Classical Music with James David Jacobs

Handel's Saul, with The Sixteen

Monday, September 17, 2012
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The Sixteen

Conductor Harry Christophers and The Sixteen have just released a recording of Handel's oratorio Saul.

The soloists include sopranos Elizabeth Atherton and Joélle Harvey, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, tenors Jeremy Budd, Mark Dobell, Robert Murray, and Tom Raskin, and basses Ben Davies, Eamonn Dougan, Christopher Purves, and Stuart Young.


Saul was Handel's fourth English oratorio, but it was the first one he wrote after he had given up once and for all on Italian opera. He wrote it at the age of 53, having made a full recovery following a debilitating illness he suffered the year before that affected his playing and his mental health. Saul also marked Handel's first collaboration with librettist Charles Jennens, with whom he would later collaborate on several other oratorios, including Israel in Egypt and Messiah. In many ways, then, Saul marks a new beginning for Handel, the start of his greatest creative period.

How appropriate, then, that this oratorio is concerned with events that take place during the Feast of the New Moon, the beginning of the Jewish New Year. It's a story of death and renewal: the Lear-like fall of Saul, a once-great king who succumbs to feelings of murderous jealousy of the young David, who at the beginning of the oratorio is fresh from his victory over Goliath and at the end is crowned king, an important figure in all the Abrahamic religions. Handel treats this story as a true epic, calling for the largest cast and richest orchestration of any of his oratorios.

This week we'll be hearing a brand-new recording of the work by The Sixteen conducted by Harry Christophers, who is also the director of Boston's own Handel and Haydn Society. One of the notable features of the recording is the casting of the role of David, usually sung by a countertenor, as a female mezzo-soprano, which apparently was Handel's original intention. On this recording the role is sung by Sarah Connolly; in an Opera Today review of her performance of this role at the Barbican, Connolly is said to have "demonstrated that in the right hands, the richness, depth and flexibility of a female mezzo-soprano voice can work wonders in the she gave a finely moulded, intelligent performance of great beauty."

This recording will be heard in four installments, during the 9pm hour on Monday and during the 10pm hour Tuesday through Thursday, in celebration of Rosh Hashanah.

See a libretto

Harry Christophers will conduct another Handel oratorio in Boston during the 2012-2013 season. The concluding concert of the coming season of the Handel and Haydn Society features Handel's Jeptha, and will feature two of the soloists heard in The Sixteen's Saul, including Joélle Harvey and Robert Murray.

The Renewal and Reflection of Eternal Echoes

By James David Jacobs   |   Monday, September 17, 2012
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Itzhak Perlman and Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot
Violinist Itzhak Perlman and Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot (photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco, courtesy of Sony Masterworks)

The Jewish High Holidays, beginning with Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and extending through Yom Kippur, is a time of celebration, reflection, and renewal. This year those qualities are deepened through the release of Eternal Echoes - Songs and Dances for the Soul on Sony Classical.

Three living legends came together to create Eternal Echoes: the renowned classical violinist Itzhak Perlman; Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot, who keeps the ancient cantorial tradition alive from his pulpit at Manhattan's Park East Synagogue; and Hankus Netsky, a pioneer in the revival of klezmer music. Their musical common ground finds its roots in the Ashkenazi tradition, the Jewish culture of Central and Eastern Europe.

Full schedule of features:

A Dudele

Shoyfer Shel Moshiakh

Romanian Doyne



Like Yiddish, the language common amongst the Jewish populations of Eastern Europe, the musical language of the Ashkenazi is a fusion of modern European and ancient Middle Eastern styles. It expresses the full range of human emotions, from exuberant joy to deep introspection to heart-wrenching sorrow.

