Tuesday, March 29, 2016

March Ketchup

Rules of Writing Even a Dog Could Understand
It seems I'm always playing catch-up...

One of the side-effects of practicing extreme procrastination, I guess.

The idea had been to write more in the blog, but instead most of my blog-writing has been happening elsewhere, since my last "new" post here: a recent concert with the Harrisburg Symphony had me writing about Shostakovich's 1st Cello Concerto and Beethoven's 2nd Symphony.

Plus this week's concert with the Doric Quartet at Market Square Concerts – a performance Thursday night (8pm) at Temple Ohev Sholom – got me involved in Haydn and Korngold and another Beethoven work, his A Minor String Quartet, Op. 132.

But as I look ahead, there's another Market Square Concert program next week with the Enso Quartet which had been postponed because of that January Blizzard (30” of snow, yeah?). It will now be held at Market Square Church which I prefer (better acoustics, as far as I'm concerned). While I'd written two blog-posts about the original concert (Ginastera 1st, Dutilleux's Ainsi la Nuit and Beethoven's Op.59/3) and prepared my pre-concert talk accordingly, because of the nature of the Enso's tour, they asked to change the repertoire to reflect what they'd be playing in April – still Ginastera, Dutilleux and Beethoven but Ginastera's 2nd Quartet and Beethoven's “Harp” Quartet instead.

So yeah, I'm writing a lot about Beethoven Quartets, lately. At least I was able to use the Razumovsky post for the Cypress Quartet when they came to town on their Farewell Tour, friends I will miss seeing – and most of all, hearing – after they disband at the end of June.

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On the novel front, I managed to finish Chapter 8 which concludes Part One (of four) of In Search of Tom Purdue and in the process created (for their few-hundred-words' walk-on) a group of middle-school band members who formed a group of imaginary super-heroes they call The Tonic Avengers, out to protect music from the likes of the Evil Schoenberg (and in the process, discover the body of Murder Victim #2, Belle diVedremo, Tom Purdue's publisher).

Then there was the introduction of the latest new character as I finish up the necessary exposition, a thinly veiled parody of a British television phenomenon I call The Kapellmeister, a Tempo Lord. He wears something that looks like an 18th-Century baroque court-musician's uniform but made primarily of tweed - oh yes, and a woolen scarf that, when stretched out, probably measures about ten feet long. I haven't quite figured out his mode-of-travel, perhaps a metronome, one of those old pyramidal jobs with the light that flashes the pulse though one could argue the oscillating pendulum-thingee could make a good rotor-substitute.

He also carries an all-purpose something-or-other called a Tonic Screwdriver and has a traveling companion named V7, a robotic chameleon that lives in one of his pockets. (To explain the V7, for those fans of K-9 who may not be into music theory, a V7 is the symbol for a Dominant 7th Chord which traditionally is expected to resolve to the tonic (or I) chord - ah, but it's the foiled expectations that keep the music going...)

And he's in search of something called the Belcher Codex, attributed to early American composer and singing-master, Supply Belcher, a contemporary of the better-known William Billings. But more of that in the next chapter – and I've realized I've reached a point where I need to do both more planning and research, both enemies of actual work.

That's been part of the problem with getting writing done the past couple of weeks – back trouble and the continued aggravation of Ye Olde Pulled Muscle aside – everything so far had been planned out in advance and while I know where things are going long-term, some of the short-term points along the way, not so much. That's the assignment for the rest of this week, along with preparation for the January-in-April Concert with Ginastera, Dutilleux and Beethoven.

And on top of that, I've solved a problem with how to start a new piece of music I have been putting off for years – and I do mean years – which since last summer has become more of a front-burner item, a basic structural outline having been established by late-June. To start work on that now would surely doom the novel to a hiatus it might not survive – but then, writing a novel no one will read might be a sacrifice worthy of a 21-minute English Horn & Orchestra piece no one will play. It's a toss-up...

On the other hand, I've put off putting off getting new glasses – no longer! It's probably been 10-15 years since I got the ones I'm wearing now and while my astigmatism is a wonder to behold (I think the optometrist was near despair trying to figure out my new prescription), I've decided to get a pair of reading glasses as well since one thing I've discovered is you can't move the screen on a laptop further back from the keyboard just to make reading it easier. Other than increasing the font-size exponentially, we'll see how this works out – they'll be ready probably later this week, maybe next week.

But for now, back to the drawing board to work out some details for the Adventures of Dr. Kerr and the Kapellmeister before I can begin Chapter #9.

- Dick Strawser

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Cypress Quartet: Muss es sein?

Who: The Cypress Quartet
What: Beethoven's Op. 18/1 and Op.59/3 (The Third “Razumovsky”) with some of the Novelettes by Glazunov in between

When: Thursday, March 17th at 7:30
Where: Lutz Hall of Lebanon Valley College in Annville, PA

Why: read on...

March 11th in San Francisco was officially Cypress String Quartet Day, proclaimed by the mayor's office, in honor of their 17th Annual Call-and-Response program in what will be their final season.

Like all good things, there comes a time, and the quartet has decided to disband at the end of this season with a final concert on June 26th.

That makes this appearance at Lebanon Valley College, part of their residency there, the last time Central PA gets to hear them live, almost 20 years after they first played there as part of the first Next Generation Festival which Ellen Hughes, then host of “Desert Island Discs,” an on-air host and producer at WITF, founded with pianist Awadagin Pratt.

Cecily Ward, Tom Stone, recording engineer, Jennifer Kloetzel, violist Paul Wakabayashi - 1997
I remember that first season when Awadagin and several of his fellow musicians played concerts across the region – I heard the one at the Rose Lehrman Center at HACC – and the quartet played Beethoven's Quartet, Op. 132, then joined Pratt for the Brahms Piano Quintet. I was amazed at their interpretation of the Beethoven, especially – how young people in the audience who probably never heard classical music live before sat in rapt attention, even (especially) during the famous “Heilige Dankgesang” that is the long, often challenging slow movement and which often challenges the attention span of seasoned adults in the audience. I was amazed to find out the group was brand new, not a year old, yet, and yet they played with a sense of musical empathy groups that have been together for decades would be lucky to have – especially with Late-Beethoven!

Things haven't changed much in those two decades since – except for a new violist a few years later and Tom shaved his beard. They've made several return appearances to the region with the help of Ellen Hughes' championing, and other presenters soon following suit. And not just bringing them in for a single concert on a series – there were residencies and frequent, often annual, returns, creating something of a second (or third) home for the quartet here. There were years I thought I had a subscription to their season, I would see them three or four times.
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And now they're making a sort of farewell round.

Last year was also a difficult farewell when Ellen died in June, a friend and colleague to many and an indefatigable supporter of the arts – all the arts, not just music – who, after leaving her desert island behind her, went on to write a regular-ish column for the Harrisburg Patriot-News where her interviews and insights into the performers attracted audiences to concerts, plays, exhibits and events across the region. In her few years as director of Market Square Concerts, she continued bringing performers to the area with an adventuresome sense in programming and educational out-reach.

Ellen Hughes 2007 (photo by Dan Gleiter)
The Cypress' program on Thursday, fittingly, is dedicated to the memory of Ellen Hughes. They called her a “fairy godmother” who was a mentor, adviser, admirer and even one of their board members. They have a long history together and I know how much Ellen appreciated the quartet and enjoyed their performances, their recordings and above all their friendship, something not always found in the music business.

As they say at the end of the press release, “The Cypress Quartet’s decision [to disband] comes after a great deal of reflection and discussion, and the quartet agrees that it is the right time for them to move on to explore new artistic territories as individuals. The members of the quartet are deeply grateful to vast numbers of fans, donors, fellow musicians, and presenters for all of their support of the Cypress Quartet.”

I hope you'll be able to join the Lebanon Valley College audience for one more chance to hear great music-making with this great quartet playing great music – and to take the chance to thank them (and Ellen, too) for having been there all these years.



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As part of their "Call & Response" series, the quartet commissions a work by a young composer to find a connection between traditional repertoire on the program and a new work they compose specifically for the Cypress Quartet. Here is Ellen Hughes interviewing composer Dan Coleman in 2000, writing a work connected to great quartets by Mozart and Beethoven and what it's like working with the Cypress Quartet.



Sixteen years later, Dan Coleman was also the composer for their last "Call & Response" series, with this photo taken on March 11th, 2016, in San Francisco.
Ethan Filner, Cecily Ward, Dan Coleman, Jennifer Kloetzel, Tom Stone

Their recording-set of the Complete Beethoven Quartets will be released by Avie Records this coming May.

While I would normally write something about the music they'll be performing, I can't compete with the “liner notes” that were written by none other than Joseph Kerman who, as they say, wrote the book on Beethoven Quartets, first published in 1966.

But here are links if you want to read a little bit [sic] more about the quartet and the music on the program:
...Beethoven's “Razumovsky” Quartets
...Glazunov and his “Novelettes” (keep in mind this post is for a 2010 performance in Lancaster)
...The Cypress Quartet at Lebanon Valley in 2008 (about the quartet but also a review of their Debussy performance that night)
...their first Beethoven CD – Op.131 & Op.135

At the end of this review, I wrote, “I'm also looking forward, hopefully, to hearing them perform and maybe re-record them a decade or so from now: it would be fascinating to hear how their perceptions change and mature with them.”

