Friday, February 28, 2014

CCC 094 - John Birge

Canadian composer John Burge is focus of the Consonant Classical Challenge this week. Burge is best-known for his choral works. He's an accomplished organist, and has also written a significant amount of music for both organ and solo piano.

Even when he's not writing for chorus, Burge's music has a singing quality to it. Burge uses very simple melodic and harmonic materials to create engaging and accessible works.

His organ composition "Dance" is a good example of this. The syncopated rhythms have a jazzy quality to them, but there's never any doubt about where the pulse is. The chromatic passage work also has a clear destination. It's a show piece that keeps the audience following along with every note.

John Burge's solo piano piece "Loved and were loved" is a quiet, poignant work. The melody is composed of simple scale passages that gradually build upon each other. Since Burge mostly keeps to a diatonic scale, every note is more or less consonant with the other, creating its own pleasing harmony.

"Tag" for two violins and piano is simply that. The two violins chase each other back and forth through the work. Burge's seemingly simple material makes the lines easy to follow, even on first hearing.

By contrast, "Everything Waits for the Lilacs" is a much more aggressive work. The clusters that begin the work put the listener on notice. Burge's melodies are more chromatic, and the harmonies dense and dark. Yet the dissonances seem to add piquancy rather than chaos.

"Sanctus" illustrates how well Burge's style is suiting for singing.The smooth, linear melodies are well-suited for the human voice.

John Burge writes music meant to be performed -- and enjoyed. Although his music doesn't sound complex, it does have a substance to it that all true artistic expressions do. Finding recordings of Burge's music is quite challenging -- and there's a lot more I'd like to hear. Perhaps more choral directors will consider programming his music in the future. It's certainly worthwhile to do so in my opinion.

Recommended Recordings

Masterworks of the New Era - Volume Four

Diana Gilchrist Sings Songs of Canada

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Weinberg: Symphony No. 12 - A fitting tribute to a friend

Mieczyslaw Weinberg
Symphony No. 12; the Golden Key
St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra
Vladimir Lande, conductor

Mieczyslaw Weinberg's 12th Symphony is subtitled "In Memoriam D. Shostakovich." It was composed shortly after the death of his close friend and colleague and is a fitting tribute indeed.  Weinberg incorporates many musical gestures of his late friend in this work, yet remains true to his own musical voice.

The symphony starts with a powerful angular unison figure that recalls similar passages in Shostakovich's music. To my ears, many sections reminded me of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony, alternating with his Op. 110 Chamber Symphony.

But none of this is pastiche. The orchestration may echo Shostakovich, but the melodic and harmonic content is Weinberg's. An effective tribute to a fellow composer.

By contrast, the second work on the disc, the Golden Key is a lighthearted upbeat ballet suite. Sometimes the melodies go a little off the rails (like early Prokofiev), but that just adds a little spice. The music is very Russian in character, and Weinberg's vibrant orchestration at times sounds dazzling.

Vladimir Lande and the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra turn in solid performances of these works. Lande doing a particularly effective job of bringing out the authentic emotion of the symphony.

This is the third Naxos release of Weinberg symphonies with this ensemble. I hope there are more to follow.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Franz Schreker's "Die Gezeichneten" Seduces the Ear

Die Gezeichnete (The Stignatized)
Franz Schreker
LA Opera; James Conlon, conductor
Anja Kampe, Robert Brubaker, Martin Gantner, James Johnson, Wolfgang Schöne
3 CD Set
Bridge Records

Franz Schreker's 1914 opera "Die Gezeichneten" is a study of opposites. Alviano Salviago is ugly and physically deformed, but has a pure spirit. The beautiful island paradise he creates has been taken over by young nobles for their orgies. The artist Carlotta is first attracted to Alviano's inner beauty, but then gives herself to lustful attentions of outwardly handsome Count Tamare.

Schreker's shimmering, richly orchestrated score is indeed beautiful, while simultaneously conveying a sense of unease and overripe decadence. This live recording of "Die Gezeichneten" by the LA Opera captures the spirit of Schrecker's troubling work and delivers its emotional content in full.

