Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Composer's Corner

under construction! Keep reading!

Friday, June 29, 2007

One down - Nine to go.

The concert in Middlebury went really well. The weather was perfect; gentle sun at first, and getting dark at the perfect moment for the fireworks. I was luckier that most of the orchestra; the fireworks are still going when the orchestra takes its final bow, so I am able to leave the stage, and last night I was able to nip around the edge of the orchestra tent and watch the grand firework finale while the players were still on stage. Ah! The advantages of power.

Tonight we play at the Polo Fields in Quechee.

This is another really easy-to-find location, so here is a little map of where that is.

These maps, needless to say, are not exactly to scale. They are more like the diagrams of the London Underground or New York Subway. They just show how things relate. For finding Quechee, if you are coming from I-89 or I-91 the only thing you need to look out for is Fat Hat Corner. And that is easy as there is a big commercial sign there. Nail that, and you are home.

I really do hope that people who do not know these locations well will follow the urge to come nonetheless. The audience was fantastic in Middlebury, and these concerts are for everyone.

Andrew Massey. Keep reading!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The concerts begin today.

The first concert of the Vermont Symphony Summer Festival Tour is tonight,
Thursday June 28th, at 7:30 p.m.
And for all you visitors and seasonals who don't know every tiny nook of Vermont, it is, fortunately, incredibly easy to find.

It is in Middlebury, a rather famous town just a bit south of Burlington. In fact here is a little map showing where it is, and proving that finding it is no problem at all.

The performance is at Alumni Stadium, which is on the East Side of South Main Street. That's the left hand side coming out of the center of Middlebury. There's plenty of parking, and you can get tickets at the last minute.

The weather looks great, and all these concerts will happen, rain or shine. So, if you wonder on any day if the weather looks iffy, call the VSO after 3:00 p.m., and there'll be an announcement message if the concert has to be indoors. 800-876-9293 or 802-864-5741.

See you there!

Andrew Massey. Keep reading!

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Big Guy

Sooner or later we find ourselves facing Richard Wagner. He really was the big guy among composers, and his music is the big music.

Most of the pieces we shall be playing in our concerts this summer last somewhere between 2 and 10 minutes. But Richard Wagner wrote a piece of music that lasts 15 hours! Yes, hours. Of course, you can neither play, nor listen to, a 15-hour piece all in one go. The human body is just not equipped to cope with that, even if our fanatical minds might be. So Wagner conveniently equips the piece with breaks for eating, excreting, sleeping, and just plain recovering. Ideally, this piece of music, called The Nibelung’s Ring is performed over a period of about a week, occupying four evenings. Monday is the first chunk, for 2 1/2 hours without a break, Tuesday is the first full evening, with a three-act opera; chunk three coming on Thursday gives the singers a chance to recover from Tuesday and sing another three-act opera. Then on Saturday night there is yet another three-act opera that even has a rather large prolog before the first act even begins! I’ve been to see/hear this full cycle several times. I was rather daunted by the idea before I first did so, and proclaimed with some pride that I had no intention of going to Wagner’s Ring. It just seemed too much of any sort of thing. But it is terrific, and I heartily recommend it.

We are, obviously, not playing a 15-hour piece of music during our roughly 2 hour concert! But we are going to play an 8-minute excerpt from it. It comes from the prolog I mentioned - the bit of the last big opera that comes before the first act proper gets started. In fact it is the end of the Prolog. So if you like it, be aware that, when we stop, that is when the real story begins!

Is it foolish to suggest that a set of operas spread over a week is a single piece of music? Not really. Much shorter pieces get broken up, so there is nothing odd about that. Sergeant Pepper breaks up into tracks, yet we still think of it as a single musical “thing.”

But how is it possible for a piece of music to last for 15 hours, and hang together as a single entity? Ah! There lies the question! And it is the solution to that problem that was Wagner’s task in life, the inspiration behind what he did, the reason his music is so great, and also the reason why some people have a hard time getting into it. But have no fear - intrepid concert-goer - I shall give you the key, and our 8-minute excursion will give you a glimpse of the glories that are there for the taking.

You might think I’m getting a bit pompous with all this stuff but, hey, it’s Wagner I’m talking about, and if anyone could get way serious it was Wagner. But the principle is quite simple, and it has to do with Beethoven, and the way music and words relate to each other.
Wagner was hugely impressed, as we all are, by Beethoven’s 9th symphony - the choral symphony. And the thing that struck Wagner about that particular piece was the way in which it solved some of Beethoven’s own problems about range and size and what the limits of music might be, and how to overcome them. Beethoven had hit a wall in terms of what his music could express, and his solution was to turn to words, to Schiller’s Ode to Joy to increase the power of music. But an odd thing struck Wagner. When you listen to Beethoven’s 9th, you can’t really hear the words at all. A lot of the time a large chorus is singing fugues and counterpoint, and trying to make the words audible is a waste of time. So how can we say that the words helped? After all, the standard party line is that music is much more emotionally powerful than words. “Music begins where words leave off” as Mendelssohn had said.

But what words can do is to put an idea into your mind while you are listening to the music. Music is terrible at suggesting, say, a rose. How can you tell if the music is about a rose or a daisy or a bird or a river? You can’t. So if you use music to enrich an idea, it is very poor indeed. Music that is set to words, used for instance just to support the words of a really corny opera, that sort of music does a very poor job, and Wagner hated that stuff. But what if you do it the other way round?

