Elen sila lumenn omentielvo!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Tone Poem Tuesday

Antonin Dvorak wrote five major symphonic poems in his life, of which we hear the last today. A Hero's Song has no specific program to describe or illuminate its action, and some have concluded that it is partially autobiographical. I don't know about that, but it is a typically fine Dvorak work, full of melody and energy that is at times infectious, especially in the final bars when the kinetic nature of the music really picks up. I've found over the last several years that when I get in the car and turn on the classical music station and I hear an orchestral work that brings simple, sheer pleasure, as often as not it's something by Antonin Dvorak. His music seems to be very closely attuned to my happier, non-brooding self, and that certainly applies here, as well.

Of course, the most famous composer of tone poems of all time, Richard Strauss, would not long afterwards write a work called A Hero's Life, which has not been neglected as has the Dvorak work. We'll get to Strauss in good time, but for now, here's the Dvorak.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Symphony Saturday

In researching a little for this post, I discovered that Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 in E minor is not universally beloved. Shocking, but true: some critics find the finale "insincere and crude". Well, really. While I've had issues with a number of Tchaikovsky's works over the years, I've never had any issue with the Symphony No. 5. I've loved it since I first heard it, in a televised New York Philharmonic performance sometime in the late 1980s. Tchaikovsky's Fifth is one of my "signpost" works: it hits home for me on nearly every level, touching nearly all the emotions along the way. It broods, it battles, and it struggles; it sings and it waltzes and it dances -- and finally, in the end, it triumphs. Of all the symphonies I have heard, I can think of only one other that touches so many ranges of feeling. (Longtime readers almost certainly know which one that is, and readers who don't...well, we haven't got there yet.)

The Fifth, even moreso than the Fourth, makes use of a cyclical structure in which all four movements are tied together by a recurring theme. We hear this theme immediately, in the first movement's opening bars; this theme is often called the "Fate" theme, and indeed, the work is sometimes said to have an "underlying program" involving some sort of triumph over fate or some such thing. Tchaikovsky himself indicated something of a programmatic aspect to the work early on, but in its finished form the symphony has no specific program as such. Still, the music is highly emotive and dramatic, as befits a composer who never wrote a work that was not dramatic in some fashion.

That "Fate" theme is always recognizable throughout the symphony, each time it appears, and it is heard in a number of different guises and characters. We first encounter it in its brooding mood, before the first movement gives way to a march theme that partially broods but also partially seems to approach a dance-like character. The mood is almost of a folk dance or march, but there is still a feeling of something larger going on under the surface. (And remember that march theme, when it starts: it will return later on.)

In the second movement, we reach the emotional heart of the symphony. This is the slow movement, and what a grand movement it is: meditative and song-like, with multiple themes that wind into and out of each other until the whole thing feels like it's going to burst (with a massive quotation of the "Fate" theme in the middle). The movement begins with a sequence of soft chords which lead into the first them, played on a solo horn in what I have to assume is one of the "dream works" of every horn player. This movement is one of the most perfect symphonic movements I know.

The third movement, about half as long as the movements that surround it, feels like a small respite in the midst of some very huge emotions being expressed in the rest of the work. It brings us several waltz-like themes that intermingle with each other, at one point taking on the feel of an actual scherzo, before concluding with a triple-meter statement of the "Fate" theme. Tchaikovsky does some interesting things with the rhythms throughout the movement, with syncopations and unexpected turns of musical phrase. Even so, this waltz is both elegant and somewhat melancholy, right to the very end, when we encounter the Fate theme again.

