MusicXML at the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition

BTYSTE-logoI was delighted to learn from Gavan Reilly's Twitter feed about MusicXML's use at the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition underway in Dublin, Ireland. At Stand 4207, student Mary Spillane is presenting her work on “Investigating methods of automatically classifying sheet music according to difficulty.” She is a student of Thomas O’Sullivan at St. Mary’s Secondary School, Nenagh in County Tipperary. Her project is “to design an automatic process to grade how difficult a musical piece is by exploring the number of note combinations, length, key changes, accidentals etc.”

This sounds related to the ISMIR 2012 Score Analyzer paper by Véronique Sébastien, Henri Ralambondrainy, Olivier Sébastien, and Noël Conruyt from the University of Reunion Island. I mentioned this to Mr. Reilly, who responded that the BTYSTE project used a broader set of criteria, and was more focused on determining the difficulty of piano music.

It is wonderful to see MusicXML being used in this Irish national contest for high school students. One of MusicXML’s goals was to allow people to develop all sorts of sheet music related software – for composition, analysis, performance, musicology, education, research, or whatever. Clearly we are succeeding!

I also am just a bit jealous of the real work that high school students can do for science fairs today – or heck, in starting their own companies. The means for meaningful creative technological expression were out of reach for high school students when I was their age. As a high school student I used the school’s time-shared computer to help write a John Cage-inspired aleatoric piece. That was a silly little hobby project; it’s nothing close to the projects that Ms. Spillane and the other BTYSTE students are doing. You can download the Exhibition Guide and read page after page of creative ideas whose exploration is now within reach. What a wonderful time for young people interested in science and technology!

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Peter Sellars’ Ritualization of the St. Matthew Passion

My wife is preparing to sing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with her chorus. Since we’ve been watching and enjoying Peter Sellars’ work since the beginning of his career, we thought we would watch his “ritualization”, performed by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, the Rundfunkchor Berlin, and an amazing cast of singers.

This performance has been getting ecstatic reviews. The choruses and the vocal and instrumental soloists all memorized their parts. Using the in-the-round space of the Berlin Philharmonie, the orchestra and chorus are laid out as Bach’s double chorus and double orchestra, performing to each other as well as the audience. The chorus and soloists have some (usually) simple blocking, with Mark Padmore as the Evangelist acting as Jesus in the staging. Christian Gerhaher singing Christus was stationed alone at a higher level than the orchestras and chorus. As Peter Sellars says in the wonderful bonus interview with Simon Halsey that comes with the disc, this is not theater, but a prayer and a meditation. The ritualization is there to free the performers to go to another level of expression, and to emphasize the musical community – both performers and audience – working through the Passion story.

This is an absolutely stunning, deeply profound performance. If you are a fan of Bach, or of Peter Sellars’ work, you simply must see and hear this. The cast is uniformly magnificent, including Magdalena Kožená, Thomas Quasthoff, Topi Lehtipuu, and Camilla Tilling. The Rundfunkchor Berlin, prepared by Simon Halsey, is superb, and the boy’s chorus, Knaben des Staats- und Domchors Berlin, sings well in its brief role. As you would expect, the playing of the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle’s direction is incredibly beautiful and inspired. This was Sir Simon’s first time conducting the St. Matthew, and the first time performing it for many in the orchestra and chorus. It would be great if performances like this could lead to reclaiming this work for all to perform, not just the Baroque specialists.

This is only available directly from the Berlin Philharmonic’s online shop. Ordering and shipment to the USA is a breeze; the DVD and Blu-Ray discs are region-free.

If you want to see some of the performance first, there’s an excerpt at NPR, as well as a trailer on YouTube.

The interview with Peter Sellars and Simon Halsey about this performance is very insightful and wide-ranging. It’s included as an extra on the discs, but is also available in full on YouTube.

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Bruce Springsteen in Oakland

Bruce Springsteen Wrecking Ball 2012Thirty-four years ago, I went to see my first Bruce Springsteen show – December 30, 1978 at Cobo Arena in Detroit, way up in the nosebleed seats. At this point I had a couple of his albums, Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, but I was a casual fan. Well, I lucked into seeing Bruce on one of the most legendary rock tours of all time. I was an instant convert! That date remains the best rock concert I’ve even been to, the one that moved and inspired me the most deeply.

But wow, Bruce’s concert last night in Oakland sure comes close. I’ve seen Springsteen several times in the years in between, including on tours for Human Touch / Lucky Town, The Rising, and Working on a Dream. All have been top-notch, but this went a step above.

I was wondering how this would all come off at first. The loss of Danny Federici before the Working on a Dream tour was sad enough. But the loss of the Big Man, Clarence Clemons, would have far more impact on the stage show. The Big Man and Miami Steve Van Zandt had been Bruce’s main foils on stage. How much would this feel of a “band of brothers” (and more recently sisters) translate with more and more new people in the band?

