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Handel and Haydn Society's "A Bach Christmas"

By Brian McCreath   |   Thursday, December 15, 2011
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Boston's Handel and Haydn Society performs "A Bach Christmas" on Sunday, Dec. 18, featuring the Handel and Haydn Society debut of conductor Steven Fox.


You know the old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

"A Bach Christmas" with the Handel and Haydn Society brings that sentiment to the musical world this week.  Yes, there’s Bach, in some of the most glorious music ever composed for the season. But as Classical New England’s Brian McCreath discovered, once you turn that "title page," Bach is only the beginning of a far-flung journey:
 


To hear the program on-demand, click on "Listen" above.

Download text translations
More information about the program

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:

The Berlin Philharmonic

By Brian McCreath   |   Wednesday, May 4, 2011
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The Berliner Philharmoniker is an orchestra that’s regularly referred to as the Best in the World. Now, the idea of judging orchestras is, to me, nonsensical. Once we’re talking about a certain level of highly trained musicians with a substantial track record of performances and recordings, whether those musicians are in London, Chicago, Tokyo, or Boston, we can be sure that we’re past technical challenges of pulling off a performance and into the realm of hearing some sort of creation of an artistic vision.

That said, my experience is that there really is something special about the Berlin Philharmonic. It’s partly based on history, but when you see the orchestra in concert (whether in person or via their superb Digital Concert Hall), you’ll see that tradition and legacy are only a small part of the picture. It’s a young orchestra, with dynamic players from in every position.

You can learn quite a bit more about the orchestra and the reasons behind its consistently terrific performances in a recent blog post by New England Conservatory President Tony Woodcock.

One aspect of the Berlin Philharmonic I think we in Boston can relate to is the orchestra’s relationship to its concert hall. A great concert hall isn’t necessarily required to cultivate a great orchestra (just look at the histories of the major orchestras in Chicago, Philadelphia, and London, just as a start), but it can really help. Symphony Hall in Boston very directly shapes the particularly gorgeous sounds of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and so it is in Berlin. The Philharmonie has allowed the Berlin Philharmonic to work regularly in a space that encourages in its musicians that subtle form of non-verbal, chamber-music-like communication that’s invariably part of the equation when it comes to great orchestra.

It wasn’t always the case. When Hans Scharoun’s modernist masterpiece first opened, replacing after many years a hall destroyed in World War II (left), the Philharmonie was, if not an acoustical disaster, at least a great disappointment. But in a rare instance of a bad-to-mediocre hall being transformed into an absolutely superb one, modifications were made over the years to create one of the great concert halls of the world.

What distinguishes the Philharmonie from other amazing concert halls like our Symphony Hall and the vaunted Musikverein in Vienna is the relationship of the audience. Intentionally built to bring to the audience a more direct, visceral, connected experience, the stage is set at the bottom of a bowl, with the audience surrounding it. In a series of four concerts I attended a few years ago, I found that the experience really is remarkable. And yet, amazingly, in the four places I sat in the hall, the acoustic was even, blended, and true.

Beyond the experience of hearing music in the hall, I also found the architecture of the building itself to be inspiring. To once again draw comparison to Symphony Hall, walking into the lobby of the building takes you very definitively to a different time. But while Symphony Hall takes you to the early 20th century ambition and optimism of Boston, the Philharmonie transports you to that very troubled time of a divided Berlin in the early 1960’s.













It’s an era of architecture that hasn’t worn well overall, in my opinion, but like so much of Berlin, the building tells an important story, and one that connects to what the Philharmonic has been and is now to Berlin, Germany, and the world.  And in that sense, it's architecture that's beautiful and exciting.

If you’d like to share your experience of visiting the Philharmonie or hearing the Philharmonic, feel free to add a comment below.

(images via Wikimedia Commons)

A World Premiere From Boston Musica Viva

By Brian McCreath   |   Thursday, November 17, 2011
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On Friday, Nov. 18, Boston Musica Viva will premiere a new work by composer Bernard Hoffer.  Concerto di Camera II was written specifically for BMV's cellist, Jan Müller-Szeraws.  Hoffer is widely known as the composer of theme music for PBS NewsHour and the cartoon series "Thundercats." 

His truly kaleidoscopic range, however, is demonstrated in this new piece for cello soloist and chamber ensemble.  He chose to write for an ensemble that includes a flute, clarinet, violin, piano, and percussion.  That may at first sound spare, but the combinations of colors and textures Hoffer generates from those forces is remarkable.

