Monday, December 27, 2010

Notes for "Musical Resolutions" -- New Year's Eve 2010

For those who like to read these in advance, here are my notes for "Musical Resolutions," Ars Lyrica's New Year's Eve 2010 program. Looking forward to seeing many of you this coming Friday night at the Hobby Center, to ring in the new year!

Tonight’s program offers “musical resolutions” of various sorts: the integration of various national styles in the Bach and Telemann works, plus the firmly resolved (though famously frustrated) love of Apollo for Daphne. The latter work also continues our current season’s exploration of the Baroque teatro mundi, with a gorgeous if sobering mythological drama.

Italian cantatas like Apollo e Dafne allowed music-loving Romans of Handel’s day to have their cake and eat it, too—by conjuring the gods, goddesses and sound world of Baroque opera but on a smaller scale and without the distractions of (and papal prohibitions against) the opera house. Such works mine the theater of our interior imagination, as they seduce, distract, and entertain us with the ravishing sounds of voices and instruments. In contrast, the Bach and Telemann selections deliver less explicit stories but equally alluring soundscapes.

Bach’s so-called “Orchestral Suites” are in fact suites for a fairly small ensemble, consisting perhaps of just single or a few players per part. Long assumed to have been written during Bach’s service at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, certain movements may predate his time there (1717-1723) while others may reflect the larger instrumental resources available to him in Leipzig after 1723. In any case, these four works, among the most familiar in Bach’s output, reflect the widespread popularity of French dance movements during his lifetime and likely represent just the tip of the iceberg: Bach surely composed other such Ouvertures (as he called them) that are lost to posterity. Among the cleverest assimilations of the two dominant instrumental genres of Bach’s day, these works resolve the inherent tension between binary-form dances and ritornello-based concerto writing in movements that incorporate soloistic display within the predictable formal schemes of Baroque dance movements.

The German ensemble suite typically begins with its most imposing movement: an overture modeled on those of Jean-Baptiste Lully, with a majestic opening section and a faster, imitative second section. The dances that follow mimic the flow of a classic divertissement in French Baroque opera. In the C-major Suite, Bach includes a number of paired dances whose unconventional scoring creates some surprising effects: note the odd inversion of the violin’s typical lead role in the second gavotte, for example.

Like Bach, Telemann assimilated Italian and French styles in his music but on a scale that dwarfed his now more famous contemporary. This most prolific composer of the late Baroque (and perhaps of all time) produced dozens of concertos in the Italian style, including several that feature multiple wind soloists. Better perhaps than anyone else, Telemann grasped the peculiarities of Baroque wind color and how to write for such instruments. His E-minor Concerto cleverly pits the old (the archaic recorder) against the new (the fashionable transverse flute), in four movements whose joyful thumping and tender expressiveness make it one of his most popular works.

Apollo e Dafne is one of the richest sources of Handelian compositional “leftovers”: he re-used all but one of its arias and duets in later operas or oratorios, some multiple times. Its poignant lesson—of the inevitable choice between love and duty, passion and reason—has always been popular with opera composers: in addition to the well-known setting by Richard Strauss, both Jacopo Peri and Heinrich Schütz wrote Daphne operas in the 17th century. Handel began his cantata in 1706 or 1707 and finished it several years later, perhaps after his departure from Italy. Long admired for its creative orchestration, the work is a masterpiece of well-calibrated emotional expression: from Apollo’s proud vanity in the opening scene to his plaintive final promise, or from Daphne’s initial childlike innocence to her ultimate embrace of destiny.

The story, in brief, goes as follows. As described in Ovid, Cupid has decreed that the god Apollo shall fall for the beautiful nymph Daphne, but his love cannot be returned since she is bound by her devotion to the goddess Diana and can love no man. When Apollo’s attempts at seduction backfire, Daphne escapes by returning to nature: Mother Earth turns her into a tree. Fashioning a fragrant wreath from its laurel leaves, Apollo consoles himself and vows never to forget her. © Matthew Dirst

Friday, December 3, 2010

A Grammy Nomination!