Naturally the Big Man was irreplaceable, so Bruce went with something way different. He came on stage with a 16-piece ensemble! There were 8 in the E Street Band, 5 in the E Street Horns, and 3 in the E Street Choir. With the voices, a full horn section, a violin, 3 guitars, 2 keyboards, bass, drums, and percussion, the 17 people on stage could provide just about any timbres and feel you could want in a rock concert. Darcy James Argue calls his big band steampunk because the need for big bands really went away with the advent of amplification. Though the need was gone away, the desire remains – some people still crave the sound of a jazz big band. Well, the same rings true here for this rock and roll big band.

Four things in this concert stood out in particular in terms of why the night was so moving for me, beyond the thrills and ecstatic feelings one has come to expect from a Springsteen concert:

  1. More than any concert I can recall, moments in the concert transported me back to the young man who attended that 1978 concert, both his dreams and his fears. This really hit home with a scary intensity during Badlands – the last number before the encore in this concert, the opener back in 1978. Bruce played lots of 1978-era music in this concert, including several songs I first heard live in Detroit – Because the Night, The Ties That Bind, and Santa Claus Is Coming to Town – along with a great double-shot of Adam Raised a Cain and Something in the Night near the top of the show. The accumulated weight of those memories and resonances really took over in Badlands, a quintessential song about youthful dreams and fears.
  2. Strictly at a musical level, the deployment of the big band came to a stunning peak on Kitty’s Back. The pacing of the solos was just exquisite, like the best big bands. A series of shorter, soulful horn solos led to a larger, more intense piano solo by Roy Bittan, which in turn led to an even more intense guitar solo by Springsteen. Bruce has three fine guitar players in his band between himself, Van Zandt, and Nils Lofgren, but I still love his own solo playing most of all, ever since hearing his lengthy solos preceding Backstreets and Prove It All Night back in 1978. The jazzy ecstasy of this number added a new musical wrinkle to Bruce’s show, something he couldn’t do as effectively in quite this way without the full horn section.
  3. The tributes to Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici were greatly moving. Bruce dedicated My City of Ruins as a song “from our ghosts to yours.” The long solemn moment at the end of the song where the spotlights focus on the empty spaces where Danny used to sit and the Big Man used to stand was highly effective. On the final number, Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, the remembrance was celebratory rather than solemn, rejoicing in the great music the band had made together with those two over so many years.
  4. Bruce latest album Wrecking Ball is perhaps his most highly charged since The Rising. He cherry-picked the best songs from the album and performed them with great fire. The concert opened with Land of Hope and Dreams, which you might have heard during the US election at President Obama’s events. The triple shot of We Take Care of Our Own, Wrecking Ball, and Death to My Hometown was searing. It ensured that the evening was hardly an exercise in nostalgia – it included significant new music and new performances rooted very much in the here and now.

So it was an amazing night – I’m still on overdrive from it twelve hours later. This leg of the tour is almost over, but I know they’re continuing in the summer over in Europe. And if you think I’m exaggerating about the 1978 tour, the box set The Promise includes a video from a show just three weeks before the one I saw. I had to get that box set to make sure I wasn’t dreaming that the concert was that great. I wasn’t; it was. I sure hope someone has been recording this tour, because a live album/video from it would be a great thing indeed.

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Adorno Monument in Frankfurt

Alex Ross’s recent blog post on the Adorno Monument reminded me that I hadn’t posted my own picture of this remarkable artwork. It’s on the Theodor W. Adorno-Platz in Frankfurt, a few blocks from the Messe:

Photo of Adorno Monument, Frankfurt

I came across this while wandering around the neighborhood near my hotel during this year’s Musikmesse. It was my first year attending Musikmesse as a MakeMusic employee and it was a different experience from the Recordare days. Besides the different hotel and neighborhood, there was a greater intensity to the schedule. We were also treated to a wonderful concert by the a cappella group Maybebop in nearby Gelnhausen.

They have a cool subway station in the neighborhood too:

Photo of U-Bahnhof Bockenheimer Warte, Frankfurt

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A Chorister’s Preview of SFS Season 101

101 signAfter a restful summer with no gigs, I’m looking forward to our first San Francisco Symphony Chorus rehearsal on Tuesday with our director Ragnar Bohlin. The Symphony’s 101st season offers a different set of delights for the singers from last year’s landmark centennial season.

The centennial was heavy on some of the most popular masterworks in the chorus and orchestra literature by Verdi, Brahms, and Beethoven. This year the focus for the chorus is on works that are performed much less frequently. There are only two works I’m singing this season that I’ve ever done before.

