Posts Tagged ‘Leonard Bernstein’

trading fours: remember ‘albums’?

August 22, 2009
from my album collection

from my album collection

Back with “trading fours” today, the occasional series here where we talk a little about four recordings on some common theme.

This one came to mind recently when a friend was getting ready to take a long flight. He’d just gotten the new iPhone, and was frustrated in the experience he was having with iTunes in trying to download some music to take with him on vacation. The problem? You may already know where I’m headed with this. He likes classical music. Turns out, to purchase a particular recording of is favorite Mahler symphony, he could only get the piece (we’re talking about one symphony here) by downloading it in seven different individual files – at .99 per download.

He did it, because he loves Mahler and couldn’t think of a better companion for the trip. Then the question was, if the symphony’s broken up into seven different files – would it play continuously, or would there be inordinate breaks between each segment, potentially ruining the intended flow and continuity of the work? Since he’d already spend $7.00 on the work, he was happy to find that it did play continuously once downloaded into the phone.

This is a pretty common iTunes experience, though when you’ll encounter it seems rather random. Not all multi-part classical (and non-classical, for that matter) works are treated that way in download form. I’ve asked the question of  iTunes but have not received a response: does it just depend on the variability of the recording ripping process on their end? Is it because the people responsible for the process don’t know the music well enough? Are there no internal policies that would inject some common sense and help inform the process?

My best guess is that this happens as a direct result of how the music is formatted on the original recordings. Sometimes a piece (a symphony, a suite, whatever) is a single track on a CD; other times the individual parts of a piece are on separate tracks. It’s a considerable hurdle that radio stations are having to overcome now too, as music libraries are going digital and playback systems are set up to work with these digitized (mp2 or mp3, generally) files. In the work I’ve done in this area, it comes down to ripping a work’s files individually, loading them into audio editing software (I’ve used ProTools, CoolEdit and Vegas) and editing the individual selections into a single, cohesive file. Save, render, and you’re good to go. The seven-download Mahler symphony is now transformed into a single, beautifully contiguous, 74-minute file. It’s the kind of work that even today’s best audio ripping programs can’t do automatically, it takes a real, live pair of human ears to do the editing. 

Now factor that process out over an average classical music library: CDs often have several different pieces on them, and music archives often contains thousands of these CDs with multiple, multi-movement works on them. No wonder classical radio has been relatively late in adapting to the world of digitized music. Without a dedicated, skilled, classical music-knowledgable staff to help with this process it can be an overwhelming proposition to digitize a library.

More has changed about music today than the process of digitization itself. There’s also the terminology. Remember “albums”? When I ask the question, you might think I’m talking about vinyl LPs. I could be. The two words are synonymous. But in our new digital world if you still say “album” when you actually mean “CD” or “recording”, it can lead to that fleeting moment of realization that using “album” dates you in some unflattering way.

Let’s just shoot that one down once and for all and stop being mildly embarassed about saying “album”. The word also means a ‘collection of music’, so it speaks to a recording’s content, not its format. “Album” continues to be relevant in our digital world – CDs and LPs are both “albums”.

So. That brings us back to “trading fours”. With the iTunes scenario in mind, today’s theme is “four albums that should be heard, beginning to end, as a single piece”. (Incidentally, I own all of these albums as CDs.) Because the musical expression in each of these works develops intentionally throughout the course of the experience, and “dropping the needle” (21st century version: “downloading only one part of it”) and listening randomly doesn’t allow you to follow the arc of its artistic intent. Yes, for deeper listening, you can/should also take the time to listen to the individual parts as well. If I rallied against that, then I’d be in favor of brilliant moments like Pink Floyd’s “Money” or Coltrane’s “Psalm” rarely – if ever – being heard on the radio since the days of ‘album sides’ and ‘album formats’ are mostly gone, where it would be possible to hear those moments in the context of the larger work.