Woke up yesterday morning to a wonderful surprise: a Grammy nomination for Ars Lyrica's recent recording of Hasse's "Marc Antonio e Cleopatra" on the Dorian-Sono Luminus label. Congratulations to all involved in this project, especially soprano Ava Pine, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, and producer Keith Weber. The Grammy nominees for best opera (category 99) includes some serious competition, from all over the world, with ours the sole American recording so honored. If you're a voting member of the Recording Academy, thanks for your vote!!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

1610 Vespers Reviews

The buzz on our Monteverdi Vespers has been great. If you haven't yet seen the reviews, check out the Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle plus a really nice blog post. Many thanks to all who came and enjoyed the program!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Stay put, you'll be glad you did!

Leaving before the last act is sometimes all too tempting. Kings and queens did it regularly, and presidents still do. Well, they're busy folk, and who among us hasn't taken the opportunity to duck out of something you felt obliged to attend but for which you couldn't muster any enthusiasm in the first hour? But are such things the inevitable result of bad art or evidence of our ever-shorter attention spans?

Or are we willing patrons of the arts only when we get what we know?

Case in point: Houston Grand Opera's current production of Peter Grimes. At last night's performance there were more empty seats after each intermission. Sadly, those who left missed some of the most amazing moments in a truly magical work, including the heartbreaking Act II quartet and Grimes' searing final soliloquy, sung with astonishing intensity by Anthony Dean Griffey.

Those who perform unconventional repertoire greatly appreciate listeners who like to be challenged occasionally. What can we do to motivate others to give unfamiliar music a chance?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Organ-mania in Houston!

Who'd have thought it possible? New organs at St Philip Presbyterian and the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston have drawn capacity crowds to dedicatory recitals and other events this year, and people are coming back in droves for more! Last night's crowd at the Co-Cathedral, for a recital by Philippe Lefebvre from Paris, was nearly as big as that for David Higg's program a few weeks ago, and the recent Concert for Peace at St Philip had its largest crowd ever this fall, too.

Remembering back to the thirteen (or was it more?) times that Clyde Holloway had to play the opening recital on the big Fisk/Rosales at Rice, I guess there is considerable interest here in the organ. It just takes an amazing new instrument to bring people out of the woodwork. Churches and music schools take note: this is an excellent way to get people excited about your programs!

And to that end, the next opportunity to hear the new Fritts organ at St Philip: Friday, Nov 19, with Prof. Martin Jean from Yale University at the console. Details: Music at St Philip

And the next recital on the new Pasi organ at the Co-Cathedral: my UH colleague Robert Bates on Dec 7. Details: Opus XIX

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Monteverdi Vespers on Nov 13

Looking forward to a couple of performances of Claudio Monteverdi's magnificent 1610 Vespers very soon: on Nov 13 in Houston and Nov 14 in Dallas, with Ars Lyrica, the Orpheus Chamber Singers, and the Whole Noyse. Here are notes on that upcoming program, hot off the press.


Though published relatively early in his career, Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine is his most spectacular sacred work. Part of a larger 1610 Venice publication (dedicated to the Virgin Mary) that begins with a Mass setting, the 1610 Vespers, as it has come to be known, comprises far more than one actually needs for Vespers, prompting all manner of speculation as to the composer’s intent and the origins of this collection. Its contents—big psalm settings, smaller-scale motets, a lavishly scored sacred concerto, and two differently scored settings of the Magnificat—certainly cover all the standard parts of the Vespers liturgy, but whether they were meant to be performed as a whole is doubtful.

Like Bach’s equally monumental Mass in B Minor, Monteverdi’s Mass and Vespers are less solitary works than compilations of various items. Their publication may have served as a kind of musical calling card: by 1610 Monteverdi was no longer satisfied with the terms of his employment in Mantua, and the publication of a Mass and Vespers in Venice may well have led to his eventual position at St. Mark’s Basilica in that city. In any case, the sheer range of musical styles in the Vespers, from grandiose psalm settings to intimate motets, is striking, as is Monteverdi’s practical ingenuity: in the print he provides directions for performing the various movements either with groups of string and wind instruments or with organ alone. Most modern performances (like ours) give the score its full due with a rich panoply of instrumental color.