Oh, well...as Beethoven himself asked at the beginning of his last quartet's last movement, Muss es sein? Must it be?

The answer he gives (at 1:14 in the clip below) is Es muss sein! It must be. But at least "it must be" with joy and gladness for the times we've shared and moving on into the future with affirmation.
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- Dick Strawser

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photos lovingly ransacked from the Facebook pages of the Cypress Quartet and Jennifer Kloetzel; videos courtesy of the quartet's website, with more available on YouTube.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Cypress Quartet Plays Beethoven: What IS a Razumovsky, Anyway?

The Cypress String Quartet returns to the midstate for – alas – one last time. Since first appearing here nearly 20 years ago, they have returned frequently from their home base in San Francisco - some years often enough, between their Lebanon Valley College residency, or with the Pennsylvania Academy of Music in Lancaster, or Harrisburg's Market Square Concerts, I felt I was attending a season subscription series. Good times... good times...

But like all good things, the end is in sight, and since they have decided to hang up their bows, collectively speaking, in June, their final performance in Central PA takes place on Thursday, March 17th, 2016, at Lebanon Valley College's Lutz Hall at 7:30. The concert, by the way, is free.

It is also a tribute to another ending, a memorial to their friend and mentor, Ellen Hughes, who died this past June – but more on that in a subsequent post.

The Cypress Quartet finished recording their “Complete Beethoven” Cycle – you can find out more about that amazing project at their website, here – and they bring two of them to this program: one early, one middle (yah, maybe they'll do the Grosse Fuge for an encore...?). They open with Op. 18 No. 1 and end with “The Third Razumovsky,” Op. 59 No. 3. In between they'll offer some of Alexander Glazunov's “Novelettes.”

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(This post is about the final work on the program, one of the most popular of Beethoven's quartets and certainly one of the greatest, though it's pretty hard to narrow the whole bunch down to “one greatest.” Originally, this post was to accompany the Market Square Concerts presentation of the Enso Quartet which, alas, was postponed due to the January Blizzard that decided to tour the midstate that same weekend and left us with no less than 30” of snow. That concert has been postponed till April 6th at 7:30 at Market Square Church with hopefully better weather, but will bring with a change of program, not including Op. 59/3. But more on that later and elsewhere.)

So the question still remains, “What IS a Razumovsky, anyway?”

For those of you not familiar with Beethoven's Op. 59/3. here's a performance of the complete quartet (in one clip) with the Orion Quartet recorded at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in 2008.
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Beethoven in 1806
In Mozart and Haydn's day, it was typical for composers to produce sets of quartets (and other works: think of Vivaldi's concertos published by the dozen) usually six or three in a group and each one designed to be a different “solution” to the question “how does one write a string quartet?” Sometime in 1805, Beethoven was asked to provide one of the great arts patrons of his day, the Russian ambassador, Count Andrei Kyrilovich Razumovsky, with a set of three - hence the quartets' collective nickname, The Razumovsky Quartets.

We don't know exactly when this request was made or if, as Beethoven wrote to his publisher in July of 1806, he'd already finished one of the three by then, but Jan Swafford, in his recent (and excellent) biography, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, mentions specifically he began work on them the day after his brother Carl's wedding to Johanna Reiss, a prophetic event considering how much time would be spent while he was writing the Late Quartets dealing with legal issues over the guardianship of his nephew following his brother's death.

If that's true, it means Beethoven composed all three of the Op. 59 quartets between May 26th and September 6th, 1806, when he again wrote to his publishers and said they were done.

While three months might seem sufficient time to write three string quartets, remember Beethoven was also composing the 4th Symphony, the 4th Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto during that same summer vacation, not to mention revisions on his opera Leonore (not yet called Fidelio) complete with two new overtures for it (the 2nd & 3rd Leonore Overtures) and other works that same year! Any composer would be delighted to have produced such masterpieces during a lifetime – but in one year?

Part of the “premise” for the quartets was Razumovsky's request to include in each of them “a Russian theme.” Some say Beethoven suggested this as a tribute to his patron but it doesn't seem typical of Beethoven to offer such a “musical device.” And, anyway, there is no outwardly Russian theme in the 3rd Quartet, the C Major. In the 2nd, Beethoven made use of an old folksong called “Slava!” (“Rejoice”) which has become more famous to Western ears through Mussorgsky's using it in the Coronation Scene of his opera Boris Godunov, first composed in the late-1860s, where it doesn't stand out as a quotation. By that, I mean Mussorgsky's music is so authentically Russian, no Westerner would notice this is an old folk-song. With Beethoven, so (if anything) authentically German, the sound of its incorporation within his style sticks out like a sore thumb and in fact the way he uses it, it almost sounds like he's deliberately having fun with it or even making fun of it, turning it into that most academic of formats and so antithetical to folk-song, the fugue – then especially when the tonic/dominant cadence gets so carried away, it sounds like its beating up on it and chasing it out the door. Perhaps by the time he got to the 3rd Quartet, he'd thought, “enough.”

The expansive opening movement, following a very enigmatic introduction – harking back, most likely, to Mozart's “Dissonant” Quartet, also in C Major – is more compact than the other quartets' but on the whole more approachable, too, as if he's letting listeners baffled by the first two off the hook with this one (or so it might seem).

As one of the early reviews said, "Three new, very long and difficult Beethoven string quartets, dedicated to the Russian ambassador Count Razumovsky, are also attracting the attention of all connoisseurs. The conception is profound and the construction excellent, but they are not easily comprehended." Perhaps the comparative tunefulness of the Third's opening brought a sigh of relief?

The second movement (beginning c.8:45), however, could have something Slavic about it – again, more likely Beethoven's impression of something Slavic – in the mood of the theme though its most memorable feature is the cello's steady pizzicato, almost like a tolling bell – and Russians did love their bells. That hasn't kept other writers from hearing something Spanish or even more exotic in it.

The third movement (beginning c.18:38), rather than being a typical scherzo, is more of a throwback to the graceful days of Mozart and Haydn, the previous generation, a minuet marked “grazioso.” But this sets up the finale more perfectly than a typical Beethoven scherzo possibly could.

And yet, this was even more of a throw-back, this time to the highly contrapuntal days of Bach and Handel of the 1740s or so when Fugue was king. (In Beethoven's day, Bach was little known, at least to the general public; Beethoven admitted more than once Handel was one of his favorite composers). The finale starts off with a vigorous (!) fugue and this dense and busy texture – a perpetual motion, at that – dominates the movement to the point it no longer sounds like an academic and old-fashioned dry-as-dust fugue, the kind of thing all students learn to compose but then probably shouldn't. While it's very different from the Great Fugue that originally ended the Op. 130 Quartet, it's still a marvelous show-case of compositional craft combined with musical ingenuity.

Ignaz Schuppanzigh
These quartets were composed with specific players in mind: the members of a string quartet led by Ignaz Schuppanzigh, perhaps the best or at least the best known violinist in Vienna at the time. And this is an important distinction.

Before, Mozart or Haydn – or any number of those other composers the typical American audience is unaware of who were their contemporaries – wrote for what is called “the amateur market.” In the days before ipods and CD-players turning us into passive listeners, people were actively involved in making their own music and it was typical to assume the intended audience for a new string quartet was essentially the four people who played it and maybe their friends and family who sat in the parlor listening to them. (Think Schubert growing up in a household where his older brother played 1st Violin, he would play 2nd Violin and then Viola when another brother became proficient enough to play 2nd, and their father played Cello.)

Even given the level of playing available at a time before “amateur” became a pejorative term, how Beethoven wrote these new string quartets was something new. Not only was the playing level above the average amateur string-player, it required dedicated practice and rehearsal time and also expected more of its listeners. These were, essentially, the first professional string quartets on a “symphonic” scale – and intended for public performance.

And the level of technical challenge for the players led Schuppanzigh, on at least one occasion, to complain about a particular passage: “how do you expect me to play that?!”

While Beethoven's response is famous (and translated variously), we don't know what specific passage, much less piece, it was Schuppanzigh was referring to.

“What do I care for you and your damned fiddle when the spirit moves me?”

No aristocratically employed composer in Haydn's time would have gotten away with that...

The idea of “chamber music concerts” was also something new at the time. Before, an aristocrat might have some “house musicians” who would perform for their guests. Some even had “house orchestras” though now an orchestra like the one Haydn conducted at Prince Esterhazy's was a rare luxury: given the early-19th Century economy, it was more likely the musicians would double as house-servants and staff.

(Imagine the downstairs world of Downton Abbey doubling as a small orchestra to entertain at the Crawley's dinner-parties – what instruments, exactly, do you think Carson, Mrs. Padmore or Thomas might play?)

