Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Clandestine Classics Notes

Clandestine Classics, our New Year's Eve program, includes four little-known gems of Bach and Handel, one of which is addressed to St Cecilia, patron saint of musicians. I adore this painting of her (by Guido Reni, 1606) for what it seems to suggest about the nature of artistic inspiration: the music seems to pass directly from heaven into her violin!

For those of you curious to know a little about this music in advance, here are my program notes. Enjoy, and see you New Year's Eve at Zilkha Hall!

Though concerti for multiple soloists were invented by the Italians, German Baroque composers developed a special fondness for this kind of piece, partly because such works welcomed the kind of busy counterpoint they regularly wrote. The Germans also had a predilection for colorful sound combinations, such as one finds in the Brandenburg Concerti, each of which calls for a different group of soloists. Bach’s Triple Concerto pits two melody instruments (violin and flute) against the harpsichord, whose typical role in such works is to supply necessary harmonies and not much else. But as in the Fifth Brandenburg, the harpsichord is a stealth soloist here: its part eventually rises above the others to dominate the texture, culminating in non-stop figuration and elaborate cadenzas for the continuo player. Like many of Bach’s keyboard concerti, the Triple Concerto is a transcription. The outer movements derive from an earlier prelude and fugue for solo harpsichord, while the central Adagio elaborates on a movement from one of Bach’s organ trio sonatas.

Bach composed Ich habe genug in 1728 for the Feast of the Purification, the annual liturgical celebration of Jesus’ presentation in the temple. Originally scored for solo bass, oboe, strings and continuo, the work seems to have been a personal favorite of the composer. Around 1735, Bach returned to it, transposing it up a third and rescoring the solo parts for high voice and flute. Tonight’s performance features this later version of the cantata.

Echoing the aged Simeon’s poignant words (“Lord, now let your servant depart in peace”), the anonymous libretto of Ich habe genug longs for death as both the final exit from worldly suffering and the beginning of a glorious afterlife. Bach’s treatment of the three aria texts especially marks this as one of his finest creations. The plaintive opening number, with its yearning melody, seems to encompass all the world’s sadness while affirming (paradoxically) that beyond the beauty of temporal notes lies a yet more beautiful eternity. A “slumber” aria of heartbreaking loveliness follows. Taking his cue from operatic “sleep scenes,” Bach here turns worldly sleep into an eloquent depiction of eternity, through the use of conventional lullaby figures and an unusual formal design. The final aria celebrates the end of life with joyous, dance-like figuration in the voice and instrumental parts, in utter defiance of death.

The setting of the Gloria now attributed to Handel came to the world’s attention in 2001. Newspapers heralded its discovery as a major event, despite lingering doubts about its authenticity. If Handel wrote it, he surely did so between 1706 and 1708 in Rome, where such a blatantly theatrical solo setting of the Gloria would have been well received by patrons who loved opera but were frequently denied it. The seven discrete movements follow the typical divisions of the Gloria text. Handel’s virtuosic treatment of the solo voice in the joyous outer movements is noteworthy, as is the highly expressive “Qui tollis,” which makes vivid with tortuous chromatic melodies the “sins of the world.”

St Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians, did rather well following the restoration of the English monarchy in the late 17th century. Annual celebrations of her feast day (Nov 22) began in London in 1683, necessitating yearly Cecilian odes by Purcell and his contemporaries. As inheritor of this tradition, Handel was obliged to contribute a piece or two, including Cecilia vogli un sguardo (“Cecilia, turn your gaze”), scored for soprano, tenor, strings and continuo.

One of his last Italian cantatas, Cecilia was first given in 1736 as a curtain-raiser to the second part of Alexander’s Feast, an English-language oratorio likewise devoted to the theme of music’s power. At its première, Cecilia seems to have had a more practical purpose as well: it gave the evening’s two star Italian singers, Anna Strada del Pò and Carlo Arrigoni, choice arias to sing in their native tongue. (One wonders how they negotiated the English of John Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast.) Although Cecilia’s libretto is hardly great poetry — it’s a middlebrow muddle of familiar platitudes and dutiful patriotism — its inspired music should encourage even skeptics that a Cecilian kind of virtue is a worthy goal, perhaps even a good New Year’s resolution!