My point is: techology is great, it makes music more widely available and accessible to a bigger audience than ever before. I’m all for that. But do guard against allowing the constraints of the delivery mechanisms shape, inform, or ultimately determine the quality of your music experience. That, alone, is the artist’s job.

#1 – John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” – Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance, Psalm. A personal journey of faith, and redemption. Simply put: perfection.

#2 – Gustav Mahler’s Symphony #4 (Leonard Bernstein/NY Philharmonic/soprano Reri Grist) –  One of Mahler’s shortest symphonies, (still no guarantee that it won’t be broken up into individual downloads on iTunes) the Symphony #4 is described programatically as “a child’s vision of heaven”. It starts enchantingly with the gentle shaking of sleighbells and ends with the song Das himmlische Leben (“Heaven’s life”) where the ‘child’ (generally a female soprano part) sings, “There is just no music on earth that can compare to ours.” Indeed.

#3 – Omar Sosa, Battista Giordano & the Tenores de Oniferi “Isolanos” – Recorded live (Nov. 18th, 2007) at Sardinia’s Cagliari European Jazz Expo – In the best tradition of ‘East meets West’ cultural cross-blends, this one’s an extraordinary ‘West meets West’ effort to fuse the traditional sounds of Sardinia with the rhythmic energy and rhythmic sensibilities of Cuba. All in a (very!) live environment. It starts with a jazzy intro, continues with a ‘world music’ percussive overlay of Latin and African rhythm, and then, – enter the tenors. In the ‘tenor singing’ tradition native to Sardinia (and Corsica, for that matter), their polyphonic blend of voices sends this album into another musical realm altogether. Neither here nor there, it is successfully BOTH. Isolanos offers a surreal, melodically lush, and sonically exciting landscape. The tracks are continuous, like being in a live concert with only applause for segues between the pieces. 

#4 – Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” – For the next 43 minutes set aside all superlative and iconic associations with this album and just — listen. From Speak to Me to Eclipse, it’s a complete vision.

The offer stands for Trading Fours – send me your top four picks along with a quick explanation of the theme that holds them together, and I’ll do the rest and get yours posted here. Pass on the tradition of learning about music from friend.

vyo bon voyage

July 4, 2009
VT Governor Jim douglas, honoring maestro Troy Peters

VT Governor Jim Douglas honoring VYO maestro Troy Peters

Kind of hard to believe it’s over. For months I’ve been hearing about the preparations, and looking forward to the July 3rd “bon voyage” concert with the Vermont Youth Orchestra. The promising program included music by Corigliano, Mendelssohn, and Gershwin along with two new world premieres written for the Orchestra. The date fell on the eve of the Orchestra’s summer tour (stopping in Québec City first, then on to several appearances in France) and it was their last home turf concert with Troy Peters, the group’s beloved conductor of fourteen years.

Governor Jim Douglas set the celebratory tone for the evening with a fitting tribute to the outgoing maestro. He cited in particular Peters’ artistic vision and dedication to challenging and adventurous programming, as well as the positive effect it’s had on developing the skills of the Orchestra and broadening the scope of audience awareness and interests. True enough. I would further that fact by adding that Troy has not only done this with his choices of repertoire for the Orchestra in his role as conductor, but also in the music he’s personally written for them, as a composer. Including the brand new work that opened the concert: written with the Quadricentennial and the upcoming French tour in mind, it is the bouyantly optimistic concert piece, Champlain’s Dream.

7/4/09 - VYO's final hometown concert with maestro Troy Peters

7/3/09 - VYO's final hometown concert with maestro Troy Peters

Apart from the considerable sentimental and historic import of last night’s concert, the group flat-out played great. I’ve never heard the low brass sound better, they were regal and sonorous in Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. The shimmering violins in Corigliano’s Voyage wove a luminescent aura that delicately hovered around the whole piece, and Saint-Saëns’ potboiler, the exotic, ferocious Bacchanale from Samson et Dalila, was a nearly off-the-road juggernaut that brought the first half to a thrilling end.

