WDBX Opera Overnight: Strauss, Handel, Monteverdi

English: German Romantic composer Richard Strauss

German Romantic composer Richard Strauss (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’re going to start with an opera by Richard Strauss.  Strauss’s operatic catalog is intriguing in the variety of styles that he wrote in.  He wrote modernist music and neo-classical material, and even used waltzes in Der Rosenkavalier.  Tonight we’re going to hear one of his most modern works, Elektra.  The opera premiered in 1909, during the height of the Expressionist period in art, and makes extensive use of the sort of chromaticism and dissonance that we normally hear from composers like Schoenberg and Berg.  It was Strauss’s follow-up to his extremely popular opera Salome, which was also modernist, but Elektra finds Strauss at his most aggressive.  In fact, Strauss would moderate his future operas to be less dissonant, while still retaining the vivid chromatic harmonies that he was so good at composing.

Tonight’s recording is from 1988, and features Hildegard Behrens, Christa Ludwig, Nadine Secunde, Ragnar Ulfung, and Jorma Hynninen.  Seiji Ozawa leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

George Frideric Handel, born in the same year ...

George Frideric Handel, by Thomas Hudson (1749) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our second opera of the evening is Floridante, an opera seria in three acts by George Frideric Handel.  It used a libretto by Paolo Antonio Rolli, and was premiered on December 9, 1721.  Although it received several performances between 1722 and 1733, it was not performed after that point in time until a 1962 revival.

Tonight’s recording is a 2005 recording that features Marijana Mijanovic, Joyce Didonato, Vito Priante, and Sharon Rostorf-Zamir.  Alan Curtis leads his Il Complesso Barocco, part of his excellent series of Handel operatic recordings.

Copy of a portrait of Claudio Monteverdi by Be...

Copy of a portrait of Claudio Monteverdi by Bernardo Strozzi, hanging in the Gallerie dall’Accademia in Venice (1640). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We shall conclude tonight’s show with a brief work by Claudio MonteverdiIl Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda is an operatic scene that Monteverdi wrote in 1624 for the Venetian Carnival season of 1624-25.  This was during a period when he was employed at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, and focusing more on liturgical music.  The piece was not published until 1638, and was included with Monteverdi’s Eighth Book of Madrigals.  The piece is notable for several compositional innovations, including one of the earliest uses of pizzicato, and one of the earliest uses of the string tremolo.

Tonight’s recording is a 1992 recording that features Konstantinos Paliatsaras, Jakes Aymonino, and Tina Malakate.  Skip Sempé leads the Capriccio Stravagante.


The Galaxy – In Celebration of Reformation Day

English: Postage stamp depicting Martin Luther...

Postage stamp depicting Martin Luther, the initiator of the Protestant Reformation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

October 31 is well known for the common celebration of Halloween.  However, there is an event of great historical importance that also occurred on October 31 that I’ve always found to be of great interest.  On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther wrote (or at least dated) a letter to Albrecht, then Archbishop of Mainz, in which he included his infamous 95 Theses (a dissertation with the title “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”).  He also is said to have posted the dissertation to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenburg, Germany; this fact is disputed, as there is no eyewitness account of the event, but the posting of such things was standard practice for those wanting to post questions for dispute and debate.  This act was an act of extraordinary courage on Luther’s part, as he easily could have been charged with heresy, and he eventually was excommunicated.  But this simple act had widespread implications – it was the opening salvo of what became the Protestant Reformation.

Not only was Luther a theologian of considerable significance, but he was also a prolific songwriter.  Many of his hymns were used as the basis for musical works, both vocal and instrumental, by a number of composers, and a number of his hymns remain familiar with modern church-goers.  It seems only appropriate that we celebrate this notable occasion with a few of his compositions.

Johann Pachelbel

Johann Pachelbel

When hunting down renditions of Luther’s many hymns, it is easy to start with Johann Sebastian Bach.  However, I do like variety, so I started tonight’s show with a hymn, Christ Tag in Todesbonden, in a setting by Johann Pachelbel, not Bach (although Bach used the same hymn as the basis for one of his early cantatas – Bach’s work may have in fact been modeled on Pachelbel’s).  Pachelbel is believed to have written the work sometime during his Thuringian period (from 1677 to 1690), a timeframe wherein he had contact with the Bach family, and he scored the work for 4 voices and a small instrumental ensemble.  Tonight’s recording is a 2004 recording by La Capella Ducale and the Musica Fiata, under the leadership of Roland Wilson.