Maestro James Conlon has a clear affinity with this music, and it shows. Schreker scored the work for an expanded orchestra. The LA Opera had to reduce the size of the ensemble to fit in the venue, but no matter. Under Conlon's direction, the music sounds rich and full. If anything, the paring down of the orchestra adds a limpid translucence to the score.

Robert Brubaker performs well as Salviago, also his upper register is a little thin at times. Anja Kampe, as Carlotta,  sings with a soft, rounded tone that sounds especially beautiful in the lower register. Their voices have a wonderful blend, making the duets between Salviago and Carlotta the high points of the recording (at least for me).

This three-CD set includes a booklet with the complete libretto in German, Italian, French, and English. Bridge's release captures the excitement and energy of the live performance with pristine sound (and virtually no distracting audience noise). Recommended.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Dick Tracy and Detective Comics

Some daily comic strips it pays to read with your full attention -- like Dick Tracy. Mike Curtis and Joe Staton frequently salt Dick Tracy with pop culture references and crossovers with other comic strips. They've even hinted that one Tracy's earliest foes, Broadway Bates, is actually a brother of the Batman's adversary, the Penguin.

This sequence beginning 2/10/14 ties Dick Tracy's world more closely to the DC universe. (click on images to enlarge)

Metropolis is Superman's home city, of course. But not as many readers would recognize Opal City, the home of Starman. Starman began in Adventure Comics in 1938, and although never a top-rank hero, is still around (albeit after going through various incarnations).

Opal City is also the home of one of the versions of the Black Condor and Phantom Lady, two early comic book heroes eventually brought into the DC fold.

Star City is (or rather was, before a continuity reboot) the home of the Green Arrow.

Connecting Dick Tracy to DC seems right. After all, those initials originally stood for the company's flagship comic book, Detective Comics.

(And yes, Bernard Fife is indeed the proper name of Mayberry's favorite deputy.)

Monday, February 24, 2014

Diabelli Project 030 - Invention in C major

The Diabelli Project is about offering my weekly flash-composition sketches freely to all. Like Antonio Diabelli's theme these sketches aren't great music. But perhaps (as in Diabelli's case) there's a Beethoven out there who can do great things with them.

Another day, another invention -- that's the way it seems to be this month. Today's installment started from a very simple idea. I just started with that whole step motif and followed it to wherever it lead me. (In the case of the first measure, it lead me down a scale!) 

Because my motif is rather busy -- and there are four full beats to a measure, I ran out of time before things really got going. But don't let that stop you. What happens next is completely free from my self-imposed rules for flash composition. Have fun, and be sure to share the results. I promise to do the same should I ever complete this idea.

Friday, February 21, 2014

CCC 093 - Aaron Jay Kernis

The Consonant Classical Challenge is all about showcasing living composers who are writing in an accessible tonal style that extend -- rather than break with -- classical music traditions. The goal is to refute the assumption that all contemporary music is ugly and unlistenable (actually, I enjoy quite a lot of "ugly" and "unlistenable" contemporary music, but that's a discussion for another time). I've found composers all over the world whose music give lie to that stereotype -- some fairly obscure here in the U.S.

But not all. Aaron Jay Kernis is one of the most famous -- and most performed -- composer of his generation. And with good reason. He's often said he's more comfortable writing beautiful music as opposed to atonal works. And with influences as far-ranging as Debussy and contemporary hip-hop, Kernis is fully steeped in the musical vernacular modern audiences understand.

Kernis' Air for violin is his most famous work. Kernis creates a simple and beautiful melody that charms the listener with its quiet expressiveness. Harmonies have the openness of Copland's, giving support and subtle shading to the gorgeous and expressive melody.

"Colored Field" is a deeply emotional work, composed after Kernis visited some European concentration camps. The music gets its strength from the darkened harmonies. Rather than using simple triads or even stacked open fourths, the denseness and dissonance built into the texture give the work its emotional power without fully moving to atonality. Kernis' skill at orchestration delivers his emotional message with great effect.

The Superstar Etudes have such great technical challenges, it does indeed take a superstar to perform them. In the second etude's musical content one can easily hear how the venaculars of jazz and pop music have been incorporated into Kernis' style.

