Sunday, November 20, 2011

Songbook From the Mayflower, 1620

Mayflower passenger William Brewster had a small library of hundreds of books, among them a 1599 book of psalm settings, “The Psalmes of David” by a popular composer of the day, Richard Allison.

Like the pop songbooks of today, Alison’s songbook allowed the performers a great deal of freedom. The music could be sung as solos, or in unison groups. It could be turned into four-part harmony or the parts could be played on any of the common instruments of the day: “lute, orpharyon, cittern, or bass violl, severally or altogether.” These instrumental arrangements could be done with or without a voice singing.

Then, as now, this type of flexibility for performances was imperative for the songbook to have wide currency. For musical performances, it was a do-it-yourself age. Local talent at all levels of accomplishment needed to be able to easily work up a performance from a page or two of notes. If it wasn’t easy – forget it.

Marketing being in its crude infancy, all of the bullet-point features of Allison’s songbook are stated, and restated, in the expansive title – a full paragraph long. Among these features, the title tells us, the volume was augmented “With tenne short Tunnes in the end, to which, for the most part all the Psalmes may usually be sung …. ” That is, you can take the words of any psalm and put them to the music of any of these 10 tunes. If one doesn’t work, try another. The tunes themselves, he adds, “are of mean skill” (they’re easy, in other words) “and whose leysure least serveth to practice” (you don’t even have to work at them, they’re so easy).

Not easy enough for Americans, as it turned out. Allison’s book wasn’t as popular here as it had been in Europe.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

State Theatre Offers Student Discounts

The State Theatre, 15 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, Tuesday announced it is offering $8 tickets for students to many of its classical music events, including major orchestra performances and the film presentations of opera performances.

Called the Students Meet The Arts program, the discount is funded by the Frank and Lydia Bergen Foundation and is good for the whole season.

Upcoming events that are available for students at the $8 price including the Hamburg Symphony, conducted by Jeffrey Tate, in performances of Vaughn Williams, Brahms and Beethoven 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 18; the St. Petersburg State Orchestra led by Roman Leontiev with Alexandre Pirojenko as piano soloist in work by Ravel, Chopin and Prokofiev 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 12; and the Dresden Philharmonic led by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos with Gautier Capuçon, as cello soloist 8 p.m. Friday, March 9 in performances of Carl Maria von Weber, Dvorak and Beethoven.

The discount also applies to the performance of “Cinderella” by the Moscow Festival Ballet in April and the performances of ballet and opera on film, including tonight’s (Nov. 16) screening of Verdi’s “Aida” and the Dec. 8 showing, live from Teatro alla Scala in Milan, of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” with Daniel Barenboim conducting and Anna Netrebko and Bryn Terfel in the leads.

For tickets or more information, call the State Theatre ticket office at 732-246-7469, or visit

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Thursday, November 10, 2011


Spent a good part of today screening and discussing aspects of “Koyaanisqatsi” with the two sections of my freshman seminar, “Music and the Natural World.” This unit of the course is dealing with the rise and influence of environmentalism and “Koyaanisqatsi,” a 1983 film without dialog and with music by Philip Glass, is the perfect foil for class discussion. In fact, it invites a good deal more intelligent conversation than a great many other environmentally inspired works – composers like John Luther Adams (who I love) have made careers of linking music and nature in beautiful, intelligent ways. But with its inherently conflicted intent – part radical engagement and part Buddhist detachment – “Koyaanisqatsi” is tense, mesmerizing and philosophically resonant.

With much of the footage dating from the 1970s, it is surprising how contemporary the movie still feels. We note the old look of Times Square, the leisure suits and the clunky-looking cars (why don’t they come in those colors anymore?) only tangentially. In the main, neither the images nor the music have lost any of their force. The film is no more dated than is “The Rite of Spring.”

