Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius” – Rising from the Ashes

Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius is frequently regarded as his masterpiece—a towering oratorio noted for its complex score and profound religious message.  In the autograph score, Elgar wrote the work represented “the best of me,” and countless listeners have agreed with him.

It is, quite simply, one of the greatest spiritual dramas ever written.

Gerontius is based on Cardinal Henry John Newman’s epic poem of the same name, which traces the journey of the soul from death to its arrival before the Throne of God in a vivid dramatization of Catholic theology.  Along the way it explores some of the greatest questions of the human experience: what is our purpose? What is a good life? And what is the nature of God?  But the score is so vividly drawn, and filled with such fascinating incidents and memorable characterizations that it never feels like a religious lesson or a string of platitudes.

Unfortunately, the work is still something of a concert rarity in the US—quite a contrast to the situation in Britain, where it generally considered a national treasure, and performed almost with the same regularly as Handel’s Messiah is here.  For listeners coming to a performance on this side of the pond, this represent a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, they will be able to experience this lush, late-Romantic score completely fresh and without preconceptions.  The danger is that because it is such a dense, many-layered score that some of its complexities will be lost.

I have the pleasure of performing Gerontius this spring with the Minnesota Orchestra, Minnesota Chorale and a crack team of soloists under the direction of Edo De Waart, and it has been a thrill getting to know this sublime score.  Allow me to share some insights to help new listeners understand it better. Continue reading

Rest in Peace, Maestro Skrowaczewski

I think that most people would agree that the Minnesota Orchestra is in the midst of a golden age.  Under the artistic leadership of Music Director Osmo Vänskä, and the administrative leadership of President and CEO Kevin Smith, the ensemble has leapt from one success to another.  Rave reviews, award-winning recordings, enthusiastic audiences, historic cultural exchanges… the Orchestra is enjoying them all right now.

I don’t wish to take anything away from its current, well-earned successes. But in many ways, the foundations of today’s successes were laid by another man: former Music Director, and long-time Conductor Laureate Stanisław Skrowaczewski.

stanislaw-skrowaczewski.

Stan passed away yesterday at age 93 after a series of strokes… but his immense legacy will live on across the world through his dozens of recordings, his riveting biography Seeking the Infinite, and the memories of those he touched.

Over the length of his astonishing career, Stan worked with countless ensembles, in countless places.  Each has a rightful “claim” on him, but allow me to share a few thoughts about his impact here in Minnesota. Continue reading

Help Send Song of the Lark to Europe!

A year ago (good God, can it already be a year ago?) my readers and supporters made it possible for me to travel with the Minnesota Orchestra on their historic tour to Cuba, and write about my experiences there.  I remain profoundly grateful to my readers for their generosity, and hope everyone approved of the resulting coverage (which is compiled here, and continues to be read today).

Well, it is with profound happiness that I announce that Emily Hogstrad—a sister blogger at “Song of the Lark”—has a similar opportunity to travel with the Minnesota Orchestra on its tour to Europe.  Congratulations, Emily!

Am I a tad jealous?  Sure—my family hails from Finland, and a return trip there remains on my bucket list.  And I would love to see some of the other stops as well, including Amsterdam’s legendary Concertgebouw.  But Emily has more than earned this trip, and given her always fascinating insights into the world of classical music, I await her reports with excited excitement.

And you can help make this happen.

Emily has set up a GoFundMe page where supporters can provide support for her trip.  In the strongest possible terms, I urge you to go to the page and make a contribution if you can.  You will not just be supporting one of the most original, passionate writers in the musical world, you’ll be striking a blow for community-based writing, too.  At a time when so many major publications or news outlets are abandoning coverage of cultural events, voices like Emily’s are critically important. You can be a hero that makes her kind of audience- and community-focused writing possible.

So please join me in contributing to Emily’s fund.  You won’t regret it for a moment!

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Xochipilli

 

 

 

Brahms’ “A German Requiem”—A Visionary Masterpiece

The Requiem.  The ancient Mass for the Dead.

Few texts have had a more enduring, more profound impact on Western Culture.  Originally sung as part of the funeral rites performed in the Roman Catholic Church, the Requiem is now fused into our collective memory… quietly with us whether we’re Catholic or not.

The impact of the Requiem is particularly clear in Western Music, where settings of the Requiem Mass have formed an important part of choral music from the Middle Ages to today.  A vast number of composers from Palestrina to Andrew Lloyd Webber have penned a Requiem, even if they weren’t Catholic—or particularly religious at all.  It’s easy to see why; the Requiem text, like the ritual it is drawn from, is so broadly recognized that it provides as a easily-understood starting point to explore universal questions of life, death, and life after death.

In composing a Requiem, there are several approaches that composers have taken.  On the one hand, there those that emphasize the dramatic nature of the words, focusing on anger at our loss, the fear of the unknown, or our terror of Final Judgment.  The Requiems of Hector Berlioz and Giuseppe Verdi are the best-known examples of this train of thought.  On the other hand, there are those that emphasize notions of comfort, solace, and a spiritual release as the deceased is gathered up by a merciful God—the Requiems of Gabriel Fauré and Maurice Duruflé represent this tradition.  Or, the composer could adopt an “interrupted” approach where outside texts are added in to provide additional reflections or to comment on the traditional liturgy. Benjamin Britten uses this approach in his War Requiem, inserting war poems by Wilfred Owens that provide deeper layers of meaning to the ritualized Latin text, and make a broader statement about the horrors of war.

Still, while these approaches seem very different, they still share a common base—they all focus attention on the deceased individual(s) and place them the center of the unfolding religious drama.  It is a ritual for and about the dead.

How different this is from Brahms’s approach in A German Requiem. Continue reading

The Minnesota Orchestra Conquers Carnegie Hall

This week, the Minnesota Orchestra, along with superstar violinist Hilary Hahn, played at Carnegie Hall under the direction of Osmo Vänskä… and days later it’s still difficult to get my head around all that happened and what it all means.  As a teaser, let me free-associate a few words: brilliant, shattering, thrill-ride, fire, partnership, joy, pride, triumph.

And now, for a slightly longer account.

Please note that this is not exactly a review (for real reviews, please see those in the New York Times and New York Classical Review), but rather a sense of the occasion and some thoughts for what it all means.  Enjoy! Continue reading