But Schuppanzigh had created a professional quartet in 1804 (the cellist had once been Haydn's principal cellist back in the day of Prince Esterhazy's employment) and though their public concert-series only lasted through 1808 – it is assumed (and it's odd no one knows this for sure) Beethoven's Op. 59 Quartets where first heard during their 1807-1808 Season – it was an important ground-breaking event in the evolution of “modern music.”

These works were not conceived as amateur music-making but for professional musicians to play for a preferably paying audience. We have begun making the bridge between aristocratic patronage and the free-lance, professional musician.

Count Razumovsky hired Schuppanzigh to form a “house quartet” for him in 1808, intending it to be “the finest quartet in Europe.” It was then that the Count's new quartet played his new Quartets at his palace - rather frequently, one imagines.

Speaking of amateur, the Count was a talented violinist himself – being an aristocrat, he was, technically, an amateur, no matter how well he played – and he enjoyed “sitting in” with his quartet to play 2nd Violin. On those occasions he preferred to sit back and listen (and one wonders if he was capable of playing the 2nd Violin parts in Beethoven's newest works), a fellow named Louis Sina played instead (talk about playing 2nd fiddle...). You might wonder if the Count could hold his own in “the finest quartet in Europe,” but then would his employees say, “excuse me, your lordship, but maybe you should sit this one out and let Mr. Sina play?”

It's quite possible if Ignatz Schuppanzigh hadn't existed, the quartets Beethoven wrote for the Count might have been very different. In a way, the violinist was almost as responsible as the patron was in bringing these three masterpieces about. Something to consider...

By the way, there were only two musicians in Vienna who played in the premiere of every Beethoven symphony between 1800 and 1825 – one was Ignaz Schuppanzigh.

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So who was this guy named Razumovsky?

Andrei Razumovsky, 1776
Count Andrei Kirilovich Razumovsky was the Russian ambassador to the Imperial court in Vienna, beginning in 1792 after serving in lesser diplomatic posts in Naples, Copenhagen and Stockholm. His father had been Hetman in the Ukraine and had amassed a fortune, building splendid palaces in his country estate in Baturyn and in the capital, St. Petersburg (more about him and his brother, below).

Officially the ambassador only until 1807 when he retired, Razumovsky served as Chief Negotiator for the Russian Empire during the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), recreating Europe after the defeat of Napoleon, ending a generation of constant warfare that ranged across Europe from Spain to Moscow. For his services in this last diplomatic role, Tsar Alexander I gave him the title of Prince.

Today, he is best known as a friend and patron of Beethoven's who commissioned him to write three string quartets. The count was, as I mentioned, a capable amateur violinist and frequently played 2nd Violin in his own ensemble. After all, he'd played quartets under Haydn's tutoring in the 1790s but when Razumovsky asked Beethoven about lessons in composing string quartets in 1800, Beethoven, who'd just completed his Op. 18 quartets, declined and sent him to Aloys Förster who had been Beethoven's own mentor in the craft.

Called “an enemy of the [French] Revolution but a good friend of the fair sex,” Razumovsky had, as one person described it, the “pinched and malevolent face of a Russian police interrogator.” His manners were impeccable and he “radiated pride in all things: his birth, his rank and his honor, in his bearing [and] in his speech.”

Along with two other of Beethoven's aristocratic patrons – Prince Lichnowsky and Prince Lobkowitz – Count (later Prince) Razumovsky was one of the most extravagant princes “in a city full of the breed” (as Jan Swafford puts it so delightfully in his recent biography). The palace he built on an imposing hill overlooking a Viennese suburb – finished in 1808 – had a roof garden, a vast library, an art gallery as well as a hall just for the sculptures of Canova, one of the leading artists of the day, to say nothing of a fine music room.

Here, Beethoven was “cock-of-the-walk,” walking confidently through its halls and lording it over Viennese musical society as performer and seeming composer-in-residence. Unlike he relationships with Lichnowsky and Lobkowitz, Beethoven seemed to get on almost placidly with Razumovsky. In addition to these quartets, Beethoven also dedicated his 5th and 6th Symphonies to the count.

But on New Year's Eve, the last day of 1814 when the Congress of Vienna was in full swing (in so many ways), the Count was holding a lavish dinner with both the Austrian and the Russian emperors in attendance along with some 700 guests when, as Swafford describes it:

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“...a baking oven overheated unnoticed and fire got into the heating system. As the guests were eating, the palace erupted in flames... By the time all the fire engines of Vienna arrived along with thousands of Viennese, who enjoyed a good fire, there was nothing to be done. Gone were three blocks of mansion, the great stables and riding school, the chapel, the carpets and tapestries, the old-master paintings, the hall of sculptures by Canova. Razumovsky was found sitting stunned on a bench on his grounds, wrapped in sables and wearing a velvet cap.”
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an older Andrei Razumovsky
Despite the offer of a loan of 700,000 florins from the tsar (remember Mozart, in 1787, considered 2,000 florins a good year's income), Razumovsky never rebuilt his palace and he became something of a recluse, living in near-seclusion until his death in 1836, almost nine years after Beethoven died. Shortly after the fire, he was forced to disband Schuppanzigh's quartet.

It's interesting to note that Countess Lulu von Thürheim, Razumovsky's sister-in-law, kept a kind of tell-all diary about life in Vienna at the time, giving us much daily information about life with the Count and his friends without ever making reference to his musical interests. The name of Beethoven is hardly mentioned.

And yet, if it weren't for these three quartets, Count Razumovsky would probably be forgotten except to historical experts: he certainly got more than he paid for when he asked Beethoven to write them for him!

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For all his wealth, however, Andrei Kirilovich Razumovsky was a descendant of Ukrainian cossacks – his uncle Alexei was born to a peasant family named Rozum in 1709 and he was a shepherd boy who had a pleasant singing voice. He sang bass in the local church choir where the local sexton taught him to read and write. Then, in 1731, a colonel named Vishnevsky was traveling through the area on his way back to the court of the Empress Anna (niece of the late tsar, Peter I, known as “Peter the Great”) and, impressed by the young man's vocal abilities, took him back to the imperial capital to become a member of the palace chapel choir.

So, how did the nephew of a former Cossack shepherd become the wealthiest man in Vienna who commissioned Beethoven to compose three string quartets for him?

Alexei Razumovsky
In 1732, Alexei Razumovsky's musical abilities caught the ear of Princess Elizabeth (Elizaveta Petrovna), the daughter of Peter the Great and cousin of Empress Anna, who would become Empress herself in 1741. When Alexei lost his voice, he was made an official court bandura player and later a manager of one of Elizabeth's mansions. During the brief reign of the infant Ivan VI, he became a favorite of Elizabeth's and named a knight (Kammerjunker in the old Prussian ranks copied by the Russian court). He was also instrumental in the palace coup that overthrew the child-tsar's regent to proclaim Elizabeth the official ruler. After her accession, he became a chamberlain and “general-lieutenant” and, after her coronation, a “court marshal” (different than what it sounds like in English...) meaning he was in charge of, among other things, organizing and supervising the imperial household. If there was any doubt as to his courtly authority, let's just say his bedrooms were adjacent to the unmarried Empress'. (He was, consequently, nicknamed “The Emperor of the Night.”) Several sources indicated she had secretly married him - morganatically, however, meaning he was not officially her consort nor would any children they might have be legal heirs to the Russian throne.

Kiril Razumovsky, 1758
Even though he was not politically involved in the Empress' court, he had influence. When he was made a Count in 1744 – and the Empress even went on a holiday with him which took them back to his native village where she met his family (imagine that homecoming!) – Alexei suggested restoring the old position of “hetman,” leader of Ukraine's Cossacks, a title which dated back to the 16th Century and which had previously been discredited and discontinued by the Empress' father.

To this position, then, the Empress later named Count Alexei's younger brother, Kiril, born in 1728 shortly before Alexei went off to pursue a career as a singer &c in the court chapel. Still in his teens and attending a German university, Kiril was named President of the Russian Academy of Sciences and, in 1750, Hetman of the Ukrainian Cossack's autonomous region known as the “Zaporozhian Host” which he continued to hold until 1764 when Empress Catherine the Great dissolved the post (and the Host's autonomy), making Razumovsky a Field-Marshall instead. He would die in January, 1803, in his palace at Baturyn, the old Zaporozhian capital, at the age of 74.

Kiril Razumovsky's Palace, Baturyn
Count Andrei Kirilovich Razumovsky, Beethoven's patron, was born in 1752, when his father was Hetman, the second of five sons. When his father died, Count Razumovsky became one of the wealthiest men in Europe and lived the opulent lifestyle in Vienna, building his own grand palace there – at least until that disastrous New Year's Eve party in 1814. Little is known about the remaining 21 years of his life.

It intrigues me, though, considering how conscious the aristocracy usually is of family lineage and heritage, that Count Razumovsky, for all his wealth and charm, was accepted by the aristocratic families of Vienna who must have known, after all, his father had been born a peasant who achieved his social position all because his uncle had a pleasant bass voice and became the Empress Elizabeth's “Emperor of the Night.”

Well, never underestimate the possibilities of a good musical education, I always say...

Dick Strawser

Getting Back on the Bike

It seemed a good way to celebrate "Pi Day" - you know, 3/14/16 = 3.1416? (Though, theoretically, I'm more of a Phi Guy, myself - tune in again on June 18th...)

