Elen sila lumenn omentielvo!

Monday, August 29, 2016

Gene



"But Charlie, don't forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted.... He lived happily ever after."

Rainbows, flames, and giant ducks

Last week I picked my mother up at the airport, and it was right after a rain storm had passed through. We don't get many rainbows in this area, so it's always exciting when we do!

A rare rainbow (rare in our neck o'the woods). #rainbow

(I remember when we lived in the Portland, OR area, we'd see rainbows almost daily. Because it rained, well, almost daily.)

This weekend the World's Biggest Rubber Duck was in Buffalo. Yes, we went down there to see it.

GIANT DUCK IN THE WATER! FLY YOU FOOLS!! #canalside #buffalo #bigassduck

Ayup. That's a big duck, all right.

And yesterday the dee-oh-gee and I hiked through Chestnut Ridge to the Eternal Flame waterfall. I'd long wanted to see this, and now I have! It's quite a hike to get there, but very much worth it when you arrive.

At last! The Eternal Flame! #ChestnutRidge #wny #OrchardPark #summer #eternalflame

The flame, up close #ChestnutRidge #wny #OrchardPark #summer #eternalflame

By the Flame #Cane #DogsOfInstagram #greyhound #ChestnutRidge #wny #OrchardPark #summer #eternalflame

At the Flame, people generally take their turns stepping up and shooting photos and whatnot before departing so the next folks can do likewise. The group two "turns" ahead of me took extra time, though, so we had to wait about ten minutes. Their reason for taking extra time was justifiable, though: it was two couples, and the man in one couple had chosen this place to ask his girlfriend to marry him. Just as Cane and I arrived, he was dropping to one knee and she was doing the "OMG!" thing. Much smiling and laughing and crying and whatnot. Their other friends, who were in on it, broke out a bottle of champagne they'd toted in their backpack. It was all very nice, and we got to see the Eternal Flame.

Oh, and I've been writing, too. More on that another time!

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Symphony Saturday

There are times when the circumstances of a given work's creation almost inexorably lead to conclusions about its nature that probably aren't quite true. Such is the case with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 in B minor, which concluded his symphonic output. Tchaikovsky's life was not easy -- neither his creative life nor his personal life. He struggled with his works, occasionally destroying them and many times revising them years later. He also struggled with his sexuality in a time when to be a gay man was perhaps the worst thing you could be. Tchaikovsky was famously prone to bouts of depression and mental despair, and his works are so often riddled with emotion, never moreso than in the heartbreaking Symphony No. 6.

And then there is the fact that Tchaikovsky led the Symphony's premiere just nine days before he died, reportedly from cholera that he contracted after he drank a glass of unboiled water during an epidemic of that disease. One wonders how Tchaikovsky made such a mistake:

The timeline between Tchaikovsky's drinking unboiled water and the emergence of symptoms was brought into question. So was the possibility of the composer's procuring unboiled water, in a reputable restaurant (according to one account), in the midst of a cholera epidemic with strict health regulations in effect. Also, while cholera actually attacked all levels of Russian society, it was considered a disease of the lower classes. The resulting stigma from such a demise for as famous a personage as Tchaikovsky was considerable, to the point where its possibility was inconceivable for many people. The accuracy of the medical reports from the two physicians who had treated Tchaikovsky was questioned. The handling of Tchaikovsky's corpse was also scrutinized as it was reportedly not in accordance with official regulations for victims of cholera. This was remarked upon by, among others, composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in his autobiography, though some editions censored this section.

Theories that Tchaikovsky's death was a suicide soon began to surface. Postulations ranged from reckless action on the composer's part to orders from Tsar Alexander III of Russia, with the reporters ranging from Tchaikovsky's family members to composer Alexander Glazunov. Since 1979, one variation of the theory has gained some ground—a sentence of suicide imposed in a "court of honor" by Tchaikovsky's fellow alumni of the Imperial School of Jurisprudence, as a censure of the composer's homosexuality. Nonetheless, the cause of Tchaikovsky's death remains highly contested, though it may never actually be solved.

In the light of such thinking, many consider the Sixth Symphony to be Tchaikovsky's musical "suicide note" in which he meditates on the nature of his own impending demise. I'm honestly not sure about this. It really does make for an interesting story -- there could even be a novel here -- but as others note, it seems a bit too easy a conclusion to draw.

