The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Jazz and classical music are closely related and work well together, says composer Daniel Schnyder. He discusses “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” which the Madison Opera stages in its Midwest premiere this FRIDAY night — NOT Saturday — and Sunday afternoon

February 6, 2017
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Jazz and classical music are not so different, says Swiss-born composer Daniel Schnyder.

For Schnyder, it is more than an academic matter. He puts his point of view into action in his acclaimed chamber opera “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” which deals with the life of the bebop saxophone player and jazz giant. (You can see the YouTube trailer for the productions by Opera Philadelphia and the Apollo Theater in Harlem at the bottom.)

charlie-parkers-yardbird-logo-for-maidson-opera

The Madison Opera will offer the work’s Midwest premiere when it stages the chamber opera this Friday night (NOT Saturday night, as first mistakenly posted here) at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. Both performances are in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center. (Performances photos below are from the world premiere at Opera Philadelphia.)

Here is a link to more general information about the opera, tickets, the cast and the production:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/01/17/classical-music-madison-opera-will-present-the-midwest-premiere-of-charlie-parkers-yardbird-here-are-the-many-preparatory-events-for-the-public/

Daniel Schnyder (below) — who will perform a FREE concert of the music of Charlie Parker and do a question-and-answer session on this Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. (NOT 7 p.m. as mistakenly first stated here) in Morphy Hall on the UW-Madison campus — also agreed to an email interview with The Ear:

daniel-schnyder-2017

What was the work’s genesis and what gave you the idea for “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird”? Are you a big jazz fan and did you see the work as a way to meld the jazz and classical styles of music?

I am a jazz fan. I am also a jazz musician and I love to compose, play and improvise in the jazz idiom. I have recorded more than 30 jazz CDs.

I love to combine jazz and classical music. I just finished a symphony for orchestra and big band, a commission by the Temple University in Philadelphia.

I do not see classical music and jazz as two completely different things. Jazz is by nature a synthesis of European music influences and African music.

The idea from the very beginning was to write an opera for Lawrence Brownlee, the great African-American tenor. Opera Philadelphia asked me to write a work for him and we tried several libretto options. After hearing a recital by Larry singing gospel songs, I came up with the idea to write an opera about Charlie Parker’s life.

lawrence-brownlee-as-charlie-parker-opera-philadelphia

How would you describe the musical style of the opera in terms of tonality and melody, and its accessibility to the general public? What were the audience reactions in Philadelphia and New York City?

In both places, the audiences were very moved by the story and the music. The topic hit a nerve, something our society has to reflect upon, a general issue that concerns us all as a nation.

The music itself is not hard to listen to and moves swiftly. For the orchestra and singers, the opera is rather challenging, since Charlie Parker (below) was a virtuoso. The music moves fast and often in off-beat rhythms that are unusual for classical musicians. There are also a lot of odd meters and tricky patterns that sometimes connect to Parker’s music and sometimes relate to the music that came after him.

The audience will have a ball. There are 12-tone music passages reflecting on new music and opera — mostly in Nica’s parts —  but there are a lot of R&B influences and jazz and Latin music grooves.

It would be false to see the opera as a patchwork of different musical sequences and styles. It is my music that is based on all these influences. The opera can be described as a modern music carpet with lots of colors of today’s music, rather than a quilt.

charlie-parker-1

In what ways do you see the characters and the story as offering lessons and being relevant to today?

I guess this is obvious: Our society has to understand that different cultures and different ethnic backgrounds enrich America and are fundamental to its culture and success.

If we go down the path of segregation, divisiveness and disrespect, we all will lose. Jazz is the great coming together of different heritages, the roots of America, and it conquered the world.

We still erect barriers in society and music that are detrimental to growth and innovation. Other contemporary issues are also important in the opera, such as being a single parent, drug addiction and faith.

The opera also highlights that jazz musicians at the time could not earn money from recorded music, something that is true again today. The stealing of royalties from Parker and Dizzie Gillespie were different from today’s issues of streaming, but the problem of jazz musicians not receiving money for their creative works stays the same.

In the opera, Parker discusses the very nature of music, its volatility and the fact that you cannot physically possess it. This is one of the reasons why he wants to write the music down on paper. He wants to make it abstract, but realizes that he loses some of the essence of what he wants to say. That is the dilemma of the composer.