The funny thing is, as often as I've heard that expression about "getting back on the bike," I never actually learned to ride a bike...

When I started this blog years ago and called it “Thoughts on a Train” (without apologies to Samuel L. Jackson and a lively bunch of snakes), the intention was to write about a variety of things that caught my imagination, most likely about music – but I didn't want to give it a “musical” title since it would be more than just music.

Instead, I've hardly been writing here at all... and spending far too much time on Facebook, it seems, but that's another topic.

As a composer, I thought it would give me a chance to explore different aspects of music and creativity – the “how a composer works” kind of approach – but then gradually I began to compose less and finally, now, not at all. Once I was “laid off” in 2008, I found I had lots of time to compose and I did that regularly, finishing a Violin Sonata, writing two song cycles (one with orchestra, one with piano), a couple of short choral pieces, and starting a number of other works, large and small, chamber music or orchestral, all quickly abandoned.

When NaNoWriMo rolled around again – National Novel Writing Month in which would-be authors try to write 50,000 words of a novel in November – I decided now I had the time to focus on it, so I started doing that every year and making my goal if not always finishing the novel after the month was over.

While I was still employed, I'd started a musical parody of the opening scene of Dan Brown's best-selling thriller, The Da Vinci Code and enjoyed the process so much, though I hadn't read the book yet, I ended up doing a parody of the whole book which became The Schoenberg Code and which is still posted here on the blog in a revised version reworked in the months following my suddenly finding myself with so much free time.

It seemed logical then that I should do a parody of Brown's next thriller, The Last Symbol which became The Lost Chord. By the time I'd finished and posted that, I thought “you know, I could probably write one of my own,” so then I began what is a parody of the genre itself which I called The Doomsday Symphony. Some of the characters are Gustav Mahler, composer of a symphony that is stolen and which has potentially catastrophic consequences if it's performed on December 21st, 2012 (remember the Mayan Apocalypse?) and Beethoven and Mozart as a child - and involved time travel and a dastardly plot to kill the Great (though already dead) Composers.

You can read the novel in its entirety, here.

In the process, I had written what I describe as a “classical music appreciation comedy/thriller.” I'm not so sure it's a true parody (not of any one thing specifically) since so many thrillers I've read as “research” seem to be “parodies of the genre” already.

This, then, led to the inevitable sequel – well, not so much a sequel as the next in a series: I have this hero, a “classical music detective (by default)” named Dr. T. Richard Kerr (after the musical term, ricercar which comes from the Latin “to search”) and his sidekick, a young student assistant named Cameron Pierce (who remains the only major character in my novels whose name is not a pun) and a villain named Klavdia Klangfarben. Her name was chosen for euphonious reasons, “klangfarben” being the German term to describe a melody created through pointillistic orchestration in which “sound colors” create a varied... oh well, anyway, it's complicated but I liked the sound of the word and for some reason it always struck me as being “ominous.” (And Klavdia rather than Claudia, not necessarily as a bow to the only other Klavdia I can think of, the love-interest of one Hans Castorp in Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, Klavdia Chauchat.)

And there was the evil organization SHMRG which sounded like something evil straight out of James Bond. In reality, it's an acronym for a music teacher's way of discussing the elements of music as you listen to them, either by focusing on one element at a time or hearing something first that you then place into one of the elements' categories: Sonority, Harmony, Melody, Rhythm and Growth (or Form but who wanted to call it SHMRF?).

Originating with Jan LaRue (1918-2004) in his Guidelines for Style Analysis (I'm not sure when it was published originally, but I'm sure I was talking about this when I was teaching music at the University of Connecticut in the 1970s), it's an approach to help students and music lovers not yet versed in the technicalities of music to be able to describe what they're listening to and by gradually expanding their awareness, hear it with greater understanding and enjoyment.

Pronounced Shmurg, it just sounded evil. Under the leadership of another villain in The Doomsday Symphony, N. Ron Steele (if anyone remembers the Enron scandals of the '90s), it became a Wall Street corporation that is buying up music licenses, broadcast and recording rights, copyrights and patents so that it will eventually control every aspect of music throughout the world.

Only in my current novel-in-progress do I reveal that it's actually Steele, Haight, Mayme, Rook and Griedman. Their intent is to make classical music as accessible as popular music, regardless of its impact on its quality (the “dumbing down” of the Arts) so they can sell more product to more people. Eventually, Steele's goal is to be the first corporation to run for President (though that, it seems, is already happening in 2016).

Anyway, it turned out I had this great title, The Lost Chord and some great characters like Yoda Leahy-Hu of the International Music Police so I decided to rewrite my initial parody as a more “original” [sic] novel and so it became the second in my series with Dr. Kerr trying to solve a murder mystery that led to yet another SHMRG plot. It seemed logical, at the end, to bring in Klavdia Klangfarben who'd been left in limbo, so to speak, at the end of The Doomsday Symphony.

So I removed the original parody and replaced it with the new novel using the same title, The Lost Chord which you can read here.

This one involved a parallel plot set in the 19th Century involving the identity of Beethoven's “Immortal Belovéd,” and so this became the increasingly more involved subject of the third novel in which Klangfarben returns as the full-out villain trying to locate (and eliminate) all the heirs of Beethoven and the Immortal Belovéd – including a few Dr. Kerr and Cameron meet at one of those fabulous English houses like Downton Abbey where his friend LauraLynn Hardy (the heroine from The Lost Chord) is about to marry Burnson Allen. The house was designed by a devotee of the Fibonacci Series and so everything – and I mean everything – is dominated by the Golden Section.

This became The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben which as yet hasn't been posted on-line.

Finishing that before my impending heart surgery in November, 2014, I was already working out details for its sequel, despite the fact I was calling these three novels The Klangfarben Trilogy. Without giving away how I managed to eliminate the villain, let's say it could be awkward to bring her back for the fourth novel in the trilogy...

And so, while recuperating from a heart by-pass operation, I began mapping out the details of my fourth full-length novel (not counting the original novella, The Schoenberg Code). Like the others, it would be a “parody” on several different levels, and this one involved a bit of Proust, considering the importance of Time in the way the plot unfolds, borrowing elements from his In Search of Lost Time (formerly known as Remembrance of Things Past) or, in the original French, À la recherche du temps perdu. It became the story of Dr. Kerr trying to find an old friend who, for some reason, has disappeared or been abducted, a composer named Thomas Purdue.

And so, it had to be called In Search of Tom Purdue.

It has been a slow process, starting work on it back in the summer of 2015, mapping it out, filling in outlines with details – and especially names, like one villain named Perdita Vremsky (from perdita, the Latin for “lost,” and the Russian vremya for “time”) – and today, gradually nearing the end of Chapter 7 at 70,344 words.

(Yesterday, for a brief scene, I created a quartet of middle school music students who've created their own band of super-heroes, the Tonic Avengers...)

Since most of my day is spent novel-writing – and my productive “creative-time” is in the morning and (with any luck) into the afternoon – I have found it less likely I would write in the blog. I found it distracting me from the novel. And I didn't always want to be blogging about "what I wrote today."

I have been blogging about the music on the programs with the Harrisburg Symphony and Market Square Concerts – and I took the 12 Days of Christmas off to complete a short Christmas motet on “O Magnum Mysterium” which, unfortunately, I didn't think very practical (and, like everything else I've been composing, who would want to perform it, anyway?), so I never bothered transforming it from sketches to first draft.

And now another pair of concerts is coming up that need to be written about which means I need to take time away from the novel to get them done. And writing for the blog – this blog – even something that doesn't require research or planning or much thought at all, has not only taken a back seat, it's fallen off the train completely.

I should probably get back to blogging more or less regularly, perhaps in the evening, though my brain is usually not at its most creative, then. At least, it would keep me from watching too much television.

The problem has always been finding the Time to write – but perhaps the Time itself is not the issue?

- Dick Strawser





Monday, February 29, 2016

Microcosms: A Brief Introduction to the World of György Kurtág

György Kurtág
(Originally written as part of a series about a recital by Ensemble Epomeo with Market Square Concerts for February 28th, 2016, which also included works by Leo Weiner and somebody named Beethoven - you can read these other posts here and here - I wanted to repost it here in light of the recent celebration of Kurtág's 90th birthday.)

György Kurtág celebrated his 90th birthday a week ago, February 19th. He is recognized as one of the leading composers of the 20th Century still composing into the 21st, though, like many such composers, more “heard of” than “heard.”

To him, music is a language with its own syntax and texts. And much of his music springs from words - he has written a great deal of vocal music setting words (if not poems) by Kafka, Samuel Beckett or Anna Akhmatova among others. Even pieces without words imply their origins in words.