Monday, December 17, 2007

NYC in December's cold in New York this time of year! A great opportunity for a Texan to rummage through the closet for warm clothes and the big coat, which came in handy this past weekend in NYC. Sixto had a two-day meeting, so I went along for the ride -- and the nice Midtown hotel room, directly across 51st St from Rockefeller Center's famous Christmas tree!

On Friday I saw my first Gluck opera, "Iphegenie en Tauride" at the Met. It's a wonderfully gloomy production, gorgeously sung by Susan Graham in the title role, with great support from tenors Paul Groves and Placido Domingo. Rationalist opera was a tough sell, however, on this customer. Though Gluck's reform efforts were surely appreciated by his enlightened contemporaries, I found myself longing for a bit more excess and gratuitous display. On the other hand, his music focuses your attention on the drama and the words. Nicolas-Francois Guillard's libretto (after Euripides) is a beautifully consise telling of this classic tale, and was well served by this composer and this production.

Looking forward to seeing many of you on New Year's Eve!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Doing the seguidilla in Pittsburgh

This past weekend I had the great pleasure of playing with El Mundo, a group run by Richard Savino, who plays lute and guitar with us frequently. The program, entitled Zarzuela y Opera!, was for the Renaissance and Baroque Society of Pittsburgh:

The music -- by Sebastian Duron, Domenico Zipoli and others -- is full of infectious rhythms and melodies. For me, it was kind of a baptism-by-fire in Spanish Baroque, complete with improvised fandangos and seguidillas!

And on another subject: if you need a good laugh (at Pachelbel's expense), have a look at

Having just spent the weekend realizing such bass lines -- Spanish music has lots of ostinatos for the continuo players -- I can definitely relate, though I'm much fonder of Duron, Zipoli and all the rest than this guitar player is of poor Pachelbel!

"Love and War" review

If you haven't yet seen it, the Houston Chronicle's review of "Love and War" is up on their website:

Bravi a tutti!

Monday, October 29, 2007

"Love and War" this Sunday at 5!

The upcoming Ars Lyrica program contains some of my favorite music ever: Monteverdi's "Madrigals of Love and War." If you've never heard these remarkable works, you're in for a real treat. And if you're junkies like me, you need at least one good Monteverdian "fix" per year. We're happy to provide: this coming Sunday, Nov 4 at 5 pm at Zilkha Hall. For tickets: 713 315-2525.

For those who like to read them in advance, here are the notes for this program. Hope to see you on Sunday afternoon!

Over the course of an exceptionally long career, Claudio Monteverdi composed some 250 madrigals that range from the comic and satirical to the plangent and war-like. This large and diverse repertory, published in some nine books between 1587 and 1651, is the best witness to the composer’s idiosyncratic and constantly evolving ideas about musical composition. Unusually for their time, these madrigals served as neither domestic music nor polyphonic showpieces but instead as highly expressive, supple works in the modern (mixed) style for professional singers.

In his madrigals Monteverdi simultaneously paid tribute to and gave new life to a genre whose day had clearly passed. The polyphonic part song par excellence of the previous century, the madrigal encompassed for Monteverdi and his contemporaries everything from extended scena in the new theatrical style to relatively short works that move with astonishing speed from one emotion to another. An intense focus on the words was paramount, oftentimes to the detriment of good counterpoint: the theorist Artusi’s complaint about one such piece caused Monteverdi to mount one of the first public relations campaigns in music history. From this dispute came the famous distinction, crucial for the early Baroque, between the prima prattica (the contrapuntal style of the 16th century) and the seconda prattica (the melody-dominated style of the early 17th century).

From Monteverdi’s Madrigals of Love and War (Book VIII, 1638) our program incorporates eight works: seven concerted madrigals plus an introductory sinfonia for instruments alone. The madrigali guerrieri (madrigals of war) are especially noteworthy for their striking and wholly avant-garde treatment of the idea of armed combat. Searching for a modern musical equivalent to the ancient Greek warlike genus in music, Monteverdi invented the stile concitato (the “excited style”), in which instruments and singers simulate the sound of war by repeated hammering of the same notes. Stark contrasts with sections in either the “languid” or the “temperate” styles (following Monteverdi’s own classifications of the human passions) remind us of the sometimes perilously short path from love to war. As the composer himself explained: “When [the poetry] speaks about war, it must imitate war; when it speaks about peace, imitate peace; about death, death, and so on, afterwards the transformations and imitations will happen in a brief moment.”