Those emotions come through in the music the same way they exist in life itself, occupying the same space almost simultaneously: the harmonies switch constantly from minor to major, the rhythms from straightforward to syncopated, and a tune that starts out slow and sad is likely to end fast and happy.
As Hankus Netsky, the founder of the Klezmer Conservatory Band and the Contemporary Improvisation Chair at the New England Conservatory explains, "I liken it to the blues. When Jews prayed, they cried. We have a word, krehts, meaning to groan - like the blues have a moan or a wail. The Jews have a sobbing kind of feeling, even when they're happy. That's why this music is universal."

Eternal Echoes orchestra

Hankus Netsky and ensemble at the Eternal Echoes recording session (photo by Antonio Oliart Ros)

You’ll hear that on Eternal Echoes, which brings in yet another dimension: a tune that starts out with a solemn prayer frequently ends in a joyous dance. While many traditional cantorial melodies and klezmer dance tunes have common folk sources, the connection between them has never before been made this explicit.

Netsky, the album's musical director, freely admits that bringing together different strains of Jewish music is an "agenda" of his and is in line with his idea that klezmer is not just a re-creation of music from the past, but a "living tradition."

Join me for conversations with Itzhak Perlman and Hankus Netsky, along with excerpts from Eternal Echoes, all this week on Classical New England. See the schedule and listen on-demand above, and to purchase Eternal Echoes, visit ArkivMusic.

Remembering Gustav Leonhardt

By James David Jacobs   |   Saturday, January 21, 2012
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Gustav Leonhardt, a revered pioneer in the revitalization of Baroque music, died on Jan. 16 in Amsterdam. His performances and teaching influenced countless musicians, but Classical New England host James David Jacobs also encountered his more personal side.

“Excuse me – do you know of a place near here where one could get chocolate?”

That was not the question I expected to hear at that moment, especially considering its source. It came from Gustav Leonhardt, who was to soon be performing his American debut as a conductor. I was singing that night with the University of California Collegium Musicum Chamber Chorus, but the eminent early music pioneer’s question came at an awkward moment. I was in the process of quickly leaving in embarrassment from a place deep within St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, California, where the concert was set to take place.

I had gone to this familiar, remote corner of the church, a location I considered my own secret place, in order to get my voice warmed up, never thinking that anyone else even knew about it. It was only when the world’s greatest harpsichordist and foremost expert in Baroque performance practice emerged in an unbuttoned shirt and hanging suspenders that I realized I had invaded the space designated as Gustav Leonhardt’s private dressing room.

I immediately apologized and began to slink away, though he did not seem disturbed at all. Then, in his polite, soft, and somewhat patrician manner, he asked me if I knew where to get some chocolate. I did, in fact, and a few minutes later an expedition was organized, with several choir members and Gustav Leonhardt, to a nearby candy store named Sweet Dreams. Leonhardt very politely, but without a hint of embarrassment, picked out several pieces of candy, which he ate out his paper bag on the way back to the church, bestowing a kind of dignity and gravitas to the act of candy-eating that I’ve tried and failed to emulate ever since.

That night, Leonhardt conducted in very exact gestures. There was no baton in his hands, but he was not at all vague. It was very evident that he knew this music and exactly how he wanted it to sound. Despite his own grim, forceful physical style, the resulting music was flowing and lyrical and free, eliciting some of the most beautiful music-making I have ever heard.

Everyone, even those in the choir and the string section, felt their individual contribution to the total sound. Leonhardt, despite his taciturn manner, created an atmosphere of glowing warmth. It was certainly one the greatest musical experiences of my life.

The principal oboist for that concert was the late Bruce Haynes, and I remember him telling me the story of going to an orchestra rehearsal in Amsterdam the day after Leonhardt had conducted a concert on Dutch television. The concert was notable for employing a particular style of inégal playing, a type of rhythmic emphasis that is not notated in the score, in one of the pieces on the program.

Bruce said that, at the rehearsal, no one said a word or talked about the concert, but it was obvious everyone had watched it because when they started playing everyone employed that exact kind of inégal that Leonhardt used in the broadcast. No one had played like that at the previous rehearsal, but such was the influence and respect commanded by Gustav Leonhardt that his televised performance changed everything.