To which the only possible rejoinder is: I’m afraid that’s nonsense. To take some examples from elsewhere in musical history: many of Rachmaninov’s pieces are haunted by the Dies Irae plainchant, that symbolic intonation of impending fate, and yet even after writing a piece called The Isle of the Dead, he kept on living; Berlioz’s music too is full of intimations of mortality, but he kept going for decades after dreaming of his own execution in his Fantastic Symphony; Beethoven didn’t expire after just after he faced the limits of human mortality in the Missa Solemnis; and even Mahler remained alive just after he had just crossed the border into silence at the end of his Ninth Symphony. In fact, if every composer, author, painter, or poet had died after making their greatest works about death, none of them would have been around for very long. It is pure, tragic coincidence that Tchaikovsky should die of cholera a few days after conducting the Sixth Symphony at the age of just 53 – a piece, to reiterate, that he actually composed in good mental and physical health – but that’s all it is. We do this symphony a terrible injustice if we only see and hear it through the murky prism of myth, story, and half-truth that now swirls around accounts of what happened in the composer’s final days.

Most commentators do at least agree that in the Sixth Symphony, Tchaikovsky really is exploring and examining issues of fate and death. The symphony is full of wild contrasts. Stormy passages in the first movement are juxtaposed with lyrical passages that feature one of Tchaikovsky's most yearning melodies. The second movement gives us a waltz that feels "wrong" somehow, because it's in 5/4 time. The third movement brings a vigorous march that feels like it's progressing toward a triumph, but then the final movement begins. It's in that final movement that Death takes hold, because here Tchaikovsky writes a slow movement that opens with drama and descends to meditative brooding and sorrowful lamentation before finally fading away in the end.

And with that, we leave Tchaikovsky behind.


Friday, August 26, 2016

Twelve....

Sorry for not having a bad joke today, but I'm feeling a bit contemplative as today is Little Quinn's birthday. He should be turning twelve. Alas, he is not.

Hippie Quinn

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Something for Thursday

There's a little viral-game running around Facebook right now, in which if someone tags you, you post the cover of a music album you consider to be a great album. You are not tasked with defending the album in any way; all you have to do is pass the game on to some other folks. It's kind of neat seeing which albums people pick, because so far no one seems to be taking the obvious ones. I've seen the game a bunch of times, and I've yet to see Abbey Road or Rumours or The Wall.

So what was my pick? This:



And yes, I totally mean it. Live at the Acropolis is a great album.

Is it great music? Look, let's get real. It's schmaltzy New-Age stuff, with a lot of twinkly-tink piano. But as such music goes, Yanni is far from horrible, and on Live at the Acropolis, the presence of a full orchestra gives his music some weight that it otherwise would probably lack. Also, there are times when a certain kind of magic seeps into a live performance, and this concert appears to have been one of them. There's energy and life in this recording that isn't present in some of the studio recordings of the pieces Yanni would perform that night. It's hard not to feel the energy in "Santorini", for example, or the lyrical magic in "Until the Last Moment". And you know what? If by chance I had my wedding to do over again, our first dance would be "Reflections of Passion".

So yeah, I consider Live at the Acropolis a great album, and I make no apologies for it. Sometimes the music-making itself is good enough to elevate the music itself. This is one of those cases.

Here is the album, in playlist form. However, for some reason, track five -- "Acroyali/Standing in Motion" -- was blocked on copyright grounds, so I present that track after the playlist, by itself. Why they challenged that one track and not the rest of the album (it was all uploaded by the same person), I can't imagine. Sometimes companies do weird shit with respect to their copyrights on YouTube.



Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Tone Poem Tuesday

Antonin Dvorak wrote five major symphonic poems in his life, of which we hear the last today. A Hero's Song has no specific program to describe or illuminate its action, and some have concluded that it is partially autobiographical. I don't know about that, but it is a typically fine Dvorak work, full of melody and energy that is at times infectious, especially in the final bars when the kinetic nature of the music really picks up. I've found over the last several years that when I get in the car and turn on the classical music station and I hear an orchestral work that brings simple, sheer pleasure, as often as not it's something by Antonin Dvorak. His music seems to be very closely attuned to my happier, non-brooding self, and that certainly applies here, as well.

Of course, the most famous composer of tone poems of all time, Richard Strauss, would not long afterwards write a work called A Hero's Life, which has not been neglected as has the Dvorak work. We'll get to Strauss in good time, but for now, here's the Dvorak.


Saturday, August 20, 2016

Symphony Saturday

In researching a little for this post, I discovered that Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 in E minor is not universally beloved. Shocking, but true: some critics find the finale "insincere and crude". Well, really. While I've had issues with a number of Tchaikovsky's works over the years, I've never had any issue with the Symphony No. 5. I've loved it since I first heard it, in a televised New York Philharmonic performance sometime in the late 1980s. Tchaikovsky's Fifth is one of my "signpost" works: it hits home for me on nearly every level, touching nearly all the emotions along the way. It broods, it battles, and it struggles; it sings and it waltzes and it dances -- and finally, in the end, it triumphs. Of all the symphonies I have heard, I can think of only one other that touches so many ranges of feeling. (Longtime readers almost certainly know which one that is, and readers who don't...well, we haven't got there yet.)