He also reflects on the notation system, which was not designed for jazz. He sings: “How can I put down these black dots on white paper, how can I capture these sheets of sound?”

The opera reflects on American history, but it simultaneously relates to today’s world. This is not just some nice story about the past; it is about us.

charlie-parkers-yardbird-women-opera-philadelphia

Quite a few other productions have been planned. What do you think explains the work’s popularity? Do you think it attracts new audiences to opera?

There might be many different reasons for that:

1) There are very few operas using the modern jazz idiom.

2) There are very few operas in which the leading roles are African-American.

3) The opera is flexible; it can be produced with a moderate budget in a lot of different venues. It is mobile, which is similar to L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) by Igor Stravinsky. It also has a length of just over 100 minutes.

4) As mentioned above, the opera hits a nerve; it is about our time and about us.

5) Charlie Parker is a legend, but very few people really know about him and his music. People are intrigued.

6) The music is very accessible; it can be played on the radio without getting boring or incomprehensible. Some modern operas rely a lot on light, staging and special visual effects. This opera works more like Carmen or a Verdi opera, told through the music.

7) It is an opera, not a musical. It only uses a song format in a few instances. The opera is composed in an open and evolving format, connected by leitmotifs similar to Wagner’s operas.

The music definitely has a lot of jazz influences, but the format is mostly one not used in jazz music. That creates a new experience. It does not fit into one of the known “drawers” of music, so it can be tempting to try to compare it to their pieces but it sticks out as musically different.

8) The opera is composed very close to the sound and rhythms of the words. Hence you can understand a lot. The language is very direct and clear, close to spoken language. That helps. You can actually understand a lot of the lyrics without reading the supertitles.

I tried to avoid the Strauss or Wagner effect of creating something where the mix of complex language and complex music creates something beautiful but often incomprehensible. French and Italian operas are better in this regard. “Yardbird” has a message that needs to be understood.

9) There are many riddles in the opera – musical riddles, but also hidden messages and references in the text – that can be explored. The opera plays in a twilight zone between death and life. This is also intriguing.

charlie-parkers-yardbird-female-singer-opera-philadelphia

Is there something else you would like to say about yourself and the opera?

I enjoyed writing the opera very much. It was a great pleasure and an honor to reflect on one of the great music geniuses in American history.

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Classical music: Maestro John DeMain talks about the challenges and rewards of Beethoven’s “Ninth” – the “Choral” or “Ode to Joy” symphony that he will conduct this weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Symphony Chorus plus soloists.

May 4, 2015
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

It could well be a case of saving the best for last.

This weekend brings what, for The Ear, is the one of the most interesting programs – maybe THE most interesting program — of the season from the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

The sonic combination of a Romantic classic and post-World War II modern music includes the performance of a major symphony that is a beloved icon around the world: the Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven (below), also known as the “Choral” and “Ode to Joy” symphony.

Beethoven big

The Ninth was the symphony that Leonard Bernstein famously conducted in Germany to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall.

So what better offering to accompany it than something composed by Bernstein – his 1954 “Serenade” for solo violin and orchestra, with MSO concertmaster Naha Greenholtz, that is based on the Socratic dialogue “Symposium” by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. (Greenholtz will talk about the Bernstein work in a Q&A here later this week.)

Love and joy: Can there be a better way to finish out a season?

The program will be performed under the baton of longtime MSO music director John DeMain, who studied and worked with Leonard Bernstein. It will feature the Madison Symphony Chorus, as prepared by MSO assistant conductor Beverly Taylor (below), who also heads the UW-Madison choral department.

Beverly Taylor MSO portrait COLOR USE

Guest vocal soloists are: soprano Melody Moore (below top); contralto Gwendolyn Brown (below second); tenor Eric Barry (below third); and bass Morris Robinson (below bottom).

Melody Moore

Gwendolyn Brown

Eric Barry

Morris Robinson

Performances are in Overture Hall in the Overture Center. Times are Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $12-$84.

For details, go to https://www.madisonsymphony.org or call the Overture Center Box Office at (608) 258-4141.

For more information, including audio samples and a link to program notes by MSO bass trombonist and UW-Whitewater professor Michael Allsen, visit: http://www.madisonsymphony.org/beethoven

Maestro DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad) recently agreed to do an email Q&A about Beethoven’s Ninth with The Ear:

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Why does Beethoven’s Ninth always appeal and what makes it an icon in the public mind? What makes it at the same time so revolutionary and so typically Beethoven?