We open and close with two Monteverdi settings of Petrarch sonnets, both of which require a full complement of singers, continuo players and two violins. The triptych known as the Lamento della Ninfa, set to verses by Ottavio Rinuccini, begins and ends with a trio that provides essential commentary on the central dramatic lament, whose ostinato pattern of just four notes (the classic descending “lamento bass”) supports a plaintive melody, one that Monteverdi instructs must be sung not “to the time of the hand” (in strict meter) but instead “in time with the emotions of the mind.” In both Altri canti di Marte and Hor ch’el ciel Monteverdi’s characteristic war-like sounds — the fast repeated notes of the stile concitato — are hard to miss, but there are passage of striking beauty in both as well. The remaining three Monteverdi works on this program, though scored for smaller forces, are just as unpredictable and expressive as their larger neighbors.

Like Monteverdi, Purcell’s musical and dramatic instincts far outclassed those of his contemporaries. His solo songs have charm, elegance, humor, and a certain earthiness about them—qualities that have made these little gems eternally popular with both young and experienced singers. Purcell and his (mostly unknown) poets found the twin topics of love and war just as irresistible as had their Italian forebears, though what they did with those ideas was uniquely English. Most of the Purcell songs on tonight’s program are individual works, but at least two are from larger stage works. The most familiar of the lot, “I attempt from Love’s sickness to fly,” comes from the end of the third act of Indian Queen, as a chorus of spirits descend to warn mere mortals of the many dangers of love.

The violinist and composer Salamone Rossi, whose time at the Mantuan court overlapped with Monteverdi’s tenure there, was among the first composers to write sonatas in the soloistic style of the early Baroque. His Venetian contemporary Biagio Marini was a virtuoso violinist and composer of great inventiveness. Dario Castello was active in Venice in the first half of the seventeenth century as a wind player. His two collections of sonatas for either violin, recorder, or cornetto show the influence of the new style of vocal writing on instrumental composition; these are highly rhapsodic, almost free-form compositions with occasional countrapuntal episodes.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

So what's "Wired Bach" about?

This weekend's "Wired Bach" Ars Lyrica program is an all-Bach affair, with lots of wires (two harpsichords and five string instruments) plus some highly caffienated music. You won't need to stop at Starbuck's before this one!

Concert info: Saturday, Oct 6 at 7:30 pm
at St Philip Presbyterian Church (San Felipe just outside West Loop 610)
Tickets available at the door only.

Here are some notes on the program by yours truly:

J. S. Bach wrote his first keyboard concertos between 1717 and 1723 during his service to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. Concerti for multiple harpsichords followed during Bach’s long tenure in Leipzig, perhaps as a means of sharing the spotlight occasionally with his gifted sons, all of whom eventually entered the family trade (Bach would surely have played one of the solo parts himself). Most of these concerti, including those for solo harpsichord, are transcriptions of earlier works for other instruments, and yet that doesn’t render them somehow less idiomatic than other keyboard concerti. Bach had no trouble transferring musical ideas from one medium to another, and some of his transcriptions are arguably more successful pieces than their originals. Of the two double-harpsichord concerti on tonight’s program, the first (BWV 1060) will be familiar to some as a violin and oboe concerto.

Bach’s concerti usually follow the Vivaldian model, with two fast movements surrounding a highly embellished slow movement. In the C-minor double concerto the strings are integral to the articulation of the ritornello (refrain) passages in the outer movements and they accompany the extensive solo writing in a variety of ways. The C-major concerto, on the other hand, had no string parts in its earliest incarnation. Though a late addition, the strings are welcome one, for they help to reinforce important cadential points and add their distinctive warm color to a what is otherwise a fairly wiry texture.