Instead of “setting words to music” - using music to express the meaning of words - how about if you “set music to words?” In other words, you don’t make the music form itself around the words, but you use words to point out the extraordinary power of the music. Have you noticed how very often, a piece of music that you already know seems hugely more powerful when it is used in a movie? Somehow, the fact that you have pictures, and a story-line at the same time, enables the music to get under your skin much more strongly. Music gives us emotion without any reason. So we often don’t easily give in to it. But suppose that we have words, a dramatic structure, that serves to indicate what sort of emotion the music is pursuing, that gives us, as it were, permission to feel about situations of the utmost extremity while we listen to the music, situations of the most intense passion, despair, aspiration, desire? This is what Beethoven did: he added to his music the hint that you should think about the power of joy while the symphony is going on. And Wagner took the hint, and used the suggestive power of myth and vast tragic dramas to release the power of music as never before.

But it is a Faustian deal. The music becomes more powerful, but it also depends somewhat on the words and ideas and dramas that have released it. This is why some people find Wagner tough. If you just listen to it as music, it is so extreme that it almost breaks. So you have to do a little bit of homework, and know what he is getting at before you hear the music, or watch the opera. Idea plus music is a powerful concoction, but if you only swallow the music, and ignore the idea, it can seem rather strange.

In a future post I’ll let you know exactly what the ideas are behind the little 8-minute excerpt we are going to play, Siegfried’s Journey to the Rhine. It is so short and simple that I shall explain it from the stage too. In essence:

Siegfried wakes up beside the woman he loves;
they sing of their love;
he sets off on an adventure;
you hear him blow his horn;
he travels along the river Rhine and
arrives at a castle.

That’s it. But we know who he is, and that this castle is going to be his doom. He will be murdered there. More next time. It may sound like a dumb story, but it’s not there to be a good story, it’s there to indicate the passion in the music. As long as it makes musical sense, it makes dramatic sense.

Heck, the 1812 is much better with fireworks, and fireworks are much better with the 1812. It’s the same sort of thing really. We’ll give you just a taste of the magic that Richard Wagner weaves. Keep reading!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Berlioz's Big Band Bluster

When it comes to orchestral music, if you want a big splashy effect, then Berlioz is your man! He’s the one who wrote the Fantastic Symphony, one of the all-time most popular symphonic blockbusters, right up there with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Strauss’s Don Juan. The Fantastic Symphony is the one with the Witches Sabbath as the last movement, coming after the March to the Scaffold, where the poor hero gets his head chopped off and you hear it rattle down into the basket. The movement before that has a special thunderstorm section, with about 8 timpani playing actual chords on the drums, to conjure the distant rumbles.

Berlioz also wrote a Requiem Mass, called the Grande Messe des Morts, in which he really goes to town in depicting the last trump. He has FOUR separate brass bands stationed as far apart as possible, away from the main orchestra, so that the trump of doom comes at you from all directions. Now, as you can imagine, it is very hard to coordinate these bands in performance, since sound travels quite slowly, and if each band waits until it hears the other bands, and then tries to synchronize with that, then it will sound way late to the other bands, who will then wait for it, and the whole thing will swiftly grind to a halt. So Berlioz, in the early 19th century, utilized an electronic metronome, letting him press a button on his music stand which would cause a little light to flash for all four bands at exactly the same time. (pace Einstein’s special theory of relativity.) By this means he could keep all the bands synchronized by having them watch the light, rather than listen to the sound.

Incidentally, you might be surprised how often it is necessary for musicians to deliberately not listen while they are playing. Listening to each other is the most important skill musicians have; in general they are listening much more closely than the audience as the performance is going on – that’s how the coherence is achieved. But sometimes, you mustn’t listen. In concerti, for instance, if the players listen to the soloist, it always gets behind. I once heard Lorin Maazel instruct The Cleveland Orchestra; “Watch. Don’t listen.” Well, playing in Berlioz’ Grande Messe des Morts is one of those occasions. It’s really scary, quite apart from the gaping jaws of hell.

From what I have been saying you might think that Berlioz was a whizz-bang loud sound kind of guy and not much else. But that is not true at all. The truth is that he was tremendously inventive when it came to the sonorous quality of music, as opposed to the interplay of notes. With a piece of music by, for instance, Bach, it doesn’t make a huge difference whether the piece is played loud or soft, by a lot of people or just a few, or even what instrument is used to play it. In Bach’s case the artistry is in the notes, melodies, harmonies, pulse. And that is largely true of music up to the time of Beethoven too. The orchestra wasn’t very large, and so the sort of sound it would produce was fairly consistent throughout a piece.

But Berlioz, even while Beethoven was still alive, was bringing a whole new theatrical element into music. I mean extreme gestures in sound. So it is true that he used lots of brass for the end of time, and a giant bell for the Witches Sabbath, but he also wrote music of the most exquisite quietness.