Yes, Kernis is basically a tonal composer, but he also has a highly original voice. His "Symphony In Waves," for example, gradually builds -- in sonic waves -- with an undulating rhythm that strongly suggests water. But this isn't a strictly programmatic work. Rather, it's one that conveys the movement and sensation of floating on waves through imaginative and beautiful orchestration.

 Aaron Jay Kernis is not only a popular composer, but a prolific one as well. He's written over 30 chamber works and almost as many works for orchestra, including concertos for cello, violin, and English horn. He's won both the Pulitzer Prize (not always a commendation for tonality, but always an indication of quality), as well as a Grammy. If your local chamber music group or orchestra isn't programming at least an occasional work by Kernis, you should ask why. It's the type music that's speaks the musical language of today, while remaining understandable to those who prefer the classical music of the past.

Recommended Recordings

Kernis: Colored Field, Musica Celestis, Air

Kernis: Symphony in Waves

Kernis: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Di Lasso - Penetential Psalms - Exquisite beauty in sound

Orlando di Lasso
Setem Psalmi Poenitentiales
Dufay Ensemble

2 CD Set
Ars Musici

The Seven Penitential Psalms are among the most emotionally expressive poetry in the Bible. So it's not surprising that Orlando di Lasso, master of expressive counterpoint, created works of extreme beauty in his settings of these texts.

These works would have originally been performed during Lent, a time of introspection. Di Lasso breaks each psalm down into sections, with each section getting a different treatment. This creates variety of both character and texture, allowing di Lasso work with the inherent musical implications for each section.

Taken as a group, the psalms invite self-reflection and examination. It's only on repeated listening does di Lasso's contrapuntal artistry become clear.

The Dufay Ensemble performs up to their usual high standards. The blend is seamless, and yet each individual line is easy to pick out. My only complaint is that the recording itself is a little dry. Although recorded in a church, the group is so close-miked that there's little ambiance at all. Di Lasso composed this music for the chapel of his employer Duke Albrecht V. To hear these works without some type of decay seems odd somehow.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Urban Blight in the O-Gauge Zen Garden

Let's be clear; virtually all train layouts -- be they for scale models or toys -- are representational rather than realistic So what's good news for a layout might be bad news in the real world. In this case, the good news was the addition of a billboard.

In the real world, billboards are considered eyesores that detract from the landscape. In miniature, though, they can add visual interest and help balance a scene. Which is why I added one to my O-gauge zen garden.

The tunnel that sits in a corner of the layout had a big, hollow space that I always intended to fill with something. On either side of the space were two illuminated buildings. The H&C Coffee building had an animated sign up on the roof, and the single-story supermart on the other side had a flashing Breyer's Ice Cream sign.

The illuminated billboard I added would serve two functions. First, it would light a previously dark area. Second, by placing it above street level, it would provide a visual link between the second-story sign on one side, and the single-story sign on the other.

There are several O-gauge illuminated billboards on the market, but most are designed for toy trains and have over-sized bulbs. I wanted something a little more understated, so I went with a billboards with three LEDs.

The billboard was meant to used as-is, but there was a change I had to make. As good as the molding was, the sign was finished with a poorly scanned vintage billboard message. That had to go.

I replaced it with a sign offered in Classic Toy Trains. These cardstock signs were meant as replacements for a Lionel non-illuminated billboard. I selected a sign that was both realistic and less time-sensitive. With a little trimming, it fit just fine.

The billboard had an external battery pack, so the problem was to fit both the sign and its power source into the available space. The solution was pretty simple. I carved a block of styrfoam to fit in the space in front of the tunnel. I then cut out a place for the battery pack to fit, and glued a  fiberboard piece across the back.


A model sheet of embossed bricks was measured and cut, then glued to the block. Finishing details included spraying the top with "wet" glue (watered-down white glue) then sprinkling with model grass. When that had dried, I glued some moss to the front of the retaining wall, letting some hang over.

The entire assembly slipped into place, and that was that. A few hours of work and the landscape in my zen garden was improved tremendously. I wouldn't welcome such a sign in real life, but on my little 3' x 5' world, it looks just fine.

Another space filled in nicely. Now, what to do about that area between
the store and the billboard's retaining wall....