The two violin sonatas on this program are formally similar but they reflect two different ways of treating the harpsichord during the Baroque. The G major Sonata (BWV 1021) for violin and continuo has just two lines of music: a melody line for violin and a bass line with figures that indicate the harmonies to be realized above it. The A major Sonata (BWV 1015), on the other hand, is for violin and harpsichord obbligato, meaning that the right-hand part is fully realized by the composer. It is one of a set of six such pieces that are among the first to treat the keyboard in this more modern manner.

Bach’s six suites for unaccompanied cello pay homage to the traditional Baroque dance suite (allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue) while incorporating more modern dances (minuets, bourrées) and imposing introductory preludes as well. The second of these begins with a marvelously ruminative exploration of the dark D minor tonality; its dances are by turns pensive and perky. Like its sister suites, it demonstrates with particular eloquence how Bach (to quote a late 18th-century writer) managed to “make melody out of harmony, and harmony out of melody.”

Much of this music was first heard on programs of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, an ensemble made up primarily of university students, whose direction Bach assumed in the mid 1720s. Performances by this ensemble took place at a coffee-house and occasionally at an outdoor garden owned and operated by Gottfried Zimmermann. Their convivial and highly caffienated atmosphere was conducive to informal programs that freely mixed instrumental and vocal chamber works: Bach’s famous “Coffee Cantata” was intended for just such an occasion. The instrumental music Bach wrote for such programs is similarly “wired”: it’s unambiguously cheerful, with busy contrapuntal lines going seemingly every which way but always with a final goal in mind.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Off and Running!

Thanks to our hardworking musicians, staff, board, and a great audience for a terrific opening night this past Friday at Zilkha Hall. If you haven't read the review in the Houston Chronicle, check it out:

And mark your calendars now for the rest of our season:

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Program Notes for "Mad Women" on Sept 7

For those interested in reading the program notes in advance of "Mad Women" on Sept 7, here they are. Program information is available on the Ars Lyrica website:

Long a staple of the opera house, mad scenes have been around since the ancient Greeks, who used them for moments of eerie introspection or crazed virtuosity in their tragedies. One reason why mad scenes became so popular — not only in Greece but in Rome, where they served as ironic comic relief — was the fact that such moments, in which a character becomes irrational and imagines all manner of weirdness, heighten the drama’s separation from reality and the audience’s awareness of that separation. Baroque opera and cantata, with their larger-than-life characters whose identities, lovers, and even sexualities are extraordinarily fluid, proved even more effective vehicles for mad scenes. The period label itself nicely summarizes the effect of such moments: “baroque” was a pejorative in the 18th century for bizarrely shaped pearls.

During this era a detailed knowledge of myths and fables was essential for anyone who hoped to keep good company. Interestingly, both the stories themselves and the language used to tell them were recognized as highly artificial. Such discourse was indispensable, however, since it served to reinforce social boundaries while providing equals with a kind of coded language, whose implications they alone understood. Composers and librettists across Europe took advantage, supplying a steady stream of works that borrow freely from literary (and sometimes actual) history. Though the web of allusions for some of these pieces may be lost, the best settings have a musical power that transcends the circumstances of their creation and initial reception.

Women in Baroque opera and cantata are more reactive than proactive: their primary responsibility, in other words, is to respond to things done to them. And the things they have to endure! Euridice’s confinement in the underworld, Aeneas’s abandonment of Dido, Jason’s betrayal of Medea — it’s hard to imagine more compelling dramatic material than these women who love too well. In contrast, “mad scene” lyrics for songs and chamber duets tend toward the more abstract (Cesti's "Disperato morirò") or to singular characters (Purcell's "Bess of Bedlam") whose striking eccentricities make the listening process seem almost voyeuristic. Even instrumental music reflects this fascination with madness during the Baroque. The “folia,” originally a dance so energetic that it was said to induce madness, was well established as a ground bass pattern well before Corelli wrote his famous variations on it.

Louis-Nicholas Clérambault brought the cantata to prominence in France during his service to Madame de Maintenon, longtime mistress to Louis XIV. Adapting what had been an exclusively Italian genre to his own ends, Clérambault kept the basic formal outline of alternating recitatives and arias, while infusing the former especially with poignant melodic turns, highly charged declamation, and frequent instrumental obligatos. With its virtuosic display both for the voice and the accompanying ensemble, Médée is among his finest works in the genre. Though no blood is actually spilled in this cantata, Medea’s vengeful intentions against Jason and their children are made plain.

