On Performing The Star-Spangled Banner

January 8, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Posted in History, Repertoire/Programming | 6 Comments
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Please note: The opinions presented here are those of the author only.
In 2005, the MENC launched The National Anthem Project. Their website has this to say about it:

In response to a 2004 Harris Interactive survey that showed two out of three Americans didn’t know the words to our national anthem, MENC: The National Association for Music Education created the “National Anthem Project: Restoring America’s Voice” campaign in March 2005 to re-teach the anthem while raising awareness of the importance of school music.

I wish I could say that I was surprised by the statistic that two-thirds of Americans don’t know the words. (We’ve all heard some of the anthem-performance-flop controversies of the recent past.) But forgetting the words is only part of the problem.

Here are four of the most common performance problems with the national anthem and how I think they should be “fixed”: Continue Reading On Performing The Star-Spangled Banner…

In defense of Bach and Mozart

November 28, 2010 at 10:46 am | Posted in Composers, Repertoire/Programming, Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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While riding in the car with my violinist son (aged 20) this week, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto came on the Sirius Radio (one of the greatest inventions of the past 20 years, Howard Stern notwithstanding).  “I can’t wait to play that”, he said.  “When?”, I asked.  “Not for a while.  They say you shouldn’t play it until you are at least thirty.  It’s not very difficult, but it’s very hard.”

Bach wrote 6 unaccompanied Partitas and Sonatas for violin.  Mozart wrote five violin Concerti and thirty-six violin Sonatas.  My son told me that he hears a lot of violinists play the Bach or the Mozart and “you can tell from the first bar that it’s not going to be music, it’s just going to be note-note-note-note-note.”  He told me that every good violinist is musical when playing music from the Romantic period.  What’s really impressive is playing the seemingly simple and less “sophisticated” works with musical maturity.

“Beethoven created music.  Mozart discovered music” – Albert Einstein

There are a lot of ways to describe the difference between music of the Classical period and music of the Romantic period.  And while Beethoven is usually described as a “transitional” composer, the distinction that Einstein made is useful.

Albert Einstein loved Mozart.  He also loved Bach, about whose music he said “I have this to say about Bach’s works: listen, play, love, revere – and keep your trap shut”.  But mostly, he loved Mozart.  Einstein was an accomplished violinist.   He once said that had he not been a scientist, he would have been a musician. “Life without playing music is inconceivable for me,” he declared. “I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music…I get most joy in life out of music.”  He never went anywhere without his violin.  He particularly loved to play Mozart Sonatas and Quartets, often playing the quartets with other scientists and professors who also played music.

Einstein credited his violin playing experiences with leading to some of his greatest insights. Einstein explained that he loved Mozart because it seemed that Mozart was capturing a pure music that was simply formed by the universe or divined by God.  Mozart himself would sometimes say that he felt like he was not composing so much as taking dictation.  Einstein would go on to explain that while Beethoven was a revolutionary genius, that his music was “too personal” and thus overwhelming and unnerving.

This makes sense though.  Einstein never saw himself as creating anything.  His quest was to simply discover how the universe worked, perhaps to explain it.  Mozart and Bach had a structure and simplicity that he saw as coming naturally from the universe, not from Mozart or Bach themselves.  It fits with his life long quest to explain the physical universe in a complete and organized way.

Another great figure of the 20th century, physician, philosopher, and theologian Albert Schweitzer, was a devotee of Bach.  Among his many accomplishments he was a music scholar and organist who studied the music of Bach extensively, examining its symbolism and imagery which he said illustrated with sublime simplicity the religious themes of the hymns the works were based on.

There is a belief so long held that it is axiomatic among many musicians.  It is that Baroque Music and Classical (period) Music is too simple to be given any more attention than the occasional “roots” performances.  It is a belief that Romantic Music, 20th Century Music or Post-Modern music is the only music with sufficient sophistication to be taken seriously.  It is a belief that only the common rabble prefers Mozart or Haydn or Bach over Mahler or Bruckner or Stravinsky.  It is a belief that the earlier music is not sufficiently complex to warrant much attention.  It is no small thing that Mahler and Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky revered Mozart and Bach.  It wasn’t nostalgia.  It is in their music.  The third movement of Mahler’s First Symphony works because even if the melody is altered just enough to not be obvious, something in is will still subconsciously recognize and be moved the simple folk tune Frere Jacques.   Percy Grainger, Aaron Copland and Anton Dvorak had a reverence for simple accessible folk songs that informed their greatest works.