Aside from the Ninth Symphony being a great musical composition, one cannot get away from the inclusion of the poem by Friedrich Schiller (below, in a painting by Ludovick Simanowiz). The “Ode to Joy” literally shouting that all men in our universe are brothers is what makes this symphony an icon in the public mind. (At bottom is a more informal street scene flash mob performance in a YouTube video that has more than 8 million hits.)

The first three movements are typically Beethoven in style, though consummate in his compositional development. It is the inclusion of voices in the last movement, and the length and structure of the last movement that makes this symphony truly revolutionary. This was the first symphony to have included a chorus and soloists for its final movement.

Friedrich Schiller by Ludovike Simanowiz

It isn’t hard to guess what meaning it holds for the public and why audiences find it popular. But what does this music do to you? How do you feel when you perform it and have finished it?

Music for me is a powerful aural emotional experience. While there is great beauty, majesty and excitement to be found in the first three movements, it is that last movement that fires up my own emotions, not dissimilar to what the listening audience is feeling as well.

Literally shouting for a united brotherhood on Earth under our Maker in heaven, Beethoven develops this movement from a lovely and simple melody in the beginning, to a massive and wild declaration at the end.

It is always a uniquely significant event, often conjuring up whatever injustices are occurring in our contemporary world. Certainly our challenges in the Middle East, and our domestic situations, most recently in St. Louis and Baltimore, will resonate in people’s minds as they listen to this music. It’s a call for harmony in the universe.

When you finish conducting the Beethoven Ninth, you are emotionally and physically drained having conducted not one, but two symphonies, as the last movement is a symphony unto itself.

John DeMain conducting 2

What are the challenges, technically and interpretatively, for you, as a conductor and for the orchestra players, the soloists and the chorus?

There is rather elaborate contrapuntal writing for the orchestra, which always poses a problem for ensemble and clarity. Length poses a challenge for endurance, particularly for the strings. The recitative sections for the orchestral basses as well as the soloist are particularly challenging for the conductor, as are the on the spot pull backs in tempo during the last movement.

We all know that the vocal writing is a challenge to both the soloists and the chorus, but particularly for the chorus. The high tessitura (average pitch range) of the writing makes it extremely difficult for the sopranos and tenors to sustain a thrilling fortissimo, for example. (Below is a photo of the Madison Symphony Chorus by Greg Anderson.)

Beethoven was completely deaf at this point in his life, and was writing what was in his mind, not paying particular attention to what was doable. But then, isn’t that how musical innovation and the stretching of form sometimes happen?

MSO Chorus from left CR Greg Anderson

Why did you choose to pair The Ninth with the Bernstein’s Serenade? Do you see certain parallels or contrasts?

Well, Lenny was a real devotee of Beethoven, and in this composition, he does marvelous things with the use of leitmotif. I love juxtaposing 20th century harmonies with the musical language of the early 19th century. Both composers use dissonance as a part of their language, but in very different ways.

The Serenade, while not specifically programmatic, deals with the various aspects of love, and relates to the Beethoven in that love has to be the basis that binds all men and women together.

I  also love featuring our wonderful concertmaster, Naha Greenholtz (below), and when she suggested the idea, I thought it would make a wonderful contrast to the Ninth, and fill out the concert in a truly wonderful way to close our season.

Naha Greenholtz [playing


Classical music: Violinist Daniel Hope explores the music created by composers who emigrated from Nazi Europe to Hollywood and wrote film scores. He performs that music with the Madison Symphony Orchestra this weekend.

March 2, 2015
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

British violinist Daniel Hope (below) is a man on a mission.

Hope wants to foster the public’s appreciation of the composers who had to flee from Nazi Europe during World War II and who ended up exiled in Hollywood, where they composed film scores. They ended up creating the  “Hollywood sound” and often won Oscars or Academy Awards, but recognition as serious concert composers usually eluded them.

Daniel Hope playing

Until recently.

Lately, a rediscovery of their merits has been taking place, and Hope will explore that legacy with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and its longtime music director and conductor John DeMain.

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Performances are in Overture Hall on Friday night at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m.