First up is Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible, in a new yet old oratorio version by Levon Atovmyan. Atovmyan made this arrangement in 1961, but suffered a pair of strokes before the premiere which scuttled the performances. The score remained unperformed in his private archive for 45 years before Atovmyan’s daughter Svetlana gave it to musicologist Nelly Kravetz to try to bring it to life. Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic premiered it in January, and Maestro Jurowski will conduct our US premiere performances on October 18-20. This will be his San Francisco Symphony debut. The music from the film score is thrilling and I can’t wait to get started rehearsing it!

The new year brings another guest conductor, Charles Dutoit, conducting a double-bill of Poulenc’s Stabat Mater and Berlioz’s Te Deum. I’ve sung the Poulenc Gloria and the Berlioz Requiem before but never these works. I’ve loved Dutoit’s performances of French music with the San Francisco Symphony, but this will be my first time on the other side of the podium. Performances will be February 6, 7, 9, and 10.

April brings another new experience – my first time singing Handel and Mozart with the Symphony Chorus. Bernard Labadie, another conductor whose performances I’ve enjoyed from the audience, conducts a program including Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day and Mozart’s Ave verum corpus (at last, a piece I’ve sung before). There are just two performances of this program on April 5 and 6.

May brings the return of Beethoven’s great Missa solemnis in my first program of the year conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. We have different soloists than two years ago, including the fabulous mezzo Sasha Cooke. Originally this program was to have a multimedia component, but that’s no longer mentioned on the Symphony site. Our prior performances were the first time performing this work for MTT, Ragnar Bohlin, and many members of the orchestra and chorus. Having more familiarity should lead us to an even higher level of music making this time around. Again there are just two performances, on May 10 and 11.

June brings a tribute concert to outgoing San Francisco Symphony chairman John Goldman on the 17th. And then, if I’m lucky, I’ll get to be a Jet in the Symphony’s concert performances of the full score to Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. The last I knew the chorus size was still undetermined. I fervently hope it will be large enough so I get to sing this set. Any chance to perform Bernstein with MTT is amazing, and of course West Side Story is one of Bernstein’s greatest scores ever. The lyrics are by another of my idols, Stephen Sondheim, in the first big break of his career. Performances are June 27-30 and July 2.

There are lots of other great programs the chorus is doing that I couldn’t sign up for due to my work schedule: Grieg’s Peer Gynt, Beethoven’s Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, a Bach program, and Handel’s Messiah in December.

My one nit-pick about the season programming is that the Symphony missed a perfect change to perform John Cage’s 1O1 during the 101st season. I was at one of the Boston Symphony premiere performances and it was one of the most delightful Cage pieces I’ve heard. Maybe they’ll do it next year for Cage’s 101st birthday? Hope springs eternal.

So it’s a whole different set of delights this year – nothing as familiar as the Verdi, nothing as novel as the Bates premiere, but a great medium in between with lots of guest conductors. Please come join us for some of these concerts during the season!

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Dolet MusicXML Updates, Sibelius Upheaval

On Tuesday, MakeMusic released the latest updates to the Dolet MusicXML plug-ins for Finale and Sibelius. Dolet 6.3 for Finale and Dolet 6.2 for Sibelius incorporate many improvements from the previous releases. They are available for free download from:

The timing of these updates turned out to be unintentionally eerie. On the same day that these Dolet updates were released, Avid was shutting down Sibelius’s development office in London.

The dismissal of this talented team is terribly sad. For the past dozen years, Finale and Sibelius have been the two main applications for creating and editing Western music notation. The competition has served both products well; a true case of iron sharpening iron. I got to know several people on the Sibelius team while working at Recordare, and have always had the highest respect for the people and their achievements.

The music notation market has always been a small industry, where most of the players come and go over the years. Finale’s continued development over 24 years is unparalleled.

When I started work on MusicXML 12 years ago, I found that Gerd Castan was a kindred spirit in seeing the need for an open, XML-based format for common Western music notation. Here is an excerpt of what he wrote then. You can see the full text on his music notation site. It is unfortunately germane this week:

If you are working with computers, you should avoid going to the next store and ask “I’m seeking for a program that…”. Doing so, you are in a bad situation, because it gives the manufacturer too much power over you and you’ll be punished soon.

Experience shows a much better situation for customers when you decide to use standard file formats and standard protocols and buy the software that fits to this decision…

There are some 80 to 90 Score printing programs worldwide. They share a small market and manufacterers have a mean number of about two programmers.

Doubtless, you are buying a great score printing program. Are you sure, that the small company behind this program still exists in five years? Experience shows that you will have a new computer with a completetely new operating system architecture every five years. Are you sure that there will be a new version of your program that fits?