I would submit that it is in this simplicity that genuine sophistication lies.  Countless philosophers, educators and scientists have opined, researched and concluded that music is a basic human need.  It is a need for all humans, not just the initiated.  If that is true, then accessible music is far from being inferior music.  Music that reaches humans at a basic level regardless of their level of musical sophistication is “classical music” regardless of when it was written.

Einstein said, “ the music of Mozart is of such purity and beauty that one feels he merely found it—that it has always existed as part of the inner beauty of the universe waiting to be revealed”.

You won’t hear Mozart and Bach at the next IWS concert.  But you will hear some great Holiday music – much of it very familiar, accessible and comforting to the human soul.  Not a bad thing to accomplish on a chilly Sunday afternoon (Sunday December 12th, 3:00 p.m. in the Auditorium at Arsenal Tech High School).

Eardrum Assault Month Begins

November 26, 2010 at 9:28 am | Posted in Music Reviews, Repertoire/Programming, Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Warning: I realize that many people may disagree with what I write here. This post contains only my opinions — and boy am I opinionated. Although I’d love to see a slew of commenters agreeing with me, I don’t expect it. You have been warned.

I am still amazed when I find someone who looks forward to Christmastime “because of the music,” but to those of you who love Christmas music, your time has come. With Thanksgiving in the bag and Christmas shopping season in full swing, the shopping malls and department stores that had occasionally tossed a carol into the usual background mix of muzak and eighties pop over the last month will dive wholly in with a constant stream (or barrage, take your pick) of Christmas music.

It’s a time of year I call Eardrum Assault Month.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve disliked Christmas music.  Why? Because Christmas music is, on the whole, musically uninteresting. It’s built on basic major harmonies, simple melodies (after all, your five-year-old child can sing Christmas music), and an ungodly amount of repetition. There so little of musical interest in the most well-known Christmas carols — no chromaticism, no surprise harmonies, no dynamic changes, no modulations, no thematic development.

But I guess that comes with the territory, no? Most Christmas music is meant to be sung by hoi polloi, those with little musical education outside of what they can absorb from church hymnals. So the music is necessarily simple, sometimes rustic, and definitely short. Thank goodness they’re short. (So short, in fact, that you have to string a bunch of them together to create a whole piece. Come to our December concert to hear what I mean.)

My guess is that the people who truly enjoy Christmas music enjoy it for the feelings and memories that it evokes, and not for any musical reasons. Which is fine and good. I have the same types of reactions to the fifth symphonies of Shostakovich and Mahler. But I would not ever want every store I go into to play only these two pieces for an entire month. Those fond memories I hold now would surely be quickly replaced by feelings of weariness (like I get when I have to listen to Ravel’s Bolero).

The sheer repetition is a major factor in my dislike of Christmas music — and of Bolero, for that matter. Christmas music is the musical equivalent of political campaign commercials, only those commercials come every two years. And Christmas songs and carols, like political commercials, can become well-known specifically because of how bad they are. (Speaking of repetition and badness, let me just say that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is the second cruelest joke ever perpetrated on man, instrumental versions of the same song being the first.)

I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t point out that some yuletide music is acceptable, and even good, to my ears. Here are a few of the songs that I enjoy hearing this time of year — or any time of year. Note that most of them aren’t related specifically to Christmas. The blokes who select what music to fill a department store with might want to give this list some scrutiny and consider what they’re piping into their stores. (Are you listening, Target?)