Thomas Beecham, the witty wag of English Conductors, used to make the crack “The English don’t appreciate music. They just like the noise it makes.” Well, Berlioz was inventive not just with the music, but with the noise it makes too. So, to set alongside the wild abandon of the Fantastic Symphony, there is the Love Scene from his Romeo and Juliet. This is a most serene melody, almost all quiet, pondering, ruminating. You can get it on iTunes. Well worth listening to. There are no brass bands in that piece! But the inventiveness is just as great. Once the melody gets going, it is played with a quite remarkable orchestration touch. It is played by the English Horn ( a sort of large oboe, that is in fact French, called the English Horn as a mistranslation of cor anglé, meaning “bent horn”, mistaken for cor anglais. Come to think of it, the French Horn isn’t French either. It’s German. But I’m getting a bit off topic here.)

As I was saying before I so rudely interrupted myself: it is played by the English Horn in octaves with the Flute. That particular combination has a strange quality to it. If the instruments balance properly, you cannot separate them in your ear, and together they sound like a wholly new instrument. The only other place I know where that combination is used for a long melody is at the end of Vaughan Williams’s 5th Symphony, with similarly magical effect.

So the point is, Berlioz was one of the first composers who was extremely sensitive to the quality of sound, as well as the “what” of sound, and used that refined ear in all his music. We are not playing any of the pieces I have mentioned, but we are playing his Overture to Benvenuto Cellini. This post has gone on long enough, though. So I’ll write about that overture a little later.

Andrew Massey. Keep reading!

If you haven't been to a concert before.

I am very much hoping that, perhaps even because of this blog, a lot of people will come to the TD Banknorth Summer Concerts this year who do not usually go to concerts, or perhaps have not ever been to an orchestral concert. So I thought I’d just take a moment to talk about what happens at concerts, and why – if there is a why.

I know lots of people feel a bit intimidated by concerts, and are not quite sure what is going to happen and what is expected of them. Obviously an open-air summer concert is quite a relaxed affair, and so there is little reason to worry about all that sort of thing. Still – here’s a bit of an explanation of what happens.

The first thing to realize is that it’s all about the music. And most people are primarily visual people. That is to say, for most people, the sense of sight takes precedence over the sense of hearing. That might seem too obvious to need saying, but in fact for almost all musicians it is the other way round. The sense of hearing wins out over sight. For myself, I find it almost impossible to read a book if there is a lot of noise, especially if someone is talking close by. The sight of the page loses out to my ears. I have no idea how often I have missed a freeway exit because the music on my car radio just got to the interesting bit. But many people tell me that when they recognize a piece of music, they instantly remember where they were when they heard it, and what that place looked like. Vision over sound.

So all the odd rituals, the fancy dress and all that, - all these are designed to minimize the visual and aural distractions. Take the tuxedos or tailcoats and white tie that musicians almost always wear for indoor concerts. It’s not that this is a particularly appropriate dress for anything in particular, rather is it a neutral uniform. Since musicians always wear white tie and tails, you can completely ignore it, since it always looks the same and it isn’t remotely interesting. There was a fad, some years ago, to “break down the barriers,” "be innovative" (yuck!) and have musicians dress more casually. But on the whole it didn’t work, since very soon the “competition of silk shirts” crept in, and the outfits on stage became terribly distracting.

Similarly, the ritual at the beginning of concerts gets the job done in a way that is effective, but constant, and thus not distracting. Here’s what happens: When the concert is about to start, all the musicians will be on stage warming up their instruments and “noodling” as we call it. – Incidentally that is a peculiarly American habit. It usually isn’t that way in Europe. European, especially German, orchestras tend to stay off stage until the final moments before the concert. Then they come on suddenly, in formation, as a bold theatrical entrance, sit, and bang – off we go. It is very impressive that way, but American musicians tend to complain that that is too fascist and against the ideal of the freedom of the individual that we so treasure here. I kid you not!

Anyway – the musicians will be warming up, then they will get quiet, and the lighting onstage may change. Once it is quiet, the concertmaster will walk on stage alone. The concertmaster is the first first violinist. There are two sections of violins in an orchestra, the first violins and the second violins – duh!

Incidentally there is no difference between the instruments. They are all just violins. It's just that orchestras have two sets of violin players, so that the composer can have more violin-notes going on all the time. The concertmaster is the primus inter pares, the leader of the first violin section. By convention, and in important ways backstage and in planning and administration, the concertmaster is the leader of the whole orchestra, and his/her entrance symbolizes the beginning of business by the entire orchestra. So the concertmaster walks towards his seat near the conductor's podium, and bows to the audience. It is now time for you to applaud, probably in a fairly tepid manner, unless he or she is your cousin. It's not so much for the concertmaster, who hasn’t done anything yet, but as a ritualistic recognition of the entire orchestra as being there, without the heat of anticipation yet. This moment is the beginning of the formal relationship between the audience and the orchestra, as opposed to just all being in the same room at the same time.

The concertmaster then asks the principal oboist to play the note A, and the orchestra tunes up to that note. It is always the oboist who plays the tuning note, and it is always A. This is because the pitch of A is the note that is determined by international conventions – it is 440 vibrations per second, though (and I shouldn’t be telling you this) most orchestras play at around 442 or even 444. Scandalous though that might seem, in flagrant violation of international law, notes sound a bit warmer and richer if they are slightly on the high side, so the pitch tends to creep up. Oboists spend their lives trying to stop this from happening, but what can you do? It is always the oboe that plays the A since the oboe gives a very accurate pitch, and is less able to wobble around than most instruments. It’s another of those things that is always done the same way, so it is reliable, and quite undistracting.

