Reicha Requiem Reviewed

It’s unusual for amateur groups like the Stanford Symphonic Chorus and Peninsula Symphony get reviewed. But the rarity of the Reicha Requiem attracted a review from David Bratman in San Francisco Classical Voice.

It’s a nice, insightful piece, and I love his thoroughly appropriate lead sentence: “Tired of the usual run of jolly Christmas choral music?” The Reicha is a severe, complex work. It’s quite beautiful, but not quite the more comforting kind of Requiem that Fauré and Brahms would later write. It’s great to see the piece and performance attract some press attention.

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Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – Infernal Machines

Infernal Machines album coverInfernal Machines, the debut album from Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, is my favorite jazz album of the year. Here is a big band album that engages popular music in ways that have been largely lost since the 1970s, and does so with great beauty and sophistication.

Argue refers to the Secret Society as a steampunk big band. I hadn’t heard of steampunk before this, but I see now how that’s an apt analogy. Another shorthand description might be Maria Schneider meets Michael Gibbs. Neither of those capture the individual personality, of course, but you can hear that in the music – there are plenty of free downloads available at the Secret Society site.

One thing I find particularly refreshing about Argue’s writing is its avoidance of the layered orchestration cliches common to most big band music. If you read the previous Herb Pomeroy post and want to hear what it sounds like when a big band composer really likes to rub color against color, this is the album for you! Argue studied with Bob Brookmeyer. While you can hear the influence in the approach to orchestration, I find Argue’s music has a whole different aesthetic from Brookmeyer’s.

In addition, Argue is a music copyist who has made some very helpful contributions to improving jazz support in our Dolet for Finale plug-in.

This coming Thanksgiving week in New York is a slice of big band heaven – Argue’s Secret Society performs at Iridium on Wednesday, and the Maria Schneider Orchestra has a residency at the Jazz Standard throughout the week. Argue’s band has never toured to California, and Schneider’s only plays in big venues and festivals out here. So I’m looking forward to hearing these two bands in New York clubs later this week! Friends in the Boston area will have a chance to check out the band in a few months at the Regattabar on February 25.

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Herb Pomeroy on Jazz Writing

Herb Pomeroy at BerkleeHerb Pomeroy directed jazz bands at MIT from 1963 to 1985. He was the founder of the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble, one of the first three collegiate bands from the USA to perform at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival. He was a fine trumpeter and a great bandleader, but his largest legacy may be as a teacher at the Berklee College of Music. His line writing class at Berklee was legendary, and he gave a short synopsis of some of the key points of writing and orchestration in the first of his Music at MIT Oral History interviews on December 14, 1999. This happened when Forrest Larson asked a great follow-up question about some of the musical values that Herb had learned when studying at Schillinger House:

Well this fellow, Richard Bobbitt, who was the dean, he had studied with Stefan Wolpe. I hope my memory is accurate. Bobbitt learned from studying with Wolpe about voicing not through choosing notes because they are the root, the 3rd, the 5th, the 7th, the 9th, but making most – I don’t want to say all – most of the vertical structures structures that are created because of the intervallic relationship between the notes, not because they are a function… So, certain intervals – you know, there are consonances, there are dissonances. If we want to get richer, or we want to get darker, or we want to get brighter, the choice of interval between notes is more important than the function that the note is in the chord.

Which will also – I sort of based a whole course on this later on, when I started to teach – also will take away from the obviousness of the chords that have the root in the bass, from the chords that have the 3 – 7 tritone that announce “I am this chord” and there’s very little you can do about it. Instead of taking the notes because they are these very important – vitally important in certain areas of sound. But if you’re looking to broaden, whether you’re a classical composer or a jazz composer – this approach to intervallic choice of notes rather than function choice of notes I got originally from Bobbitt… I learned a great deal from this man about this, the intervallic approach to vertical writing as opposed to the function.

Even then I was saying to myself, “This is going to be valuable.” I tell you, so many students that I had at Berklee, and I don’t mean to wave the flag here, have come back to me – two, five, ten years after, not while they’re taking the course, after they’ve absorbed it – and said that this course was one of the most opening things that they studied in a school or classroom situation…

Most jazz ensembles – whether they be three or four horns and a rhythm section or a whole band – the instrumental sound is pretty similar. I don’t mean the harmonic sound. I don’t mean the style of the player’s vibrato. The purely instrumental sound when you hear whether it’s 4 horns in like an octet or you hear the 12, 13 horns of a full jazz orchestra – the instrumental sound, the layered effect of color of trumpets, color of trombones, color of saxes in this function kind of harmony that we’re talking about – is the same. Whether you listen to Basie of ’35, or you listen to Woody of ’54, or you kind of listen to Mel and Thad of ’85 – whichever of these bands. Nothing to do with rhythmic style, harmonic style, era – was it swing, was it bebop, was it whatever. This layered, as I call the layer-lit colors, each layer really separated from each other, not entwined like this getting a richer sound instrumentally, is the same.