  • “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” — A wonderful duet. I prefer more modern renditions over the somewhat dated versions from 50 years ago.
  • “Winter” by Tori Amos — I’m a huge Tori Amos fan, so this beautiful and haunting piece has to make the list.
  • “Long December” by Counting Crows — Easily the most depressing song on the list, this is a good addition to include those people who have no one to celebrate Christmas/Hannukah/Kwanzaa with.
  • “The Nearness of You” the Norah Jones rendition — This is great to pair with “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” to capture the idea of curling up with a loved one by a warm fire as the snow falls outside. Which isn’t really what department stores et al. want to get you to do.
  • “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” — The sadder the better.
  • “Christmas Time Is Here” — Only the Vince Guaraldi/Charlie Brown version is worth a listen.
  • “Linus and Lucy” by Vince Guaraldi — Not exactly a Christmas song, though I’ve heard it programmed on more than one Christmas concert.
  • “Ice, Ice, Baby” by Vanilla Ice — Just kidding.
  • The Duke Ellington “Nutcracker Suite” — Russian musical giant meets American jazz master.

I’m sure there are plenty more examples of “acceptable” yuletide music out there. Unfortunately, they are up against a horde of traditional, uninteresting Christmas songs.

What Christmas songs grate on you the most? What wonderful winter music have I forgotten? What do you think of the music that gets piped into stores this time of year?

Veterans Day Salute

November 11, 2010 at 10:56 am | Posted in Repertoire/Programming | 1 Comment
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Veterans Day is celebrated on November 11th in the United States, the anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended WWI. On this day, we honor our military troops, both current and former. While parades and other celebrations take place, there are some excellent pieces that are programmatic in nature and very appropriate for a concert to honor these military men and women.

1) Lonely Beach (Normandy,1944) – “James Barnes was inspired by film footage that recorded the assault on Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. In the film, four soldiers are seen attempting to reach the relative safety of the sea wall. Three of the soldiers reach the wall, while the fourth is hit and falls, unmoving. Although surrounded by thousands, he dies alone. The first part of the tone poem begins with the sound of wind and waves. As the assault begins, the music builds to a frenzy, portraying panic and the death of the soldier. The second half is a eulogy for all the soldiers who died on that beach. Composed in 1992, the work was commissioned by the United States Army Band in Washington, D.C. Its premiere performance was on November 11, 1992, Veteran’s Day.” – via http://www.denison.edu/offices/publicaffairs/pressreleases/hwe02.html

This piece uses alleatoric music to very impactfully demonstrate the scene of Normandy Beach. Watch the video below to listen to the recording as done by the UIndy Symphonic Wind Ensemble circa 2004…

2) American Salute by Morton Gould – This piece was originally written for orchestra, and later transcribed for band. It is something that should be in the standard repertoire of any high school or college band program. Based on the theme of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” as it’s melodic material, Gould essentially weaves a fantasy setting on this melody. It was written in 1943, and according to another blog post I came across, was written for a radio broadcast (and supposedly, overnight!) It is a powerful musical setting, techinically challenging, and a great piece for both students playing it, and for the audience listening.

3)  Each Time You Tell Their Story by Sam Hazo – This piece is another programmatic piece in that is was clearly written to honor our military men and women. It starts as a ballad, has a short narration, grows in intensity to a powerful chorale style section, and ending quietly. Technically, it is not too challenging and allows for some nice musical moments.

4) Star Bangled Banner (A Love Song to Our Country) by Jack Stamp – This is a hymn-like treatment of the Star Spangled Banner. Jack Stamp actually wrote this piece in grad school, and some 13 years later it was brought back to the band world after 9-11. There are different harmonies present at times, and it captures an entirely different emotion than the version we are all used to hearing, but it is entirely still appropriate. This would make an amazing concert opener.

5. America the Beautiful arr. by Carmen Dragon – No Veterans Day concert would be complete without playing Carmen Dragon’s America the Beautiful. This is a very beautiful arrangement of the song many people consider our nation’s second national anthem. This music also has optional choir parts to include your school choir to make an even more powerful concert closer.

So, if you are thinking about doing a program for Veterans Day, these are just a small sample of good music that can both be challenging and musically satisfying for your students, the audience, and an appropriate tribute to our Veterans. Thank you for all you do!

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