Once the concertmaster is satisfied that all the orchestra is correctly tuned up he sits down and the - pregnant pause - begins. In a moment, the conductor comes on stage, usually asks the orchestra to stand, and bows. Applaud! Applaud! The applause serves to recognize the players as well as the conductor, the entire performing team, now kicking the dust with their hooves, straining at the gate, acknowledging that something is about to happen. This is a good time to applaud with enthusiasm. (But save the ecstatic stuff for the end of loud pieces.) It also gets the attention of any people in the audience who have not yet noticed what is going on. So now, as the applause fades, it is time for the audience to sit down and be quiet. Get your coughing done now.

The conductor now turns his back on the audience, not out of disdain, but because he needs eye contact with the musicians. I'll write about conducting later, but the conductor isn't really there to leap about entertaining the audience. He is there to give coded signals to the players that will (in theory) be helpful in making the performance go well. Audiences tend to watch the conductor, however, since he moves about more than anyone else. (Visual dominance, remember? But who am I to complain?) Once all the players are seated and ready and the audience is quiet – off we go with the first piece.

In some forms of music, such as jazz sets, or rock concerts, or even in brilliant operas, it is perfectly normal to applaud after a really good bit, whether the music has stopped or not. In a night club, it is perfectly fine to talk and eat while the music is going on too. That is not the thing to do in an orchestral concert, however, for a very simple, and totally unsnobby, reason.

Orchestral music makes particular use of huge differences between loud and soft passages, between fast and slow, complex and simple. And these contrasts and extremes are not just the junctions between sections, they are a crucial part of the dramatic effect. So it is very important that there should be no other sounds going on during the music, otherwise the effect will be lost. It’s not snobbery or “religiosity” or anything, it’s just that classical music has a huge dynamic range, and you need to be able to hear it all – hear all the details.

Coughing is much more voluntary than you might think, and it is unbelievably loud. Also, it’s just a psychological fact that when you yourself cough, you don’t really notice that you are making a noise. After all, you know it’s coming. Truly, people do not realize they are making an awful racket when they cough. So – don’t do it. Don’t cough. If you have a tickle in the throat, have a hanky handy and cover your mouth. That’ll reduce the sound by about 80 decibels!!

So there you have it. An orchestral concert is a concert of music that exploits the very quiet as well as the very loud, so, while the music is playing, be quiet so that everybody else can hear even the quietest bits. (And classical music has a sneaky habit of getting very quiet very suddenly, leaving “Well, that's what Harold told me!” ringing out clearly from the 15th row.

Then, when it's all over, go home and tell everybody how wonderful it was, so that they'll buy tickets and we can keep doing it.

Andrew Massey.
Keep reading!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Danny Boy

The title of this piece is Irish Tune from County Derry. There are various notes in the score explaining how Percy Grainger, the composer, came upon this tune, and who he got it from. There is nothing to indicate that he knew of any words that go with it. It has now become a very famous tune indeed, known variously as Danny Boy, or The Londonderry Air, and it comes up for sentimental (and often inebriated) rendition almost as often as Auld Lang Syne or Amazing Grace. If it’s Irish, you hear it. It’s the perfect piece for when you are feeling very emotional indeed, but not quite sure, if asked, why, or what you are feeling emotional about. (It could be that single malt whisky.)

I don’t think it is particularly because of Percy Grainger’s version of the Irish Tune from County Derry that Danny Boy became so famous, but that fact in itself makes all the more remarkable the way in which he seems to have so perfectly captured the essence of the piece, writing this arrangement, as he did, in 1918, of a melody that had first been collected in 1855, and that was not yet widely known. For he seems to offer us, with utmost perfection, that mixture of innocence and agony, simplicity and heart-wrenching angst, that a melody like this captures all in a single arc.

I have an amusing memory of this piece that I should have mentioned in Concert Disasters. I was conducting an outdoor summer concert in San Diego, and the location of the San Diego Symphony’s summer concerts lies right under the flight path of San Diego International Airport. We were about a third of the way through Irish Tune from County Derry (the very quiet bit, as you shall hear) when a Boeing 747 took off, and climbed at full throttle, passing right overhead. It was, shall I say, loud. I figured the San Diego Symphony was probably used to this sort of thing, and should be quick on the uptake. So I simply froze in mid-beat. I waited, maybe 35 seconds, until the plane was far enough away for me to be able to detect whether or not the orchestra was playing, solely by using my ears rather than my eyes, and then I continued beating from the exact point where I had stopped. The orchestra did likewise, and the performance was completed without the slightest confusion or doubt. Ah! If only all orchestras were so responsive.

Well, back to the matter in hand.

Percy Grainger was a strange fellow. Born in Australia of English forbears, he became an American Citizen. He was rather a racist, I am sorry to say, and had strong feelings about the superiority of the “Nordic” race, writing his memoirs in a peculiar and irritating version of English that he called Nordic English. But we can afford to ignore all that, partly because he is now dead, and also because it infused his musical goals, which were to be as emotional as possible, to represent human pain, to be brief and direct, and to avoid false complexity and pretense. In particular, his opinions led him to take natural melodies of the common folk, and harmonize them in a way that, he said, invoked a sense of wailing and weeping, such as was appropriate to the circumstances of the lives of normal folk. He wanted to conjure that passion that lies beneath the surface of humble lives. And I believe he succeeded.