The 1610 Mass and Vespers summarize the shifting sands of musical style in the early seventeenth century: the Mass is set contrapuntally, in the style of a Palestrina, while the Vespers combines mostly prima prattica psalms with more modern seconda prattica motets. Within the psalm settings one finds a variety of compositional techniques, from the venerable block chordal style of psalm recitation (falsobordone) in “Dixit Dominus,” to various contrapuntal treatments of a slow-moving cantus firmus in the “Magnificat a 7” and elsewhere, even variations on the Romanesca (a secular ground bass) in “Laetatus sum.” The motets are by no means impoverished by their leaner scoring; their reduced forces permit greater vocal display, from the delicate intertwining of two sopranos in “Pulchra es” to the exuberant flights of fancy for three tenors in “Duo seraphim.” These latter movements especially have much in common with the theatrical music of this era: Monteverdi’s own Orfeo, for example, whose ardent song is not so different from these love songs to the Virgin Mary.

Of all the great monuments of music literature, the 1610 Vespers is one of the least familiar, perhaps because of the exotic performing forces the “full dress” version requires. Once one locates the necessary cornetts, sackbuts, theorbos, agile tenors, low basses, and altos with seemingly endless lungs, there are still many issues to consider: Should the piece be given in a liturgical context? Should the “Lauda Jerusalem” and “Magnificat” movements be transposed downward by as much as a fourth? Should instruments double the vocal lines and, if so, where? How much embellishment should one apply to the individual parts? Did the composer intend a performance of the various movements in the published order of the partbooks? Attempting to steer a course somewhere between the latest musicological findings and practical reality, ours is a concert performance of the whole work (without interpolated plainsong antiphons) in the order of the 1610 partbooks, with transposed “Lauda” and “Magnificat” movements, and occasional doublings of the parts and embellished solo lines. ©Matthew Dirst

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Scandalous opera: next Friday at Zilkha Hall!


A Scarlatti opera usually means a work by Alessandro, the Neapolitan master of both opera and oratorio and father of Domenico, whose strikingly original sonatas continue to fascinate, regardless of medium. But the younger Scarlatti, following in his father’s footsteps, composed some fourteen stage works during his youth, only a few of which survive. Leaving his native Italy in 1719, Domenico Scarlatti spent the rest of his life in Portugal and Spain, where he served as music master to Princess Maria Barbara and composed more than 500 keyboard sonatas. To opera — the genre that defined Italian music for generations — he never returned, despite keen dramatic instincts and the lure of great fame.

La Dirindina is, technically speaking, an intermezzo — or, as its original subtitle announces, a “musical farce” — and like all works in this subgenre, it’s both comic and compact. Intermezzi typically feature a pretty young girl, a father figure (which could be an uncle, teacher, or guardian), and some kind of love interest. Designed to lighten the mood of a full-length Italian opera, at whose intermissions its two parts were heard, the intermezzo gave companies the opportunity to cut loose and poke fun at not only stock character types but the entire edifice of serious opera. Strongly satirical works like La Dirindina became more common later in the eighteenth century, after Domenico Scarlatti had abandoned the opera house for more stable employment.

Set to a libretto by Girolamo Gigli, La Dirindina was intended to serve as a companion piece to Scarlatti’s Ambleto, a three-act opera seria, at its Roman première in 1715. The censors intervened, however, banning La Dirindina from the stage on account of its racy libretto — with the collusion, it seems, of the original cast, who feared they would look ridiculous. Not to be outmaneuvered, Gigli got his naughty little satire published elsewhere, and it quickly became a “must-have” among the cognoscenti.

The story concerns a wily but gifted young singer, Dirindina, and her teacher Don Carissimo, whose interest in his pupil is more than a little untoward. As the curtain goes up, a singing lesson is underway, and it is clear that neither student nor teacher are much interested in the day’s lesson plan. Dirindina’s independent spirit and her ability to sing (when she wants to) annoy Don Carissimo, who is further vexed by the appearance of Liscione, a famous castrato who brings some surprising news: the Milan theater wants to engage Dirindina as its prima donna. Don Carissimo flies into a rage, stammering his way through a highly amusing (and forward-looking) aria, only to see that his pretty pupil is now flirting openly with the castrato. An obligatory ensemble, with Dirindina and Liscione in musical and dramatic opposition to Don Carissimo, brings Part I to a close.