The program for “Composers in Exile: Creating the Hollywood Sound” includes the Violin Concerto and Suite from “Captain Blood” by Erich Wolfgang Korngold; the Sinfonietta for Strings and Tympani, and the score to “Taras Bulba” by Franz Waxman, who also founded the Los Angeles Music Festival in 1947; and the “Theme, Variations and Finale” as well as “The Parade of the Charioteers” and the “Love Theme” from “Ben-Hur” and the “Love Theme” from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” by Miklos Rozsa.

Tickets are $16-$84 plus fees for the Overture Center.

For program, information about tickets and links to audio samples, visit: http://madisonsymphony.org/hope

For more about the music, here are the program notes by MSO trombonist Michael Allsen who also teaches at the UW-Whitewater:

http://facstaff.uww.edu/allsenj/MSO/NOTES/1415/6.Mar15.html

The award-winning Daniel Hope, who is busy touring and recording, graciously took time to answer a Q&A for The Ear:

Daniel Hope full face

How would you compare in seriousness and quality these “exiled in Hollywood” composers and their music to other well-known 20th-century composers and mainstream modern classical music?

I don’t make comparisons in music. The composers who escaped the Nazis found themselves for the most part in a very different set of circumstances than those for which they were trained. They were incredibly talented and had to adapt quickly.

I think the more interesting question is what would have happened to 20th-century music if countless musicians and composers had not been forced to leave Europe. (Below is a photo of Igor Stravinsky, on the left, and Franz Waxman in Los Angeles, where Waxman founded a music festival in 1947.) The world of music would be a very different place indeed.

franz waxman with stravinsky

Why do you think these composers and this music were kept out of the concert hall for so long? What traits most mark each composer’s style?

In those days, even writing one number for a movie would almost certainly have ruined your reputation as a “serious composer.” It was seen as selling out. The fact that many of these composers were trying to survive, to support their families and to get their relatives out of Europe, was often forgotten — especially after World War II.

But they were also phenomenally talented at what they did. As the son of Miklos Rozsa (below) wrote to me recently, one day these composers may actually be forgiven for writing film music.

Miklos Rozsa BW

In the case of Korngold (below), he was one of the first to really introduce a leitmotif, a recurring theme that followed the character throughout the film. Essentially an operatic composer, Korngold described each film for which he scored as “an opera without singing,” his music no longer passively accompanying the images but actively engaging in dialogue, emotion and presentation. I believe both Korngold and Max Steiner totally changed American film music, also by adding a fin-de-siècle European symphonic grandeur.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold BW piano

How much of their current appeal is cultural interest, human interest or personal stories, or the quality of the music itself?

I think it’s all of the above. But if you look at the symphonic works of some of the composers, Korngold’s and Rosza’s Violin Concertos or Waxman’s oratorio “The Song of Terezin,” you will find music of the highest quality. And let’s not forget, it was Mahler and Richard Strauss who forecast a great future for the young Korngold. (You can hear the lovely second movement of Korngold’s Violin Concerto performed by Hilary Hahn in a popular YouTube video at the bottom.)

What factors explain their revival as concert music? How did you rediscover them and become interested in them? Has a loosening of formal definitions of classical genres helped their revival?

I think both the role and the appeal of film music have changed in today’s society. I had long been aware of this group of émigré musicians.

Next to music, I’ve always had a passion for film, most of all for the movies of “vintage Hollywood,” for me the period beginning with the epic cinematic storytelling of the 1930s. As a young violinist, I was struck as much by the sound of the violin in these movies of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. I especially took note of the violinists playing this glorious mood music. To a young boy in London, names like Toscha Seidel, Felix Slatkin, Eudice Shapiro and Louis Kaufman sounded as exotic as the films they embellished.

But then writing for the studio musicians of prewar and postwar Hollywood was a group of astonishing composers, many of whom had escaped the Nazis, and who helped shape what was to become the Hollywood Sound. (Below, y0u can hear excerpts from a sampler from the Deutsche Grammophon CD on which Daniel Hope explores the Hollywood Sound.)

Hollywood muisicians with reels of film

You have recorded this music and performed it many times elsewhere. How do audiences typically respond to it?

Audiences are generally extremely enthusiastic about the music. And many of them are moved or intrigued by the stories of these composers.

 

 

 

 

 


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