What I was surprised to learn, on reading his memoirs, was how far he felt he was pre-occupied with pain. True, he was into sado-masochism sexually, but that was his private affair. It’s just that most of his music does not sound very sad to me. In fact, as far as 20th century music goes, it sounds surprisingly happy. He was a friend and admirer of the composer Frederick Delius. Now there was a gloomy gus! Delius’s music is positively suicidal all the time. (I have adored it ever since the darkest days of adolescence.) I always thought of Percy Grainger as the happy one!

Still; as you listen to this wonderful setting of the Irish Tune from County Derry, you can sense that strong inner distress, whether it be sadness or ecstasy. (I’ll confess that this tiny little piece is one of my personal all-time favorites.) Listen out for a masterstroke of orchestration, too. The whole piece, which consists of nothing more than two verses of Danny Boy, is scored for strings only. But right near the end, when the emotion is becoming almost unbearable, two French Horns creep in, encroaching subtly without any grandiloquence or ceremony, just to enrich the sound, and turn that final knife in the wound.

Andrew Massey. Keep reading!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

West Side Story

West Side Story is a Masterpiece. No two ways about it.

Leonard Bernstein, who was the composer of the music of West Side Story, (Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics) and also the most famous Music Director ever of the New York Philharmonic, was, as all proper artists are, a tortured soul. His loyalties were split between so many polar opposites: – popular music / classical music – composing / performing – American / European Arts – the whole human race / the Jewish people – heterosexual / gay. In all these areas he was a bridge-builder, or at least a valiant pioneer striving to unify the possibly incompatible.

Much of the music he composed, especially later in life, has a rather self-conscious earnestness about it, a desire to be serious and respectable, coupled with a need not to be snobby or aloof. And sometimes that can make for an awkward compromise, a voice that is neither quite one thing nor the other. But in West Side Story, he hit the vein of gold. Perhaps it was the book, with all the tribal tensions he knew so well, but in a form distanced from his own Jewish identity. Perhaps it was the condition of Broadway at that moment – ready for something a little more sophisticated than a run-of-the-mill love story, but not yet overtaken by the mindless pap of more recent years. Perhaps it was its place in the trajectory of his own life, - an increasingly accomplished serious musician immersed in the world of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and many of the great musicians of the world, but not yet weighed down by the responsibilities of heading the nation’s oldest orchestra, the New York Philharmonic.

Leonard Bernstein went on to be a formative influence in the musical awakening of untold young people, (and older ones too) through his magical Young People’s Concerts with the NY Philharmonic. I have never forgotten seeing one of these presentations myself when the New York Philharmonic was on tour in Manchester, England. It was riveting, and I remember the program in every detail. (A tiny personal note: the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic that day was Frank Gullino, whom I came to know very well as a close personal friend when he retired to be Concertmaster of the New Orleans Symphony throughout the years when I was Associate Conductor there. No-one prepared a better pasta or offered a finer Manhattan. He played the fiddle quite well, too.)

It was Leonard Bernstein who conducted Beethoven’s 9th in East Berlin just after the infamous wall came down in 1989. He delivered wonderful, and controversial, lectures at Harvard University on the structure of music, seen through the perspective of Noam Chomsky’s linguistics.

I am not trying to make him out to be even more of a heavyweight than he was, I am just trying to describe the breadth of his achievement and talent. For he was also a showman unmatched. He would leap and yearn and weep on the podium in an almost bizarre, and certainly unique, manner. Whereas Fritz Reiner, with the Chicago Symphony, was famous for hardly twitching an eyebrow, Bernstein would break his own heart and weep publicly, on cue, on contract.

And in composing West Side Story, all this passion, showmanship, vitality, and expertise came together as never before, and as never again. At that point in time, 1957, Bernstein was able to write music in an American idiom, on an American plot set in New York City, for that especially American medium; the musical. Like so many great works, it was successful; but not instantly recognized as the classic it became. That year, it lost out in the Tony contest to “The Music Man”, but there has hardly been a Broadway Show more quoted, transcribed, adapted, than West Side Story. Songs such as Tonight, Somewhere, Maria, I feel Pretty, America, One Hand One Heart; all of these have become staples of the repertoire in their own right, whether or not they are connected to West Side Story on any given evening.

The theaters of Broadway do not have large pits, so the bands that play the music for musicals are generally quite small. Certainly small compared to a symphony orchestra. The band for West Side Story was unusually large, needing 30 players. But 30 players is much smaller than a symphony orchestra. So when it comes to concerts such as those of the Vermont Symphony this summer, it is generally an arrangement for the purpose that is used. That is the case in our concerts, but it in no way weakens the music. In fact, the full power of the symphony orchestra more than compensates for the absence of a stage with actor/singers. After all, the “classical” in classical music just means music that has stood the test of time, and come to be regarded as indispensable, central to the whole activity of music. West Side Story qualifies in every way as a classic in that sense.

Andrew Massey Keep reading!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Rachmaninov's Vocalise

One of the pieces we are playing this summer in the Vermont Symphony Festival Concerts consists of the very simplest thing in music – a melody. That’s all it is. It is a very lovely melody, quite a long melody, a very haunting melody. And it is one of those pieces that, in its apparent simplicity, conceals the complexity and subtlety and skill of the composer.