Fortunately, Sibelius added built-in MusicXML export in their version 7 release. MusicXML import had been added years earlier in version 4. The latest 7.1.2 release, the last by the London development team, upgraded the MusicXML import and export support to version 3.0. MakeMusic continues to update the Dolet for Sibelius plug-ins for people using earlier versions of Sibelius, as well as those who prefer the quality of Dolet’s MusicXML export.

There are now over 160 programs that support the MusicXML format. Nearly every notation editing application under active development can import and export MusicXML files. No longer are your musical scores held hostage to one particular program. LilyPond remains an exception: it clings to the proprietary mindset and does not export to the open MusicXML format. If you care about the long-term preservation and performance of your music, use just about anything else. MusicXML support for both export and import is a necessity in today’s world.

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The End of the Centennial Season

Michael Tilson Thomas rehearsing the San Francisco Symphony ChorusSaturday night was the last concert of the amazing San Francisco Symphony centennial season. This program was a great one for the chorus: Ligeti’s a cappella Lux aeterna, Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The Beethoven was recorded for future SACD release. There’s actually one more performance of the Ninth coming up Sunday at Stern Grove, but I’ll be on my way to Minneapolis that day and will have to miss it.

Here’s a photo from Michael Tilson Thomas’s Twitter feed showing him polishing a few last details in the Beethoven before the final Saturday performance. If the space looks unusually large, that’s because of a change in our routine. Due to construction, the chorus had our pre-concert warm-ups in the huge Zellerbach A hall used by San Francisco Opera, rather than our normal, smaller home downstairs in Zellerbach C.

All four performances were sold out, which means we had some 10,000 people hearing these concerts live. We were able to bring the a cappella magic of the Ligeti to 10,000 people in 4 subscription concerts! There are tradeoffs between doing an occasional a cappella piece on a subscription concert vs. having a dedicated chorus concert during the season. In the past we did the latter but this year we did the former; the bigger audiences, especially for this concert set, seem to make it a worthy trade.

Once again, the San Francisco Symphony audiences were an absolute delight to perform for. Every night you could feel the concentration and silence during the pieces; on three of the four nights, the audience maintained that intensity all the way through the 7 bars of silence with which Ligeti closes the work. The audience really joined us on the journey from Ligeti’s eternal light, through Schoenberg’s darkness, then on the darkness to light journey of the Ninth. And at the end – especially on Friday and Saturday nights – they exploded in the loudest ovations I’ve ever heard from on stage. On Saturday night it was cool to look out at the audience and see John Adams there, even with Nixon in China being performed across the street. The concerts also received rave reviews from the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Classical Voice, along with fine blog notices from Lisa Hirsch and John Marcher.

This was a great if crazy season for the chorus. I was tired enough after doing the Verdi and Brahms Requiems back to back. But most of the women did Mahler 3 just before that, and many singers did Messiah and the Christmas concerts right afterwards. Debussy’s Martyrdom of St. Sebastian was a rare treat to perform. Mason Bates’s moving Mass Transmission was the highest-profile premiere I’ve ever done, part of a fabulous revival of the American Mavericks festival.

Then in September we get to start season 101! My schedule includes Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible, Berlioz’s Te Deum, Poulenc’s Stabat Mater, Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, and – if I’m lucky and they decide to use a larger chorus – Bernstein’s West Side Story. I’m looking forward to it but am enjoying the time off already.

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Nixon in China

Nixon Arrives in ChinaAt last, 25 years after its premiere, I finally got to see and hear John Adams’s first opera, Nixon in China. San Francisco Opera gave this a fine production. All the singers were excellent, but Hye Jung Lee made a particularly outstanding impression as Madame Mao, in a role that is a 20th-century Queen of the Night.

Nixon in China was a landmark in American opera. It’s perhaps the first grand opera on American subject matter written by an American composer to enter the opera repertoire. It showed the way for composers to write operas that dealt with historical subjects from the recent past, including three San Francisco Opera commissions that I got to see during their premiere runs: Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, Christopher Theofanidis’s Heart of a Soldier, and Adams’s own Doctor Atomic.

I purchased the original recording of the opera soon after it came out, but hadn’t listened to it in a long time before bringing it out last week as a refresher before seeing it. Sanford Sylvan still amazes in that recording in the role of Chou En-lai. I do wish I had seen it them so I could better compare and contrast impressions. It’s so much different to hear and see it 25 years on, now that I’ve visited China, conducted in several concerts by a survivor of the Cultural Revolution. I still like the opera enormously, and will be ever grateful to Peter Sellars for his role in bringing this work to life.

If you haven’t seen this opera and you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, there are four more performances on June 22, June 26, June 30, and July 3. Highly recommended!

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