in Chicago. There will be three stages on the 8th floor with simultaneous performances from 2:00 to 8:00 p.m. I am happy to say that Nancy Orbison and I will be presenting the the set of five duets that I found on imslp.org.

Schubert wrote these five little duets for either two singers or two horns, and in fact, two of them have a phrase for horns at the end -- no words. These are not challenging, like the Mozart duets, but they are tuneful and charming. I have never heard of horn players performing these, and I suspect they aren't performed much by singers. After all, there are so many Schubert songs to choose from.

So, we have two Mailied, or May Songs to begin. The first relating to love and the second to enjoying our time on Earth, since we don't know how long it will last. Then Morgenstern, a hymn to the morning star, ending with a plea to flee "this earthly torment" by joining the morning star. The fourth and fifth are hunting songs. Jagerlied could be a Klingon war song, brothers battling joyfully against the tyrants. The last is Lutzow's wilde jagt, more battling against the tyrants but this time with Lutzow, apparently a hero. The refrain is "This is Lutzow's wild, reckless hunting." I hope to do some additional research on the songs. Though the title page describes them as Five Duets, the Deutsch numbers are not consecutive. I also wonder if Schubert wrote them for a particular occasion.

We will be performing these delightful duets at around 4:40 in Suite 801. If you are in the Chicago area, I encourage you to come to the Schubertiade, not just because I'm playing, but it is a fun time. The atmosphere is upbeat, there is the Schubert Cafe where you can have a little snack, and it's in the historic Fine Arts Building, such a cool place! And, of course there's lots of Schubert!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Schubert, Winterreise, and a boisterously good time?

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
If I were in New York, I would definitely go see the show "Three Pianos." It is described as being difficult to describe. Anything that uses Franz Schubert's "Winterreise," usually described as a bleak song cycle about lost love, to create a rollicking, wacky event would be difficult to describe. The New York Times published both an article and a review of the show, which gives an idea of what the evening would be like. There are three pianists, who play both modern characters as well as Schubert and friends. They do indeed perform the whole song cycle, though not always in the original. It has been called a kind of Schubertiade, the name Schubert's friends gave to the evenings they played and sang Schubert with Schubert. All audience members get a glass of wine and refills. There is apparently an accordion in the performance.

I was thinking about why the idea appeals to me. As performers, we are creative in our interpretation of composers' musical creations. I love listening to different interpretations and working out my own interpretation of a piece. A creation like "Three Pianos" goes in a different direction, interpreting, but also changing and adding things to the original.If it's successful it can add to the audience's experience of a piece or help them take a fresh look at something familiar.

Jeremy Denk, concert pianist, wrote a blogpost about program notes in which he said, "I’ve never been a big fan of the 'imagine how revolutionary this piece was when it was written' school of inspiration. For my money, it should be revolutionary now. (And it is.) Whatever else the composer might have intended, he or she didn’t want you to think “boy that must have been cool back then.” The most basic compositional intent, the absolute ur-intent, is that you play it NOW, you make it happen NOW." I agree, and, having sat through many sleepy performances of famous works, I know it doesn't always happen. The times when that NOW happens are magical, electric. They are the concerts you remember forever.

But, I also like the reinvention of familiar pieces through alteration. No, it doesn't always work. No, not everyone is going to like it. But it makes people think and feel. Three Pianos is apparently closing in a few days. Since I'm in Chicago, I won't be seeing it.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The King's Speech

King George VI
The four of us went to see the movie "The King's Speech" last night. It is a wonderful movie and I highly recommend it -- we all loved it.

Quasi-spoiler alert! I'm not going to divulge any plot points here. All plot elements that I will refer to have already appeared in reviews and previews. However, if you don't want to know anything about this movie, then stop reading and go see it!!

Like most movie-goers, I'm very often not aware of the background music. I pay attention to the opening music during the titles and the music during the credits, but during the movie, I'm engrossed in the story and the characters. However, in the King's Speech, when we got to the climax, when he begins the speech to his nation on the eve of World War II, the use of music created a dynamic symbiosis that heightened the emotion of the scene. King George VI, who has worked with Lionel Logue to conquer his stammer, needs to give a radio address to the nation. As he stands before the microphone trying to begin, seconds of silence fill the airwaves. As he finally begins to speak, the second movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony also begins. The music and the speech twine together, both equally important. The music gradually becomes louder but complements the moment perfectly, inexorably moving forward while we feel each word with Bertie. It is a powerful scene.

The music over the credits is the beautiful Beethoven 5th Piano Concerto, the "Emperor". The London Symphony performs the Beethoven, but I was not able to catch the pianist during the credits, partly because my family was arguing about whether the Winston Churchill in the film looked like the real Churchill. Why is it so difficult to find musical performer credits on the Internet?
Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter in The King's Speech