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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update March 27, 2015

Singular Voices

Béla Bartók.

There was a time, not so long ago when much of Béla Bartók’s music seemed terribly modern-sounding.  As a schoolboy during the last century, I remember being thrilled on hearing for the first time, a recording of his Divertimento for Strings.  It was the sheer sound of the music that was so exciting.

The Bartók string quartets were a bit of a challenge, though today they fall more easily on the ear than they did fifty years ago.  Sound is what it’s all about.  Like many of the best composers, Béla Bartók (BAY-lah BAR-tohk) had his own particular way with sounds.  He created his own musical soundscapes and you can often recognise his personal sounds within seconds.

I suppose much the same could be said of composers like Sibelius, Delius, Debussy, Stravinsky or Vaughan Williams.  You can probably think of others who had the ability to build a musical sound-world that is almost instantly recognizable.  Many of the finest painters had this same extraordinary skill of visualizing and creating a unique and personal style.  Just think how easy it is to recognise a Caravaggio, a Hieronymus Bosch, a Max Ernst, a Salvador Dali or a Paul Cézanne.  And you could probably spot a painting by Mark Rothko at two hundred yards.

Although he was well-travelled, Bartók remained in his native Hungary until the declining political situation after the outbreak of World War II.  He was opposed to the Hungarians siding with Germany and his anti-fascist views not surprisingly brought him into conflict with the Hungarian establishment.  He finally left the country in 1940 and settled in America.  But not for long, because within several years, he was diagnosed with leukemia and at that stage, little could be done about it.

During his last years, when he must have realised that time was not on his side, he had a surge of creative energy and composed some of his finest works.  One of them was the Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky, the conductor of the Boston Symphony. 

Béla Bartók (1881-1945): Concerto for Orchestra. The Orchestra of the University of Music Franz Liszt, Weimar cond. Nicolás Pasquet (Duration: 40:04, Video: 1080p HD)

Bartók completed the score of this work on 8th October 1943 and it was performed two months later by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Koussevitzky.  The title Concerto might seem rather odd because they are normally for a solo instrument with orchestral accompaniment.  Bartók explained that he called the piece a concerto rather than a symphony because each section of instruments is treated in a solo-like manner.  It has become Bartók’s best-known orchestral work and if you are unfamiliar with this composer, this is as good a place as any to start.  Written in five movements, there are plenty of attractive Hungarian-style melodies, lively rhythms and reflective moments.  The talented young students from the University at Weimar give a stunningly good performance.

Leoš Janáček (1854-1928): Taras Bulba. Symfonieorkest Vlaanderen cond. Jan Latham-Koenig (Duration: 23:39, Video: 720p HD)

If Bartók is one of the most singular musical voices of Hungary, then Janáček is probably his Czech counterpart despite the fact that he was born in Moravia, then part of the Austrian Empire. Leoš Janáček (LAY-osh yan-AH-chek) had a somewhat daunting personality and as a student he was self-opinionated and unhesitatingly critical of his teachers. In later years, his own students found him to be strict and uncompromising. Nevertheless, he was a tireless worker who composed eight operas, and his early orchestral works show the influence of Dvořák whom he knew personally. But after 1900 Janáček had found his own singular voice and stylistically his later works lie firmly in the twentieth century.

Janáček completed this suite in 1918 and the original idea came from a novel by Nicolai Gogol involving a Cossack military leader named Taras Bulba. The music depicts episodes from a 1628 conflict between Cossacks and Poles and there are three movements rather gloomily entitled The Death of Andrei, The Death of Ostap and The Prophecy and Death of Taras Bulba. But don’t be deterred by the morbid titles because it’s a remarkably satisfying work.

You’ll get a real taste of Janáček’s more mature musical style in the last movement, in which jagged melodies suddenly appear and musical ideas are seemingly thrown around. There are passionate outbursts of sound then sudden romantic moments. It contains some bizarre musical ideas, yet also has the most poignantly beautiful melodies. It also uses one of Janáček’s characteristic harmonic progressions, which you’ll hear over and over again, bringing the work to a thrilling and heroic conclusion. The progression uses a dominant thirteenth chord, which instead of the classical conventional resolution, falls to the chord of the sharpened supertonic with a decorated 9-8 suspension. I just thought you’d like to know.

Update March 21, 2015

Undesirable creatures

Silvestre Revueltas in 1924.

