Today we offer more proof (if you still need it) that the world of MUSIC, like the world in general, is getting smaller all the time.
On today’s date in 1999, the Houston Symphony, led by its German conductor Christoph Eschenbach, gave the first performance of this music, a work by the Chinese composer Bright Sheng.
“Flute Moon” is scored for solo piccolo and flute, with harp, piano, percussion and string orchestra. Its first section portrays a couple of giant unicorns in Chinese mythology; its second is based on a classic Chinese art song of the 13th century.
Bright Sheng was born in Shanghai in 1955. During Madame Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” of the late 1960s, he worked with a folk music and dance troupe near the Tibetan border. In 1978, after the Cultural Revolution had ended, he was able to study at the Shanghai Conservatory. In 1982 he came to New York for additional study, where his teachers included the American composer Leonard Bernstein.
In short order, Bright Sheng established himself as one of the most sought-after Chinese composers of our time. In addition to winning major composition awards and prizes, he’s held a number of major teaching posts across America.
“Why do I compose?” he asks. “Music is a way for me to express feelings as well as a way to express concrete thoughts. These are the two opposites of the spectrum. One is more spontaneous, while the other requires more logic and organization skills. One helps the other to achieve the maximum result.”
Popular as the imaginary purple dinosaur named “Barney” might be with American kids, in the 1990s he got some competition from another T-Rex named “Sue.” Sue was the nearly complete fossilized skeleton of a female T-Rex discovered in South Dakota, named after the woman who found her, a paleontologist, named Susan Hendrickson.
“Sue” – the dinosaur, that is – ended up as a major display at the Field Museum in Chicago. As part of the festivities surrounding the opening of the exhibit, on today’s date in the year 2000, the Chicago Chamber Musicians premiered a musical work that told Sue’s story in words and music. It was designed for children, very much in the style of “Peter and the Wolf,” or, in this case, “Sue EATS Peter, the wolf, and anything else she can catch.”
The music was composed by the American composer Bruce Adolphe, who titled his work, “Tyrannosaurus Sue: A Cretaceous Concerto.”
Bruce Adolphe was a good choice for the project for, in addition to being a composer, author, educator and performer, Adolphe admits to being a big kid at heart, eager to share his enthusiasm for music with audiences of all ages. Bruce Adolphe has served as Music and Education Advisor for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and as the founding creative director of Polly Rhythm Productions, a music education company.
Adolphe’s “Cretaceous Concerto” has been performed by other chamber groups around the country, accompanying a life-size cast of the real “Tyrannosarus Sue” that has toured the country.
On today’s date in 1846, a Grand Festival Concert took place at New York’s Castle Garden, a popular spot for 19th century Manhattanites to enjoy fireworks, balloon ascensions, ice cream, and band concerts.
The band on this occasion consisted of some 400 vocalists and instrumentalists, including members of the four-year-old New York Philharmonic. They gave, for the first time in America, a complete performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, the “Choral Symphony.”
In attendance was a 26-year-old lawyer named George Templeton Strong, who kept a diary and recorded his impressions – which were NOT favorable:
“A splendid failure, I’m sorry to say,” he wrote. “The first movement was utterly barren… the minuet was well enough, quite brilliant in parts [and] the only point I found worth remembering in the whole piece… then came an andante (very tedious)... then the fourth movement with its chorus, which was a bore… a small achievement for Beethoven, and the orchestra might as well have been playing at the bottom of a well. Every note of the music was blurred and muddied, a mere confused storm echoes and reverberations… [But] after all,” concluded Strong, “‘tisn’t fair to judge, hearing it under so many disadvantages.”
Fourteen years later, after a more advantageous Philharmonic performance in 1860, Strong changed his mind about Beethoven’s Ninth, and wrote: “Strange I should have missed its real character and overlooked so many great points when I heard it last. It is an immense, wonderful work.”
It’s a little ironic that at the height of his career, the great Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saens was more appreciated in England and the United States than in his native France.
And so, it’s perhaps not surprising that his Symphony No. 3, subtitled the “Organ Symphony,” premiered not in Paris, but at St James's Church in London on today’s date in 1886, with the composer conducting as well as performing as the organ soloist.
In addition to being a famous composer and brilliant pianist, Saint-Saens was also an accomplished organist. In 1857, he became an organist at the famous Church of the Madeleine in Paris, and held that post for 20 years. The great Romantic composer Franz Liszt once hailed Saint-Saens as the finest organist in the world. And so, again not surprisingly, Saint-Saens dedicated the published score of the “Organ Symphony” to Liszt, who had died in Germany shortly after the London premiere.
