NSO Concert: Leonard Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” shines

I attended a concert at the Kennedy Center tonight.  The National Symphony offered guest conductor Yutaka Sado, with pianist Jean Yves-Thibaudet.

The first three works, at least, had “moral” substance.

The concert started with the Overture to The Thieving Magpie (“La Gazza Ladra”), by Rossini.  The overture, in E, seems episodic, like William Tell.  It starts with a modern snare drumroll, and goes into a familiar march, before it settles into a compressed sonata form.   The plot of the opera concerns a girl who tries to rescue her father charged with desertion from the Army (think about the history of our own draft) and then is sentenced to death for a theft actually done by a bird.  I’ve seen magpies in Colorado (1994 visit). I’m reminded me of the crow, Timo, who kept chasing me into my own garage the day of Hurricane Sandy.

The main course, and my reason for attending, was to hear the Symphony #2 in C# Minor for Piano and Orchestra (1949), inspired by W. H. Auden’s poem “The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue”. ‘

Is this a piano concerto? No, because the usual sense of dialogue between piano and orchestra as competing forces is not there. I like the idea of calling it a Sonata for Piano and Orchestra.

The work is usually described as being in six movements, three in each part. But Part 1, comprising a Prologue and then two sets of seven variations (“The Seven Ages” and “The Seven Stages”) each seems like a continuous movement.  The thematic material is somewhat inspired by Dies Irae and has some perfunctory tunes, and yet the variations, however serial, build up the way conventional sonata-like development does.  After the first set, the music is said to subside into the subconscious, before it start becoming agitated in successive developmental repetitions of the material, to end with a violent close (I’m reminded of the first movement of Amy Beach’s own Piano Concerto in the same key).  The musical style seems to remind one particularly of Prokofiev, and sometimes late Shostakovich, with a little of the harmonic palette of the late Scriabin sonatas in spots (like Black Mass), which Bernstein must have studied  in detail; the adjacency of the successive passages flirts with atonality in places.  I have to add that near the end of the first set of variations there is a fragment that resembles a transition in my own Third Sonata, first movement;  I must have heard it as a teen and it stuck in my mind.

Part Two, to my ear, sounds like three separate movements, played without pause. The Largo announces a twelve tone row before playing the Dirge: there is an obvious reference to Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite and Wozzeck. The scherzo is called “The Masque” and sounds like advanced jazz, closer to the Bernstein of “West Side Story” but also flirts with atonality (but so does WSS in spots – Schoenberg and Berg had shown how to make dodecaphonic music very accessible). The Epilogue is more than what we get at the end of a Bax symphony; it is almost a complete second slow movement, with a piano cadenza in the middle, but then building up to a tremendous D-flat Major conclusion, FFF, on a ninth chord.  The majestic close reminds me a bit of Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony.

The work is said to deal with three men and a women sitting in a bar during WWII and looking for meaning in all the chaos.  I think of O’Neill and “The Iceman Cometh”. I can remember a church seminar on “The Search for Meaning” back in 1972 that wound up with a sermon on the Rich Young Ruler Problem.  People find meaning in seeing sacrifice, if that of others matches their own.

After the intermission, the concert continued with Tchaikovsky’s early tone poem “Francesca da Ramini”, Op. 32, in E Minor. The 24 minute work has a three-part structure, with a passionate middle section where Francesca and her handsome, iconic brother-in-law experience passion, only to be murdered by her dwarf and deformed husband. This program, based on Canto V of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, seems to explore the moral perils of lookism. The conclusion is one of the most violent in all of symphonic literature, even for Tchaikovsky.

The concert concluded with Ravel’s Bolero, which the audience really liked.  It seems to be “orchestral tissue without music”, maybe a test of panpsychism. I wasn’t aware that Ravel’s mother was Basque.  I would have preferred “La Valse”.  And Ravel’s own Piano Concerto in G isn’t bad.

On the Millennium stage there was a jazz group Corey Henry and Treme Funktet.

