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Charting Their Own Paths: Top 5 Orchestral Albums Produced In-house

By Brian McCreath   |   Thursday, December 15, 2011
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In these times of instability in the recording industry, more and more Symphony Orchestras are making their own albums.

It's old news that technological advances have rattled the grand old record labels. The golden era of companies like EMI, Deutsche Grammophon, RCA and Columbia has come and (mostly) gone. It's been sobering for orchestras that once luxuriated in fancy recording contracts. But there's a silver lining, as the same advances in recording and distribution have enabled orchestras, chamber groups and even soloists to create in-house labels, gaining freedom rarely available when titanic companies set the rules. Below are five releases from American orchestras on their very own labels. Each one makes a distinctive statement, not by pandering to popular tastes, but by playing to each ensemble's strengths.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Live

Like many orchestras who made their reputations in the golden age of big-label recording, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has recently seen a gradual transition to a new generation of players. After a period of settling in, the CSO brass announce (as only brass can) that one of the strongest aspects of the orchestra's identity is in good hands. No British reserve in Walton's Crown Imperial here, just brawny Midwestern punch. Gabrieli comes at you in full modern-instrument brightness, and, in the highlight of the disc, Grainger's Lincolnshire Posy, with some gorgeous soft playing, could make you wonder if woodwinds are necessary at all.


Listen to Gabrieli's Canzon duodecimi toni a 10:


Atlanta Symphony Orchestra:  Theofinidis and Lieberson

Music Director Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra have continuously brought new music to the stage, sharing the mantle previously held by groups like the Louisville Orchestra and maintaining a tradition established by one of his predecessors, Robert Shaw. The brightly kinetic First Symphony by Christopher Theofanidis is a blazing demonstration of the appeal of the orchestra's signature "Atlanta School" of composers. By including Peter Lieberson's Neruda Songs in a gorgeous performance by mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor, the ASO embraces a piece that was perhaps in danger of being confined to a too-sacred, untouchable space, confirming it now as a truly enduring classic of our time.


Listen to Theofinidis's Symphony No. 1 (excerpt):


Boston Symphony Chamber Players:  Profanes et Sacrées

The drama of James Levine's departure from Boston and its attendant publicity have tended to obscure the fact that the BSO remains an ensemble with a distinct identity, built on several strands of rich history. The Chamber Players pick up two strands of that heritage in this recording. The BSO's French legacy comes through in these musicians' ability to create both soft-focus and crystal-clear sounds simultaneously. And the orchestra's historic commitment to drawing connections between contemporary music and established repertoire illuminates the music on this disc, which ranges from 1907 to 1991.


Listen to Francaix's Dixtuor (excerpt):


San Francisco Symphony:  Ives/Brant and Copland

Now that Michael Tilson Thomas' landmark Mahler project has concluded (17 CDs in all), SFS Media comes through with a very different recording, but one that says just as much about MTT and San Francisco. Here's a conductor with some of the best recordings of Charles Ives' music on his resume, so who better to get the most out what could have been the mere curiosity of Henry Brant's orchestration of Ives' "Concord" Piano Sonata? Copland also figures strongly into MTT's musical identity (he studied with the composer), and to hear the Organ Symphony is to encounter that fearlessly robust, all too rarely heard voice of the pre-Appalachian Spring American icon.


Listen to Copland's Organ Symphony (excerpt):


Cincinnat Symphony Orchestra:  Baltic Portraits

In the 11 years Paavo Järvi led the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, a series of fine if largely undistinguished recordings of standard orchestral repertoire emerged on the Telarc label. This disc represents a dramatic contrast. Järvi leaves Cincinnati after this season, departing with a dynamic, brilliantly played homage to his musical roots in Estonia and Finland. These performances from the last decade show that while this fascinating music was happening during Järvi's entire tenure, only the most conventional repertoire was being disseminated via recordings. No better case for orchestras to cast off the shackles of labels and chart their own paths.


Listen to Tüür's Fireflower:

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
3 Comments   3 comments.

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.

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