The string trio Ensemble Epomeo performed excerpts from “Signs, Games, and Messages” at their Market Square Concerts program (which, speaking of words, included Nicholas Hughes reading an unrelated poem written specifically for Epomeo, brief segments intruding between the musical selections) – but Kurtág has been writing piano pieces called “Games” since 1973 and “Signs, Games, and Messages” since 1984, beginning (as far as I can tell) with several for solo clarinet. They exist in various groupings, in various combinations for solo instruments and small ensembles, in various arrangements as well. They are often each given “descriptive titles” but more in the sense of “A Flower for Tabea” for solo viola written for violist Tabea Zimerman rather than describing, perhaps, the physical flower of the title; or a “Tribute to...” someone in particular whose name we may not recognize but in which the audience is not likely to imagine – thinking of Elgar's enigma – a musical portrait. They might be or might only have originated in the composer's mind as an actual portrait but they are none the less personal statements for our lack of familiarity.

The set of pieces written for string trio were written between 1989 and 2005.

The repeated use of the title brings to mind another collection of another, earlier and more famous Hungarian composer, Bela Bartók, who wrote 153 pieces collected into six volumes of Mikrokosmos. These, however, began as teaching pieces when Bartók, an acclaimed piano teacher in Budapest, began giving his youngest son, Peter, piano lessons in 1926. They move progressively in difficulty (hopefully) with the ability of the pianist to master them, small etudes (often with picturesque titles and subjects that might interest a young imagination) geared to not only develop the fingers but open the ears. (Peter talked of going into a lesson to find his father jotting down some ideas which the boy would then sight-read – imagine having your father, a famous composer, writing something especially for you, and you're playing it hot-off-the-press, not only the first person to play it but also hear it? But then, as he thought, doesn't every boy's father do that?)

Though Kurtág's “Games” also began as teaching pieces, they quickly outgrew the pedagogical element, except in the sense listening to any piece of music can teach us something – if not about the composer or the time the music was created in, perhaps about ourselves.

György and Marta Kurtág, piano-duet: London Dec. 2013
The first thing I would say to someone about to hear Kurtág for the first time is to allow yourself to enter into Kurtág's sound-world. He writes what might be called miniatures – but not the way Schumann created his “character pieces,” suites of short descriptive movements that make up works like Carnaval or “Scenes from Childhood.” They're more like “fragments,” wisps of sound and, even within their brief time-frames, a bit kaleidoscopic.

Hearing several of these pieces is to hear “collisions” of sounds rather than a progression of little dramatic moments, like Schumann's suites. It is like looking first at one drop of water through a microscope and then, from some other source, another and noticing how, while they're both “drops of water,” they are completely separate worlds.

The second thing I would say would be not to get hung up on the titles or where in the list of titles you might be (is this the third or the fourth piece on this list?). As I said, often, the titles are merely ways of identifying one piece from another (while they may have personal meaning for the composer, it's quite possible a listener could manage quite well if they were “Sign VII,” “Game XVI,” or “Message III.” That, however, I suspect might remove one layer of magic, so I wouldn't recommend it.

Some of the “Games” have a collective subtitle of Diary Entries and Personal Messages (speaking of music having its origins in texts) which might give you a better concept of music as a personal statement and of the intimacy of the music itself.

The third thing, which I say to anyone listening to any musical style that is unfamiliar, is not to worry about its unfamiliarity, not to compare it to something you do know, not to focus on things perhaps, on the surface, you may not like, whether it's the “lack of harmonic motion in tonal music,” the “lack of something I can hum,” or “the lack of comfort in a style that makes no sense to me.” It's like saying “How can this make any sense” when you're listening to somebody speak, say, Hungarian, because it's not English or some other language you're familiar with, whether you also speak fluent German or can get by with High-School French.

Kurtág, like any composer, creates his own world. This world comes into being through the consistency and integrity of its details: it is a colorful world, even for a single instrument, that creates a variety of contrasts through the same means a 19th Century composer might, but with a different “surface.” You might feel different moods – calm, agitated, hypnotic, unsettling, comforting – which are not unlike moods we could hear in Schumann's picturesque pieces or Bach's more abstract preludes and fugues (whether that was the composer's intention or not).

There may be moments of “tension” that resolve to something of a resolution – or maybe only of “less tension” or, given the philosophical implications of the world we live in, no resolution at all. You may not be able to tap your foot to Kurtág's music, but you may feel the flow of a universal pulse even if only for a moment before it is interrupted by a pause – silence is a very important part of his sound. You may not notice that this pause is only a pause where that pause is the end of this piece (or does it only mean the piece stops?).

And he enjoys the contrasts of styles and languages: many of his concerts and some recordings of his works interweave his pieces in between those of another composer – one obvious choice was his “Hommage à Robert Schumann” and works by Schumann himself. Below, I include a video of he and his wife, Marta, performing his music for one and two pianists with his transcriptions of Bach for piano duet. The effect can be mesmerizing, reminding us that music is something to experience, not just to hear.

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Looking for videos on You-Tube to include here, there are many things to choose from which may or may not work. For instance, I found Kurtág's music challenging to “get into” when I first heard them because there's always this sense that music has become so much a part of our environment (and I say this having “played” music on the radio for 18 years), we feel we can use it while we do something else. A live performance is better than listening to a recording where we might be tempted to be distracted. And very often one short piece is not likely to give you much more than one short expanse of time filled with sound. The world is so much more than that – as is Kurtág's music.

Given that, here is one of the pieces from “Signs, Games, and Messages” for string trio, performed at a Dutch summer music festival (and from an angle I'm sure not cellist-approved, speaking of distractions). But the sound and mood it creates might give you an idea what to expect:


Not all of Kurtág's music is so delicate – or even for small ensembles. One of his first works to bring his name to a wider public was the orchestra work Stele in 1994. In an interview in The Guardian in 2013, Tom Service writes how it is...

“filled with a strange luminescence: the reverberating chordal repetitions in the final movement sound like the tolling of funeral bells (or perhaps the breathing of alien life forms). The first movement is an adagio, an implacable lament that ends with a homage to Bruckner in a passage for four Wagner tubas. But the second movement has the most scintillating moment of all. In the middle of the music's desperate violence, there is a sudden image of strange stillness, a sound made by six flutes, a tuba, and a piano. Kurtág said he wanted the effect to be like "the scene in Tolstoy's War and Peace where Prince Andrei is wounded at Austerlitz for the first time: all of a sudden, he no longer hears the battle but discovers the blue sky above him. That is what the music conjures up." He continues, lamenting that, "I keep telling this story and no one responds." But they do, György! If you are open to it, the devastating poetry of Stele can sear itself on your soul.”

(Incidentally, if you have time, I recommend reading this entire article which you can find here.)

Elsewhere in this article, Service writes about this contrast of sound, the meditation that becomes the experience of such a fragment:

“Despite their brevity, these tiny pieces are not incomplete as experiences. Take, for example, the seven notes of 'Flowers We Are, Mere Flowers… (…embracing sounds)' – whose title takes almost as long to read as the piece does to hear – part of the 8th book of Jatekok [“Games”]. (You hear it from 4'10'' into the Kurtágs' performance [posted below].) Kurtág precedes the piece with a prelude of nine tolling B flats; the seven notes of 'Flowers We Are…' follow. What you hear are the notes of the C major scale turned into a meditation for four hands. There is nothing more familiar than these elements, but nothing stranger than what happens to them throughout this performance. Paradoxically, precisely because of its conciseness, the piece becomes static and timeless; and those notes, far from meaning anything like "C major" or "tonality" are unmoored from conventional function and allowed to resound and shimmer in a much larger musical space. Hearing 'Flowers We Are…' is like opening a trapdoor in your floor and dropping for a moment into the infinity of the cosmos.”

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Though his first published work was a string quartet composed in 1959 when he was 33, he began his official studies in 1946 in Budapest at the school where Bartók, Kodály and Dohnányi had taught (by this time, Bartók had left the country and died in the United States), graduating in piano and chamber music, then earning a degree in composition in 1955. While the names of those he studied with may not bring nods of recognition to many Americans – Sandor Veress, Ferenc Farkas – he did study chamber music with Leo Weiner (another composer on this program).

More unsettling history engulfed Hungary in the years of the Communist regime following World War II, and after the 1956 Revolution, 18 bloody days that began as a student demonstration resulting in 3,000 deaths, Kurtág went to Paris where he studied with Messiaen and Milhaud. But he was also suffering from depression: he later wrote, “I realized to the point of despair that nothing I had believed to constitute the world was true...” and how his therapy sessions revived him personally and creatively. When he returned to Budapest in 1958, he began his 1st String Quartet which he dedicated to his therapist.

He remained in Budapest until his retirement from teaching piano and chamber music, taking over the classes offered by Weiner until his death in 1960, though since then, aside from being a composer-in-residence with the Berlin Philharmonic and in Vienna, he has spent more time living abroad, since 2002, living outside Bordeaux, France. And he has written a great deal of music which, despite his own unwillingness to self-promote, has established him as one of the leading composers of his time.