Part II opens with the unctuous Liscione plying Dirindina with a little minuet, which manages simultaneously to flatter the young singer’s ego while lampooning the fashionable but shamelessly sentimental manners of the aristocracy. Dirindina responds with perhaps the oddest aria in the work, full of syncopations and serpentine melodies that cheekily invoke various bodily fluids, with which she promises to seduce the Milanese public. The ensuing “play within a play,” a mock enactment of the tragic Dido’s rejection of the feckless Aeneas, is witnessed by Don Carissimo, who fails to get the joke and thinks that his ward is not only with child but ready to commit suicide. As with all good comedies, the joke’s on him: the finale is both outrageous and touching, as the capon and the hen are joined in hand by a thoroughly deceived old man.

The two concertos on this evening’s program come from a set of twelve arrangements made by English organist and composer Charles Avison from Scarlatti keyboard sonatas. Published in 1743, these concerti fed the craze for such works, launched by Geminiani’s arrangements of Corelli sonatas just a few years before, and helped to popularize Scarlatti’s music in England. Scored for two concertino (solo) plus two ripieno (tutti) violins plus viola, cello and continuo, these concerti respect the content of the original sonatas while adapting them idiomatically to string instruments. © Matthew Dirst

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Sneak Preview Party on Sept 12

Join Ars Lyrica on Sunday, September 12th between 3-5 pm at Frank's Chop House (on Westheimer near Wesleyan) for a "sneak preview" of the 2010-11 season. Enjoy samplings of food and wine and a taste of what’s in store for the upcoming season, including artist performances and special promotions. Celebrate the release of Ars Lyrica's recording of J. A. Hasse's "Marc Antonio e Cleopatra" on the Dorian label and yours truly's recording of harpsichord works by François and Armand-Louis Couperin on the Centaur label. Both these recordings are now available from Ars Lyrica or online or in record stores worldwide.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Hasse CD on Dorian

I'm delighted to announce that Dorian-Sono Luminus has picked up Ars Lyrica's next CD recording: the world première of Johann Adolf Hasse's "Marc Antonio e Cleopatra," featuring the fabulous duo of mezzo Jamie Barton and soprano Ava Pine, with yours truly and the Ars Lyrica ensemble. The record is due out soon -- in August, so stay tuned for information on the release party. We recorded this piece, Hasse's first significant work in Italy, over the New Year's holiday this past season, and performed it on New Year's Eve 2009 at Zilkha Hall. I'm very pleased with how it turned out and am delighted we can share it with you soon!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Notes for "Roman Holiday"

Here are my notes for the upcoming Ars Lyrica "Roman Holiday" program, featuring Handel's delightful "Clori, Tirsi e Fileno" and three of my favorite singers. Ticket info at Ars Lyrica

Handel composed Clori, Tirsi e Fileno in Rome the fall of 1707, probably for the Marchese Francesco Maria Ruspoli, in whose household the young composer served for a few years while perfecting his skill with opera and cantata in the land that produced those genres. With its full orchestral scoring and two parts, each containing more than a dozen “numbers,” Clori is the longest and most sumptuous of Handel’s Italian cantatas. One might call it a chamber opera, though “opera” for Handel implied three full acts, numerous characters and competing story lines. Italian cantatas, on the other hand, were usually solo vehicles on pastoral or amorous texts, and rarely involved more than just one voice and continuo players.

Clori, Tirsi e Fileno stands somewhere between these two generic poles. Its familiar pastoral characters include the beautiful nymph Clori and two love-struck shepherds, Tirsi and Fileno. The same characters appear in countless other Italian cantata libretti from this time (and innumerable paintings), most of which make us understand — with barely concealed winks and nods — that Clori permitted certain pleasures before she withheld them. With Clori, Tirsi e Fileno Handel and his anonymous librettist transformed such stock situations into a more dramatic kind of piece, with an overture and at least three distinct scenes. Such extended works were highly valued by Roman connoisseurs especially: various popes were forever banning opera and closing public theaters, leaving wealthy Roman patrons to take upon themselves the commissioning of all manner of operatic substitutes. The polite pastoral garb of Clori, Tirsi e Fileno surely fooled no one at its première in Ruspoli’s palace: this is a tale of love, lust, and betrayal, entirely in keeping with the norms of the Baroque opera house — and Roman society from its founding onwards.