Most of Handel’s solo cantatas are the product of his youthful sojourn in Italy (1706–1710), during which time he perfected his craft and enjoyed the patronage of a number of highly literate aristocratic churchmen. Quite a few of early works are set to emotionally charged, sometimes even bloodthirsty librettos, in contrast to the gentle pastoral imagery favored by Handel’s Italian contemporaries. La Lucrezia tells a story from antiquity: the title character, the wife of a Roman general, has been raped by Sextus Tarquinius, son of the last Roman king. Handel’s gutsy heroine seeks not only vengeance but the restoration of her family’s honor; her mad scene thus runs the gamut from plaintive suffering to noisy suicide.

Handel also wrote mad scenes for a number of operas and at least one oratorio. Hercules centers on the eponymous hero’s triumphal return from battle and his wife Dejanira’s suspicion of his infidelity. After causing his death, she literally comes apart in the last act, exclaiming in desperation: “Where shall I fly / where hide this guilty head?” The mad scene from Imeneo, on the other hand, is a ruse concocted by the heroine Rosmene as she is forced, in the opera’s final scene, to choose between duty and love. Having spent the entire opera vacillating between the two, she first feigns madness then agrees to marry Imeneo (who fell in love with her in Act I) instead of her beloved Tirinto. Given such a context, the lovers’ tender final duet is a marvel of discretion.

Monday, July 30, 2007

So what’s “Real Quill”?

Like others in this business, I tend to separate the instruments of the baroque band into three general types: blowers (winds), scrapers (strings) and pluckers (harpsichords, lutes, harps et al). We pluckers need some means of plucking our strings, and that’s where bird quill enters the picture.

The harpsichord’s mechanism is very simple. When depressed, a key makes a wooden jack rise and pass by a metal string. Attached to that jack is a little thing called a plectrum that plucks the string. Releasing the key causes a bit of felt at the top of the jack to damp the string, so that the “ring” of one string won’t interfere with the plucking of the next one.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, all plectrum were made of bird quill, just like old-fashioned writing pens except a much smaller piece of same. When the harpsichord was revived in the 20th century, builders thought they could do better with a plastic substance known as delrin, which mimics the characteristics of real quill but lasts longer. Only recently have leading builders and players decided that the real stuff is actually better: more musical, less prone to brittleness, and it even feels better underneath the fingers!

And as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m a recent convert. The three harpsichords in Houston I use most often — all built by John Phillips of Berkeley, CA — all now have real quill: turkey vulture and Canadian goose, to be exact. Have a look at his website for more information on the instruments:

So when you’re in a park or stretch of wilderness that’s frequented by big flyers (no sparrows or robins, please), gather up a few sturdy feathers and give them to a harpsichordist!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Round Top 7/14/07

Greetings from the Texas Hill Country! The Festival-Institute at Round Top, TX, is a place I love to visit, especially during the summer season when the place is literally crawling with musical talent. For those of you who’ve never been, have a look at and plan a visit sometime soon. Festival Hill regulars will know that this is a place for not only great music but wonderful food and frequent surprises: from neo-Roman ruins and whimsical fountains to harpsichordists who dabble occasionally in contemporary chamber music. Vive la difference! (and Happy Bastille Day!)

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of playing an organ recital and eucharist for a national conference of Lutheran church musicians at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston. Having grown up in that faith, I knew that Lutherans could sing, and (as some of you know) the Fisk organ at Palmer is not shy. I only hope the walls at Palmer are still standing, because I’m pretty sure we blew off the roof!

Speaking of organs and organists, it was great to see so many friends and colleagues recently at the American Guild of Organists convention in Dallas, and at the Boston Early Music Festival earlier in June. Lully’s “Psyché” (the BEMF centerpiece) was a triumph, well worth the trek to Boston.

I hope you’re enjoying the new Ars Lyrica website, and I look forward to introducing you to our new Executive Director, Kinga Ferguson, in the fall. Meanwhile, stay cool and enjoy summer’s many distractions!