On the surface is a glib comment on the destructive nature of technology and human society. But the film’s director, Godfrey Reggio, finds himself embracing the machines and the humans who built them in all their ugliness and majesty. A witty transition into the human traffic sequences pauses on the façade of the corporate headquarters of a company called Microdata: The next scenes show humans themselves as microdata, streaming over the planet along paths of their own creation, like termites. Earlier scenes of a Twinkie factory are answered later by a shot from a camera on the conveyor belt, from the perspective of one of the Twinkies, as we head into a section dominated by lightspeed images of people in machines: We, the creators, have become the products.

Glass’ music is rarely dramatic in the Romantic sense of the word, instead accompanying the breakneck scenes with a cool-headed transparency, even as the tempo ratchets to match the superhuman pace of the visuals. Exciting because the images are exciting -- because we find them exciting -- the music drapes and does not flatter or judge.

What Reggio sees, and what Glass’ music perfectly captures, is the serene indifference of the universe, the gorgeous, unmoved natural world that serves as a backdrop and contrast for our descent into technological madness, our exotic, ongoing, unthinking metamorphosis into some future, unrecognizable machine. The haggard, contorted and notably self-satisfied human faces, shown in painfully long portraits that break up the high-speed action, tell a story more complex than can be told in words – a story of grasping at love, of devotion to emotional amputation, of the rationalization of our living death, our imprisonment in society’s high-priced, hurtling, hot rod hearse.

Should be required viewing in any media class.

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

MSO Play Ewazen, Berlioz

The Monmouth Symphony Orchestra Sunday, Oct. 30, at the Count Basie Theater offered the world premiere of a work inspired by nature, by composer Eric Ewazen (b.1954) along with a dark work of Romantic fantasy, the “Symphonie fantastique” of Hector Berlioz.

Based on the Baroque form of a concerto grosso, Ewazen’s “Cascadian Concerto” featured the five members of the Monmouth Winds as the concertino group of soloists, Jenny Cline, flute, Nicholas Gatto, oboe, Cathy Adamo, clarinet Richard Sachs, horn, and Kitty Flakker, bassoon. While there was some solo work within the group, notably for horn and bassoon, for the most part Ewazen treats the ensemble as a single entity, playing a light counterpoint against the fuller sound of the main orchestra.

The music here is very old-fashioned and, at the same time, completely engaging. The work was inspired by the vistas of the Pacific Northwest, and I found myself listening to it as a part of a tradition that includes Smetana’s Moldau or Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite. The language speaks very strongly of the late 19th-early 20th centuries, and as a reference to those older models, it fares very well.

The orchestration in particular is highly polished, making it an excellent pairing with the master orchestrator, Berlioz. The third movement seemed to offer the greatest challenges to the ensemble in that respect and came across a bit awkwardly. But in the others the entire group played with a confidence usually reserved for much more well-known literature. The balance among the soloists and between soloists and orchestra, was exceptional and the technical abilities of the soloist group were evenly matched.

The Berlioz is a strange, visionary piece of music. In the opening three movements, the composer is maudlin as he attempts to get over a lost love. The final two on the hand are great fun: here the narrative breaks any hold on reality and the composer envisions himself walking to his death on a gallows and, in the finale, a macabre dance at a witches sabbath. The transformation of a deep love into a grotesque cartoon is Berlioz way of ripping apart his obsession, neutralizing it.

As the Cascadian Concerto looks back, the Symphonie fantasique looks forward. It’s language and adherence to a psychological drama is unprecedented outside of opera halls and the rigorous sentimentality is unprecedented just about anywhere. A friend of Schumann and Liszt, Berlioz was working toward a musical future where music’s ability to express the internal dramas of the soul was evident.

As one writer of his obituary noted disapprovingly, “the ghastly parodies which Berlioz produced in his infernal pictures may be said to be beyond the safety-line.” Yet it is precisely those moments, when Berlioz is beyond the safety line, that are most interesting and most gripping to audiences today.

The orchestra had moments of difficulty with some of the Symphonie, but much of the entire work, the final two movements in particular, was completely convincing. Throughout the evening, Roy Gussman led the ensemble confidently and with a clear and compelling interpretation.

Subscriptions to the remaining three concerts in the MSO’s season are available by downloading a form available on the group’s website,

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