Must-See Musical Event: “La Pasión según San Marcos”

Minnesota Orchestra is finishing up its amazing Sommerfest summer season this weekend… and let me be blunt. I need you to stop reading this post—stop whatever you’re doing—and go immediately to get tickets to see the grand finale, La Pasión según San Marcos (“The Passion According to St. Mark”) being performed on August 2 and 3.  Go.  I’ll wait.

No, I’m serious. Go. Right now.

I don’t care that you think you’re “busy.” I don’t care that you’re actually out of town on vacation. I don’t care who is getting married. Just go get your tickets. You will thank me later.

Okay… back?  Great!  Now, let me say a few words about why I’m so excited. Continue reading

Verdi’s Mighty Requiem: A Preview

Allow me to share a story.

Some years ago, while I was still teaching at the University of Kansas, a colleague stopped by my office to chat. I was kicking back with some music on my headphones at the time; curious, she asked what I was listening to.

I explained I was listening to Verdi’s Requiem, because it had been “that kind of day.” Continue reading

Mahler’s Second Symphony: Rising from the Ashes

The Minnesota Orchestra/Minnesota Chorale CD of Mahler’s Second Symphony, Resurrection, is just being released, and I wanted to share some personal thoughts and notes about this astonishing work.

Mahler is a curious composer—a bold visionary whose art is full of contradictions. His guiding philosophy was perhaps best summed up in a famous conversation he had with Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in 1907. As Sibelius recounted later,

“When our conversation touched on the essence of symphony, I said that I admired its severity and style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motives. This was the experience I had come to in composing. Mahler’s opinion was just the reverse. “Nein, die Symphonie müss sein wie die Welt. Sie müss alles umfassen.” (No, the symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.)

That quote perfectly captures essence of Mahler’s music. It is a collision of thoughts, emotions, ideas and sensations that are constantly intersecting and interacting with each other. At times, it’s as if you were reading a story where each paragraph was written by a different author in a different style—such as Shakespeare followed by the Brothers Grimm, Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner, Herodotus and O. Henry.

In the end, the cumulative effect is stunning, touching on all parts of the human experience… and vividly recreating the totality of human experience.  It is no wonder why so many love his music.

Mahler’s music isn’t at all hard to listen to, but it is a wonderfully challenging to fully comprehend it. It rewards—if not requires—repeated listening and conversations to grasp its many layers.

The Second Symphony, Resurrection, is a magnificent example of Mahler’s achievement, and one of the easiest to get your arms around. It is a work about loss and a plunge into darkness… before finding inner strength and a renewed hope that allows you to rise to a new level of existence greater you had known before. It is about rebirth and new glory.

Let me explain a bit about why you don’t want to miss Osmo Vänskä, the Minnesota Orchestra, and the Minnesota Chorale’s performance of it… plus provide a few words about the circumstances surrounding the creation of this CD, which have been, and continue to be incredibly meaningful for me. Continue reading

Fauré’s Luminous Requiem

My Requiem has been said to express no fear of death; it has been called a lullaby of death.  But that is how I feel about death: a happy deliverance, a reaching for eternal happiness rather than a mournful passing away…. Perhaps I have sought to depart from what is conventional because for so long I was organist at services of internment.  I’m fed up with that.  I wanted to do something different.

          – Fauré discussing his Requiem in a 1902 letter to Louis Aguettant

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The Requiem—the traditional Roman Catholic Mass sung for the dead—has 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 approach recommended by Beethoven himself, who once wrote: A Requiem ought to be quiet music—it needs no trump of doom; memories of the dead require no hubbub.

The Requiem of Gabriel Fauré is one of the best-loved examples of this approach—a work this is luminous and delicate, which emphasizes the idea of consolation.  As Fauré told his friends, “Altogether, it is as gentle as I am myself.” Continue reading

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

The 10 Greatest Works of the 20th Century

A while back, I ran across an interesting tidbit on my Facebook feed: Pierre Boulez’s list of the 10 greatest works of classical music in the 20th Century. Boulez, for those who aren’t immediately familiar with him, is a hugely influential/controversial composer, conductor, performer, and writer who has long been associated with the avantiest of avant-garde music.

I was intrigued to read his top 10 list—as he was at the epicenter of 20th Century music, his insights are invaluable. But in looking them over, I found myself in disagreement with several of his choices.

Naturally, I decided to come up with my own list. Continue reading

Music for Rio—Celebrating the Music of Heitor Villa-Lobos

The Olympic Games are set to open in Rio de Janeiro—the first time a South American country is hosting them.  In honor of this event, I wanted to share a bit of Brazilian culture.

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Brazil is, of course, a major musical center, and has contributed much to the world music scene.  That said, Brazil is most famous for its popular music… dances like the samba or bossa nova.  Brazil’s dance tradition is so magnificent, it’s easy to forget that it has made great contributions to the world of classical music, too.

And while there have been many classically-trained composers over Brazil’s 500-year history, none has had the popularity or impact of Heitor Villa-Lobos.

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Villa-Lobos is a curious character, with a life of contradictions.  He was essentially self-taught, and had a contentious relationship with standard music theory… yet he always aspired to write symphonies, concertos, string quartets, and Grand Opera.  As a boy he scratched out a living as a street musician in Rio de Janiero but ultimately rose to become a national hero. He traveled extensively, but always kept Brazil in his heart.

He was, quite simply, an original.

Getting to know Villa-Lobos’s music is a bit of a challenge.  He was incredibly prolific, writing more than 2,000 works before his death in 1959.  Given the vast quantities of music, some works feel like they were dashed off in a careless rush or tossed off on deadline.  Moreover, he had the reputation of being musically restless—choosing to jump to new works rather than edit those he finished.  In this, he was the mirror opposite of his contemporary Jean Sibelius, who often revised his works so thoroughly that the works he ultimately published were quite different from those heard at the premiere.

The result is that Villa-Lobos’s works can come off as sprawling, riotous and untamed.

But that is exactly why they are so exciting.

At his best, Villa-Lobos was a master of fusing classical forms with the sounds, rhythms, and instruments of Brazil.  His music literally teems with the street sounds of Rio, from bird calls and African street music to the sound of traffic and vendor’s cries. It is music that explodes with vitality and resolutely refuses to be tamed.  Moreover, he was brilliant at creating soundscapes… pulling sounds out of an orchestra that had never been heard before.

Curious to know more?  Here are some recommendations, grouped in a few key categories. Enjoy! Continue reading