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Mutts and Krazy Kats

Patrick McDonnell, creator of Mutts seeds his comic strip with vintage pop culture references. Some of subtle, some obvious -- but all are great fun. January 29, 2014, he folded one of his running gags into a brilliant reference to George Herriman's Krazy Kat. (click on image to enlarge)

Those two squirrels have been bouncing acorns off of noggins for some time now -- and the victims haven't always been characters within the strip (The Mighty Marvel Mutts). In this case, it's the context that's the cameo.

It's an amusing sequence for the casual reader. I think that's probably why McDonnell chose to spell Krazy Kat the standard way -- using the K's would have been confusing for someone who wasn't familiar with Herriman's work.

Comics fans, I think, got more enjoyment from this sequence. Krazy Kat revolved around the odd relationship between Ignatz the mouse and Krazy Kat. Ignatz throw bricks at Krazy Kat, which Krazy would interpret as signs of love. As you can see from a typical Krazy Kat panel, McDonnell's sequence is spot-on. And the punch line is almost a knowing wink of the eye to comics lovers.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Diabelli Project 029 - Invention in E minor

The Diabelli Project is about offering my weekly flash-composition sketches freely to all. Like Antonio Diabelli's theme these sketches aren't great music. But perhaps (as in Diabelli's case) there's a Beethoven out there who can do great things with them.

Consider this a baby step from last week's entry. Instead of a major key, I wrote this in a minor key -- albeit one I don't normally use. Note that I didn't use the raised seventh anywhere. I wanted to see if I could clearly establish a key without it.

 So where does it go from here? That's up to you, if you're included to finish it. No strings attached -- just let me know how it ended, and your completed version is yours free and clear.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Olympic Musical Gold - Part 3

In Part 1 I outlined the strange history of the arts competitions at the modern Olympic Games. From 1912 through 1948 medals were given for classical music compositions (when merited). So what did these works sound like? Did they encapsulate the Olympic ideal?

In Part 2, I looked at two of the four winners (whose Olympic music I was able to find), from the 1928 and 1932 games. This installment I present medalists from the 1936 and 1948 games -- the final one for the arts competition events.

I have no way of knowing this, but when I survey the winner's list for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, it looks like the fix was in. That year the music composition category was divided into three events; Solo and Chorus, Instrumental, and Orchestral. There were no medals awarded for Instrumental, but the other two categories were a different story.

Germany swept the Solo and Chorus event:  Paul Hoffer "Olympic Vow" (Gold), Kurt Thomas "Olympic Cantata 1936" (Silver), Harald Genzmer "The Runner" (Bronze).

And the Orchestral event looks a little fishy, too. Werner Egk won the Gold for Germany with his "Olympic Festive Music," Lino Liviabelle from Axis ally Italy took Silver for "The Victor," and  Bronze going to Czech composer Jaroslav Kricka for "Mountain Suite." (Czechoslovakia would become part of the Third Reich within two years).

What does Werner Egk's "Olympic Festive Music" sound like. Quite odd, actually. I had expected something martial and imperial.  Instead, Egk turns in a sparse work that seems to owe more to Stravinsky and Weill than Wagner. Werner Egk (1901-1983), despite his modernist tendencies, enjoyed a successful career in Nazi Germany (although he never joined the party). Most of his major works were composed after the war, but this march actually presages what was to come.

John Weinzweig (1913-1986) was a prominent Canadian composer. His "Divertimento No. 1 for Flute and Strings" won Silver at the 1948 Olympic games in London. It was the highest-placing work in the Instrumental and Chamber Music event. Weinzweig wrote prolifically for the CBC, and also scored several Canadian films. The bulk of his compositions were for orchestra, although his output for chamber ensembles is also quite large. This divertimento proved to be the first of a series of eleven that he wrote for a solo instrument with string orchestra accompaniment.

The work itself is quite melodic, with some piquant harmonies. The melody sometimes takes twists and turns that echo Prokofiev, but Weinzweig has an original compositional voice.

(Note: in the recording below, taken from a live broadcast, there are a few dropouts. But it was the best version I could find).