It is impossible not to mention two people Kurtág met while he was in school after the 2nd World War. One was the fellow composer György Ligéti (again, like most Hungarian words, the accents are on the first syllable) who would become perhaps the best known Hungarian composer of the late-20th Century, best known for his extroverted works ranging from his opera, Le grande macabre and orchestral canvases (speaking of color) like Lontano, Atmospheres and the Requiem which gained audience awareness through their use in Stanley Kubrick's film, 2001: A Space Odyssey – or his wildly virtuosic piano etudes. Both Kurtág and Ligéti were born in what is now Romania that was still in the 1920s part of Hungary, but Ligéti would leave Hungary and its Communist government for Vienna in 1956, spending much of his life teaching in Hamburg, (West) Germany. He died in Vienna in 2006 at the age of 83.

The other important person he met in school became his wife, Marta, who has been his collaborator in their piano-duet team ever since and who is his first “spring-board” and critic with every new piece of music he writes. They have been married for 68 years, now, and still perform piano duets.

I would not say “don't listen to the whole thing,” but certainly listen to some of this amazing video as the Kurtágs play selections of his “Games” in and around his arrangements of works by Johann Sebastian Bach. This concert was recorded in Paris in 2012 and is one instance where I would say definitely do watch the performers!



After that, what is left to say?

Dick Strawser

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Harrisburg Symphony: "You Made Me Want to Get Up and Dance"

- A special report by Dick Strawser for Thoughts on a Train

That's how one enthusiastic listener put it at the end of the Harrisburg Symphony's concert last night, with three pieces on the program which had lots of dance music in them: Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka, the “Spanish Rhapsody” of Ravel and the Suite from Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier which included some waltzes worthy of a different Strauss from an earlier generation.

(Normally, I don't write reviews and I don't like writing them, though lots of people tell me I should. In fact, as a musician on the receiving end, I never liked reading them, either. But since the Patriot-News no longer publishes reviews and the Carlisle Sentinel no longer has a Sunday edition to publish one in, consider this in lieu of a review. But here, I'm not limited to 500 words or less: my apologies in advance.)

The Harrisburg Symphony & Stuart Malina on the Forum stage (photo: Curt Rohrer)
To reduce the concert to one word – “Spectacular!” “Brilliant!” or maybe “Colorful!” – is to miss the point. The program is varied, despite all three pieces being completed within a three-year period, and within that, each piece is so varied itself, one word cannot possibly describe everything you would have noticed or sensed, even if you say you know nothing about “classical music” or if you were just letting the music “sweep” over you.

Stuart Malina conducted the orchestra in a program that didn't feature a soloist, someone standing out in front to perform a concerto, someone paid “the big bucks” to draw in the audience. These days, of course, few orchestras can afford to bring in the kind of virtuoso soloist that attracted throngs of music-lovers in the past. Unfortunately, this attitude tends to create a let-down feeling when people see no name, familiar or otherwise, at the top of the program.

But as Stuart (and let's face it, most of Harrisburg is on a first-name basis with the conductor of our orchestra who seems the very opposite of the old-fashioned, unapproachable “Maestro”) always points out, when given the chance, this town is lucky to have an orchestra of this caliber with players who are, every one, a soloist in their own right.

And as Truman Bullard pointed out in his illustrated pre-concert talk – a regular feature of the Masterworks Concerts, beginning an hour before each performance – each piece on the program is a kind of “Concerto for Orchestra,” where individual players get a spotlight here and there, some brief, some a little more extended, to create a tapestry of virtuosity that shows the true mettle of a fine ensemble.

One very helpful detail, especially for those not familiar with Stravinsky's ballet – anyone who's seen in continues to “see” it in their minds, the music is so theatrical – were the “super-titles” projected above the orchestra, a wonderful idea letting you know what was happening in the story with the music you're hearing. Though waiting another beat for “The End” might have been better since the final, quiet, unobtrusive note that ends the music was overshadowed by chuckles from the audience.

(You can see a video of the ballet with the original sets, costumes and choreography, in this blog-post about Petrushka, here.)

There's one more performance of this program – today, Sunday afternoon at 3:00 at the Forum, with Truman Bullard's pre-concert talk starting at 2:00. Tickets will be available at the door.

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“Colorful” is one of those adjectives you might use to describe these pieces which were all written when composers were becoming more aware of the orchestra as an artist's palette from which to choose their sounds, that skill we call “orchestration.”

But with “Colorful” comes the subtle shades we hear in those sounds – dynamics (loud and soft), texture (density or lightness) and all the various nuances that a player can bring to an instrument.

Take the trumpet which can play brilliant flashy passages or skittish bursts that might color an expression like a blush or a chuckle would color a face, perhaps the Ballerina's in Petrushka. Or a long, romantic theme of quiet passion (I'm thinking of the Strauss, here) to something so subtle (the Ravel “Spanish Rhapsody,” especially) you're not even aware it's a trumpet, the way the moonlight adds a glow to the air on what would otherwise be a scene at night.

Or the way Stravinsky, in his scene between the fearsome Moor and the dainty Ballerina, shows you how these two different characters dance first separately, then together: the Ballerina's theme is a doll-like tune lightly shared between the trumpet and the flute; the Moor's, a sinewy even slithery line (hardly a melody) in the lower, darker register of the English horn (that alto oboe) with exotic percussion accompaniment. That they even sound like they're in different tempos when combined allows us to focus on the overall effect of that sound. And the impact is only possible when they're played with the same conviction of a musician who stands up front and who has dedicated the time and integrity to “practice, practice, practice” whether or not they ever get close to Carnegie Hall, a classical musician's stereotypical nirvana.

There are so many of these instances through each of these works, a cameraman would be kept busy for a televised broadcast or (God forbid) a voice-over narrator, acknowledging each soloist the way sportscasters do at a football game, would be out-of-breath by half-time.

(Some people complain about the rigid formality of the orchestra's tuxedos and black gowns: what about HSO jerseys with numbers to identify the players, hmm? During the talk-back, a regular occurrence at the conclusion of each performance, Stuart and principal trumpeter Phil Snedecor joked about close-up cameras on the jumbotron so the audience could see the musicians during their solos – no, before their solos, so we can see beads of sweat in anticipation of their Big Moment. But I digress...)

If anyone is an acknowledged soloist within the orchestra for Petrushka, it's the pianist. This is a dazzling and at the same time gruesomely technical part which requires the musician to step into the virtuosic sphere alone just like a concerto even if for only a few moments. Or here to add a swirl of notes like the reflection of light glistening off a mirror that we might only notice if it draws attention to itself.

The Soul of Petrushka (or Pétrouchka, if you prefer the French) was danced by our regular “keyboardist,” Terry Klinefelter who's played it once before with the orchestra and Malina several seasons ago. It's not a role she would get to play often in her career but it's a part she will be thinking about a lot between the time the repertoire is announced and the concert is finally in the past no matter how many more times she gets to play it in the future. To say she handled the part “splendidly” is to use one of those “one-word-only” comments, but she made Petrushka, the sad-sack-of-sawdust at the heart of this ballet, cry, laugh, scream but above all, dance.

The Ballerina was “danced” by Phil Snedecor who's played the big solo so many times between auditions, performances and in his role as a teacher, it's a challenge to find something fresh each time it comes up. Technically difficult, it's enough to play without being plastered all over the jumbotron, but then Stravinsky plays the ultimate dirty trick: it's just one trumpet player accompanied by a snare-drum, nobody else. Who needs a camera?

The same thing goes for the Role of the Old Magician (or Charlatan) who is the puppetmaster, danced in this case by principal flutist David DiGiacobbe during the tumultuous first scene at the Fair when the crowd parts and we hear just the flute playing a mysteriously halting cascade, back and forth, seductively drawing the audience's attention to the puppets he is about to bring to life. Again, no need for nerves here, right?

And Malina was enough of a musician (rather than The Maestro) to stand back and let his players play it themselves: he has enough faith in them to get out of their way which, in turn, gives them even more confidence.

But there are so many names to spotlight – like Jill Hoffman playing the English horn not only in the Moor's Dance but other prominent flashes of sound here and there in Petrushka or spinning out long-limbed melodies on the second half of the program, especially in the Ravel.

Or Eric Henry playing the tuba's too brief moment of glory as the Dancing Bear who struts his stuff in the final scene of Petrushka, quick entrance, quick exit. (He'll have more work to do in the April concert when he premieres a concerto written for him by Brian Sadler, a full out-front, in-your-face soloist.)

Without a pen to jot down specifics, I remember sitting there, thinking how well some soloists-within-the-orchestra blend in without your noticing their passing moments (though you would, if they're not well played). Like the principal oboist Jeffrey O'Donnell (busy throughout the concert with some wonderful moments, solo and otherwise) or principal clarinetist Janine Thomas (I remember one specific turn-of-phrase during Petrushka's aching death-scene, felled by the Moor right in front of us, only a few notes at this one spot but where a sudden, subtle drop in dynamics before handing off the phrase was like watching a tear form) and principal bassoonist Darryl Hartshorne (again, many often brief moments that could be overlooked by the average listener taking in the “full orchestra”), even contrabassoonist Richard Spittel who got to play those single (and singular) dyspeptic low notes, surrounded by cautious silences, associated with the Old Magician.