Leonhardt played the role of Johann Sebastian Bach in the black-and-white 1968 film The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach. It was a brilliant bit of casting, because it required no acting at all. Leonhardt, looking perfectly comfortable in 18th-century costume, played harpsichord and organ, very occasionally said something when there was something important to say, and then went back to playing.

That is exactly how I imagine the real Bach was, and it is absolutely how Leonhardt was, someone very seriously dedicated to the work of creating (and consuming) beauty and pleasure.

(image of Gustav Leonhardt via Wikimedia Commons)

More on Gustav Leonhardt, including remembrances by Boston Baroque's Martin Pearlman, can be found at PRI's The World.

Video from The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach:

Welcome To Classical Late Night

By James David Jacobs   |   Monday, October 3, 2011
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Oct. 3

Tonight I'm very happy to take on a new role at Classical New England as your late-night host. I hope you’ll join me from 9pm until 1am, Monday-Thursday, for a chance to hear a wide variety of music, from classic orchestral and chamber works to off-the-beaten track surprises from our own time and centuries before.

We’ll begin with a favorite of mine whenever inaugurating a new show: Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 1, K. 412, in the classic recording by Dennis Brain with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.

One small caveat: It's not really a concerto. It's two concerto movements, written several years apart, and many scholars think that the second movement was completed from Mozart's sketches by Franz Xaver Süssmayr, the same man who completed Mozart's Requiem. I've always loved this movement, which contains a bit of a Gregorian Easter Hymn and has contrapuntal passages that remind me of the Clarinet Concerto, also a product of Mozart's last year; I have a hard time believing it's not authentic, but I'd think it was great music no matter who wrote it.

The show will continue with Brahms's Symphony No. 1. My cello teacher, Millie Rosner, declared the first ten measures of the piece to constitute the longest phrase ever composed. When it's performed correctly, you shouldn't be able to breathe during those measures. Let's see how Bernard Haitink and the Boston Symphony Orchestra affects your respiratory system.

A more intimate sound takes over in the 10pm. After Radu Lupu plays the Schubert Impromptu in A-flat, we’ll hear a string quartet by the 74-year-old Leos Janacek inspired by his fervent love for the much younger Kamila Stosslova. Janacek himself named the quartet "Intimate Letters," intended to reflect the character of their relationship that was never consummated physically, but thrived through the over 700 passionate letters they exchanged.

11pm is when we’ll turn to works of more recent vintage, and I can't think of a better way to begin than by celebrating the 75th birthday of Steve Reich, born in New York City on October 3, 1936.

To call Steve Reich the greatest of the Minimalists is to, well, minimize him; what is so extraordinary about his work is that, no matter how high-concept one of his pieces is, you come away from it feeling that you have experienced a piece of MUSIC. This is certainly reflected in the three works we will hear tonight.

Cello Counterpoint, from 2003, is the latest of his four "Counterpoint" pieces, each of which features one live performer accompanied by a tape of multiple tracks of that same performer. Reich says of this work that it is "the freest in structure of any I have written." (Some moments of it sound a little like Janacek!)

After this comes a performance you can only hear on Classical New England, in its first-ever broadcast. In November 2007, New England Conservatory presented a series of all-Reich concerts in Jordan Hall. From that series we'll hear members of NEC Wind Ensemble perform City Life, a 1995 composition which incorporates snippets of recorded sounds and speech, operated manually on sampling keyboards, into what is essentially a work for chamber orchestra. Among the recorded sounds are car horns, air brakes, door slams, and, in an eerie foreshadowing of his his most recent composition, actual field communications of the New York City Fire Department on February 26, 1993, the day the World Trade Center was bombed the first time. In its transformation of speech patterns into music the work is reminiscent of his early tape-loop pieces, It's Gonna Rain and Come Out.