It is called Vocalise, which, like many musical titles, sounds quite romantic, but has a disappointingly prosaic meaning. My favorite in this regard is the opening movement of the Schumann Cello Concerto, which is entitled Nicht zu schnell. As a young child I thought that sounded wonderfully evocative, until I found out that it means not too fast.

“Vocalise” just means it’s a thing for a human voice, a vocal piece. It needs that name because, being for the voice, it is obviously some sort of song, but in this case it has no words at all, so all the artistry is in the shape of the vocal line. There are no words to give you hints about what feelings it addresses, what sort of thing you ought to be emoting about while it is going on. I’ll have a lot more to say about that when I write about Siegfried’s Rhine Journey.

Vocalise is the last of a set of 14 songs that Rachmaninov wrote, and it became so popular that it has been arranged for all sorts of instrumental setups. We shall be playing the version that Rachmaninov himself wrote, so that the piece could be played by an orchestra, without a singer at all. Originally it was for voice and piano, but it has taken on a life of its own far wider than that. In this version, the melody is given to most of the violins, just a few of them being reserved for the orchestral accompaniment. So it is a sort of tiny concerto for the majority of the violin section.

What is so special about this piece? Well, it is vaguely melancholy and haunting, as so much Russian music is, but most of all it has this uncanny ability to escape your grasp. If you know it, you will recognize it instantly by the first two or three notes. But I’ll bet you’ll never be able to sing along with it. From my point of view, conducting it, it is quite hard to learn, since although it sounds completely natural and instinctive, almost as if it were being improvised, it really isn’t.

By the way, another piece that is an absolute masterpiece of apparent simplicity hiding bewildering complexity is Ravel’s Bolero. Everybody knows that the same silly tune goes round and around with utter predictability. But just try singing it. The overall strategy is annoyingly predictable, but the details are maddeningly unmemorable. A Masterpiece!

Anyway, back to “Vocalise.” The phrases of this lovely piece do not come to an end in any natural, trivial way, so although it feels exactly right all the time, you cannot tell, at any given moment, whether you are at the beginning of a line, or coming close to the end of one.

You know how, usually in songs, the melody falls into phrases just as the words do? Think of The Star Spangled Banner, which will open all the concerts. You know where each phrase starts and stops. You know when you can breathe. But in Vocalise Rachmaninov does a very clever thing. Just when the phrase is about to end, he lets it flow on, not stopping, making it turn out that what you thought was an ending is in fact a beginning. So, in a way that you do not notice as you listen, he keeps you suspended all the time throughout the entire piece. It’s almost like holding your breath all the way through.

When you add that timeless quality to the vague sadness of the piece, with just occasional moments of rest, it becomes like a really well- told story, one you cannot put down. A melody that sounds so simple, but will not let you rest until the whole thing is over.

Much great music is like that. The skill of the composer is tricking you into thinking that you are listening to something very simple. Each moment feels simple. But if you try to sing along, or remember it afterwards, you find it has escaped you. It gave you a glimmer of a vision of a distant world, and let you feel you were inside it as long as the music lasted. But once it is over, you find you did not grasp the rainbow; the vision has receded, and you are left back in the world of normality, wishing to visit that land of music all over again.

Andrew Massey Keep reading!

Friday, June 8, 2007

Concert Disasters

Concerts are usually pretty well organized events, and concertgoers are, on the whole, a civilized bunch. The recent fracas at the Boston Pops was unusual for these days. It turned out to be an argument caused by someone talking during the music – a case of violence breaking out because someone was not sufficiently motionless, not sufficiently non-violent. On the other hand, if you go to an opera in La Scala, Milan, it would be a very poor evening if nobody got thoroughly booed at some point. So the calm expectations don't always quite work out.

I was once conducting Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony in Shreveport Louisiana, and the performance was going well. At the very end, immediately after the final drum stroke that ends the piece, the coup de grace as it were, all the lights went out. “My goodness” I thought, “we’ve got a hot guy on the lighting board tonight. That was terrific theater.” I loved it, and expected the lights to come on again any moment for us to take our bows. But they didn’t come on. A tornado had just rushed through town and taken all the power out, as well as a huge sign and part of the roof from the top of the hotel I was staying in. But in the concert hall the timing was so perfect that we didn’t miss a note! And after a while, we were able to take our bows by candlelight.

Mahler’s 6th Symphony calls for a “hammer” in the last movement. Nobody is quite sure what he meant; Mahler had a habit of writing for non-existent instruments. His third symphony calls for a “posthorn in B flat.” There really isn’t any such thing. It’s usually played on the flugelhorn, though legend has it that there is one single instrument somewhere in a basement in Vienna that is the real McCoy. Anyway, the “hammer” in the 6th is supposed to sound like a dead thud. It represents three hammer-blows of fate that destroy the hero, the first stunning him, the second causing him to collapse, only slowly recovering, then the third finally destroying him utterly, after which the music ends in utter bleakness. (Classical music is so optimistic.) I conducted a performance where the inventive percussionists came up with a huge round log, a cross-section of a giant oak tree, about 4 feet in diameter and 2 feet thick. This was clearly visible up on the stage, and they hit it with a sledge-hammer. Not only did this make a great thud, and cause the stage floor to shake, giving the entire orchestra a sense of truly participating in the drama, but it looked wonderful too, with the percussionist raising the hammer high above his head as the blow was about to come. We practiced and practiced, and the player who was delivering these dreaded death-inducing blows of fate was having a fabulous time. Grins all over his face. Unfortunately, the oak tree must have had enough, because in the actual performance, as he gave the final fatal blow with the sledge hammer, the oak tree shattered, and largish pieces of wood flew up into the air, causing players and audience alike to duck. Not only that, but in its death throes, the wood made more of a squvish than a boom. It was also hilarious, which was not exactly what we were after.