It's a shame that this Olympic event was discontinued, but perhaps it was for the best. Most of the winners are virtually unknown today, and of the medal-winning compositions, I could only find four that were recorded in any form. A curious footnote to the modern Olympics the music competition remains -- and one that still remains largely unheard.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Olympic Musical Gold - Part 2

In Part 1 I outlined the strange history of the arts competitions at the modern Olympic Games. From 1912 through 1948 medals were given for classical music compositions (when merited). So what did these works sound like? Did they encapsulate the Olympic ideal?

At the 1928 games in Antwerp, Danish composer Rudolph Simonsen won a Bronze Medal for his Symphony No. 2, "Hellas" Simonsen (1889-1947) composed four symphonies over the course of his career, each with a program of some kind.

His second symphony, "Hellas" is a three movement work based on the Orestia, a trilogy of ancient Greek tragedies. The Orestria won first prize at the Dionysia festival in Athens, 458, BC, which perhaps made it suitable as an Olympic competition entry.

Simonsen completed the work in 1921, seven years before the event. The21-minute work is in three movements:

1. Orestian (Orestia)
2. Ensomhed ved Templerne (Loneliness at the Temples)
3. Sejersgudinden Pallas Athene (Victory goddess Pallas Athene)

The middle movement is quite beautiful and contemplative, and the final movement is heroic and stately -- well-suited to Olympic pageantry. Simonsen wrote in a similar style to Carl Nielsen (whom he succeeded as head of the Royal Danish Academy of Music) . Simonsen's music is tonal, but not overly conservative. While the symphony may not have any memorable themes, it's a work that holds up well and is worth hearing. Significantly, no Gold or Silver medals were awarded this year. So Simonsen's score was considered the best entry, but not the best possible entry.

By contrast, "Into a New Life" concert march by Joseph Suk is short and sweet, with a memorable fanfare to start the proceedings. Josef Suk (1874-1935)  composed the work in 1920, and submitted it as an entry for the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. It earned a Silver Medal for Czechoslovakia. Neither Gold nor Bronze was awarded that year, so Suk's work apparently was vastly better than the other entries, if still not quite good enough for gold.

The work is a jaunty little 6-minute symphonic march that's brimming with optimism and energy. Suk was a renowned and respected composer with an impressive body of work. He was Antonin Dvorak's sun-in-law, and was colleagues with Gustav Mahler and Alban Berg. Several of his works are part of the standard repertoire: his Serenade for Strings; the Azreal Symphony in C minor; the Fairy Tale Suite, and several others.

It's not surprising that there was no Bronze awarded. It's unlikely that there were other entries of the same level of craftsmanship as Suk's march. And it also makes sense that it didn't win the Gold. Compared to Suk's best works, "Into a New Life" is good, but not great. Perhaps the judges were aware of what Suk could really do.

Next: Part 3 - 1936 and 1948!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Olympic Musical Gold - Part 1

Some came to play -- others came
to play instruments.
Most classical music lovers aren't aware that Joseph Suk took the Silver Medal at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, or that Polish composer Zbigniew Turski brought home the Gold from the 1948 Olympics in London. Were these musicians extraordinary athletes? Not especially -- the truth is even more remarkable.

When the modern Olympics were established in 1912, the goal was to emulate the ancient Greek games and have both athletic and artistic competition. And so, from 1912 through 1948, there were Olympic competition in the fields of literature, sculpture, painting, and music composition.

After 1948 it was decided that since almost all the competitors for the arts events were professionals, the Olympics would shift to just having an art exhibition celebrating the contributions of the participating nations, and leave the amateur competition to the athletic events.

As is common with composition contests (but exceedingly rare in sports), not every medal was awarded in every event. If the judges thought there was no work worthy of an Olympic gold medal, then none was awarded, and the "best" composition received a silver -- or a bronze.

Below is a complete list of the winners for the Olympic Games Music Competition. So what does a medal-winning Olympic composition sound like? Although most of these composers are obscure, some of the prize-winning works have been recorded. In parts two and three, we'll analyze the four I was able to find.