Whereas if you use this non-function, this intervallic work, and put the instruments together so you rub color against color – put a reed between two brass, rather than put four brass and then four trombones and then five saxes, or maybe one or two overlapping – but I can hear a typical big band and it almost sounds like there are just the three primary colors, so to speak. I don’t hear any sense of rainbow effect going on there. So these are some of the things that I learned from these teachers which were not jazz tools, but they were music tools.

I knew then, and in hindsight I even thanked them even more. Because so many students – I mean, I’ve had many people who are professional writers in their home lands, directors of radio / TV studio bands, conductors of symphony groups who wanted to get into the jazz thing, leaders of big bands all over Europe, who came and studied at Berklee and would take this course. And I could watch, I could see in their faces while I was saying these things, I could see these looks, this opening. That was very gratifying, to know that you had…

I did not invent this, I merely organized the thinking. People say “oh, you created it.” No! Maybe that mathematical mind from back in my teens and all that allowed me to organize. When you teach as long as I did, and stand in front of the thousands and thousands, literally, hours I have stood in front of bands and rehearsed them, and developed an eye-ear relationship. I do not have a God-given eye-ear relationship; I have a developed eye-ear – see the score and hear it in my head. The number of hours that I was able to do that – and I feel very blessed with my own professional band, with the Berklee band, and with the MIT band, and then clinics all around the country and the world and all that – I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say it’s thousands of hours that I’ve stood there and heard it and seen it. It’s allowed me to perceive things about scoring techniques for jazz orchestras that I don’t think many people have had the opportunity to know.

The only person that I’ve been able to have a close association with who – we’ve talked about it some, but I just knew it from observing him – was Bob Brookmeyer. I think Brook has this same sort of ability, and he’s a marvelous writer.

I don’t know what kind of thoughts and things Gil Evans had in his head. I don’t know about Duke – I tried to find out from Duke, I played with the band and would question him. (Laughing) He’d be terrible – I’d say, if we were in a room and it was casual, I’d say “Duke, come here – on this tune, in the first two measures you do this”, and I’d play on the piano, “but I can’t figure out what you do in the next two measures.” And he’d say, “Oh, you’re doing it better than I could do it anyway” and just walk away. He wouldn’t show me anything!

Please note that I transcribed this interview excerpt. Any errors are mine, not the MIT Lewis Music Library’s. The library is working on officially transcribing the interviews. Hopefully the first transcripts will be available sometime next year.

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Music at MIT Oral History Project

MIT Lewis Music LibraryThis year marks the 10th anniversary of the remarkable Music at MIT Oral History Project at the MIT Lewis Music Library. For 10 years, Forrest Larson has been interviewing key players in the history of music at MIT. His interviews are meticulously prepared and conducted, so he elicits many wonderful revelations about music at MIT, the lives and careers of MIT musicians, and remarkable observations about many aspects of music making for both amateurs and professionals.

Music has been at MIT for most of the Institute’s existence, with a formal music program established in 1947. The Oral History Project includes interviews that cover music at MIT from the 1940s onward, including perspectives from faculty, staff, former students, and visiting artists.

I’ve listened to the interview with three musicians who were very important to me during my MIT student years: John Corley, conductor of the MIT Concert Band; Herb Pomeroy, conductor of the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble; and John Bavicchi, former MIT student and de-facto composer-in-residence for the MIT Concert Band during the last 30 years of John Corley’s tenure. With the permission of the Lewis Music Library, I will be excerpting and discussing some of the material from these interviews that I find especially relevant to music making today. I hope you enjoy these posts!

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Reicha Requiem at Stanford

Stanford Symphonic Chorus poster for Reicha Requiem concertInterested in hearing a rarely-performed large-scale choral work from the early 19th century? Here’s your chance to hear Anton Reicha’s Missa pro defunctis (Requiem). The Stanford Symphonic Chorus and Peninsula Symphony will be performing it this weekend, together with excerpts from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Performances are Friday, November 20 at 8:00 pm and Sunday, November 22 at 1:30 pm in Stanford Memorial Church. Stephen Sano will conduct the Reicha, and Mitchell Sardou Klein will conduct the Bach. Soloists include the fabulous Wendy Hillhouse, who we heard singing Henry Cowell last week. Tickets are available online or at the door.

This will be the premiere of a new performing edition of the Reicha prepared by Dr. Amy Goodman Weller for her Stanford Ph.D. dissertation. Reicha was a contemporary and friend of Beethoven. He is best known today for his wind quintets and his teaching of composers including Liszt and Berlioz. Reicha was a counterpoint professor, and this work is loaded with fugues. It concludes with a fabulous double fugue on “Cum sanctis” that Reicha used as an example of choral fugal writing in his Traité de haute composition musicale. That fugue is my favorite part of the work, with a highly syncopated Lacrimosa close behind. I’ll be singing in the tenor section, up front and center in the chorus.