You can hear some of those colors in the second movement, a scherzo built around pizzicato figures in the cello and unusual and compelling sounds from the prepared piano:


For more about the piece, hear a conversation with Hoffer, Müller-Szeraws, and BMV Music Director Richard Pittman:
 


For more information about the concert, visit Boston Musica Viva.

Happy Birthday, Robert J!

By Benjamin K. Roe   |   Monday, November 14, 2011
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Nov. 14th, 2011, would have been the 80th birthday of the “Voice of New England,” Robert J. Lurtsema, the indefatigable host of Morning Pro Musica on WGBH for nearly three decades.


How to describe the impact of this itinerant lumberjack-turned-construction worker-Navy seaman-trapeze artist-carpenter-encyclopedia salesman-diving instructor-commercial artist-actor-ad salesman ... (and I’m probably forgetting something) … who eventually found his calling behind the microphone? Let’s leave the capsule description to the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame:


Robert J “as he became known, was, arguably, the most recognizable classical music voice in New England broadcast history. His idiosyncratic style of DJ’ing and news reporting, his calm voice and often long pauses, plus his extensive knowledge of music (he himself had had no “classical” music training) helped establish WGBH as a significant, essential radio service. Morning pro Musica, ran for nearly 30 years (1971-2000). For 23 of those years he was on the air seven mornings a week, five hours a day. The program was also syndicated throughout in New England. His signature opening pieces, one for each day of the week, were accompanied by his personally made recordings of chirping birds, suggesting the show (which began at 7 a.m.) as virtually the first thing his listeners heard each day.


Robert J. has been gone for more than a decade now, but his influence is felt every day that Classical New England is on the air. Every weekend morning still begins with the “Dawn Chorus” of birdsong. Not a week goes by without a Sunday morning performance of a Bach cantata on The Bach Hour. And it bears remembering that Robert J. Lurtsema was a vital part of the history of both WGBH and WCRB, where he was the host of Folk City USA, for five years.

And to think…it all began with a cloudburst. Growing up in what he called a “decidedly unmusical family,” Robert J. once recalled that the first classical piece he heard was ''Cloudburst,'' from Ferde Grofe's ''Grand Canyon Suite.'' ''That is about as graphic and approachable as a classical work can be,'' he said. ''I was completely taken.''

The rest, as they say, is history. And I cannot help but consider that history as we celebrate Robert J’s 80th birth anniversary today with a mixture both of his favorite pieces of music, and some of the memorable daily themes.

I, too, was the one of the legions of students in the “Lurtsema School of Music,” where waking up to Morning Pro Musica was invariably more reassuring than going to sleep to another late-night loss by the Sox on the west coast. To be sure, Robert J. had his fans…and he had his detractors. But as we carry on his legacy at Classical New England, I can only marvel at his signal accomplishment: Robert J. Lurtsema made classical music on the radio consequential. What he programmed, what he said, where he went mattered to a population far beyond the practice rooms and the concert halls. That’s an inspiring – and occasionally daunting! – legacy.

Robert J. Lurtsema died before his time at the age of 68. But not before fulfilling his frequently-cited admonition of Horace Mann, etched on a plaque at his Boston University alma mater: “Be ashamed to die until you have achieved some victory for humanity.”

To hear an Robert J. Lurtsema with violinist Isaac Stern on Morning Pro Musica, click on "Listen" above.

Boston Lyric Opera's Macbeth

Thursday, November 3, 2011
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Boston Lyric Opera opens its 2011-2012 season with Giuseppe Verdi's first Shakespeare adaptation, Macbeth.  The Italian composer was fascinated with the English author, and would later compose Falstaff and Otello.

For information about performance dates and more resources, visit Boston Lyric Opera.

David Schweizer, who directed last season's triumphant BLO production of Viktor Ullmann's The Emperor of Atlantis, collaborated with designer (and 2011 NEA Opera Honors recipient) John Conklin to create a new production of Macbeth that magnifies the psychological descent and depravity of Lord and Lady Macbeth through stark staging and costumes with a timeless look.

Classical New England's Brian McCreath spoke with Schweizer and soprano Carter Scott, who sings the role of Lady Macbeth in her BLO debut:
 



 

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