(Posted: Thursday, January 11, 2018 at 11:30 PM EST)

National Symphony plays Shostakovich Eighth and Weinberg Violin Concerto

A concert at the National Symphony Orchestra tonight, titled “A Tribute to Slava”, in honor of cellist amd former NSO director Misistlav Rostroprovich, offered two major works. The conductor was Christoph Eschenbach.

The opening was the Violin Concerto in G Minor, Op. 67, by Polish composer Mieczslaw Weinberg (1939-1996), who emigrated to Russia when the Nazis came and then had to escape Stalin’s purges in 1948.

The soloist was 70-year-old Gidon Kremer (Latvian born).  The work, about 28 minutes and 4 movements, is rather lively and stereotyped, a bit like Shostakovich. The scherzo starts out as if it were a slow movement, but then there is a real slow movement.  The finale is martial but slows down to a serene end in G Major.  I believe that I heard this work shortly after it was completed in 1960, about the time I was entering my senior year in high school, as the ending was familiar.

The soloist gave us a 10-minute encore, a sort of lullaby in honor of the Ukrainian people, I think by Lyudkevych.  The encore may have been intended as a political statement, given Trump’s coziness with Vladimir Putin, who took Crimea (and ExxonMobil’s sponsorship).

The main work of the concert was what I came for, was the post-Mahler Symphony #8 in C Minor, Op. 65, by Dmitri Shostakovich. The work is sometimes viewed as a “two’s complement” to the Leningrad (#7), forming a “Requiem”.

The work, running in 62 minutes, was completed in 1943, and performed late in the year of my birth in Moscow.  (A friend lists his year of origin as the time of conception, and that is his personal right;  no “pun” on the Right to Life movement and march in Washington today.)

The opening Adagio opens with a logical theme, almost Bruckner-like (it reminds me of the Bruckner 8th, but this work will go in a very different direction).  It gradually becomes agitated and works up to at least two savage climaxes that are among the most violent in all of symphonic music.  One of them is on a 12-tone chord (like Berg), and the second is announced by a militant drumroll (not Haydn’s).  There was a NatGeo documentary on Mount St. Helens in Washington State that used this music during the explosion of the volcano.  There follows two crunching humorless scherzi (the first a half-step up in D-flat), leading to a Largo centered on a Britten-like passacaglia (reminds me of Peter Grimes), finally to settle down to an Allegretto rondo, that has one big climax in the middle section but settles down to a quiet end.

The Millennium Stage offered several chamber works:

Two Romances for Oboe and Piano, O. 94, by Robert Schumann, played by Shannon Prescott and Bora Lee;

Oompah Suite for Horn and Tuba by Jan Bach (6 movements), played by Gaby Pho and Diego Stine

String Quintet #2 on G, Op. 77 by Dvorak (first and last movements), George Pekarsky, Caitlyn Clingenpeel, Asher Boosrstin, Joha Kim, Andrew Gantzer

Pablo Sarsate, Navarra, Op. 33, for 2 violins and piano;  Yukino Takehara and Amelia Bailey, and Brad Clark.

(Posted: Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017 at 12:30 AM EST)

Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony should become standard concert repertoire in a full 4-movement form; there is real debate on the coda

Shortly after my “expulsion” from William and Mary at the end of November 1961, I had come home to my parents, planning to restart my education at George Washington University in early 1962 (which I did), with somewhat strained relations with my somewhat authoritarian father. But I got a Columbia mono LP of the 3-movement Bruckner Ninth Symphony for Christmas, with Bruno Walter. Bruckner had dedicated his life-leaving symphony “to God”.

Right after Christmas, I started composing a third Sonata. I still have a lot of the sketches, which I am drawing together for a performable document. Only recently have I realized that the playful theme that starts the Exposition of the first movement has a subconscious origin in a theme from the trio of the Bruckner Ninth Scherzo, which many music scholars call the “Hallelujah” theme, by comparison with Bruckner’s Te Deum and probably his Psalm 150 (and possibly can trace back to Handel).