I don’t know about you, but I seem to have an aversion to snakes.  Now I’m sorry if you are a snake-lover but I can’t stand the wretched things, largely because they give me the creeps.  Of course, this is totally irrational and probably unfair to snakes, but that’s how it is.  And what are they for anyway?  They just seem to laze around all day.  Mind you, that’s probably not much different to some of the foreign residents in these parts.

Wasps don’t do much for me either because they can be unpleasant little beasts when they put their minds to it.  Strangely enough, an ominous-looking wasps’ nest has appeared on a lighting pole in my soi causing considerable consternation to the night-guard.  At least, their presence might encourage him to stay awake.

The other day I discovered why some wasps are relatively benign while others seem irritable and unreasonably aggressive.  Apparently, it’s all to do with the queen wasp who decides what the “mood” of the nest is going to be and then emits a chemical called a pheromone.  This has some kind of mind-altering properties which affect the behaviour of the lesser wasps.  Of course, all this is irrelevant to a classical music column but I just thought you’d like to know.  Anyway, back to the snakes.

Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940): Sensemayá. Portland Youth Philharmonic cond. David Hattner (Duration: 07:17, Video: 1080p HD)

Silvestre Revueltas Sánchez was one of Mexico’s leading musicians in the first half of the twentieth century.  He first achieved fame as a concert violinist and was later appointed Assistant Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico.  He wrote songs and chamber music but he’s best-known for his dramatic film music, particularly his score for the 1939 Mexican movie La Noche de los Mayas.  

He used clashing dissonances with abandon and many of his works have a passionate rhythmic vitality and raw visceral energy.  Sensemayá dates from 1938 and was inspired by a poem by the Cuban writer Nicolás Guillén which evoked a ritual Afro-Caribbean chant performed while killing a snake.  Originally the music was scored for small orchestra but the composer later changed it into a full-scale orchestral work calling for nearly thirty wind instruments, fourteen percussion and strings.

Guillén’s poem refers to a mayombero, a man skilled in herbal medicines and arcane rituals.  One of the main rhythmic motives in Sensemayá is derived from the repeated chant of the mayombero and evidently used in an actual snake-killing ceremony.  The music begins quietly and ominously and the volume gradually builds up over an obsessive, ritualistic pounding rhythm.  There are moments which might remind you of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring but this is an unmistakable Mexican voice that evokes the exotic legends and beliefs of another age.  The rhythms are powerful and hypnotic: just listen to the complex surging patterns of sounds that Revueltas creates at around 06:32 onwards.

These young Americans give a terrific performance.  The orchestra was established in Portland, Oregon in 1924 and is the longest-established youth orchestra in the country.  It would have been immensely satisfying to tell you that its emblem is a writhing snake.  But unfortunately, it isn’t.

Vaughan Williams (1872-1958):  Overture “The Wasps”. Corpus Medicorum cond. Keith Crellin (Duration: 10:26, Video: 720p HD)

If there’s a choice between having a snake and a wasp, I’ll have a wasp, thank you very much.  Contrary to popular belief, this overture is not really about wasps at all.  It’s about people who behave like them.  Or so thought Aristophanes, who in 422 BC wrote a play called The Wasps.  It was a caustic satire that ridiculed the Athenian law courts, the juror system and the bickering old codgers who chose to become jurors.  They’re described in the play as being “as terrible as a swarm of wasps, carrying below their loins the sharpest of stings”.

Corpus Medicorum is made up of doctors, medical students and other health professionals who also happen to be musicians.  It was founded in 2002 and gives concerts to raise funds for Lung Cancer Services at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

In 1909 Ralph Vaughan Williams was invited to write the incidental music for a production of the play at Cambridge.  He later adapted the music to create a suite of five movements, the overture being the first.  It’s become a favourite concert piece in its own right although the other movements are sometimes also performed, one of which is intriguingly entitled March-Past of the Kitchen Utensils.

Apart from the opening fifty seconds of wasp-like buzzing sounds, the music doesn’t have much to do with wasps or even ancient Greece.  It’s pure Edwardian England, full of wholesome folk-like tunes and about as far from Athens as you can get.  Musically it’s a lot closer to Nether Wallop-in-the-Gruttocks.

To watch these YouTube videos, either use your Smartphone to read the QR codes or go to this article online, click on the “live” links and go direct to the videos. If you have a laptop, sound quality can be improved significantly by using headphones or external speakers.