And pairs – especially in Petrushka! Janine Thomas and Linda Farrell have been playing 1st and 2nd Clarinet in this orchestra since I first heard them in 1980 and they make a perfect match, friends who could finish each other's sentences. Whether playing crowd-noise whooshes or that unsettling “Petrushka Chord,” it always sounded like one player. And the same for Snedecor and 2nd trumpet Scott Sabo with similar passages, whether shared or alternating. Comparable moments, especially in the Ravel, bring the pair of bassoonists, Hartshorne and Leann Currie, to mind as well.

And, good grief, who could forget the entire horn section, tearing it up in the opening of Der Rosenkavalier and getting everything off to a rousing start?!

And behind all this, other players not so highlighted (even briefly) whose playing makes you forget what a solid support they create in turning almost 90 players into a cohesive brilliant whole, making these very difficult string parts and wind and percussion ensembles seem like something you do every day.

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The whole program is a challenge, musically and technically, and putting something like this together in three rehearsals and a dress rehearsal the morning of the concert may explain why at times there was maybe too much caution here, a little too much “edge” there, players wishing there'd been a little more time for things to settle. But perhaps all that works to the good – Sunday's performance could be looser, musicians willing to take more of a risk. Or could playing it too often lead to complacency, to the kind of thinking that sneaks up and hits you along side of the head? That happens easily enough.

As an occasional performer years ago myself, I know the last thing you want to tell yourself in the middle of a concert is “so, this is going well...”

In the talk-back, pianist Terry Klinefelter admitted she had been so focused on her knuckle-buster part in Petrushka that she'd left the music for the second half of the concert, the celeste parts for the Ravel and the Strauss, back at the hotel. Trying to calculate if she'd have time to drive back and retrieve them during the intermission, here she was, in the midst of playing the most difficult part a keyboard player has to face in an orchestra, worrying about “now what?!” Malina looked at her and said, “Oh, and here I thought you were just really getting into Petrushka's angst!” To solve the problem, one of those back-stage crises the audience would be unaware of – the graceful swan versus the swan's feet, paddling like mad – someone found the Ravel's part on-line and printed it off. For the Strauss, she borrowed associate conductor Greg Woodbridge's score and played from that (so even if he didn't have to substitute for Stuart in case of an emergency, at least his score got to appear on stage).

Something others would have noticed was that moment – that moment – in the Rosenkavalier, building up to the huuuuge climax that is the opera's emotional high-point, when Stuart, turning to the first violins with a larger-than-usual gesture to “SING IT!”, inadvertently knocked over the concertmaster's stand, sending music (and his baton) to the floor. Fortunately, the page of music that fluttered to the opposite side of the conductor's podium was one they'd already played (not that anybody else knew that at the moment) and Peter Sirotin's stand-partner, Dayna Hepler, retrieved the baton. Malina, without dropping the beat, managed to keep the violinists' stand upright and readjust it, all the while Sirotin continued playing as if nothing ever happened (however wide his eyes may have been).

If you had your eyes closed, out in the audience, you might never have noticed a thing: everybody kept going smoothly. The impact of that huuuge harmonic resolution might have been a little understated a moment later, but at least they didn't have to stop (another of those “wow, what if...” moments).

And frankly, that also speaks volumes to this orchestra's ability to form “one-out-of-many.”

As Stuart acknowledged after the concert, “you know, ten years from now, I may not remember this concert but I know I'll be talking about that moment... jeez!”

Monday, February 15, 2016

The 2016 Grammy Winners, Classical Music Division

The winners of the Classical Music Grammy Awards for 2016, assuming they haven't been announced by Steve Harvey, are:

74. Best Orchestral Performance

Shostakovich: Under Stalin's Shadow - Symphony No. 10 – Andris Nelsons, conductor (Boston Symphony Orchestra) Deutsche Grammophon











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75. Best Opera Recording

Ravel: L'Enfant et les Sortilèges; Shéhérazade – Seiji Ozawa, conductor; Isabel Leonard; Dominic Fyfe, producer (Saito Kinen Orchestra; SKF Matsumoto Chorus & SKF Matsumoto Children's Chorus) Decca










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76. Best Choral Performance
 Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil – Charles Bruffy, conductor (Paul Davidson, Frank Fleschner, Toby Vaughn Kidd, Bryan Pinkall, Julia Scozzafava, Bryan Taylor & Joseph Warner; Kansas City Chorale & Phoenix Chorale) Chandos










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77. Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance


Filament – Eighth Blackbird; Cedille Records












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78. Best Classical Instrumental Solo
Dutilleux: Violin Concerto, L'Arbre des Songes – Augustin Hadelich; Ludovic Morlot, conductor (Seattle Symphony) Track from Dutilleux: Métaboles; L'Arbre des Songes; Symphony No. 2, 'Le Double'; Seattle Symphony Media

(Hadelich appeared as soloist with the Harrisburg Symphony on three separate occasions. Read more about this award-winner and hear the recording of the Dutilleux, here.)







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79. Best Classical Solo Vocal Album

Joyce & Tony - Live From Wigmore Hall – Joyce DiDonato; Antonio Pappano, accompanist [sic]; Erato












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80. Best Classical Compendium

Paulus: Three Places of Enlightenment; Veil of Tears & Grand Concerto – Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor; Tim Handley, producer; Naxos











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81. Best Contemporary Classical Composition

Paulus: Prayers & Remembrances – Stephen Paulus, composer (Eric Holtan, True Concord Voices & Orchestra) Track from Paulus: Far In The Heavens; Reference Recordings











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72. Best Engineered Album, Classical

Ask Your Mama - Leslie Ann Jones, John Kilgore, Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum & Justin Merrill, engineers; Patricia Sullivan, mastering engineer (George Manahan & San Francisco Ballet Orchestra) Avie Records










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73. Producer Of The Year, Classical

Judith Sherman – Ask Your Mama (George Manahan & San Francisco Ballet Orchestra); Fields: Double Cluster; Space Sciences (Jan Kučera, Gloria Chuang & Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra); Liaisons - Re-Imagining Sondheim From The Piano (Anthony de Mare); Montage - Great Film Composers & The Piano (Gloria Cheng); Multitude, Solitude (Momenta Quartet); Of Color Braided All Desire - Music Of Eric Moe (Christine Brandes, Brentano String Quartet, Dominic Donato, Jessica Meyer, Karen Ouzounian, Manhattan String Quartet & Talujon); Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (Ursula Oppens); Sirota: Parting The Veil - Works For Violin & Piano (David Friend, Hyeyung Julie Yoon, Laurie Carney & Soyeon Kate Lee); Turina: Chamber Music For Strings & Piano (Lincoln Trio)

Congratulations to all those nominated this year for their Grammy Awards and especially to those who won their category.

- Dick Strawser

Monday, December 07, 2015

The Classical Grammy Nominees, 2016

The list of nominees for the GRAMMY AWARDS for 2016 has been released. Even reports in major newspapers that say “see the complete list of nominess” don't bother to mention the classical categories, so here are – drum roll, please – the Classical Music Grammy Nominees.

The winners will be announced on President's Day, February 15th, 2016, on CBS-TV.

Please note the selection of links and choice of photographs for this post are purely arbitrary.

74. Best Orchestral Performance
Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 – Manfred Honeck, conductor (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra) Reference Recordings

Dutilleux: Métaboles; L'Arbre des Songes; Symphony No. 2, 'Le Double' – Ludovic Morlot, conductor (Seattle Symphony) Seattle Symphony Media

Shostakovich: Under Stalin's Shadow - Symphony No. 10 – Andris Nelsons, conductor (Boston Symphony Orchestra) Deutsche Grammophon

Spirit Of The American Range – Carlos Kalmar, conductor (The Oregon Symphony) Pentatone

Zhou Long & Chen Yi: Symphony 'Humen 1839' – Darrell Ang, conductor (New Zealand Symphony Orchestra) Naxos (see YouTube video here)

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75. Best Opera Recording
Janáček: Jenůfa – Donald Runnicles, conductor; Will Hartmann, Michaela Kaune & Jennifer Larmore; Magdalena Herbst, producer (Orchestra Of The Deutsche Oper Berlin; Chorus Of The Deutsche Oper Berlin) Arthaus

Monteverdi: Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria – Martin Pearlman, conductor; Fernando Guimarães & Jennifer Rivera; Thomas C. Moore, producer (Boston Baroque) Linn Records

Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail – Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor; Diana Damrau, Paul Schweinester & Rolando Villazón; Sid McLauchlan, producer (Chamber Orchestra Of Europe) Deutsche Grammophon

Ravel: L'Enfant et les Sortilèges; Shéhérazade – Seiji Ozawa, conductor; Isabel Leonard; Dominic Fyfe, producer (Saito Kinen Orchestra; SKF Matsumoto Chorus & SKF Matsumoto Children's Chorus) Decca

Steffani: Niobe, Regina di Tebe – Paul O'Dette & Stephen Stubbs, conductors; Karina Gauvin & Philippe Jaroussky; Renate Wolter-Seevers, producer (Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra) Erato

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76. Best Choral Performance
Beethoven: Missa Solemnis – Bernard Haitink, conductor; Peter Dijkstra, chorus master (Anton Barachovsky, Genia Kühmeier, Elisabeth Kulman, Hanno Müller-Brachmann & Mark Padmore; Symphonieorchester Des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Chor Des Bayerischen Rundfunks) BR Klassik

