Thursday, August 29, 2013

Six Elizabethan Songs by Dominck Argento

In the spring, I was introduced to the first song in this cycle ("Spring") and fell in love with the music. With a recital coming up later this semester, there is a possibility that we will program the entire cycle. I thought it would be a good idea to learn a little more about the work and put some initial thoughts on paper before I get music in hand.

Dominick Argento was born in 1927 and is considered one of the leading American composers of our day. Argento studied at both the Peabody Conservatory and Eastman School of Music, earning a PhD at Eastman in 1957. The composer has given us 13 operas and was one of the founders of Minnesota Opera.  In 1958, Argento was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and spent the year in Florence.  It was in this year that Six Elizabethan Songs was first published for high voice and piano; the work was revised in 1962 for soprano and Baroque ensemble.

The text of the cycle is somewhat unusual for Argento since it is taken from traditional poetry. Other works use diary entries and letters written by various composers. In this celebratory year of the English composer, Benjamin Britten, I found it especially interesting that two of the texts Argento uses in this work appear in Britten's oeuvre as well:  "Spring" shows up in Britten's Spring Symphony while the poem by Ben Johnson featured in "Hymn" is used in Britten's Serenade.

In order to acquaint myself with the entire cycle, I found a recording on YouTube and made a few notes. I'll be interested to examine a score and compare my initial perceptions with the reality of the printed music.

The first of the six pieces is "Spring." The song features an active accompaniment that is punctuated by crisp, detached octaves in the bass. With a charming middle section, this opening piece is exciting and pure fun for the singer and pianist.

"Sleep" follows with beautiful harmonies centered in the lower register. An aggressive middle section arrives unexpectedly, marked with sharp and chilling passages in the right hand against a legato vocal line.  "Winter," the third piece of the cycle, sounds as though it may be the most virtuosic of the set. The song's opening with an unaccompanied vocal line sets it apart from the others of the cycle.

Although "Dirge" is one of the simpler songs of the cycle, I was strangely drawn to its mystery. The chords are simple, reminiscent of church bells. The chords reinforce the dissonance between the piano and the voice and seem to make use of tritone relationships throughout.  "Diaphenia" returns to the joyful sounds of the opening song; its fast sequential passages are similar to "Spring" and were not that interesting on first hearing. One of the challenges the cycle will present is establishing clear differences of mood between "Spring", "Winter", and "Diaphenia."

The closing "Hymn" presents another challenge. With its chordal accompaniment that is often constructed in two-note phrases, it will require some careful planning to insure that the piano's melodic line remains in tact despite the interruptions that occur due to rests and/or sound decay.

Perhaps the most challenging ensemble issue for Six Elizabethan Songs will be found in the attempt to maintain the desirable balance between voice and piano. Whether because of the rapid passages, low piano registers, or thickly textured chords, constant attention will need to be given to the piano's dynamics in relation to the singer.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Orchestral Recommendations?

While doing some shopping last week, I ran into a former student who had taken music appreciation with me. It was nice to hear of her success and that things were going well in her new career. As our conversation continued, she told me that she still listened to the CDs from the class and was ready for some new music. Rather than plunging into unchartered music, she asked for some recommendations. That's music to this teacher's ears!

As we continued talking, I learned that she most enjoys the orchestral repertoire. With little forethought, these are the five pieces I recommended in the produce section of Wal-Mart.

  • Piano Concerto #3 - Rachmaninoff
  • Symphony #1 - Mahler
  • Symphony #7 - Beethoven
  • Adagio for Strings - Barber
  • The Planets - Holst
What orchestral works would you have included in your list of recommendations for a musical novice (assuming they have already been exposed to several of the "major" works)? I'd love to hear your recommendations in the comment section below.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The "Joy" of Chamber Music

I love making music in ensembles. There's nothing quite like creating wonderful sounds with other musicians. It allows us to experience the process from a different perspective. Chamber music provides an opportunity for experiential learning with our peers. Collaborative work is a joy because we are enjoying a partnership with other people.

Where there is a group of people, there will be multiple opinions. Regardless of the number of opinions, differing opinions can lead to conflict. Chamber music is no different. Though we come together to make beautiful music, the rehearsal process can be a stressful experience fraught with conflict. Any musician who has participated in a chamber ensemble has experienced conflict (or else they are a saint). Here are some of the things I have found that greatly reduce conflict.


