The Most Ridiculous Gigs in the History of Music, MacDowell, and Janacek

By James David Jacobs

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Dec. 18

Before I get into discussing this weekend's programming, I just have a little something to say about Christmas music. I love it. I associate it with being a working musician in community with other working musicians, and with singing and playing in cold weather, and with some of the most ridiculous gigs in the history of music.

For a couple of years I played cello and recorder on top of a display case in a Nordstrom's in Walnut Creek, California. Whenever one of us did something in a non-performing capacity - like sneeze or turn a page of music - I would hear someone on the floor whisper "oh wow - they're REAL." Another time I was part of a trio of singing oversized elves strolling through a corporate holiday party at New York's Tavern on the Green. One of my fondest memories was singing in a caroling quartet, dressed in shabby pseudo-Victorian garb, through an office park somewhere in New Jersey - I wasn't driving, so I can't tell you where it was, since it all looks the same about ten exits out. Anyway, at one point we stopped in front of some administrative assistant's desk and sang "Silent Night." As we sang, the audience of twenty office workers was rapt. I realized that, for many of them, those two minutes of Silent Night were the most peaceful two minutes of their entire year. They didn't normally listen to classical music, they led chaotic lives, and we invited them to listen to something meaningful for a moment of their day. That kind of connection means more to me than playing Carnegie Hall.

Music does very well by Christmas. I have read articles in which critics bemoan the use of Messiah and The Nutcracker as "cash cows" for performing organizations. I don't see the problem, frankly. Sometimes the public gets it right. Messiah is Handel's greatest oratorio, and The Nutcracker is Tchaikovsky's greatest ballet score. Every year we get to rediscover these works and never get tired of them. As cash cows go, we could do far worse -- look at what the film and publishing industries have to rely on for their paydays. Of course it'd be nice if more companies and audience members were more adventurous and took more risks, but this is not a problem unique to our time and our culture. I love a great variety of music, and can listen to Ligeti and Delta blues with the same excitement that I listen to Brahms, but I have no problem having Tchaikovsky and Handel providing the soundtrack every December.

We've heard The Nutcracker in whole and part in the last couple of weeks here at 99.5, and this Sunday afternoon we'll be hearing Messiah, in a concert performance from just a couple of weeks ago by the superb Handel and Haydn Society (who, by the way, are performing A Bach Christmas on Sunday at 3pm).  I have the joy and privilege of providing the soundtrack for your Christmas morning this year, and will also be playing holiday music through the weekend. On Sunday we'll hear a favorite piece of mine, "The Christmas Story" by Heinrich Schütz, as well as carols spanning the last seven centuries.

This has been a big year for anniversaries and celebrations in the classical world, and on Saturday we'll have another one: the 150th birthday of the American composer Edward MacDowell (left). Someone who was a great champion of his music was the late pianist James Barbagallo, who recorded several albums of MacDowell's music for the Naxos label. I knew Jim; he was a frequent guest at my cello teacher's house and was the greatest sight reader I have ever heard. He came to the first rehearsal of the Brahms B major Piano Trio having never looked at the music (for which he incurred my teacher Millie Rosner's wrath - his excuse, that it was out of stock at the music store, did not go over well), and he then proceeded to play it flawlessly, off of Millie's dog-eared copy of the score. As a result he was much in demand as an accompanist and chamber musician. He was so generous with his time that some people tended to take him for granted and seemed annoyed when he expressed his ambitions to be a soloist. Winning the Bronze Medal at the 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow shut these people up. Even then he did things with a sense of urgency, always opting for the most musically interesting projects and labors of love instead of making the most astute career choices. He died of a heart attack at the age of 43 without completing his MacDowell project. Saturday morning we'll hear his performance of MacDowell's "New England Idyls."

MacDowell was a native New Yorker, but his music is decidedly non-urban, as one can tell from the titles of his compositions: "Woodland Sketches," "An Old Garden," "From a Log Cabin."  His contribution to music consists of translating the lyric style of Chopin and Grieg in the service of extolling a pastoral vision of the American landscape, and by so doing was one of the first architects of an "American" style that later composers either built upon or rebelled against, sometimes both at the same time (I would put Ives in the last category.) This morning, in addition to "New England Idyls," we'll also hear his first Orchestral Suite and his two most enduring works, the imposing Piano Concerto No. 2 and the timeless miniature "To a Wild Rose."

Saturday we'll also continue the thread started by Laura Carlo earlier this week:  for Beethoven's birthday she posted a great Host Note about the Heiligenstadt Testament, and yesterday Ray Brown fulfilled a 4 O'Clock Request for the piece Beethoven was working on when he wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament, the Kreutzer Sonata.  That piece inspired Tolstoy to write his novella of the same name, which in turn inspired Leos Janacek to write his First String Quartet - an extraordinary translation of the story into musical terms, which we'll hear performed by the (recently Grammy-nominated!) Parker Quartet as recorded in our own Fraser Performance Studio back on June 6, 2008.

Back in 1993, I played cello in a string quartet that performed the Janacek at a Tolstoy conference at Yale University to help illustrate a paper called "Under the Sign of Leo: Janacek's Kreutzer Quartet," by the Russian literature scholar P. Rachael Wilson. Throughout his life Janacek explored ways of finding the musical equivalent of speech, of expanding the communicative possibilities of music. In her paper, Wilson makes a compelling case for Janacek's assigning the four major characters of the story to the four instruments: 

The first violinist is Posdnicheff, the man driven to a murderous, jealous rage, who, by the end, feels overwhelming grief and remorse. 

The second violin, with the busiest part, is his wife, torn in her passions and frightened for her life, with accurate premonitions of doom.

The viola is the handsome violinist who successfully seduces the wife but by the end is reduced to being a bystander to the tragedy.

And the cello is the narrator of Tolstoy's novella, the stranger on the train to whom Posdnicheff tells/confesses his tale, trying to make sense of the story he's hearing and the disintegration of the man before him.

If you haven't made plans for your weekend reading yet, you can read the entire story by visiting Project Gutenberg

(image:  Wikimedia Commons)

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