The final work in our Reich celebration is a celebratory work indeed, Tehillim, a setting of texts from Psalms, 18, 19, 34 and 150. An exuberant work, it’s also widely acknowledged to be one of Reich's masterpieces, and a very appropriate one for the Jewish High Holy Days. K. Robert Schwarz said of this work that "Its tricky, syncopated, toe-tapping rhythms could only have come from the pen of a man who loves bebop and Stravinsky in equal measure."

As we enter the wee hours of Tuesday our new show will turn to two works about creation, the beginning of all things. Shortly after midnight is Jean-Fery Rebel’s ballet Les Elemens, a French Baroque ballet whose first note sounds as bracingly modern as Reich: all seven notes of the D minor scale sounded simultaneously, representing Chaos. Cosmos soon reigns, however, with a series of charming dance movements, rooted in the popular music of the time.

We then jump ahead nearly two centuries to end with another French ballet about the beginning of the world that combines bracing modernism with earthy populism: Milhaud's 1923 ballet La Creation du Monde. In the 1920s several classical composers incorporated jazz, or rather jazz-like elements, into their work. Leonard Bernstein said of this work: "I take the liberty of calling this work a masterpiece because it has the one real requisite of a masterpiece — durability. Among all of those experiments with jazz that Europe flirted with in this period, only The Creation of the World emerges complete, not as a flirtation but as a real love affair with jazz."

I hope you'll join me for our nightly love affair with music on Classical New England!

(image of Boston skyline:  By Luciof (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Britten's A War Requiem

By James David Jacobs   |   Sunday, September 11, 2011
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Sept. 11

I was ten years old when I first experienced Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. I was living in Berkeley, California, and my older brother was playing bassoon in the Berkeley High School orchestra, where the work was performed in the spring of 1972, just blocks from where Vietnam war protesters were being tear gassed and clubbed by the police. The performance was remarkable; above the stage there were supertitles and slides of war images, paintings by Otto Dix, Picasso's Guernica, and the like. The soloists were hired professionals, but the soprano didn't show up for the dress rehearsal, so the 17-year-old Lorraine Hunt was told to put down her viola and sing the solo, which she did flawlessly and much more powerfully than the singer who sang the public performances.

The work was just ten years old at that time. The War Requiem was written for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral (left), and was first performed there May 30, 1962. The millennium-old Coventry Cathedral had been destroyed during World War II and Britten was commissioned to write a piece for the ceremony marking the completion of its reconstruction. For the text, Britten interspersed the Latin Mass for the Dead with nine poems written by Wilfred Owen, a World War I footsoldier who was killed a week before the Armistice at the age of 25. Owen left behind a powerful body of work consisting of some of the most powerful war poetry ever written:

"I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense conciliatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful." - Wilfred Owen

Like Bach's St. Matthew Passion, the work is structured as a dialogue between discrete groups. The large orchestra, chorus and soprano soloist perform the settings of the Latin text, while the Owen poems are the provenance of the tenor and bass soloists and a 12-piece chamber orchestra. There is also a children's choir, always accompanied by organ, that can be heard in the distance periodically throughout the work.

Complete Text for Britten's War Requiem

After the Britten, we will hear On the Transmigration of Souls by John Adams, written for the New York Philharmonic on the occasion of the first anniversary of the attacks of 9/11. It is scored for orchestra, adult and children's choruses, and pre-recorded tape, and won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Music. About the work, the composer states: “Transmigration means ‘the movement from one place to another’ or ‘the transition from one state of being to another.’ But in this case I meant it to imply the movement of the soul from one state to another. And I don’t just mean the transition from living to dead, but also the change that takes place within the souls of those that stay behind, of those who suffer pain and loss and then themselves come away from that experience...I want to avoid words like 'requiem' or 'memorial' when describing this piece because they too easily suggest conventions that this piece doesn't share. If pressed, I'd probably call the piece a 'memory space.' It's a place where you can go and be alone with your thoughts and emotions. The link to a particular historical event - in this case to 9/11 - is there if you want to contemplate it. But I hope that the piece will summon human experience that goes beyond this particular event."