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Henry Cowell: The Whole World of Music

Henry Cowell at Other Minds program coverI finally had a chance to attend an Other Minds concert: the first of a two-concert series devoted to the American composer Henry Cowell. Other Minds is one of the Bay Area’s great new music organizations, and for this concert they came down to the Peninsula. Henry Cowell was born and raised in Menlo Park, just a few miles from the Portola Valley concert venue.

The program covered chamber music from all eras of Cowell’s career: from the famous early piano pieces like The Tides of Manaunaun from 1912, through wonderful 1930s chamber works (Toccanta and the String Quartet No. 4 “United”), on to some late songs from the 1950s (Thou Art the Tree of Life and Spring Pools).

Sarah Cahill performed a set of six of Cowell’s solo piano pieces. This is Cowell’s best-known repertoire, and I knew many of these pieces from recordings, but I never had heard them live. What a treat to hear them in concert: the sensuality of the sound and the intricacy of the performance comes across so much better in a live performance.

As a singer, the absolute highlight of the program for me was the set of eight Cowell songs, superbly sung by mezzo-soprano Wendy Hillhouse with Josephine Gandolfi on piano. The set covered 5 decades worth of songs in a beautifully arranged sequence. It was great to hear how Ms. Hillhouse went to the Library of Congress with an early version of Finale loaded onto her PowerBook to transcribe 50 of Cowell’s 200+ songs from the manuscripts. She had been entranced by the music after singing some of the published songs at a Cabrillo Festival concert honoring Lou Harrison, but only a dozen or so of Cowell’s songs have been published. Harrison put her in touch with Cowell’s musical executor to access the unpublished songs during a year when she was singing with the opera in Washington, D.C.

The whole program was filled with great music in fine performances. Cowell fans in San Francisco can hear the second concert of the series on Friday at the Presidio Chapel. Thanks to Charles Amirkhanian and Other Minds for bringing Cowell’s music back home to the Peninsula!

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Back From Puccini Country

A highlight of our recent vacation in Italy was the time we spent in Lucca and the surrounding area. Among its other charms, Lucca was the hometown of Giacomo Puccini, composer of several of the most popular operas of all time: La bohème, Madama Butterfly, Tosca, and many more.

The house where Puccini was born is a museum, but for now it is closed.

Puccini House in LuccaThere is a nice statue nearby. Lucca also has a lot of signs still up from the sesquicentennial of Puccini’s birth, letting you know of various sites important in Puccini’s life.

Puccini Statue in Lucca

Once Puccini had a couple of hits under his belt with Manon Lescaut and La bohème, he built a villa outside the city at Torre del Lago. He lived there until the last few years of his life. When a peat factory was built nearby, he moved to a newly built house a few miles away in Viareggio. The house in Torre del Lago is now a museum with a fine audio tour showing you through the rooms, the original furnishings, and plenty of Puccini memorabilia.

Puccini Villa in Torre del LagoThere’s a sculpture near this house as well, complete with cigarette, though not very visible in this shot.

Puccini Statue in Torre del LagoOne of our favorite restaurants in Lucca, Gli Orte di Via Elisa, has a Puccini-themed room.

The Puccini Room in a Lucca restaurant

All of this has really put me in the mood to see West Bay Opera‘s upcoming production of La bohème. The cast is all new to me, save for Eric Coyne as Benoit/Alcindoro – we sang together in Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights last year. The younger casts typical of West Bay productions, combined with the small house, really works to the advantage of this opera. The previous West Bay production had great chemistry! Check it out and hear why this is one of the top 5 most popular operas ever written.

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Dolet 5 for Finale Now Available

Dolet 5 for Finale, Recordare’s plug-in for reading and writing MusicXML files from the Finale music notation program, is now available. Dolet 5 for Finale adds support for Finale 2010, including the new chord features, the new percussion features, and the Broadway Copyist font family.

Dolet 5 for Finale also offers improved support for importing MusicXML files created from Sibelius 6. Some of the new and improved features in this area are import of feathered beams, jazz articulations, text in glissando lines, German/Scandinavian font styles, text on blank pages, and optimized systems.

There are over 30 new features in Dolet 5 for Finale compared to the previous version 4.8. While there are many new features even for Finale 2010 users, the plug-in excels at bringing the most accurate MusicXML import and export to a wide range of Finale versions: Finale 2000 and later on Windows, Finale 2007 and later on Intel Macs, and Finale 2004 and later on Power PC Macs.

Dolet 5 for Finale comes with a 10-day free trial, so check it out and see how much better you can now transfer files between Finale and other music programs!

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