Music

Il Volo Takes Flight

Monday, June 4, 2012
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Lincoln Portrait: The Twists and Turns of an American Classic

By Bob Seay and James David Jacobs   |   Sunday, February 19, 2012
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Bob Seay of WGBH News and James David Jacobs of Classical New England consider the odd history and captivating power of Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait.


To hear a performance of Lincoln Portrait with the United States Marine Band, conductor Col. Michael J. Colburn, and narrator Brian Stokes Mitchell, click on "Listen" above.


Abraham Lincoln, by Alexander Gardner [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Written in 1942, Lincoln Portrait, by Aaron Copland, is a rare musical tribute to an American President. It played an inspirational role when it was written, during the dark, early days of World War II.

But it continued to inspire over the decades, with countless notable narrators giving voice to the words by Abraham Lincoln that Copland chose for his tribute.

Those words, though, were chosen from within a surprising cultural context, as Bob Seay explains:







If Lincoln's words express the highest ideals of American democracy, Copland's music expresses the diversity of sources that have combined to create an American music and culture, as James David Jacobs writes:

Aaron Copland (source: AP)

It’s hard in 2012 to appreciate just how original Copland’s Lincoln Portrait was in 1942. There had been other works that combined spoken text with orchestra, but the combination of serious public statement and serious artistic statement, with ceremony, history, and politics coexisting with music, was, and remains, rare.

The music Copland wrote isn’t mere backdrop for the words, the narrator not even speaking until the piece is about half over. That music tells a story, a story of both an individual life and of a nation. It’s also a story of diverse musical influences, reflecting the diverse musical strands that have come together to create an American music.

The beginning of the work is typical Copland, with woodwinds uttering soft three-note mottoes in intervals of fourths and fifths. That serenity, however, is answered by unsettling chords. It’s not unlike Ives’s The Unanswered Question and its dialogue between a stark, angular statement and its muddled response.

Hear Fred Calland's 1980 interview with Aaron Copland, from NPR.

Comforting, familiar harmonies make a return, culminating in a moment of repose. But then, without any real transition, we’re plunged into a jaunty fantasia of American folk melodies. It’s important to remember that the syncopated rhythms and pentatonic intervals of songs like “Camptown Races” are indebted in no small part to the music of African-Americans, which already in the 19th century was forming the basis of American popular music.

There are also subtle references to the music of Native Americans, engaged in what could be considered Lincoln’s other, less celebrated civil war. The dance-like tone of this section can be considered a sort of analogue to the scherzo in Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, representing both the joys and adventures of the individual heroic figure and the energy and the spirit of the nation and its people.

The strands come together, and the music reverts to the unsettled atmosphere of the work’s beginning. Then, just as we’ve almost forgotten about the speaker, he or she begins to speak.

It’s too important, Copland seems to be saying, to hide behind the cloak of artistic license, of interpretation and ambiguity. No, the meaning of this music must be spelled out, and when we hear the words of Lincoln we know why.

Copland has done us a service by providing a frame in which we can ponder these words, which turn out to be as relevant to today’s struggles as they were in the 1860s. The questions posed by the cultural conflicts illustrated in the differing strands of music are still being asked today.

Lincoln and Copland seem to have some things in common. Both pulled off radical, even revolutionary accomplishments while being regarded as accessible and populist. Both took the ideas of acknowledged radicals and made them palatable for a general audience. Both took their roles in the mainstream as serious, important missions, aimed at bringing wildly divergent philosophical camps together. And both were criticized by those selfsame radicals and branded as sellouts or traitors.

Beyond all that, they occupy similar places in our culture: the historical significance of each has been subject to regular cycles of reassessment, a process that began during each man’s own lifetime. Lincoln Portrait gives us the chance to consider them together, with all the resonance each man’s life and work have for us today.

- James David Jacobs

Three Pianos: Regular Guys and Schubert

By Brian McCreath   |   Tuesday, December 27, 2011
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Three Pianos, a theater work inspired by Franz Schubert's song cycle Winterreise, brings together three friends for song, contemplation, and wine.  Lots of wine.


Rick Burkhardt in Three Pianos

There are times when the solemnity and profundity of classical music can become overwhelming.  There are also times when just the right vehicle comes along to prick that balloon and remind us that, for the most part, classical music is really an art form that deals in the messy reality of human existence.  The play and movie Amadeus pulled this off for millions, and say what you will about historical accuracy, I think our relationship to Mozart's music has been the better for it ever since.

Now along comes Three Pianos, which, like Amadeus, brings a composer of incredibly human dimension back from the brink of plaster bust-dom.  Alec Duffy, Dave Malloy, and Rick Burkhardt tap into the spirit of Schubert through a piece of music that may have been the most difficult choice for the project, but also the one that may bring us closest to Schubert's soul. 

Winterreise takes us into the mind of a character who's engulfed in the depths of despair.  As a work of art, it's considered one of the pinnacles of the song cycle form.  As an emotional experience, it's one of those rare pieces that listeners hold incredibly closely, almost protectively.

Three Pianos tests that protective feeling for those who hold Winterreise most closely.  There's no doubt that Duffy, Malloy, and Burkhardt feel complete liberty to do what they want with Schubert's music.  There's a channeling of the spirit of Schubert's work through the voices of today's experiences and realities.  At times it's hilarious, and at times it's heartbreaking. 

But my overall experience was that, even in light of the copious wine that was served throughout the performance, the reverence for the songs among the performers is palpaple.  In fact, there are moments when it's clear that the trio felt that the most powerful experience was to simply get out of the way and let Schubert's work shine through.

That respect for Winterreise came through when I met with Alec Duffy after seeing a performance.  You can hear part of that conversation and see photos from the play below.

Three Pianos runs through January 8 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. 
 



 

Clown Prince Of Denmark

Friday, December 9, 2011
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Messiah In Our Time

By Brian McCreath   |   Friday, December 9, 2011
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George Frederick Handel's Messiah, that musically indispensable part of the Christmas season, wasn't written for Christmas at all.


The manuscript of "Worthy is the Lamb," from Handel's Messiah (source:  Wikimedia Commons)

Messiah, originally written to benefit the Foundling Hospital in Dublin, was premiered in 1742 during the season of Lent, the penitential time of year preceding Easter. 

Handel had more or less invented the oratorio as a way of staging performances at that time of year.  Opera houses were dark for the season, so the oratorio, with the recitatives, arias, and choruses of opera but none of the staging, was a pathway to entertaining, dramatic music and performances ... and the resulting box office receipts.

But not long after that first performance, Messiah found a home during the Christmas season, and it's stayed there almost exclusively ever since.  The Handel and Haydn Society gave the U.S. premiere in 1818, and now Messiah can be found every year in countless performances around the country.

I looked into the Messiah phenomenon with Thomas Forrest Kelly of Harvard University, Handel and Haydn Society Artistic Director Harry Christophers, and Masterworks Chorale Music Director Steven Karidoyanes. To hear the feature, click on "Listen" above.
 



Here are a few of the performances this season:


Boston Baroque, Dec. 7 & 8

Providence Singers, Dec. 8

Trinity Church, Dec. 9

Masterworks Chorale Sing, Dec. 14 & 15

And here is video from a previous Masterworks Chorale Sing:

Relive The Motown Era

Monday, December 5, 2011
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