The Fifth, even moreso than the Fourth, makes use of a cyclical structure in which all four movements are tied together by a recurring theme. We hear this theme immediately, in the first movement's opening bars; this theme is often called the "Fate" theme, and indeed, the work is sometimes said to have an "underlying program" involving some sort of triumph over fate or some such thing. Tchaikovsky himself indicated something of a programmatic aspect to the work early on, but in its finished form the symphony has no specific program as such. Still, the music is highly emotive and dramatic, as befits a composer who never wrote a work that was not dramatic in some fashion.

That "Fate" theme is always recognizable throughout the symphony, each time it appears, and it is heard in a number of different guises and characters. We first encounter it in its brooding mood, before the first movement gives way to a march theme that partially broods but also partially seems to approach a dance-like character. The mood is almost of a folk dance or march, but there is still a feeling of something larger going on under the surface. (And remember that march theme, when it starts: it will return later on.)

In the second movement, we reach the emotional heart of the symphony. This is the slow movement, and what a grand movement it is: meditative and song-like, with multiple themes that wind into and out of each other until the whole thing feels like it's going to burst (with a massive quotation of the "Fate" theme in the middle). The movement begins with a sequence of soft chords which lead into the first them, played on a solo horn in what I have to assume is one of the "dream works" of every horn player. This movement is one of the most perfect symphonic movements I know.

The third movement, about half as long as the movements that surround it, feels like a small respite in the midst of some very huge emotions being expressed in the rest of the work. It brings us several waltz-like themes that intermingle with each other, at one point taking on the feel of an actual scherzo, before concluding with a triple-meter statement of the "Fate" theme. Tchaikovsky does some interesting things with the rhythms throughout the movement, with syncopations and unexpected turns of musical phrase. Even so, this waltz is both elegant and somewhat melancholy, right to the very end, when we encounter the Fate theme again.

And then the finale begins, with the Fate theme again -- but this time it is in a major key, played in stately fashion. The feeling is almost one of optimism. Optimism! From Tchaikovsky! Surely we're mistaken...and indeed, after a lengthy introduction involving the Fate theme, we launch into the "meat" of the finale, which is stormy and dramatic and at times even almost violent sounding. But even through all that there are moments that feel as if optimism is trying to break through. As much as I don't like resorting to visual metaphors in describing music, this movement is rather like one of those afternoons in late summer or early fall when a series of thunderstorms rolls through, one after the other, and in between are moments of sporadic sunshine with breaks in the clouds through which the brilliant blue sky can be seen. The tension mounts and mounts throughout this movement, until it all finally culminates in a final crashing chord -- or what feels like a final crashing chord, if you haven't been paying attention (and audiences have actually been known to start applauding what they assume to be the symphony's concluding moment at this point) -- and then, after a brief silence, nothing but pure triumph, with our "Fate" theme blazing forth, backed by heroic trumpet calls before being fully taken up by the brass itself. Then, at the last, there is one last stormy passage before the symphony's last bit of Tchaikovskian thunder: a blazing call-and-answer between the trumpets and the horns that actually quotes the march theme from all the way back in the first movement.

The symphony, as a form, can be the most epic of musical forms (other than pure opera), and Tchaikovsky's Fifth is a supreme example of this. A good performance of it always leaves me breathless and satisfied. It's one of those works of art that gives me the sensation of having been afforded a glimpse, however brief, behind the curtains of this universe into the realm of the truly majestic and beautiful.

But now, you probably want to actually hear the Symphony No. 5, so here it is! And I'm doing something different this time out: I'm featuring two performances. The first performance is from a concert given at London's Proms (and God, how I want to go to Proms someday!) by the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Han-na Chang. I had never heard the QPO before I heard this performance, and in doing a little reading, I learned that the QPO is less than ten years old as of this writing (their inaugural concert was in 2008), and they focus especially on the music of Middle Eastern composers, which sounds fascinating to me. There was an unfortunate story surrounding this particular concert, though: having been recently named the QPO's music director, Han-na Chang led the orchestra in this, the group's first ever performance at Proms -- and then, citing difficulties with management, she resigned the very next day, while the QPO was still on tour. Nevertheless, the QPO's Proms performance of Tchaikovsky's Fifth is quite a good one.


Next, though, we have a performance that is nearly transcendent. Leonard Bernstein was made to conduct works like this, with his famous passionate podium manner that sometimes made it seem as if he was about to levitate into the air above the orchestra. This performance is by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and it was recorded over 40 years ago, at Tanglewood (the BSO's summer home, in Western Massachusetts). The sound isn't quite up to modern standards here, but so what? The fire and drama of the music are still luminous.


Next week we wrap up Tchaikovsky.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Something for Thursday

Film music today: a suite from Jerry Goldsmith's score to Patton. I only watched the film once, when I was ten or eleven. I don't recall having much of an opinion, but I remember being struck by Goldsmith's work -- particularly those echoing trumpets that are heard throughout.