A song-book copy of Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott, possibly dating from 1533 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At some point it was inevitable that we were going to have to hear some Bach, given the numerous settings that Bach made of Luther’s hymns.  Luther’s best known song is most likely Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott (trans: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God).  Paraphrasing Psalms 46, Luther wrote the song at some point between 1527 and 1529, although some theories have it existing as early as 1521.  While there are a number of theories surrounding its origin, it served as a rallying cry for Protestants for many years, thus resulting in its wide usage by many composers as a basis for their music.  Bach wrote his chorale cantata for the song, BWV 80, between 1727 and 1729 for a Reformation Day observance.  He based it on an earlier cantata that he wrote in Weimar around 1715-16 that is now lost (BWV 80a), expanding it to achieve the current form.  Tonight’s recording is a 1967 recording by the South German Madrigal Choir and Instrumentalists, with the Consortium Musicum, under the direction of Wolfgang Gönnenwein.  The soloists were Elly Ameling, Janet Baker, Theo Altmeyer and Hans Sotin.

One of the more interesting things that Bach did with these songs were to use them as the basis for keyboard works.  Bach was a noted performer on the various keyboard instruments, with his fame as an organist spreading far and wide.  He liked to use the original song as a seed for larger works that gloriously elaborated on the original.  Happily, the excellent organist Kevin Bowyer has recorded the complete Bach organ catalog that allows us easy access to these compositions.

Title page of Clavier-Übung III

Bach actually wrote several settings of the hymn Jesus Christus, Unser Heiland (trans: Jesus Christ, Our Savior).  They are found in the Claiver-Ubung III (BWV 688 and 689), a collection of organ works organized according to musical and theological terms that Bach published in 1739, and in the Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes (BWV 665 and 666), a collection of pieces that Bach assembled between 1747 and his death in 1750.  The Clavier-Übung III pieces take the form of a trio and fugue, while the two chorale preludes (a more compact musical form) apply different counter-subjects to the cantus firmus.

Autograph page of BWV 651, Komm, heiliger Geist

Autograph page of BWV 651, Komm, heiliger Geist, from the Leipziger Handschrift P 271 (Staatsbibliothek, Berlin)

Also found in the Great Eighteen set of chorale preludes is Komm, Heiliger Geist (Come, Holy Ghost), BWV 651 and 652.  Unlike the more relatively straight-forward settings of Unser Heiland, Bach turned these preludes into a fantasia (the title page of which is shown at right), and then a sarabande (a dance form that was frequently used in music).  We then returned to the Clavier-Übung for Christe, aller Welt Trost (in which Bach inverted the original song’s melody), BWV 670 and 673, before concluding our Bach set with Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, BWV 670 and 673, where Bach turns the song into a 2-part invention for two hands.

We close out the show with another composer with Bach connections, Dietrich Buxtehude.  Buxtehude’s Gen Himmel zu dem Vater mein (BuxWV 32) uses the final two verses of Luther’s Nun freut euch lieben Christen g’mein, turning it into a sort of chorale concerto for a solo voice with a small ensemble.  Our recording is a 1997 recording with soprano Emma Kirkby singing with John Holloway and Manfredo Kraemer on violin, Jaap ter Linden on viola da gamba, and Lars Ulrick Mortensen providing bosso continuo on organ.

Your Community Spirit 2012 October 26

News includes Occupy Updates Daily; Sugary Soda Makes Kids Violent; Alternative Presidential Debate; Judge Bans GMOs in Wildlife Refuges; National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week; Teen Finishes 130 Square-Foot Mortgage-Free Home; Green Projects. Happenings include SIPA at Gaia House Open Mic; Deepavali Feast at Rice and Spice; Sustainable Living Expo; Protect Illinois Against Fracking Rally; Shawnee Group Sierra Club Trash Bash.

WDBX Opera Overnight: Bellini, Lully

Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835), the composer of ...

Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’re going to start tonight’s show with Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi.  This opera, using a libretto by Felice Romani, is based on the same source material that William Shakespeare used for Romeo and Juliet.  Bellini wrote the opera for the 1830 Carnival season in Venice, and he used quite a bit of music that had originally appeared in Zaira, an earlier work of his which had flopped.  The opera is considered one of the finest examples of the bel canto singing style.  While it was immediately successful (an 1834 performance is said to have left a “strong impression” on Richard Wagner), it left the regular repertoire until the 1930s.  After a 1935 revival for the centennial of Bellini’s death, the opera has been performed regularly ever since.

Tonight’s recording is a 2009 production which features Anna Netrebko, Elīna Garanča, Joseph Calleja, Tiziano Bracci, and Robert Gleadow.  Fabio Luisi leads the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna Singakademie.

English: Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) after...

English: Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) after a drawing by Tony Johannot (1803-1852). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our next opera this evening is a work by Jean Baptiste Lully.  Lully wrote Armide in 1686, during what he might have thought was the height of his career (he died from an infection the next year).  Lully started as a dancer, and in his position as court composer wrote many ballets for Louis XIV that both he and the king would dance in.  However, the king’s interest in ballet dissipated as he got older, so Lully turned to opera.  He only wrote opera for 10 years or so, but the opera that we will hear this evening is generally regarded as a masterpiece of the tragédie en musique sub-genre that dominated French opera during that era, which Lully himself helped create.  It is notable that, as befits Lully’s background in ballet, his operas feature quite a bit of choreograpy, and helped establish a long-standing French tradition of including ballet segments in with opera, which impacted composers so far distant as Mozart and Wagner.