Ives's Prophetic Music, Post-9/11

By James David Jacobs   |   Thursday, September 8, 2011
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Sept. 9

On Friday, September 14, 2001, I was one of around two thousand people who gathered in New York City’s Union Square to hold a vigil for the victims of the preceding Tuesday’s terrorist attacks. Many of the people were standing in a semi-circle on the low steps facing 14th Street, looking as if they could be members of a choir.

They were all singing different songs, however, and it seemed as if about half of them were holding candles singing "Give Peace a Chance" while the other half were waving flags and singing "God Bless America". Seeing and hearing these people all passionately holding their respective melodies as they tried to out-sing each other, I had a startling revelation: So THIS is what Charles Ives was getting at.

Public responses to 9/11 at Union Square, New York, Sept. 22, 2001 (source:  AP)

As a child, Ives’s father, a marching band director, would amuse young Charles by dividing his band in two and having them enter the field from opposite directions, playing two different tunes in two different keys. Ives later incorporated this kind of juxtaposition into his compositions, frequently for the purpose of illustrating a scene from a New England village during a holiday. In one work, however, he uses the technique to illustrate a scene that eerily foreshadows the atmosphere in New York ten years ago.

On Friday, May 7, 1915, at 9:30 AM EST, German U-boats torpedoed the ocean liner Lusitania, killing some 1,200 people and pulling the United States into World War I. Thanks to radio and wire services, most Americans knew about the tragedy by the time of their evening commute home from work. Charles Ives was one of them. His insurance firm, Ives & Myrick, had its offices at 38 Nassau Street (just a few blocks from what would become the World Trade Center site).

The full title of third movement of Ives’s Second Orchestral Set is "From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voice of the People Again Arose." Ives considered this one of his best works, and wrote the following about it:

We were living in an apartment at 27 West 11th Street. The morning paper on the breakfast table gave the news of the sinking of the Lusitania. I remember, going downtown to business, the people on the streets and on the elevated train had something in their faces that was not the usual something. Everybody who came into the office, whether they spoke about the disaster or not, showed a realization of seriously experiencing something. (That it meant war is what the faces said, if the tongues didn't.) Leaving the office and going uptown about 6 o'clock, I took the Third Avenue "L" at the Hanover Square Station [Stone and Pearl Streets, just south of Wall Street]. As I came on the platform, there was quite a crowd waiting for the trains, which had been blocked lower down, and while waiting there, a hand-organ, or hurdy gurdy was playing on a street below. Some workmen sitting on the side of the tracks began to whistle the tune, and others began to sing or hum the refrain. A workman with a shovel over his shoulder came on the platform and joined in the chorus, and the next man, a Wall Street banker with white spats and a cane, joined in it, and finally it seemed to me that everybody was singing this tune, and they didn't seem to be singing for fun, but as a natural outlet for what their feelings had been going through all day long. There was a feeling of dignity all through this. The hand-organ man seemed to sense this and wheeled the organ nearer the platform and kept it up fortissimo (and the chorus sounded out as though every man in New York must be joining in it). Then the first train came and everybody crowded in, and the song eventually died out, but the effect on the crowd still showed. Almost nobody talked-the people acted as though they might be coming out of a church service. In going uptown, occasionally little groups of would start singing or humming the tune.

Now what was the tune? It wasn't a Broadway hit, it wasn't a musical comedy air, it wasn't a waltz tune or a dance tune or an opera tune or a classical tune, or a tune that all of them probably knew. It was(only)the refrain of an old Gospel Hymn that had stirred many people of past generations. It was nothing but -'In the Sweet Bye and Bye.' It wasn't a tune written to be sold, or written by a professor of music - but by a man who was but giving out an experience.

This third movement is based on this, fundamentally, and comes from that ‘L’ station. It has secondary themes and rhythms, but widely related, and its general makeup would reflect the sense of many people living, working, and occasionally going through the same deep experience, together.

It's a piece of music that speaks to the human spirit as we remember the tragic events of ten years ago.

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