Update March 14, 2015

An under-rated master

Telemann’s image on a German postage stamp of 1981.

Think of three baroque composers and you’ll probably come up with Bach, Handel and Vivaldi.  There were hundreds of others of course, most of which have fallen into oblivion and some of them rightly so.  But in the early years of the eighteenth century, one of the most powerful voices was that of the German composer, Georg Philipp Telemann.

He was born on 14th March 1681 into a religious middle-class family in Magdeburg, a medieval town on the banks of the River Elbe.  Telemann was virtually self-taught and today would be considered something of a child prodigy.  He taught himself several instruments and began writing arias, motets and instrumental works, completing his first opera at the age of twelve.  Despite this remarkable talent, his mother did everything possible to discourage him, having been influenced by the joyless Puritan Lutherans.  At one point, this grossly misguided woman confiscated the boy’s musical instruments and commanded him to stop composing altogether.  At about the age of twelve Georg was packed off to a school in Zellerfeld but the head teacher, to his eternal credit, recognised the boy’s extraordinary talents and provided much-needed encouragement.

In later years, Telemann started studying law at the University of Leipzig but the call of music proved irresistible.  He began writing choral music for a church in Leipzig and quickly became a local celebrity.  In 1702, at the early age of twenty-one, Telemann became director of the Leipzig Opera, and over the next few years he wrote several operas for the company.  For a time, Telemann was the most famous musician in Germany.  He held some of the most prestigious jobs available and evidently had a good sense of humour and a likable personality.  Handel and Bach were among his personal friends, although interestingly, Telemann’s salary was about three times higher than that of Bach.

Telemann is one of the most prolific composers of all time.  He wrote over a thousand church cantatas, a couple of dozen concertos, nearly fifty settings of the Passion and fifty operas.  Just stop to think about that – fifty operas!  It’s been estimated that he produced over three thousand musical works.

So what happened?  Why is one of the baroque’s brightest stars so neglected today?  Well, in the twilight years of the eighteenth century baroque music simply fell out of fashion to be replaced by the lighter musical styles of composers like Haydn, Mozart and the young Beethoven.  The music of Bach was not rediscovered until the 1850s, a hundred years after his death.  Bach was hailed as a master of the baroque at the expense of other composers of the period including Telemann, who remained in obscurity.  It wasn’t until the middle of the twentieth century that a new interest in Telemann’s music brought him back into the limelight.

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767): Concerto for viola, oboe d'amore and flute. Members of Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Roger Norrington (Duration: 15:18, Video: 720p HD)

During the baroque period concerto often featured two or more solo instruments, unlike the nineteenth century model which was usually for a single soloist.  In case you’re wondering, the oboe d’amore is slightly larger than the standard oboe with a less assertive tone and the viola d'amore used in this recording has six or seven strings with an equal number of sympathetic strings below the fingerboard.  These vibrate in sympathy with the played notes.  

This exquisite work dates from around 1740 and has sensuous harmonies, elegant, tuneful melodies and beautifully transparent orchestration.

Deus judicium tuum. Pygmalion Choir and Orchestra cond. Raphaël Pichon (Duration: 21:17, Video: 480p)

Just listen to the majestic choral opening of this work and you’ll hear a composer who really knew what he was doing.  It’s one his finest works for choir and orchestra and dates from 1737 when Telemann was enjoying huge success in Paris.  The work was written for the Concert Spirituel, one of the first-ever series of concerts intended for the general public.  There’s some colourful orchestral writing and surprising harmonies which must have sounded very modern to the citizens of Paris.

Suite for Strings in E major “La Lyra”. Orquesta Civitas Musicae cond. Jesus Echeverría (Duration: 14:23, Video: 720p HD)

In 1740, Telemann estimated that he’d already composed six hundred suites.  Only about a quarter of them have survived and this is a splendid example of Telemann’s string writing, quite different in style from that of Bach and Vivaldi.  The suite is typically composed of popular dances such as the bourrée, the gigue and the minuet and Telemann’s music is intensely rhythmic, enormously varied, with bubbling energy and a seemingly limitless display of musical ideas.  There’s so much more of Telemann’s wonderful music waiting to be rediscovered.  Let’s hope it doesn’t have to wait too long. 