My own autobiographical narrative is well covered elsewhere in my three DADT books and in own music is covered in another blog (“Bill’s media reviews”) so now I want to get to the case for seeing a complete four movement Bruckner Ninth as standard concert repertoire around the world.

Before proceeding further, let me note at least two CD’s available: Rattle on WB (2011, to be discussed below)

and on Naxos (1992 version, Wildner conducting, same composition team, Naxos site; Amazon link does not resolve.

Bruckner himself had suggested that the C Major Te Deum be performed if he did not complete the symphony. But, unlike Mahler, Bruckner always ended his symphonies in the same key as the first movement. The Te Deum does have material that connects to the Ninth (and other works), but is not quite as harmonically dense as the symphony itself.

(Note the Psalm 150 also, which I heard in performed in Dallas in the 1980s.

A “boyfriend” who was also a physician loved it, but others in my social cohort didn’t feel reached by the music.)

We do accept “completions” of other works: Mozart’s Requiem (Sussmayr), and Puccini’s opera Turandot (Alfono) and even the Mahler Tenth (I got to know Ormandy’s performance on Columbia of the “Cooke 1” version).. In fact, I rather like the “completed” Schubert Unfinished (Newbould, with Rosamunde music in the Finale), and the “completed” Schubert Symphony #10 in D (Bartholomee), which has a Brucknerian feel in the first two movements. I also like hearing the Mahler First with the Blumine movement included.

There is a 35-minute YouTube video by Nicholas Harnoncourt where the conductor discusses the surviving bifolio manuscript of the Bruckner Ninth finale.

Harnoncourt takes the position that composition (as a “process piece”, to use the language of NYC composer Timo Andres in his famous 2015 twitter storm) and instrumentation are different steps. So Harnoncourt explains that the existing music thread up to the coda is almost complete, except for a few missing bars in the development, and then again after the fugue.
Harnoncourt says that note indicate that Bruckner wanted a catherdral-like coda with quotes form his earlier works, especially the Third, Fifth, Seventh (the “Jacob’s Ladder” rising theme), and Eight (the scherzo theme) symphonies, as well as the “Hallelujah” motif that occurs in the scherzo trio and then again in the slow movement. He apparently also wanted to use the descending interval motive that opens Beethoven’s Ninth (as well as Mahler’s First later), which becomes a major idea in the first movement (the “octave” motive that concludes the first theme group) and which is said to occur in the Te Deum.

I find four performing versions on YouTube. One of them with Eliahul Inbal seems truncated (although it uses the “Bruckner Pivot” to introduce the final pedal point, and I’ll come back to that), and there is another by Carragen, performed by Schaller, that didn’t particularly convince me, at least. I admit I haven’t spent much time on it, and it is covered in Wikipedia.

That leads me with the two best versions, the Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazucca, which are actually about four versions (1985, 1992, 2008, and 2011, the “Conclusive Revised Edition”), performed by Simon Rattle and the Seattle Symphony on a Warner Brothers CD.

And a version, 2 minutes longer (to 24 minutes) by Belgian composer Sebasiten Letocart (he also calls himself Seba Tracotel in social media) with the Budapest Symphony performed by Nicholas Couton.

The two versions are very similar until the Coda, which starts at Minute 19 on Letocart. Both follow Harnoncourt’s analysis.

At this point, it is well to summarize the form of this Finale up to the coda.

There is a brief introduction in moderate tempo of a dotted theme, that soon leads to the first subject, which has lots of wide skipping intervals and is almost dodecaphonic. Indeed, the whole symphony, most of all this finale, explores new areas of chromaticism (written in the mid 1890s), which anticipates not only the Mahler Ninth (1909) and probably some late Scriabin, but frankly the world of Arnold Schoenberg, especially Schoenberg’s large post-romantic works before he took up 12-tone writing. Unresolved dissonances abound, which, as Harnoncourt explains, conductors would want to take out (this had happened with Brucknner’s earlier symphonies, but remember Beethoven’s Eroica and Schubert’s Great C Major were considered shocking at first to conductors). But even in the world of this finale, atonality seems like the ultimate endpoint.