Olympic Music Competition Winners 

Stockholm 1912 
  • Gold: Riccardo Barthelemy (Ita): Olympic Triumphal March 
  • Silver: none awarded 
  • Bronze: none awarded 
Antwerp 1920 
  • Gold: Georges Monier (Bel): Olympique Silver: 
  • Oreste Riva (Ita): Marcia trionfale 
  • Bronze: none awarded 
Paris 1924
  • None awarded 
Antwerp 1928
   Song category: none awarded

   One instrument category: none awarded

   Orchestral music category
  • Gold: none awarded 
  • Silver: none awarded 
  • Bronze: Rudolph Simonsen (Den): Symphony No. 2 “Hellas” 
Los Angeles 1932 
  • Gold: none awarded 
  • Silver: Joseph Suk (Tch) “Into a New Life” symphonic march 
  • Bronze: none awarded 
Berlin 1936 
   Solo and chorus
  • Gold: Paul Hoffer (Ger): Olympic Vow 
  • Silver: Kurt Thomas (Ger): Olympic Cantata 1936 
  • Bronze: Harald Genzmer (Ger): The Runner 
   Instrumental: none awarded

  • Gold: Werner Egk (Ger): Olympic Festive Music 
  • Silver: Lino Liviabella (Ita): The Victor 
  • Bronze: Jaroslav Kricka (Tch): Mountain Suite 

London 1948 
  • Gold: none awarded 
  • Silver: none awarded 
  • Bronze: Gabriele Bianchi (Ita): Inno Olimpionico 
   Instrumental and Chamber
  • Gold: none awarded 
  • Silver: John Weinzweig (Can): Divertimenti for Solo Flute and Strings 
  • Bronze: Sergio Lauricella (Ita): Toccata per pianoforte 
   Choral and orchestral:
  • Gold: Zbigniew Turksi (Pol): Olympic Symphony 
  • Silver: Kalervo Tuukkanen (Fin) Karhunpyynti 
  • Bronze: Erling Brene (Den): Viguer

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

David Ian: Valentine's Day -- Jazz stylings for that special day

Valentine's Day
David Ian

Looking for the perfect soundtrack for a romantic evening at home? Jazz pianist David  Ian's "Valentine's Day" may be just what you're looking for. Ian assembles a collection of romantic standards from the Great American Songbook and presents them with his affable piano stylings.

A number of guest vocalists are on hand. Some, like Andre Miguel Mayo and Talitha Walters-Wulfing, are alumni from Ian's Christmas album.
By using different singers, and using them sparingly, Ian keeps the album's sound interesting and consistent. As a soundtrack to an intimate evening, Valentine's Day is ideal -- with one caveat.

There's a bonus track, "Sweet By and By" with gospel singer Russ Taff. Taff's voice is quite rough compared to the other singers, and the song itself an odd choice. Think about it -- the message of this gospel song is that we'll all be reunited after death. Talk about a mood killer.

Skip the bonus track and save the evening.

Mutts and Kings 2

 Mutts creator Patrick McDonnell clearly has affection for the Little King. This classic comic strip was drawn by Otto Soglow between 1931 and 1975 in a style that was uniquely Soglow's. McDonnell has framed his strip in Little King-like sequences at least three times to my knowledge. Once on a daily page (see Mutts and Kings), and  ta Sunday sequence (Little Mutts).

His most recent tribute is note-perfect in the look, pacing, and type of humor Soglow specialized in. (click on image to enlarge)

And its done in such a way that the gag works on two levels. If you have no knowledge of the Little King, then the gag just seems to be about how cats rule. But to those who are students of the sequential arts, every panel is a treat.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Diabelli project 028 - Invention in F

The Diabelli Project is about offering my weekly flash-composition sketches freely to all. Like Antonio Diabelli's theme these sketches aren't great music. But perhaps (as in Diabelli's case) there's a Beethoven out there who can do great things with them.

One thing to remember about these sketches -- there's virtually no critical filter in place. The goal for me is to keep the creative juices flowing, and so I have to write as fast as possible for about five minutes then stop. What you see in this series is the result. So why post them? Well, I've discovered that if I know they'll be shared, I tend invest a little bit more into them. And making them as good as I can while still writing as fast as possible has helped my development as a composer. Really.