Update March 7, 2015

A class apart

Erich Wolfgang Korngold on his 16th birthday.

Browsing through some music videos the other day, I came across a performance by a violinist of about six years old who was described as a “child prodigy”.  He was quite talented, but he wasn’t a child prodigy.  Nowhere near.  I’ve just been re-reading the fascinating book by Claude Kenneson called Musical Prodigies in which he writes, “I was a gifted child but certainly not a prodigy.  There is a vast difference between the two.  One is sometimes remarkable, the other always phenomenal, startling to witness.”

In more prosaic terms, a child prodigy is usually defined as someone who has reached adult or even professional levels of performance before the age of ten.  The pianist Van Cliburn, who started playing piano at the age of three, once described child prodigies as “having extraordinary vision and unusual prescience, amazingly aware of the world at an early age.”

There are child prodigies in many different subject domains, especially mathematics and science, but music seems to have more than its fair share.  Composers who were child prodigies included Barber, Bizet, Chopin, Menotti, Paganini and Purcell.  The most famous perhaps were Mozart and Mendelssohn.  Science knows remarkably little about the mental functioning of these extraordinary beings, though there is no shortage of theories.

The issue inevitably brings up the time-worn “nature vs. nurture” debate, which is about whether potential high levels of skill are already present when the child is born, or whether they’re brought about by the child’s early environment.  The latest thinking seems to indicate that both nature and nurture have a role to play. 

Psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz of Ohio State University has estimated that there’s one child prodigy to every five million, or possibly ten million other children.  The Ohio research has shown that a common denominator among these gifted children is an exceptional working memory.  They also have an intense attention to detail, an elevated general intelligence and interestingly, they tend to be far more altruistic than most other people.  Contrary to popular belief, child prodigies don’t usually fade away in their adult years.  Many prodigies have lived into their eighties and nineties and continued performing careers until towards the end of their lives.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Concerto for Piano, Violin & Strings in D minor. Anna Savkina (vln); Anna Denisova (pno); Kremlin Chamber Orchestra cond. Misha Rachlevsky (Duration 1st mvt: 18:33, Video: 1080p HD)(3 videos)

The German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe considered the young Mendelssohn superior to Mozart at the same age.  In 1823, when Mendelssohn was fourteen, he wrote this sparkling double concerto in three movements.  The music is imbued with the Romantic spirit and there are some delightful melodies and some brilliant virtuosic passages.  It’s a remarkable work for a fourteen-year-old and offers many glimpses into the composer’s more mature musical style. 

For some odd reason, the young Russian musicians in this recording are positioned in such a way that the pianist can see neither the conductor nor the violinist.  Even so, the performance is confident and technically assured with an impressive sense of ensemble.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957): Sinfonietta. Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Hannu Lintu (Duration: 44:53, Video 480p)

Gustav Mahler described the young Korngold as a musical genius.  At the age of eleven, Korngold composed his ballet Der Schneemann (“The Snowman”), which was first performed by the Hamburg Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1910.  It’s an amazingly complex work for one so young.

The Sinfonietta, his first large-scale orchestral composition, dates from 1912 when Korngold was fifteen.  Such was the enormous fame of the young composer that the work was first performed by none less than the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under the renowned Felix Weingartner.  The brilliantly orchestrated work is remarkable in its maturity and really sounds as though it was written by someone with many more years’ experience.  There are some wonderful melodies and the beginning of the scherzo (at 11:17) is almost pure Hollywood.

Korngold of course later went to Hollywood and became a very fine composer of film music.  It’s sometimes said that he “invented” film music because he treated each movie as an “opera without singing”, writing sumptuous melodies and contrapuntally intricate scores.  He wanted his music to stand alone in the concert hall and although his musical style sounds a bit dated nowadays, he had a significant influence on film music.

In 1938 he won an Academy Award for his score to The Adventures of Robin Hood, the first composer to receive one.  Even so, he became disillusioned with the movie industry and in 1946 stopped writing film scores altogether, turning his attention to writing music for the concert hall.  But his music remained stylistically in the nineteenth century and one American critic unkindly described Korngold’s Violin Concerto as being “more corn than gold”.  Honestly, how bitchy can you get?