Monteverdi: Vespers of 1610 – Harry Christophers, conductor (Jeremy Budd, Grace Davidson, Ben Davies, Mark Dobell, Eamonn Dougan & Charlotte Mobbs; The Sixteen) Coro

Pablo Neruda - The Poet Sings – Craig Hella Johnson, conductor (James K. Bass, Laura Mercado-Wright, Eric Neuville & Lauren Snouffer; Faith DeBow & Stephen Redfield; Conspirare) Harmonia Mundi

Paulus: Far in the Heavens – Eric Holtan, conductor (Sara Fraker, Matthew Goinz, Thea Lobo, Owen McIntosh, Kathryn Mueller & Christine Vivona; True Concord Orchestra; True Concord Voices) Reference Recordings

Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil – Charles Bruffy, conductor (Paul Davidson, Frank Fleschner, Toby Vaughn Kidd, Bryan Pinkall, Julia Scozzafava, Bryan Taylor & Joseph Warner; Kansas City Chorale & Phoenix Chorale) Chandos

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77. Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance
Brahms: The Piano Trios – Tanja Tetzlaff, Christian Tetzlaff & Lars Vogt; Ondine

Filament – Eighth Blackbird; Cedille Records

Flaherty: Airdancing for Toy Piano, Piano & Electronics – Nadia Shpachenko & Genevieve Feiwen Lee, Track from Woman At The New Piano; Reference Recordings

Render – Brad Wells & Roomful Of Teeth; New Amsterdam Records

Shostakovich: Piano Quintet & String Quartet No. 2 – Takács Quartet & Marc-André Hamelin; Hyperion

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78. Best Classical Instrumental Solo
Dutilleux: Violin Concerto, L'Arbre des Songes – Augustin Hadelich; Ludovic Morlot, conductor (Seattle Symphony) Track from Dutilleux: Métaboles; L'Arbre des Songes; Symphony No. 2, 'Le Double'; Seattle Symphony Media

Grieg & Moszkowski: Piano Concertos – Joseph Moog; Nicholas Milton, conductor (Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern) Onyx Classics

Mozart: Keyboard Music, Vol. 7 – Kristian Bezuidenhout; Harmonia Mundi

Rachmaninov Variations – Daniil Trifonov (Yannick Nézet-Séguin; Philadelphia Orchestra) Deutsche Grammophon

Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated! – Ursula Oppens (Jerome Lowenthal) Cedille Records


Daniil Trifonov, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra: Excerpt from recording session with Rachmaninoff "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini"

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79. Best Classical Solo Vocal Album

Beethoven: An die ferne Geliebte; Haydn: English Songs; Mozart: Masonic Cantata – Mark Padmore; Kristian Bezuidenhout, accompanist [sic]; Harmonia Mundi

Joyce & Tony - Live From Wigmore Hall – Joyce DiDonato; Antonio Pappano, accompanist [sic]; Erato

Nessun Dorma - The Puccini Album – Jonas Kaufmann; Antonio Pappano, conductor (Kristīne Opolais, Antonio Pirozzi & Massimo Simeoli; Coro Dell'Accademia Nazionale Di Santa Cecilia; Orchestra Dell'Accademia Nazionale Di Santa Cecilia) Sony Classical

Rouse: Seeing; Kabir Padavali – Talise Trevigne; David Alan Miller, conductor (Orion Weiss; Albany Symphony) Naxos

St. Petersburg – Cecilia Bartoli; Diego Fasolis, conductor (I Barocchisti) Decca

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80. Best Classical Compendium
As Dreams Fall Apart - The Golden Age Of Jewish Stage And Film Music (1925-1955) – New Budapest Orpheum Society; Jim Ginsburg, producer; Cedille Records

Ask Your Mama – George Manahan, conductor; Judith Sherman, producer; Avie Records

Handel: L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, 1740 [includes three concerti grossi, hence a "compendium" album rather than choral or operatic] – Paul McCreesh, conductor; Nicholas Parker, producer; Signum Classics

Paulus: Three Places of Enlightenment; Veil of Tears & Grand Concerto – Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor; Tim Handley, producer; Naxos

Woman at the New Piano – Nadia Shpachenko; Marina A. Ledin & Victor Ledin, producers; Reference Recordings

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81. Best Contemporary Classical Composition
Barry: The Importance of Being Earnest – Gerald Barry, composer (Thomas Adès, Barbara Hannigan, Katalin Károlyi, Hilary Summers, Peter Tantsits & Birmingham Contemporary Music Group) NMC Recordings

Norman: Play – Andrew Norman, composer (Gil Rose & Boston Modern Orchestra Project) Track from Norman: Play; BMOP/Sound

Paulus: Prayers & Remembrances – Stephen Paulus, composer (Eric Holtan, True Concord Voices & Orchestra) Track from Paulus: Far In The Heavens; Reference Recordings

Tower: Stroke – Joan Tower, composer (Giancarlo Guerrero, Cho-Liang Lin & Nashville Symphony); Track from Tower: Violin Concerto; Stroke; Chamber Dance; Naxos

Wolfe: Anthracite Fields – Julia Wolfe, composer (Julian Wachner, The Choir Of Trinity Wall Street & Bang On A Can All-Stars); Cantaloupe Music [Anthracite Fields won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2015]

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72. Best Engineered Album, Classical
Ask Your Mama - Leslie Ann Jones, John Kilgore, Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum & Justin Merrill, engineers; Patricia Sullivan, mastering engineer (George Manahan & San Francisco Ballet Orchestra) Avie Records

Dutilleux: Métaboles; L'Arbre des Songes; Symphony No. 2, 'Le Double' – Dmitriy Lipay, engineer; Alexander Lipay, mastering engineer (Ludovic Morlot, Augustin Hadelich & Seattle Symphony) Seattle Symphony Media

Monteverdi: Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria – Robert Friedrich, engineer; Michael Bishop, mastering engineer (Martin Pearlman, Jennifer Rivera, Fernando Guimarães & Boston Baroque) Linn Records

Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil – Beyong Joon Hwang & John Newton, engineers; Mark Donahue, mastering engineer (Charles Bruffy, Phoenix Chorale & Kansas City Chorale) Chandos

Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3, 'Organ' – Keith O. Johnson & Sean Royce Martin, engineers; Keith O. Johnson, mastering engineer (Michael Stern & Kansas City Symphony) Reference Recordings

73. Producer Of The Year, Classical
Blanton Alspaugh – Hill: Symphony No. 4; Concertino Nos. 1 & 2; Divertimento (Peter Bay, Anton Nel & Austin Symphony Orchestra); Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil (Charles Bruffy, Phoenix Chorale & Kansas City Chorale); Sacred Songs Of Life & Love (Brian A. Schmidt & South Dakota Chorale); Spirit Of The American Range (Carlos Kalmar & The Oregon Symphony); Tower: Violin Concerto; Stroke; Chamber Dance (Giancarlo Guerrero, Cho-Liang Lin & Nashville Symphony)

Manfred Eicher – Franz Schubert (András Schiff); Galina Ustvolskaya (Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Markus Hinterhäuser & Reto Bieri); Moore: Dances & Canons (Saskia Lankhoorn); Rihm: Et Lux (Paul Van Nevel, Minguet Quartet & Huelgas Ensemble); Visions Fugitives (Anna Gourari)

Marina A. Ledin, Victor Ledin – Dances For Piano & Orchestra (Joel Fan, Christophe Chagnard & Northwest Sinfonietta); Tempo Do Brasil (Marc Regnier); Woman At The New Piano (Nadia Shpachenko)

Dan Merceruio – Chapí: String Quartets 1 & 2 (Cuarteto Latinoamericano); From Whence We Came (Ensemble Galilei); Gregson: Touch (Peter Gregson); In The Light Of Air - ICE Performs Anna Thorvaldsdottir (International Contemporary Ensemble); Schumann (Ying Quartet); Scrapyard Exotica (Del Sol String Quartet); Stravinsky: Petrushka (Richard Scerbo & Inscape Chamber Orchestra); What Artemisia Heard (El Mundo); ZOFO Plays Terry Riley (ZOFO)

Judith Sherman – Ask Your Mama (George Manahan & San Francisco Ballet Orchestra); Fields: Double Cluster; Space Sciences (Jan Kučera, Gloria Chuang & Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra); Liaisons - Re-Imagining Sondheim From The Piano (Anthony de Mare); Montage - Great Film Composers & The Piano (Gloria Cheng); Multitude, Solitude (Momenta Quartet); Of Color Braided All Desire - Music Of Eric Moe (Christine Brandes, Brentano String Quartet, Dominic Donato, Jessica Meyer, Karen Ouzounian, Manhattan String Quartet & Talujon); Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (Ursula Oppens); Sirota: Parting The Veil - Works For Violin & Piano (David Friend, Hyeyung Julie Yoon, Laurie Carney & Soyeon Kate Lee); Turina: Chamber Music For Strings & Piano (Lincoln Trio)