And then the finale begins, with the Fate theme again -- but this time it is in a major key, played in stately fashion. The feeling is almost one of optimism. Optimism! From Tchaikovsky! Surely we're mistaken...and indeed, after a lengthy introduction involving the Fate theme, we launch into the "meat" of the finale, which is stormy and dramatic and at times even almost violent sounding. But even through all that there are moments that feel as if optimism is trying to break through. As much as I don't like resorting to visual metaphors in describing music, this movement is rather like one of those afternoons in late summer or early fall when a series of thunderstorms rolls through, one after the other, and in between are moments of sporadic sunshine with breaks in the clouds through which the brilliant blue sky can be seen. The tension mounts and mounts throughout this movement, until it all finally culminates in a final crashing chord -- or what feels like a final crashing chord, if you haven't been paying attention (and audiences have actually been known to start applauding what they assume to be the symphony's concluding moment at this point) -- and then, after a brief silence, nothing but pure triumph, with our "Fate" theme blazing forth, backed by heroic trumpet calls before being fully taken up by the brass itself. Then, at the last, there is one last stormy passage before the symphony's last bit of Tchaikovskian thunder: a blazing call-and-answer between the trumpets and the horns that actually quotes the march theme from all the way back in the first movement.

The symphony, as a form, can be the most epic of musical forms (other than pure opera), and Tchaikovsky's Fifth is a supreme example of this. A good performance of it always leaves me breathless and satisfied. It's one of those works of art that gives me the sensation of having been afforded a glimpse, however brief, behind the curtains of this universe into the realm of the truly majestic and beautiful.

But now, you probably want to actually hear the Symphony No. 5, so here it is! And I'm doing something different this time out: I'm featuring two performances. The first performance is from a concert given at London's Proms (and God, how I want to go to Proms someday!) by the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Han-na Chang. I had never heard the QPO before I heard this performance, and in doing a little reading, I learned that the QPO is less than ten years old as of this writing (their inaugural concert was in 2008), and they focus especially on the music of Middle Eastern composers, which sounds fascinating to me. There was an unfortunate story surrounding this particular concert, though: having been recently named the QPO's music director, Han-na Chang led the orchestra in this, the group's first ever performance at Proms -- and then, citing difficulties with management, she resigned the very next day, while the QPO was still on tour. Nevertheless, the QPO's Proms performance of Tchaikovsky's Fifth is quite a good one.

Next, though, we have a performance that is nearly transcendent. Leonard Bernstein was made to conduct works like this, with his famous passionate podium manner that sometimes made it seem as if he was about to levitate into the air above the orchestra. This performance is by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and it was recorded over 40 years ago, at Tanglewood (the BSO's summer home, in Western Massachusetts). The sound isn't quite up to modern standards here, but so what? The fire and drama of the music are still luminous.

Next week we wrap up Tchaikovsky.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Something for Thursday

Film music today: a suite from Jerry Goldsmith's score to Patton. I only watched the film once, when I was ten or eleven. I don't recall having much of an opinion, but I remember being struck by Goldsmith's work -- particularly those echoing trumpets that are heard throughout.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

It's Prismatic!

So there's this new photo app called Prisma that's all the rage. It's kind of cool, really -- it's similar to Instagram in that it takes photos (new or existing) and applies filters to them to make them look nifty. The difference is that Prisma's filters don't just tweak certain aspects of the photo, like contrast or color balance or such things; Prisma uses your photo as the basis for a new image, called an "artwork", in a certain artistic style, specified by use of the filter. It takes a little getting used to (and I'm not quite there yet), and initially I found it hard to see the appeal, but as I played with it more (mostly using existing photos), I found myself also liking it more.

Here's a selection of photos that I filtered through Prisma. Some of these look really nifty, if I do say so myself!

I may be biased, but I think that these are all pretty cool!

I got a BB-8 mug.

My newest mug! #bb8 #starwars #mug #coffee

That is all.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Fair 2016

Photos from the Erie County Fair, 2016

Ribbon fries #eriecountyfair

Wow. Stroh's. Blast from the past! #eriecountyfair #strohs

Quilt detail #eriecountyfair #quilt

Detail from vintage jewelry box. AM&A's was the department store chain in Buffalo and WNY back when every region had its own department store brand. #buffalo #eriecountyfair

Llama #eriecountyfair #llama

Bunny #eriecountyfair #rabbit

Wife and another horse #eriecountyfair #horse

Woodcarving guitar. #woodcarving #eriecountyfair

And in new acquisitions, among a few other things (including a new coffee mug which I haven't photographed yet), a new scarf and a new keychain!

