Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Tone Poem Tuesday

This week we have the second part of Dvorak's trilogy of tone poems that he called "Nature, Life, and Love": the "Carnival" overture. This overture launches into a dance-like rhythm from the very opening bars, and its energy almost never abates throughout, and by the time the work ends nine minutes or so later,you can almost hear the wild dancers in a village square exhaling with relief as they are finally allowed to fall, gasping, to the ground as the orchestra's work ends. As a representation of the sheer energy and joy of life that often inhabits Dvorak's music, the "Carnival" overture is unusually potent.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Something for Thursday

How about some Star Trek music!

Specifically, the incidental music from an episode of The Original Series. More specifically, the episode Metamorphosis.

If you've never seen this particular episode, I can't recommend it highly enough; I consider it Star Trek at its best. In the episode a mysterious energy field takes over a shuttlecraft on which Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy are en route back to the Enterprise after picking up an ambassador named Nancy Hedford, because the ambassador has contracted a rare disease and has to receive treatment. The energy field diverts the shuttle to an uncharted planet which is home to a single human man, and it turns out that this man is Zefram Cochrane, inventor of the warp drive and a man who should be dead because he lived something like two hundred years prior to the episode. We learn that he was brought to this planet by that energy field, and that the field has brought Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the ambassador there to provide Cochrane with companionship.

After some ill-fated attempts at escape, Kirk and company realize that the energy field (which Cochrane calls "The Companion") is actually female (keep in mind, this show was written by 1960s views on gender roles) and considers itself Cochrane's lover. They try to convince The Companion to let them go, with Kirk pointing out that since Cochrane and the Companion are different species, they can never truly love. The Companion merges with Ambassador Hedford, curing her disease and thus becoming human, and as Kirk and company depart, Cochrane and Hedford/the Companion are settling in for a lifetime together.

Setting aside the 1960s notions of love and gender, Metamorphosis is one of the finest science fiction love stories I know, relying on insight and discussion over phasers and fistfights. It also boasts a deeply lovely and finely textured music score by George Duning which highlights the otherworldly nature of the beings involved and the hesitant wonder of their first steps into the world of love. This suite was apparently edited together by someone with good sound processing abilities, even if they weren't entirely able to isolate the music from the occasional sound effects of the show. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Tone Poem Tuesday

Let's check in on Antonin Dvorak, shall we? He's always good for a solid listen, and today's work is no exception. It's the concert overture In Nature's Realm, which Dvorak composed as part of a trilogy of concert overtures. The entire trilogy was called Nature, Life, and Love, but Dvorak eventually split the three component works of the trilogy up, resulting in the present work, Carnival, and Othello. We'll hear the other two in due course, but In Nature's Realm is a typically wonderful Dvorak work, full of pastoral beauty, natural lyricism, and that ever-typical Dvorakian energy and momentum. Like most of this composer's works, there is a sense of proportion that hews throughout, and the opening passages with answering motifs that sound like horn calls as they build to the first big statement suggest the magic of a sunrise in verdant hills.

Antonin Dvorak is the type of composer to whom I like to return when the air is coldest and the sky darkest, if that makes sense. He reminds me of warmer and sunnier days. Here is his In Nature's Realm overture.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Tone Poem Tuesday

Oddly, given my love of Sergei Rachmaninov, it's odd that I've heard this particular work of his only a couple of times, and not at all in the last five or six years. "The Rock" is a tone poem Rachmaninov wrote early in his career, when he was just twenty years old. The piece is surprisingly impressionistic and colorful for a composer who would later be known for achingly lyrical post-Romanticism, but the work also displays Rachmaninov's skill for orchestration, all the more surprising for a composer so strongly associated with the piano (contrasting with, say, Franz Liszt, whose orchestrations were occasionally bound by his deep understanding of the piano).

The Rock is partially based on a fragment of poetry:

The golden cloud slept through the night
Upon the breast of the giant-rock

The piece also draws (according to the composer) from a Chekhov short story in which a man, stuck in a blizzard, tells a young woman the story of his life and his struggles. There is certainly that kind of brooding at work here in this piece...but of course there's brooding. We're talking about Sergei Rachmaninov here.

Here is The Rock.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Something for Thursday

I just read a short while ago that Valerie Heywood, a violist with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, recently passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. Harper served with the orchestra as principal violist from 1991 to 2017, and she remained with the orchestra after stepping down from the Principal Viola chair. The viola has always been my personal favorite of the string family for a number of reasons, but I am chiefly drawn to its mid-range tone between the soaring heights of the violins and the tenor body of the cellos. The viola tends to be overlooked a lot of the time, and while the concert literature abounds with great concerted works for violin and cello, there are fewer such pieces for the viola, so when the violist gets a chance to shine, it's usually a special moment. The solo viola is used to amazing effect in Berlioz's second symphony, Harold in Italy, but that work isn't a concerto designed to exhibit the violist's skill but rather a symphony where the solo violist is an extra, added voice that adds perspective to the symphony's action.

Here, offered in remembrance of Valerie Heywood, is the Viola Sonata in D minor by Mikhail Glinka. Thank you for your musical gifts, Ms. Heywood.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Tone Poem Tuesday

After the month of dark and grim and scary and brooding music, let's return to something a bit lighter, shall we? This duofold selection is one of the most beloved opera extracts of all time; in fact, this selection is so popular that it has almost completely overshadowed the actual opera from which it comes. The Polka and Fugue from Schwanda the Bagpiper is nine minutes of pure delight. The opera was written by Jaromir Weinberger, a Czech composer who later emigrated to the United States. Weinberger was apparently prolific, but only this particular opera lives on of all his works, and that only occasionally. The Polka and Fugue is a mainstay of concert halls and recordings, though. It's quite an orchestral showpiece and a complex bit of contrapuntal writing (apparently a particular strength of Weinberger as a composer), and this performance especially puts the "showpiece" aspects of the work on display. You should listen to this with the sound up a bit, if you can; this is vintage Chicago Symphony Orchestra when Fritz Reiner was at the helm. The former trumpet player in me thrills at these old recordings, hearing Adolph Herseth soaring above it all. Just try not to dwell too much on the fact that the photo of Reiner on the video itself shows him as he apparently always looked: as if the joy was a concept completely alien to him. Reiner was by all accounts an absolute tyrant on the podium, and if there are any personal stories about him that show his warmth and humor I've yet to read them, but the man was able to pour warmth and joy and humanity into his musicmaking.

Enjoy the "Polka and Fugue" from Schwanda the Bagpiper!

Friday, November 01, 2019

Bad Joke Friday

A curious new establishment sprang up on the summit of Mount Olympus overnight. Where once the Gods would sit, there was now a fast-casual bakery-cafe featuring salads, sandwiches, bagels, and soup in bread bowls, staffed entirely by satyrs playing reed pipes. The Era of Zeus was over. The Pan Era had begun.