The Exposition, however, has three major subjects. The second subject is more conventional Bruckner (a little like the second subject of the first movement), with its own “trio”, before this prepares us for the majestic, descending chorale theme, very chromatically harmonized from E Major, as if it should be sung as a church hymn. In many works (like if Rachmaninoff had this material), it would become the “big tune” for the conclusion, but here the descending nature of the motive argues against that outcome already.

The Development starts out in a straightforward way, but in a short time a fugue begins. Harnoncourt calls the music “wild”. Curiously, to me, the dotted rhythms and blocked nature of the clashing lines reminds me of Schubert (toward the end of the development of the first movement of the “Great”, whose clashing contrapuntal dissonances early 19th Century conductors found disturbing) The music then presents the “Hallelujah” motive, as then what sounds to my ear like a genuine Recapitulation of the original D Minor stuff starts. The Recapitulation in both versions is reasonably straightforward until it comes to the restatement of the Chorale, where Harnanoncourt (and all other scholars) admit so some controversy.

Samale at al bring back the “Te Deum” idea with the full octave theme from the first movement, repeat the Chorale, and come to a violent climax (one more restatement of the Octaves) with a harmonic “Pivot” and a double take. Then the final version (2012) maintains tempo and volume, and throws the “Jacobs Ladder”, Te Deum, and Hallelujah motives together on one final pedal point in D Major. The overall mood is one of conventional joy.

The 2008 Samale-Cohrs version had, after the last dissonance pivot (with only one invocation of the Te Deum octave idea), provided a “coda of the coda” that briefly goes back to pianissimo, in D Major, quoting the Beethoven Ninth opening intervals, and building the Jacobs Ladder and Allelulah together, coming to a stop on a find fortissimo D Major chord for full orchestra. The 1992 version, on Naxos, is very similar. But in the 2011 version, after the Pivot, the music maintains its momentum and volume. It’s hard for me to understand, from the explanations in Cohrs document, why.

But it’s useful to compare to the end of the Bruckner Symphony #8, where the coda in the finale starts “misterioso” and quietly in C Minor, build up to a climax in F Minor, and then crashes on a subdominant seventh-to tonic Pivot (the “Bruckner Pivot”, although Scriabin uses it to great effect at the very end of his Divine Poem), where the music remains fortissimo, with various motives (especially the scherzo) play on top of one another until the last three octaves, E-D-C, still in FFF. (Schoenberg offers a similar Pivot to end his massive “Gurrelieder” in C Major.) The Bruckner Eighth is very satisfying and perfectly executed, since Bruckner finished it himself. Some observers note that the Bruckner Eighth is the only of Bruckner’s symphonies to have a first movement end quietly, and have even suggested that Bruckner could have considered ending the Ninth quietly, in religious resignation to a perhaps hollow Heaven (maybe like the end of the Mahler Ninth).

But Letocart takes on a different tack. His coda is in four parts (starting at 19:00). He reiterates the chorale theme, to be sure, but dot not fully requote the Te Deum octave theme (he does invoke one central jagged phrase from it in the brass, with unresolved harmony dissonances, which might be more effective in a “bare bones” sense). He, instead, has briefly quoted a key theme from the Bruckner Fifth (well known for its blazing conclusion in the brass after another fugue, recalling Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue indeed). He comes to what could be a pivot point, but in fact has prepared us for one more “misterioso” invocation, back in D Minor. In fact, the music has already turned quite dark. We know Bruckner is facing an End, his own. The music could wind down to solitude, as Letocart invokes the descending D Minor intervals originally from the Beethoven ninth. But instead, through a serious of Neapolitan chords, it explodes like a supernova, using only the “Halelujah” motive. I miss the “Jacobs Ladder” of the Samale and the Te Deum, but somehow the simplicity of Letocart’s final bars, leading to a final drum roll accompanying the fortissimo D Major chord and finally only octaves, conveys the sense of Apocalypse.