New scarf I bought at the County Fair! #scarf #overalls #vintage #Lee #HickoryStripe #tiedye

I got a new keychain! Huzzah!!! #eriecountyfair #millenniumfalcon #starwars

There was actually some new stuff to see at the Fair this year that felt fresh and nifty, which was nice; sometimes the Fair can seem a little "Same old, same old". We do miss certain things about the Fair -- particularly the daily parade, which was always fun to watch -- but we did have a great time.

Now, of course, with the Fair being over (for us, anyway), I am mentally shifting gears already into Fall Mode. This is usually helped along by August in Buffalo generally being cooler and less humid than July, but that certainly hasn't turned out to be the case this year; instead it's been just as hot and humid in August as in July, and our region is actually in the midst of a pretty severe drought. We've actually had measurable rainfall over the last few days, but earlier we went something like 80 days without a drop, so things are pretty parched 'round here. Hopefully it'll rebound.

Anyway, that's the Fair for this year. The next big things? Buffalo Comic-con, then our annual trek to Ithaca for the Apple Harvest Festival, and then...who knows! The sky's the limit, folks!

Tone Poem Tuesday

Is there a more Me thing to do, blogging-wise, than announce a new series, post the first post in that new series, and then promptly forget about that series a week later? Oops! I completely forgot about Tone Poem Tuesday last week. Now, I did have a lot of different stuff going on, but Ye Gods, I gotta do better than that.

So this week we attend upon a work by Sir Arnold Bax (Great Britain, 1883-1953). In fact, this might be Bax's most well-known work, although I personally have only heard it a handful of times. Bax's music tends to be earthy and rustic, almost to the point of being rough-hewn. In addition, Bax's music is atmospheric and clearly molded in the spirit of Romanticism, which is almost certainly why, to a large extent, his music fell into neglect after his death: his particular musical idiom was simply not in fashion anymore. Couple that with the fact that his scores tend to require large numbers of performers, and it all adds up to music that spent several decades languishing, except for occasional dustings-off of his tone poems, the most famous of which is apparently this one: Tintagel.

Bax was also heavily influenced by Celtic lore, and the castle of Tintagel in Cornwall is of major import in such lore, seeing as how it's traditionally held as the birthplace of King Arthur. Bax's tone poem is meant to convey some of the emotions of the location and give a sense of its character, through music. Bax eschewed any specific program for this work, intending it to be mainly suggestive of the ruined castle on the tiny spit of land that is constantly being pounded by the sea.

Here is Tintagel by Sir Arnold Bax.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Mr. Bolt finds your efforts amusing

Great sports photography is always a joy. Take, for example, this wonderful shot of Usain Bolt, enjoying himself while his competitors...don't.

Man, all that photo needs is a twinkle in his 1000-watt smile.

A couple other nifty photos from the Olympics:

(photos via)

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Symphony Saturday

OK, last week didn't happen (we were out of town and I just didn't get the post written), and this week's supposed to be Tchaikovsky's Fifth but I still didn't get the post written (because it's one of my favorite pieces ever and I want to do it right), so this week, a placeholder, and a particularly fascinating one. Years ago -- we're talking, when I was in high school -- I checked this record out from the library. It's a performance of Mozart's Symphony No. 36 in C Major. Mozart wrote this piece in four days, when he was traveling with his wife. They arrived at a town called Linz, and the local Count learned that Mozart was in town and announced a concert, so suddenly Mozart found himself in need of a symphony. Out came this work.

What's interesting about this recording is that it begins not with the symphony itself, but with a recording of the rehearsals! You get to hear conductor Bruno Walter addressing his musicians on the finer points of how he wants to get his musical vision across to the audience. This is always fascinating stuff to hear, when you realize how nuts-and-bolts it is. Walter doesn't go in for long and lyrical digressions of what the music means and what it suggests to him in terms of imagery and whatnot; instead he obsesses over how long the introductory notes are and how the strings are accenting things that should be accented and so on. (Try to overlook the obvious lack of women in the group, when Maestro Walter says "All right, gentlemen, let's rehearse!")

Next week, Tchaikovsky's Fifth. (I hope.)