Tirsi sets the stage at the beginning of Part I with healthy amounts of both self pity and denial: he realizes Clori is unfaithful, but his passion for her remains. Once Tirsi has made his misery plain, he hides, just as Clori enters with Fileno, whose heart is just as battered. Responding to Fileno’s complaint that she loves another, Clori announces that her pity has turned to love. The onstage lovers rejoice as Tirsi slinks off unnoticed, muttering curses under his breath.

Part II opens with Clori in pursuit of a jilted and angry Tirsi, who understandably wants nothing further to do with such a fickle woman. After much bickering, Tirsi relents, accepting Clori’s explanation that she was simply playing a joke on Fileno. As Clori leaves, Fileno reappears and the two men realize they’ve both been duped by a woman they find hopelessly irresistible.

In the original duet ending for the work, Tirsi and Fileno foreswear women and affirm the ostensibly more durable nature of male companionship. In the trio Handel wrote for a subsequent performance in Naples (where the oblique allusion to same-sex love might have caused a stir), Clori returns to join Tirsi and Fileno, all cheerfully observing that “to live and not to love…is not possible.” Since both endings offer undeniable musical charms, we thought it desirable to offer both. And thankfully, neither the imperfect sentiment of the duet nor that of the trio will get Handel in trouble today! © Matthew Dirst

Monday, April 5, 2010

St Philip Dedication Events

Inaugural recital (by yours truly) on Saturday, April 17 at 7 pm, featuring works by François and Louis Couperin, Eustache du Caurroy, J. P. Sweelinck, J. S. Bach, Herbert Howells, Rudolf Maros, and Olivier Messiaen. Dedication service on Sunday, April 18 at 11 am, featuring Benjamin Britten's "Rejoice in the Lamb" with the St Philip Choir.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Fritts Organ at St Philip nearly complete

The new Fritts organ at St Philip is nearing completion, and it's a delight to both the eye and ear. Dedication events include an inaugural recital (by yours truly) on Saturday, April 17 at 7 pm, and we're expecting a crowd, so put this date on your calendar now.

A mechanical-action instrument of three manuals and pedal and 48 stops, the Fritts is Northern European in conception but versatile enough to play a wide repertoire of organ and church music. It's been a delight to have new stops playing every week since mid-January, and I'm very eager for the last ones to be completed so that I can spend some time practicing before April 17!

Program notes for "Springtime in Paris"

For those of you who like to read these in advance of the actual event, here are the program notes for "Springtime in Paris," Ars Lyrica's next subscription program (on Sat March 20) at the Hobby Center. Looking forward to seeing many of you there!

Scion of a distinguished family of musicians, François Couperin “le Grand” began his career while still in his teens by succeeding his father as organist at Saint-Gervais in Paris, an important post that came with one of the capital’s finest instruments. In 1693 he became one of four organists at Versailles, where he also taught members of the royal family how to play the harpsichord, and after the turn of the century acquired the posts of composer and master of King’s chamber music. Unusually for his time, Couperin had little interest in theatrical music; instead, he was quite content to devote his considerable compositional energies to chamber and harpsichord works plus intimate motets for the church. The former especially, with their extraordinary richness and delicate surface filigree, are the musical zenith of the French Baroque.