The sense of apocalypse is communicated in a shocking 17-minute short film by Narcis Aliphalic, “Anton Bruckner’s Ultimate Finale” Letocart explains the darkness of the music, and plays the descending chorale theme on the piano as if a song without words. But the film shows a parallel narrative with some young adults, including a young man and woman, in their 20s, enjoy a (Vienna?) city park. Other spectators join, include a group of other shirtless young men. As the coda turns dark, the other young men draw the first young men into a bizarre intimate, perhaps homoerotic, ritual. But then everyone is watching the sky, as a huge light approaches. The original young man is “chosen” by others to be the first to meet the returning Christ, or God, or alien spaceship. Everyone knows that they are facing their last moments on earth, but their afterlife will not be hollow. The very last shot of the chosen young man shows him facing the light with chest hair suddenly burned off. I do wonder if this film has been in a festival somewhere, like Cannes, Sundance or Tribeca.

Here’s Letocart’s discussion of the “Hallelujah.”

I’ve tweeted the New York Philharmonic, and I think they could be interested in putting on this work in the 2017-2018 season. It’s hard to say which version would be chosen. The “establishment” likes Cohrs-et al, but I think the Letocart conclusion is far more shocking and may be closer to the truth of what Bruckner thought he faced in his last days.

So, the “big tune” of the chorale is not used, and the Allelujah is a motive, not a full tune. Many post romantic works are well ended with a big tune which (as with Rachmaninoff’s second and third piano concerti) can arise from simple, playful beginnings. A “misterioso” near the end is not possible in works like that. But in the Bruckner Ninth it sounds right, and needed. It tells us what we may all face.

Here are references, to

And Letocart.  (He also calls himself “Seba Tracotel” in social media, and lives in Belgium, but near Germany. He is quite active on Facebook in commenting on troubled European politics; it helps that I can read French pretty easily.  With postings by another Belgian music and film artist, Timo Descamps, it helps to read Dutch, which pretty much looks like “misspelled” English and German mixed together.)


Letocart has an ftp-ed PDF of much of his score which I requested through social media, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be public.

(Posted: Saturday, December 3, 2016 at 2:15 PM EST)

Mason Bates: orchestral works


I picked up, from Amazon, the CD of major orchestral works by young composer Mason Bates, with the San Francisco Symphony orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas.

Bates likes to intermix the sounds natural to specific locales or situations (sometimes computer-generated), on top of large symphonic canvasses.  There is a sense of blending formal classical music with “popular” idioms, even including disco and hip-hop.  To some extent, the “culture” behind the tone poems of Richard Strauss comes to mind.

There are three large works on the CD.

The first is the five-movement “B-Sides” (2009, with electronics), running slightly under 22 minutes.  The movements are “Broom of the System”, “Aerosol Melody (Hanalei)” , “Gemini in the Solar Wind”, “Remescal Noir” and “Warehouse Medicine”.  The most emotionally intact music occurs in the Gemini movement, where voices of the astronauts can be heard.  The last movement concludes with a lively climax, rondo-like.


The second work is “Liquid Interface” (2007), 24 minutes, which is described as a somewhat “conventional” four-movement orchestral symphony, however programmatic.  (Somehow, the spoofy sci-fi film “Liquid Sky” (1982) comes to mind.) The first movement is “Glaciers Calving”, building to a climax that dissolves to a limpid “Scherzo Liquido”, and then meaty animated slow movement “Crescent City”, which manages to combine the idiom of New Orleans jazz (however improvised) with post-romaiticism, leading to a slower and quiet “On the Wannsee”, an odd choice given historical significance of the Wannsee Conference.


The third work is the longest, “Alternative Energy” (2011, 25 minutes, with electronics), which is rather like a suite. “Ford’s Farm” is lively enough, and it gives way to “Chicago”, and then the evocative “Xinjiang Province” and finally “Reykjaviik”, to end quietly.

The CD is on the orchestra’s own label SFS Media (0065-821936-0065-2).