I remember outdoor concerts in New Orleans, where we were all dripping with sweat under a shelter that was also the home a screech owl, offering its loud alternative entertainment while we were playing.

I’ve done a performance of the St. Matthew Passion where “Jesus” was accused of domestic violence, giving rise to a great comment from a horn player, one that I have never forgotten: “My word, God does put talent in the darndest places!”. I’ve had a violinist escorted out of a rehearsal by two armed police officers. Light bulbs have shattered and showered players with hot splinters of glass.

I once even fell asleep while conducting. I had had no sleep for about three days, as I was in the same week composing music for an outdoor production of King Lear, and all the rehearsals with lighting cues, obviously, had to take place at night, and usually didn’t end till 5:00 am. Then I had to drive 150 miles for a concert on a sleepy, warm, Sunday afternoon. There was a railing round the podium, and the piece was in three similar and rather dull movements. I dreamt I was pushing sausages in and out of an oven, bumped into the railing and woke up to find that I was conducting.

I assure you that only happened once, and nowadays I usually find concerts that I am conducting myself interesting enough to keep me awake. But these are live concerts that we shall be giving around Vermont. They are real life, and so you never know quite what will happen. Maybe something unexpectedly wonderful!

Andrew Massey - conductor

You can find details of the amazingly safe and trouble free concerts with this link. Keep reading!

Monday, June 4, 2007

The Wonderful 1812 Overture

It wouldn’t be a proper summer concert if it didn’t end with the 1812 overture. The reasons for this are not immediately obvious, but pretty interesting nonetheless. To be honest, I don’t really know why the 1812 has become such a staple, and I am making these reasons up as I go along, which I generally find to be the best policy if you want to be convincing about what you say. There are some obvious things about the piece though, that I merely observe rather than invent.

1 The score itself calls for canons to be fired near the end of the piece, and canons are, in a sense, fireworks; they use enclosed fire to work, and they make a loud bang. So it isn’t much of a stretch to add brightly colored fireworks leaping into the sky as a sort of elaboration of the canons firing. This has the advantage that it makes letting off fireworks during a piece of classical music respectable. It can be justified to the most snobby of purists, letting us all have a terrific time whilst also being scholastically correct, (which matters to some people.) I suppose there are other pieces of music by great composers that call for fireworks, but I can’t think of any at the moment, and lesser composers have usually done it because they are imitating Tchaikowsky. We’d rather have the real thing. In my last post I wrote about the value of wonderful concert halls. Well, one thing you can’t do in a concert hall is let off fireworks. Tends to burn the hall down. So the possibility of using fireworks is an immediate advantage of outdoor summer concerts, not to be lightly passed up.

2 It was written by Tchaikowsky, who was a top-notch composer in several ways. First and foremost, he was one of the most talented inventors of melody there has ever been. That seems to have been a Russian skill, since Borodin and Rachmaninov immediately come to mind as other composers in the same class. It’s always fun to argue about who was “the greatest” composer, poet, third bass, politician, poker player, physicist; though it doesn’t really matter, and can rarely be decided in a meaningful way. Nonetheless, Tchaikowsky is not usually the winner in competition with the likes of Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, etc. But can you think of a melody by Beethoven that is as catchy and wonderful as the great theme from “Romeo and Juliet” or the big tune in the middle of the Pathétique Symphony? Some might venture the theme from Beethoven’s 9th symphony, but I would timidly counter that although that is dramatically effective, (I am not foolish enough to be rude about Beethoven) it is deliberately corny. It was important to Beethoven’s agenda that the melody he finally unfurls as the apotheosis of a long symphony about discontent be instantly memorable, and so he made it very repetitive. I’m not knocking it, but there is a voluptuousness and unpredictable wonder to a great Tchaikowsky melody that is wholly different matter. Tchaikowsky tends to get looked down on a bit, probably because his melodies are so seductive, and because that fact in turn causes his music to get overplayed. But be ye not deceived! He was a composer of huge talent, and of tremendous technical sophistication. A master of his craft. Even this weird overture has a wonderful sweeping melody in it, as well as the perfectly judged bluster and boomerama.