Update March 1, 2015

The Outer Limits

György Ligeti in 1984. (Photo: H. J. Kropp)

“There is nothing wrong with your television set.  Do not attempt to adjust the picture…We will control the horizontal.  We will control the vertical…”

If you are over A Certain Age, these words may bring back memories of television of the 1960s.  You might also recall messing about with the control knobs to prevent the image from inexplicably rolling, or turning into meaningless diagonal patterns, which it tended to do at moments of high drama.  To anyone under forty, the references to the horizontal and the vertical are probably meaningless, because by the early 1980s improved technology had rendered these manual controls unnecessary.

The quotation comes from the spoken introduction to an iconic television series called The Outer Limits which first appeared in the early 1960s.  Many composers have also pushed music to the outer limits, especially during the twentieth century.  Even so, the quest for newness isn’t particularly new.

In the fifteenth century, the Flemish composers Johannes Ockeghem and Josquin des Prez were pushing musical techniques forward and in the sixteenth century, Adrian Willaert was developing chromatic harmony and creating new musical structures.  But there were dozens of others.  Frescobaldi in the seventeenth century wrote virtuosic passages that challenge performers today, and some of his music delved deeply into chromaticism.  The beginning of the twentieth century saw some of the greatest changes ever in music composition.  But what about the sixties, when The Outer Limits was scaring the wits out of its audience?  What was new then?

György Ligeti (1923-2006): Lontano. Hajibeyov Azerbaijan State Symphony Orchestra Cond. Rauf Abdullayev (Duration: 13:42, Video: 480p)

György Ligeti (jurj LIH-geh-tee) wrote this piece in 1967.  It’s a powerful, brooding work in which he takes us by the hand (or, more precisely by the ear) and leads us into an alien, uncharted territory where reality and unreality are indistinguishable.  Don’t try to search for “meaning” in this music: it doesn’t actually describe anything in the sense that Smetana’s Vltava describes a river, or Debussy’s La Mer evokes images of a troubled sea.

Lontano begins almost inaudibly with a single A flat on the flute, then gradually other instruments enter playing the same note.  They’re joined almost imperceptibly by the trumpets but then the woodwinds move one by one down to G, thereby creating an increasingly cutting dissonance.  If you’ve not heard this piece before, your first reaction could be, “What’s going on here?”

Ligeti wrote an explanation (but take a deep breath).  “The harmonic crystallization within the area of sonority leads to an intervallic-harmonic thought process… achieved with the aid of polyphonic methods: the fictive harmonies emerge from the complex vocal woven texture and the gradual opacity and new crystallization are the result of discrete alterations in the individual parts”.  Yes, well.  Perhaps it makes more sense in the original Hungarian.  He seems to be saying that many horizontal threads of simultaneous melody sometimes combine to produce brief moments of recogniseable harmony.

From time to time, a familiar-sounding chord emerges through the rich texture then fades away as quickly as it appeared, tantalizingly out of reach.  I have always loved Lontano and find it immensely satisfying.  The score contains many detailed written instructions and interestingly, the piece ends with a silent bar which lasts between ten and twenty seconds.  Not many people know that.

Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933): Polymorphia. AUKSO Chamber Orchestra of Tychy cond. Penderecki (Duration: 06:16, Video: 1080p HD)

The title of this amazing work is derived from the Greek word poly meaning “many” and morph meaning “shape” or “form”.  Another Greek word - aukso (“growth”) was borrowed by the orchestra, which is one of Europe’s most progressive ensembles.

Krzysztof Penderecki (KZHISH-toff pen-der-ETS-kee) has been described as Poland’s greatest living composer, probably best known for his Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima and the St. Luke PassionPolymorphia is scored for 48 stringed instruments and is probably one of the most scary-sounding works ever written.  It was used in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and perhaps more famously in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.

The piece was first performed in 1961, thus pre-dating The Outer Limits by a couple of years.  Conventional melody and harmony don’t exist in this sound-world that Penderecki created.  He sometimes employed unusual playing techniques for which he devised his own form of notation. 

Parts of the work are based on sound interpretations of electroencephalograms, which detect electrical activity in the brain and record it in the form of wavy lines.  These were recorded at the Kraków Medical Center while volunteer patients listened to Penderecki’s own piece, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, thus creating a pleasing symmetry which must have brought considerable satisfaction to the composer.  Of course, you’d never have guessed that the music was inspired by brain waves, but it doesn’t really matter.  It’s the thought that counts.  

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Singular Voices

Undesirable creatures

An under-rated master

A class apart

The Outer Limits