The composer was raised in Richmond, VA.  I’m reminded that the lead character of the movie “Boyhood” (2014, set in Texas) was “Mason”, and also of director Richard Kelly, born in Newport News but using Richmond as the backdrop of some of his sci-fi films, like “The Box” (2009). Of course, with the last name, I have to think of the “Bates Motel” (2013), A&E television series (offering Richard Harmon) inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960).


(Published: Saturday, July 16, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT)

Sir James MacMillan conducts his own works, as well as Elgar and Vaughn Williams at Kennedy Center


Name: The Sacrifice” (interludes); “Miserere“; also a cello concerto and Symphony 4
Author: MacMillan, Elgar, Vaugn Williams
Released: 2006, 1919, 1034
Format: concert
When and how viewed: Kennedy Center, 2016/5/12

On Thursday, May 12, 2016, the Kennedy Center offered a concert by Scottish conductor Sir James MacMillan.

The program opened with Three Interludes from his 2006 opera “The Sacrifice”, to a libretto by Michael Simmons Roberts based on a Welsh myth (maybe epic poetry) called Mabinogion.  Probably English departments know this stuff.  Following a Romeo and Juliet like plot, lovers Sian and Evan must part and accept arranged marriages in a heavily tribal world.  Conflict leads to tragedy, in a somewhat complicated plot.  My own father used to say, “To obey is better than to sacrifice”, and maybe this opera proves the point.  Does the movie 1973 “The Wicker Man” come to mind?

The three interludes follow the example of Britten (“Peter Grimes”) with a passacaglia for the second movement. The outer movements are called “The Parting” (of the lovers) and “The Investiture” ( a ceremony that confers rank, maybe related to the historical “Investiture Controversy” of the Church in European history). The music is more dissonant than Britten, although similar in spirit.  The ending of the last piece is violent.

The second work was the Cello Concerto in E Minor of Sir Edward Elgar, Op. 95 (1919), with cellist Alban Gerhardt. The work is in four continuous movements, starting with a Moderato stating a unifying theme. The scherzo may be the most familiar part.  There is a brief Adagio, and the finale tends to wind down before a brisk ending in a minor key. At one point, it seems to quote the Schumann Cello Concerto in A Minor.

The main course, after the intermission (and reason I attended) was the Symphony #4 in F Minor by Ralph Vaughn Williams (1934).  The work is notorious for a case of Vaughn Williams “being mean”.  The four note motive suggests Shostakovich, maybe, and also Scriabin in using the minor ninth and half-step dissonances – but in this work the orchestral color will enable the composer to bring the dissonance into balance with his normally pastoral style.  There are four short movements, totally 30 minutes, the last two connected, working up to a violent fugue on the 4-note motive, and ending abruptly on one loud minor chord. It’s interesting that Scriabin’s “Black Mass” piano sonata is based on some of the same harmonics, and is centered on the same tonality (F).

There was a post-program.  I was taking notes on my cell phone because the printed supplement had not been included with my copy of the Playbill.  There was a panel discussion, with MacMillian and Gerhardt, and a “choral postlude” with the University of Maryland Concert Choir.  The group sung four a cappella works by MacMillan.  These were Two Strathclyde Motets: “Factus Est Repente” (“Suddenly a Sound Came”), for Pentecost, and “O Radiant Dawn”, for Christmas.  There followed a complete mass “Miserere” (or “Missa Verde” or “Green Mass”), 15 minutes, with a little more dissonance than in the motets.  Then there was the song “The Gallant Weaver”, which would remind us of “Silas Marner” from high school English literature (but based on a poem by Robert Burns).

In the QA, the cellist said he plays with earplugs, because the sound from the other players is very loud.


There was a pre-show on the Millennium Stage, where the Washington National Opera presented the “Ring” singers in a concert with piano.  One of the arias was from Rossini’s “Italian in Algiers” with humorous lyrics about women taming men, and even whether women prefer “smooth” men (“thmooth”) to hunks or brutes (“hairy”).  Later there was some Sondheim, as well as Offenbach, Puccini, Leoncavallo, Verdi.

(Published: Thursday night May 12, 2016, 12:45 AM after midnight EDT (Friday)).