How to follow that up for the second half? With the lovely Fauré Pavane; a fresh, saucy, Daugherty-reminscent Prelude and Tango (written by VYO alum Drake Mabry); and – what else? Gershwin’s An American in Paris – complete with dead-on taxi horns and all the cosmopolitan busy-ness one would want from that bustling Parisian street scene.

Undoubtedly it will be a different Orchestra in the coming season as Troy Peters moves on to his new post with the youth orchestra in San Antonio, and the VYO moves forward under new leadership (yet to be announced). But, as with any living organism, every new day brings changes. Some expected, some less so, yet every change brings with it opportunities that are only revealed when the time is right. Now concluding its 46th season, the VYO is every bit up to the challenge.

Bon voyage and very best wishes to Troy and the Orchestra as they embark on the tour together this weekend, and after, on their own undoubtedly interesting life paths.

Remember, among friends it’s never “adieu“. Just say, “a bientôt “!

7/3/09 - Post-concert fireworks over the marina at the Lake Champlain waterfront

7/3/09 - Post-concert fireworks over the marina at the Lake Champlain waterfront

freedom AND joy

March 25, 2009

Please find your red pencil there on the music stand, and note:  it’s The Art of Conducting. Not the ‘discipline’, not the ‘science’, not the ‘practice’, not the ‘profession’. The Art.

In last night’s 6:15pm feature at the Green Mountain Film Festival, Leonard Bernstein – young, charming, sharp and acutely articulate – patiently and passionately unraveled the complexity of skills one must have to rise to the rarified eschelon of the truly GREAT conductors.

He knew. Instinctively, it seems. Only 37 years old when this film was made (in 1955, for the popular “Omnibus” TV show), by that time Bernstein had held prominent conducting positions  with the New York Philharmonic, the New York City Symphony and Tanglewood, along with many guest conducting appearances around the world.bernstein

The film begins with an engaging tutorial on the basics of conducting: how to understand a conductor’s baton gestures; what considerations a conductor makes when opening a new score for the first time; and, how one goes about synthesizing all of the dense information in a score into a unified understanding of the music, and the composer’s intent.

Early in the film as Bernstein begins to apply these basics to a real score (Brahms’ first symphony), he reads aloud the tempo marking at the top: “un poco sostenuto“, he says, then asks in mock exasperation, “how can you tell the rate of speed from three Italian words?

That got a chuckle from the audience, and yet it illustrates definitively the relative negligibility of  a composer’s markings – and music notation, too, for that matter – isolated from the conductor’s interpretation, which brings all of the information together and breathes life (music!) into a performance.

The Art of Conducting ends with Bernstein reviewing the list of ‘must have’ conducting  mechanical and musical skills, and he observes that proficiency in all of these areas makes for a very—adequate conductor.

Surprising. After all of that, what else could there possibly be to it?

Bernstein pauses, and then offers in a nearly conspiratory whisper, “it’s communication“: that innate ability to translate the acquired knowledge and gestures into the kind of passion and artistic singlemindedness that fuses orchestra with conductor, and ultimately fuels a group’s musical vision, combustion, and success.

This film came as a timely supplement to an article I had just read, in the new debut issue of  Listen magazine. Victor Lederer discusses the exhibit of Bernstein’s working (notated) scores, which were  displayed recently at Avery Fisher Hall.

Most telling of all? – Bernstein’s own handwritten marking in the fourth (‘ode to joy’) movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. Lederer notes that “freheit” is penciled in over “freude“, as ‘freedom’ trumped ‘joy’ for his historic 1989 Berlin performances celebrating the fall of the Wall.

Beethoven was both composer AND conductor, and yet it still takes an artist of Bernstein’s skill to give that already sublime score a final coat of wax before rolling it out in public. He interprets the score in a vision that’s both right for the music, and right for the occasion of its performance.

That’s a great conductor.


The Green Mountain Film Festival isn’t even halfway over yet – please support them and their dynamic creative vision by checking out the diverse offerings over the next few days!

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