Couperin, like many of his contemporaries, was fascinated by the modish Italian genre of the trio sonata. As popularized by Corelli especially, this genre posed a problem for French composers: how to reconcile its obvious attractions — virtuosic display, movements with formal logic, and its much-admired “southern expressivity” — while not abandoning the highly stylized dance suite, France’s greatest contribution to Baroque instrumental music. Couperin’s solution to this problem was a set of instrumental suites entitled Les Goûts Réunis, which ostensibly “reunited” the Italian and French tastes. Another collection entitled Les Nations, composed with the general purpose in mind, consists of four large suites that are headed by an Italianate sonata. La Françoise, the first of these, epitomizes Couperin’s inimitable style in its noble grandeur, tender melancholy, and a kind of innocent freshness. The remainder of our Suite in E includes subsequent movements from La Françoise plus a few movements from two of the Concert Royaux, all of which allow performance on whatever instruments one has at hand.

Jean-Baptise Lully’s instrumental trios, by contrast, are all excerpts from his stage works, some presumably countenanced by the composer himself and others arranged by other hands. Our Suite in C embraces both sides of this tonal center (major and minor) and features four binary dance movements plus a concluding chaconne, whose repeating harmonic pattern is put through some surprising twists and turns.

Armand-Louis Couperin, second cousin to François, composed in the same genres but in a much less rigorous manner. His harpsichord works (publ. c1751) span the gamut from intimacy to exhibitionism and reflect the simpler musical tastes of the mid-eighteenth century. Les Cacqueteuses (The Cacklers) is an amusing if unflattering musical portrait of a familiar character type, while l’Arlequine reflects the French fascination with all things Italian in the early 18th century, in particular the Harlequin figure so essential to the madcap antics of the commedia dell’arte.

The cantata was likewise appropriated from the Italians and given a kind of makeover à la Française. The new genre of the French cantata follows the same general outline as its model (a sequence of recitatives and airs) and, as in Italy, was cultivated not at court but instead in the newly fashionable world of the literary-musical salon. In the cantata the elegant ladies and gentlemen of Paris’ leading households found not only an ideal musical genre but a wonderfully plastic poetic form, one far removed from the staid sensibilities of the grand siècle. Classical mythology provided the subject matter for contemporary poets, who turned out verses that enterprising composers set with great attention to detail. Even when things turn out badly for the protagonists, the French mined these tales for their moral lessons. Montéclair’s Pan and Syrinx, for instance, reminds us that we may not always get what we want, but Love sometimes has something else in store for us: Pan’s pursuit of the lovely Syrinx ends with her transformation into a reed, which he fashions into his eponymous instrument, the pan-pipe, thus preserving her memory whenever he makes music.

Finally, the genre of the lute song or air de cour reaches just a bit further back into French history, to the age of Henri IV (d. 1610) and Louis XIII (d. 1643), providing a useful frame for the more familiar late French Baroque repertoire. During the first half of the 17th century, solo songs were a part of both large-scale court ballets and smaller domestic entertainments, and were by far the most popular kinds of musical publications in France. Guédron’s airs, the earlier chronologically of the two sets on this program, give us a glimpse of this genre at its birth, with simple but highly expressive settings of strophic poems. The songs of Le Camus show how this genre developed into more rhetorical mode of expression, with melody and bass lines that seem to follow their own muse, coming together only occasionally to punctuate the evocative verse. © Matthew Dirst

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Organ debuts tomorrow

Here's the new Fritts organ at St Philip, as it looked on Wednesday of this past week, just after the last carvings on the facade were installed. Visually it's really stunning, and will look even better once we get the side walls and the ceiling repainted a slightly darker color in the next few weeks.

It's started to make some noise, too! Tomorrow will be the first day to use a few ranks of pipes in church, and we'll be hearing steadily more of it over the next two months, as tonal finishing progresses.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

It's Here!

The new Fritts organ for St Philip Presbyterian arrived on Sunday, and a very eager crowd of St Philippians plus a number of local friends spent the afternoon unloading the truck, bit by bit, until the sanctuary was covered in organ parts. The instrument is now taking shape rather quickly in the rear gallery, thanks to Paul Fritts, Bruce Shull and the rest of their hardworking crew. I was delighted to see the top go on the case today; it fit under the ceiling by about 5 inches. Good measuring, Paul!

Houstonians are welcome to stop by and observe the progress over the next week or so. Everything should be in the case by next weekend, then the process of voicing begins. The latter should be finished by mid-March, with any luck, and we'll be sampling the finished stops every Sunday morning during church.