3 Nobody cares what music is “about” anyway. When you read program notes for a concert, you generally read about what the composer had in mind when he wrote the piece, whether he was contemplating suicide at the time, (that’s always a good selling point) how terrible the first reviews were, who he had just been unfaithful with, what he ate for breakfast the previous Thursday: all that sort of thing. And the reason for this is that when you write about music, you have to write about things that can be written about. It’s all determined by the limitations of language. The written word is very good at telling you who was the first performer and what disease they died of, but words are terrible for describing what an actual bit of music feels like when you hear it. That cannot be described in words, any more than can a particularly unpleasant shade of pink. So, as I say, people write about, and talk about, things that language can refer to. Things like Napoleon and Russia and battles in 1812 are just great to write about. There are even, in this piece, musical references of a linguistic sort, such as the famous Russian and French tunes. But does this really make the music unambiguously about Russia and France? Is music about anything? Certainly, when we hear music, we judge it by what it does to us at the time – what moods and emotions it causes to well up in our hearts. So if those feelings are appropriate to joy and merriment in America on a summer evening in the early 21st century, who is Tchaikowsky or a random musicologist to tell us otherwise?

4 Familiarity is a source of wisdom and knowledge. That might sound like an odd claim, since it’s the norm to complain about things that are overly familiar. “Oh no! Not the New World Symphony again!!!” Well, there is a reason these familiar pieces get played a lot; they are very good. And there is a reason why people like to hear pieces that they know. Put in simple terms of neurology and brain science (!!!); when you hear or see something you know very well, you perceive it and all its details much more quickly and completely than is the case with something unfamiliar. If you hear someone recite a well-known rhyme and get a bit wrong, you will notice instantly. If it’s something you hardly know, the errors will get by you. You notice a lot more walking around a town you know well that one you are unfamiliar with. So: although it is true that you can get bored with anything if it is done to death, the fact is that when you hear a piece of music that is familiar to you, you hear a lot more of it. You actually perceive more, and can pay attention longer, and so generally get a bigger, more comprehensive musical experience. We all tend to sneer at the very familiar, but audiences prefer to hear what they know. The problem for us musicians is that they don’t know enough! Musicians will tell you they like to play different things. True, but even they don’t give concerts of pieces that they are unfamiliar with. They will have just spent a week rehearsing it, getting very familiar with it, before they play it for you!

So there you are – the 1812. A fantastic piece, completely appropriate in feeling for summer in America – familiar enough for you to grasp it all – with a fantastic melody such as you will hear nowhere else – and, even more, with fireworks.
Beat that, Busoni!

Andrew Massey - conductor
you can find details of the concerts with this link. Keep reading!

Friday, June 1, 2007

The Music of Summer

Spring has arrived. At least it seems that way at the moment. Let's hope it takes hold this time.

My name is Andrew Massey, and I am going to be the guest conductor for the TD Banknorth Summer Festival Tour concerts with The Vermont Symphony this year. I live in Montgomery Center, but travel around a lot since I conduct in many different places. I'm in Milwaukee as I write this first blog post, but I was at home in Vermont at the beginning of May, and we still had snow on the ground round our house, up in the woods, and Jay Peak was still doing busy business. It has been an odd winter, with nothing much happening until the end of January, then snow that just kept hanging on. I know global warming is a big worry, but as it starts to bite it seems more like climate chaos, leaving us not knowing when to chase after the maple syrup, or to wake up the bears. So it's been a relief to have those first few warm days, when it's a joy to go outside, but the horse flies haven't started yet.

During the winter arts season, the weather doesn't matter very much for classical music - it just affects the getting there. The whole idea of music, in the cold weather, is people playing instruments in a room, and the room they play in makes a major difference. We've all heard choirs singing in a huge Cathedral - it's a completely different experience from hearing the same choir in, say, a high school cafeteria. It's utterly different for the singers too, since it's so much easier to sing and to hear yourself when the room gives something back; the reverberation of the Cathedral is a crucial part of what actually makes the sound.

It's the same with orchestras. A fine hall is easier to play in, because of the way that it enhances the quality of the sound. But the location of a concert is important in other ways too. Architecture has a tremendous effect upon our mood, and therefore on our response to the arts. I always love going to the Flynn Center, not least because of the wonderful entrance and lobby, making me feel that I have really come somewhere. Boston's Symphony Hall is one of the greatest places for music in the world, deliberately modeled after the Musikvereinsaal in Vienna. It's the whole atmosphere, the sense of occasion as well as of place, that matters.

And that is why we need to recognize that there is another musical tradition - just as ancient, just as uplifting as an experience - that is the performance of music out of doors in the summer time. It takes us all the way back to travelling troubadours, to the music for the maypole, bagpipes high on the peaks above the glen, open air parties and gatherings, and all the dancing and celebration of summer. Orchestras have invested as much in outdoor venues as they have in interior halls - Boston has Tanglewood, Cleveland has Blossom, Chicago Ravinia; there is the Hollywood Bowl, and the San Francisco Symphony plays among the eucalyptus in Stern Grove.

I think that in this regard the Vermont Symphony is perhaps the most fortunate of all orchestras, since, as the irritating tourist says about Vermont in the movie Baby Boom, "the whole state is cute."

Vermont has the perfect balance of scenic beauty and civilized life. Not so remote as to need camping out in the desert, nor so developed that you can never escape the sound of traffic, it is the perfect place for that other great concert hall: the open air of a summer's evening. These are very special concerts, playing with the light as the sun sets, bringing us in from the bold full-light openings, to the more centered, focussed melody of twilight, then bursting out triumphantly with fireworks.

I shall be writing more over the coming days, about the specific music that we shall be playing, and about the places where we shall perform. So come back to this blog often, and I'll see you at the concerts.

Andrew Massey, conductor.
ps. you can find details of the concerts with this link.
Keep reading!