  1. Every idea is worthy of consideration. Because everyone in the ensemble is coming at the music from a different perspective, differing ideas about interpretation are certain to arise. I try to make sure that rehearsals begin far enough in advance of the performance to allow us to explore ideas that come up. This insures that all members of the ensemble feel as though they are a contributing part of the team. As the ensemble continues to work together and gets to know each other as individuals and musicians, the ideas seem to gel between the members and reduces the number of times this "trial and error" approach will be used.
  2. Establish what takes priority. There will be times when we come to an impasse between two opposing interpretations. That's when we have to determine what aspect (or which voice) has the ultimate decision. In a solo recital (with piano collaboration), the soloist will generally be the final authority. In a string quartet, the decision may ultimately be made by the first violinist. What I often find is that the impasse is associated with a issue related to phrasing (maybe a better way to say it is "melody") versus a technical difficulty or tempo. If a situation arises that demands a distinction, is the ensemble more interested in the musical effect or a technically clean performance? 
  3. Commit to compromise. We all want to give the best performance possible. Sometimes I will concede to a differing opinion after I clearly express why I am so adamant in my position. By conceding, I am committing to diligently work in my personal practice time to make the approach work. When I display a willingness to bend, I help to create an environment of compromise. I also establish that I am thoroughly committed to the overall success of the performance. If issues related to ensemble, phrasing or technique continue to arise in the same passage, other players are often more willing to try to find another alternative that allows the music to work. (However, if a player consistently doesn't return to rehearsals with problematic passages resolved, compromise is not going to be at the forefront of everyone's mind!)
  4. Remember it's not forever. This was the hardest lesson for me to learn over the years. As a student, it's sometimes easy to forget that I won't always have to work with these same musicians forever. There will be a number of opportunities available to make music in ensembles. For whatever reason, if your current chamber experience is not all that you had hoped, commit to doing your best work in order to maintain a good reputation. Once this performance is over, you are free to begin looking for other opportunities.
  5. Attitude is everything. Other musicians are watching your interactions in chamber ensembles. Your peers know who plays the role of the diva and who is doing their best to maintain a positive attitude. Don't let what you perceive to be a negative situation drag you down. Keep your attitude positive and focus your attention on the beauty of the music itself.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Organ Lessons? Really?

Throughout my life, I have told anyone that asked that I was a pianist. Occasionally I will play a keyboard if needed (even though I find myself kicking and screaming the entire time). I was never interested in learning to play harpsichord or organ. I'm not terribly fond of the sounds. In a way, I think I felt that I would be "cheating" in my love affair with the piano if I studied another instrument.  I've always been faithful to the piano....except for that one summer in college.....

Let's start with the truth. I absolutely hated my music theory professor. I thought he was arrogant and irritatingly condescending. (Nearly 20 years have passed and I still hold the same opinion.) My classmates and I always laughed at him as he played piano in class because it was horrible and terribly LOUD! His explanation was always that he was an organist.

In a moment of insanity, I decided to enroll in organ lessons during a summer session with this "wonderful" guy. I knew that the technique would be different and that it was a skill I might need in the future. I also wanted to see if the man's organ lessons were more entertaining or enlightening than his theory classes. Since there would be no jury exam at the end of the session, I thought I had nothing to lose.

The first lesson included a quick tutorial of the instrument, how to set stops (which I still don't fully understand), and the assignment of a couple of pieces. I have blocked the works from my mind; I do recall that one was a short fugue in the style of Bach while the other was by Emma Lou Diemer. Before he left me to practice, I was told to notice that both pieces were marked legato.

Left alone in the organ room, I realized I was in for a long summer. Lyrical fingering is not something that comes naturally. As I began to experiment with finger substitutions and unusual fingering patterns, I came face to face with some of the technical weaknesses I had ignored as a pianist. Things began to get better with a little bit of work.....but it would quickly fall apart. Now I had to figure out how to play the pedal line while maintaining what was going on in my hands! I was on board the Titanic, anxiously waiting for the proverbial glacier to put me out of my misery.

I don't know if it was grace, mercy, or humor that caused the professor to give me an A in organ for the summer. While I didn't learn much about organ performance, I did learn a lot about humility. What's brought these scenes back to my mind? In the past week, I have had three gigs come across my desk that all require playing the organ to some degree. There's a certain amount of trepidation even thinking about taking on the challenge. On the other hand, part of me feels as though there's part of my musical development that hasn't been completed. I find myself considering resuming organ lessons...and hoping for better results this time.

For every teacher, I think it's important to experience the unsettled feelings associated with attempting to obtain a new skill. It makes us more sympathetic as our students face similar challenges and it reminds us that patience, encouragement, and fun are some of the most powerful teaching tools in the teacher's arsenal.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Seeking Young Audiences

Earlier this week, a friend of mine sent me a link to the trailer promoting LA Opera's upcoming production of The Magic Flute. The images are intriguing and I am interested in seeing the production. Take a minute and view the short trailer here

The more I thought about the production that was being advertised, the more I began to realize that LA Opera was pursuing a young audience. That's an interesting concept, so I decided to check out the rest of their upcoming season. What I found was both interesting and disturbing.

Seven operas are included in this season. Most are standards of the repertoire: Carmen, The Magic Flute, Lucia,  and Falstaff. Two lesser known works, Thais by Massenet and Billy Budd by Britten, are not totally surprising -- especially given the fact that 2013 is the centennial celebration of Britten's birth. The work that caught me totally by surprise was the revival of Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach. Forgive me, but this "changing image of opera" was bad enough the first time around! Why bring it back?

I get that visual effects and the abstract attract young audiences. I further understand that explicit sexuality draws modern audiences. (Carmen, Billy Budd, and Thais all carry a "parental discretion advised" statement.) What I'm wondering is if all of the re-imagining, explicitness, and exploration of the "unusual" is really a service or a disservice to the art form. At what point do we stop attempting to entice audience's to attend and begin to expose them to the power of music without all the bells and whistles?

I'm certain I'll be accused of being a purist and elitist. Nothing is further from the truth. I'm all for using new means of expression when they enhance the musical experience. I'm just wondering where the line is between enhancement and intrusion.

I'm an enormous fan of the work at Los Angeles Opera. I owe much of my understanding of the form to the incredible work the company has done over the years. I fully intend to see the production of The Magic Flute they are presenting this year. I am simply raising an issue that's been on my mind for some time now and was brought to the forefront as I viewed their season line up.