Tonight’s 1992 Harmonia Mundi recording features  Guillemette Laurens, Howard Crook, Bernard Deletré, Véronique Gens, Noémi Rime, John Hancock, Gilles Ragon, with Philippe Herreweghe leading the Collegium Vocale and the La Chapelle Royale.

The Galaxy – Music by those who refuse to accept the status quo


Nirvana (Photo credit: Polly_Herzeleid_Valo)

I was reminded the other day about the music of Nirvana (in a conversation that had nothing to do with Nirvana, but instead was about Sub Pop, the record company that Nirvana was affiliated with before they signed with Geffen).  I had some early pre-Nevermind material once, on a Sub-Pop compilation, something that has regrettably been lost over time, and the song was absolutely tremendous, and is now available on the Incesticide disc of b-sides.  Of course, great songs don’t always become popular, so how do we explain the whole Nevermind thing?  I think it was a combination of great songs, refined by a great producer, that hit at just the right time, when folks were starting to tire of “hair metal” a bit, and the whole “hair metal” sub-genre (in reality, pop metal) was starting to lose some creativity.  So they hit it at the right time with the right songs and the right non-conformist attitude.  The result was some absolute classics, a few of which we heard: In Bloom, Aneurysm (a b-side that was actually released on the Smells Like Teen Spirit single, and should now also be available on Incesticide, and I’m sure on other compilations as well, as it was a concert staple of theirs), Breed, Territorial Pissings, and Drain You.

photograph of Charles Ives as star baseball pi...

photograph of Charles Ives (left) as star baseball pitcher for Hopkins School (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Charles Ives has one of the most interesting biographies of any composer that I’ve ever seen.  He was a bit of a prodigy, writing church hymns as early as fourteen, largely influenced by his father George Ives, a US Army bandleader during the Civil War.  He studied at Yale, where he was quite prominent, playing on the varsity football team and holding membership in a fraternity and several other organizations, while writing a number of songs; his Symphony No. 1 was his senior thesis.  He entered the insurance industry in 1899, and eventually revolutionized what would become the modern practice of estate planning, all the while writing music as a hobby on the side (many of his friends in the insurance industry were surprised when they learned that he composed music).  He was a prolific composer until he suffered what he termed as a heart attack in 1918.  After this point, he found himself having difficulty writing, saying that “nothing sounds right”, although he did continue to revise earlier works (he wrote nothing original after 1927).  His music was most interesting and uniquely American, often quoting well-known church hymns or popular songs.  In one instance, he quoted another great American composer, John Phillips Sousa‘s The Washington Post.

This photo from around 1913 shows Ives in his ...

This photo from around 1913 shows Ives in his “day job.” He was the director of a successful insurance agency. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While he is probably best known now for his orchestral works, he also wrote more than 100 songs, and also wrote quite a bit of chamber music.  Tonight we heard a brief sampling of his orchestral work, performed by the San Francisco Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, that gives an excellent representation of some of his greatest influences.  The Unanswered Question, written in 1906 as part of a set with another work, Central Park In The Dark (the set was called “Two Contemplations”), originally called for a woodwind quartet, solo trumpet, and an off-stage string quartet.  The three groupings each plays in its own key and with its own tempo, with the trumpet asking “questions” and the woodwinds (mainly flutes) becoming more and more agitated in their “answers”.  This is one of the works that Ives revised during his late-life writer’s block, making a revision for orchestra in 1930-1935.  The work was premiered at Julliard in 1946.

We then heard another Ives composition, Three Places in New England.  Ives wrote the piece primarily between 1911 and 1913, with some revisions made in 1929.  The piece comes in three movements (The “St. Gaudens” in Boston Common (Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment), Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Conneticut, and The Houstatonic at Stockbridge), and contains many of the more common elements of Ives’ writings: layered textures, use of simultaneous, contrasting melodies, quotation of recognizable American songs, tone clusters.  Ives’s use of American hymns was intended to give the listener something to identify to, thus making the music accessible in spite of its avant garde aspects.  The piece was first performed in 1930 by the Boston Chamber Orchestra under Nicolas Slonimsky, who then performed the piece in Paris, thus making Ives one of the first American composers to have a piece performed outside the US.  It was also one of the first of Ives’ compositions to be published, in 1935.