This little fragment I offer to anyone who cares to finish it. Yes, it's in F, but not in F major. F lydian, perhaps? F mixolydian? Is it really in C? That's up to you. Just share your results is all I ask.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Alexander Fiterstein dances through Weber clarinet concertos

Carl Maria von Weber
Clarinet Concertos Nos. 1 & 2
Concertino for Clarinet, Op. 26

Alexander Fiterstein, clarinet
San Francisco Ballet Orchestra
Martin West, conductor
Bridge Records

Mozart was the first major composer to compose a clarinet concerto, but Weber runs a close second. Written a generation after Mozart, Weber's two clarinet conceri hold a similar place in the repertoire.

Clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein brings out those similarities in this new recordings. His liquid tone and precise intonation bring a classical elegance to these works -- a touch Mozart might appreciate.

Yet Fiterstein nimbly leaps about, almost dancing with the music. Perhaps its appropriate then, that he should be accompanied by a ballet orchestra, then. The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, directed by Martin West provide a light and transparent ensemble sound that further strengthen the similarities between Mozart and Weber.

That's not to say these are pretty performances. Fiterstein and company provide plenty of drama and weight when required to -- especially in the second concerto. On the whole, appealing and inviting performances of these familiar works.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Outstanding set of Hugo Wolf Liederbuchs

Hugo Wolf
Spanisches Liederbuch
Italianisches Liederbuch

Birgid Steinberger, soprano
Michaele Selinger, mezzo-soprano
Wolfgang Holzmair, baritone
Russell Ryan, Georg Beckman, piano

3 CD set
Bridge Records

Most of Hugo Wolf's slender catalog of works is lieder, and the bulk of his reputation as a composer rests with two massive collections: the Spanisches Liderbuch (Spanish Songbook), and the Italianisches Liederbuch (Italian Songbook). This new 3-CD set from Bridge presents both of these massive works with texts in both German and English.

Both books are complete song cycles, although most of the lied are finely-crafted miniatures that can be (and are often) performed separately. Bridge presents these works in their entirety. The three singers involved provide variety, and in the case of the Italian songbook, an almost give-and-take dialogue between the mezzo-soprano and baritone as they alternate songs.

Birgid Steinberger's clean, pure soprano has an ethereal quality to it that's  exceptionally effective with the sacred songs of the Spanish Songbook. Mezzo-soprano Michaele Selinger's voice has a slight edge to it, especially in the upper register. But that's actually a plus. Contrasted to Wolfgang Holzmair's rich, honeyed baritone, it helps throw both voices into sharper relief. And in the Italian Songbook, Selinger and Holzmair seem to have certain chemistry that adds an additional emotional layer to these sensual lieder.

This is a very attractive collection,. One can listen to any of the lied individually and hear a fine performance. But it's also structured so that you can listen to the song cycles in their entirety. And that experience yields significant insights into these masterworks. Well done!

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Lio and Wumo -- Comic Synchronicity

It's not surprising that two or more comic strips will happen upon the same theme in a daily sequence. After all, many react to current events, pop culture crazes, or just the current zeitgeist. What is unusual, though, is when two different comic strips -- on the same day -- reference a zeitgeist long past.

January 25, 2014 Mark Tartulli's Lio presented this one-panel gag. (click on images to enlarge)

And the same day Wumo, by Mikael Wulff and Anders Morgenthaler, had this single panel entry.

Both of these gags seem more in tune to 1967 than 2014. Odd that they should both show up on the same day (especially given their lead times).

I'm not complaining -- it just struck me as odd.

But there's something else to remember. Neither gag would have seen print in 1967. Their subject matter would have been considered too controversial for the comics pages of virtually all major newspapers.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Diabelli Project 027 - Invention in C major

The Diabelli Project is about offering my weekly flash-composition sketches freely to all. Like Antonio Diabelli's theme these sketches aren't great music. But perhaps (as in Diabelli's case) there's a Beethoven out there who can do great things with them.

This week's installment is something of a return to basics. Just a very simple invention in C major. The first measure pretty firmly establishes C as the tonal center, and the second moves to G. 

As always, you're invited to provide your own ending. If this inspires you, all I ask is that you let me know how it turns out.