Friday, September 19, 2014

CCC 115 - Julian Wagstaff

This week's entry in the Consonant Classical Challenge is Scottish composer Julian Wagstaff. Wagstaff's had a varied career before turning to music full-time in the late 1990's. His work and study in German, political history, and science have all provided inspiration for his works. And his musical influences are equally eclectic, coming not only from classical tradition, but also rock and musical theater.

All of which give Wagstaff a unique compositional voice -- and one that's readily accessible.

"John Paul Jones" is a musical, and it's the work that brought Julian Wagstaff to the attention of the classical world. Musicals are all about melody, and Wagstaff delivers. The melodies in "John Paul Jones" are solidly constructed, and it's clear that Wagstaff is more concerned with expressing the emotions of the characters and furthering the story than providing excuses for singers to belt out the show-stopping tunes.

"Breathe Freely" is a chamber opera with an interesting origin. It was commissioned by the University of Edinburgh School of Chemistry, and tells the story of Polish chemist Stanislaw Hempel. Wagstaff's scientific background serves him well. The work itself is highly chromatic, but not atonal, And as this excerpt video shows, there are even some beautiful melodies that have a hint of musical theater about them.

I suspect that Wagstaff's background as a German translator and his interest in political history may have had something to do with his string orchestra work, "Treptow." It was inspired by the Soviet war memorial in Treptow Park (in the former East Germany), and to my ears, sounds somewhat akin to the chamber works of Shostakovich.

The Symphony for Chamber Orchestra shows Wagstaff's mastery of the orchestral form. In this excerpt, one can hear that Wagstaff isn't just a melodist -- he can take his themes apart and reassemble them in new and interesting ways that still further the aim of the composition.

Listen to an excerpt of the Chamber Symphony on Soundcloud.

Julian Wagstaff is a young composer, and one who's quite comfortable in many musical genres. And that's what makes his music work so well. Younger audiences are also comfortable listening to many musical genres. Performing organizations who are looking to develop new audiences might do well to consider Wagstaff's music. And best of all, it shouldn't alienate older audiences either. At least I was left wanting to hear more.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Collecting -- and collecting information 17

Three vehicles with many uses. They were sold
both under the Marx name, and Linemar,
their Japanese subsidiary.
 Sometimes the accumulation of knowledge can be incremental -- and very slow.

When I researched Japanese tinplate toy cars back in 2012, I discovered that the 1920's- style vehicles that came with the Marx "Untouchables" playset weren't necessarily made exclusively for the set (see Japanese Tin Toy Vehicles, Part 5).

The four-door sedan and top-up convertible versions of this car were included in the "Untouchables" playset. The set was sold under the Louis Marx and Co. brand, but the vehicles themselves were marked Linemar, the Japanese subsidiary of Marx.

If they weren't marked, you couldn't tell what
vehicles these toys were meant to resemble -- and
even then the markings didn't help much.
I had discovered a third version of the vehicle -- a convertible with the top down. The Marx playset vehicles were labeled "Rolls Royce," but this version was marked "Cadillac." (Any resemblance between the Marx/Linemar car and either Rolls Royce or Cadillac car of the 1920's is purely imaginary.)

As it turns out, though, that stand-alone Cadillac wasn't just a one-off. I recently ran across a Linemar set of six vintage vehicles. Which provided further insight into the efficiencies of low-margin toy production of the era.
The "Cadillac" top-down convertible was
sold separately, as this box documents.

The "Old Timer Collection" features six vehicles inspired by (but not closely resembling) cars and trucks from about 1915-1929. In addition to the Cadillac, there's an Antique Car (looking somewhat like a 1904 Buckmobile), Antique Truck (based on a Model T pickup), Limousine (resembling a 1906 Renault), Station Wagon (based on a 1916 Renault truck), and Delivery Truck (looking a little like a 1905 Mack delivery van).

The Linemar Old Timer Collection
The three versions of the Cadillac/Rolls Royce share many of the same parts, which make them cheaper to make. The fewer unique parts, the greater the savings in production. Just by a few cosmetic changes were the three different cars created.

And you can see the same economies being made in this set. There are only two different wheel sizes, each with its own hubcap. the three cars all have the same headlights.

The three trucks all have the same steering wheel and steering columns.

Click on images to enlarge and more easily
see the similarities between these six vehicles.
The chassis for the antique truck and the delivery truck are the same.

The fender assembly for the antique truck is also used on the station wagon, and all six use the same friction motor.

I haven't seen any examples of those other vehicles ever being offered for individual sale like the Cadillac, but who knows? There still be more information out there waiting to be discovered.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Dohnanyi Second Symphony revived by FSU Symphony Orchestra

Ernö Dohnányi
Symphony No. 2; Two Songs, Op. 22
Evan Thomas Jones; baritone
Forida State University Symphony Orchestra

Alexander Jimenez, conductor

This is a Florida State University project from start to finish, and that makes perfect sense. Ernö Dohnányi finished his career on the faculty of FSU, and conducted the FSU Symphony Orchestra (albeit a half century before they made this recording). The performing editions for the Symphony No.2 and the Two songs were prepared from manuscripts in FSU's Dohnányi collection, by one of the leading authorities on Dohnányi who received his doctorate at -- FSU.

The ensemble, and conductor, Alexander Jimenez come to the music with not only a deep understanding of the music, but something of a personal connection to the composer as well. And for the most part, that holds them in good stead.

Two Songs, Op. 22, written in 1922 features lush, post-romantic harmonies, similar to those in the orchestral songs of Richard Strauss or Alexander Zemlinsky. Unfortunately, the booklet doesn't include the song texts for these world premier recordings, but Naxos makes them available online. Wilhelm Conrad Gomoll's poetry provided the dramatic framework for the work, and the words are effectively illuminated by Dohnányi's music. As a pure listening experience, the songs are thrilling. Baritone Evan thomas Jones sings expressively, and sometimes with gravitas. The FSU ensemble performs with a supple responsiveness that adds to the beauty of the work.

Dohnányi's massive Symphony No. 2 was completed in 1945, and revised in 1957. The revision (heard here), tightened the structure, and made Dohnányi's vision of conflict and hope more focused in the process. Dohnányi never abandoned tonality, but the textures are more austere than those of the Two Songs. Nevertheless, the work is quite lyrical throughout, especially in the second movement. The FSU Symphony Orchestra is an amazingly talented student ensemble, with only a few slips to betray their lack of professional experience. Some of the string attacks sounded a little soft to me, and occasionally soloists seemed a little weak in exposed passages.

Still, Maestro Jimenez and the FSU Symphony Orchestra deliver committed and authoritative performances of these works. And in the process they do a great service to further the reputation of their former professor.