Rashaan Roland Kirk with his many horns

Rashaan Roland Kirk was another musician with a penchant for individuality.  The blind saxophonist built his own saxophones, and customized them so that they could be played with one hand.  He would then hang multiple horns on his neck, along with other instruments (flutes, whistles, etc.), and would then play dual horns simultaneously, oftentimes in harmony with each other.  He was also a noted practitioner of the art of circular breathing, where a saxophonist uses the special breathing technique to allow for extended notes without a breath (sometimes many minutes in length).  While he made a number of standard recordings (which is how I became introduced to his legacy), his live recordings do much to introduce us to his wild performance style.  From the recent live archival release Brotherman to the Fatherland (a live recording made in Germany in 1972), we heard  Seasons/Serenade to a Cuckoo (Seasons was his take on a melody from Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons; we heard him here playing flute, using a technique of singing and humming into the flute while playing, which was later adopted by Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, who covered Serenade to a Cuckoo in 1969), Pedal Up, Lush Life and Afro Blue.

English: Punk rock hardcore band The Bad Brain...

Punk rock hardcore band The Bad Brains at Nightclub 9:30, Washington, DC, 1983. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Bad Brains are considered one of the most influential bands of the post-punk, early hardcore era of the ’80s (credited as an influence by bands including the Deftones, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, the Beastie Boys, and more), but they really transcend the hardcore genre in that they were not bound by the limitations that constricted most hardcore bands.  For starters, their roots were not in hardcore – they started as a jazz band, and their interest in reggae was obvious, in terms of their song structures, their lyrical subject matter and their inclusion of reggae songs at crucial points in their live sets and on their albums.  While the sound quality from some of their recorded output suffered, as was common for recordings produced for indie labels during the time period, their live concerts were incendiary, and in several instances were captured in excellent recordings.  One such recording is their The Youth Are Getting Restless: Live At the Paradiso, Amsterdam, 1987.  I personally think it may be one of the best hardcore recordings from the ’80s, bar none.  From that classic album, we heard I, Rock for Light, Right Brigade, House of Suffering, and Day Tripper/She’s A Rainbow (a reggae medley cover of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones).

We finished tonight’s show with some excellent Mastodon: March of the Fire Ants, Mother Puncher, and Iron Tusk

Your Community Spirit 2012 October 19

News includes Occupy Updates Daily; McKibben’s Road Show Takes Aim at Big Oil; Your Tax Dollars Subsidize Cheap Energy in China. Happenings include WDBX Fall Membership Drive; International Coffee Hour; Take Back The Night; Drums at Gaia House Open Mic; Award-Winning Bengal Tigers at Rice and Spice; Pyles Fork Preserve Trail Improvement; Trivia Night to Benefit Good Samaritan Food Pantry; Taste of Faith; Solving the Climate Crisis presentation and discussion with Aur ‘da energy mon’ of Your Community Spirit.

Pete’s Place Playlist – 10/15/12

Stanton Moore, “Stanton Hits the Bottle” from All Kooked Out (1998, Fog City Records). Solo debut for the former Gallactic drummer. New Orleans-style mix of funk, rock, jazz … and marching band.

Arthur Blythe, “Bush Baby” from Illusions (Columbia, 1980). Alto sax player with distinctive sound and unique band of tuba, cello, and scratch guitar from Blook Ulmer. Early 80s not yet recognized as a great era of jazz, and Blythe in the middle of it.

Medeski, Martin & Wood, “Gwyra Mi” from Radiolarians III (Indirector Records, 2009). “Stanglehold” bass and “Still Waiting” (Talking Heads) quote. Jazz for rock ears.

Jackie McLean, “Omega” from Let Freedom Ring (Blue Note, 1962). Alto player with searing sound over ostinado base. Out, but still groovy.

Mose Allison, “Parchman Farm” from Local Color (1957, Prestige). Mose’s tribute to Mississippi (his home state) state penitentiary.

Herbie Hancock, “Chameleon” from Headhunters (Columbia, 1973). The famous groove from the first million-selling jazz album.

Joe Henderson, “Caribbean Fire Dance” from Mode for Joe (Blue Note, 1966). Classic hard-bop/new thing with Lee Morgan joining the leaders tenor sax on the front line.

The Bad Plus, “Anthem for the Ernest” from Suspicious Activity (Columbia, 2005). Power trio jazz.

Ramsey Lewis, “Money in the Pocket” from Wade in the Water (1966, Cadet). “Commercial” jazz from the 60s, but with a groovy Joe Zawinul-penned tune.

Ry Cooder and Manuel Galban, “Caballo Viejo” from Mambo Sinuendo. Reggae-ish Cuban music.

Robert Muzarek, “Blow Up” from Playground (Delmark, 1998). Chicago jazz of the era, with leader on cornet, Jeff Parker on guitar (still plays around Chicago). Recorded on Chicago label. Song composed by Herbie Hancock for Italian movie of the same name.