What we DO find surprising is that, for quite a few modern American audiences, this great and noble symphonic work calls to mind a clever little sheep-herding piglet named “Babe.” For reasons beyond the knowledge of even the Composers Datebook, one of the uplifting themes from Saint-Saens’ “Organ Symphony” was used, to great effect, in a popular 1995 film about talking barnyard animals.
Maybe the filmmakers stumbled upon Saint-Saens’ “Organ Symphony” after sampling another work the French composed in 1886, a witty chamber lark entitled “Carnival of the Animals.”
On today’s date in 1980, at 8:32 a.m. Pacific Time to be exact, Mount St. Helens erupted, its north face collapsing in a massive rock avalanche. Pressurized gasses from the volcano flattened 150 miles of forest, and killed every living thing within a ten-mile radius – including 57 unfortunate people caught in the devastating blast.
A mushroom-shaped column of ash rose thousands of feet skyward, and day was turned to night as grey ash fell over eastern Washington state. The energy released by the eruption was estimated at 10 megatons, thousands of times stronger than the atomic bomb dropped at Hiroshima.
It was an awe-inspiring spectacle witnessed by the American composer, Alan Hovhaness, who, in 1983, was commissioned by his publisher, C.F. Peters, to write his Symphony No. 50, a work subtitled “Mt. St. Helens.”
“Since 1972,” said Hovhaness, “I have lived between the young, volcanic Cascades and the oceanic Olympic range with rain forests, and find inspiration from the tremendous energy of these powerful, youthful, rugged mountains.”
As a Washington resident, and as the composer of “Mysterious Mountain” Symphony, his Symphony No. 2 from 1955, Hovhaness was a natural choice for such a commission. In explaining the title of his earlier “mountain” symphony, Hovhaness wrote: “Mountains are symbols, like pyramids, of man’s attempt to know God… symbolic places between the mundane and spiritual world.”
Before his death in the year 2000, Hovhaness completed 67 symphonies in all, many with programmatic titles inspired by other natural and spiritual themes.
On today’s date in 1969, Leonard Bernstein conducted his last concert as the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein had been named the orchestra’s Music Director in November of 1957, and was the first American-born and trained conductor to hold the position.
So, for baseball fans, these were Bernstein’s “stats” as of May 17, 1969: He had conducted 939 concerts with the orchestra, more than any other conductor in its history. He had given 36 world premieres, 14 U.S. premieres, 15 New York City premieres and led more than 40 works never before performed by the orchestra.
At Philharmonic concerts Bernstein conducted Vivaldi, Bach, and Handel, but also Babbitt, Cage, and Ligeti. He led the world premiere performance of the Second Symphony of Charles Ives, and included other elder American composers like Carl Ruggles and Wallingford Riegger on Philharmonic programs, as well as works by his contemporaries, Ned Rorem and Lukas Foss.
On occasion, Bernstein conducted his own music with the Philharmonic, including the premiere performances of his “Candide” Concert Overture, the “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story,” and, one of his finest works, the “Chichester Psalms.”
Bernstein would continue to appear with the New York Philharmonic on occasion as its Laureate Conductor, and as a popular guest conductor with major orchestras around the world. His final concerts were with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood in the summer of 1990. He died in October of that year.
Joan Tower is one of America’s most famous – and quotable – women composers. She once asked audiences to imagine her idol, Beethoven, as a composer-in-residence with a modern American orchestra: “If Beethoven walked in here right now,” said Tower, “I think we’d all be a bit shocked. He’d probably look very scruffy and be an obnoxious pain-in-the-butt. Orchestras would never ask him back.”
Commenting on her own music, Tower can be equally blunt. Among her most popular and frequently performed works is the series pieces entitled “Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman.” Of these, Tower remarked, perhaps with tongue firmly in cheek: “Maybe the title is better than the music.”
On today’s date in 1991, Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony gave the premiere performance of this music, Joan Tower’s “Concerto for Orchestra.”
“It’s my WORST title,” Tower declares. “I really didn’t want people to think of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, but it is a concerto in the sense that it features different parts of the orchestra.”
This work was a joint commission from the St. Louis Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and the Chicago Symphony.
Reviewing the Chicago performance, music critic John von Rhein wrote: “Tower's talent for flinging bold, dramatic sounds over a large orchestral palette is much on display in her Concerto... it is not intended to show off the orchestra in any virtuosic sense. Rather, it is more about the sometimes cataclysmic energies that are released when sound and rhythmic structures meet head-on.”
In May of 1949, a Festival of Contemporary Music was underway at Columbia University in New York, and during that Festival (on today’s date, in fact) a new symphony received its first performance, by the CBS Symphony conducted by Thor Johnson. The work was a success, and was soon taken up by the Cleveland Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, and other major American composers. It was the Third Symphony of the American composer Randall Thompson, and one of his major orchestral works.
Thompson was born in 1899, and died in 1984. He juggled a busy career as a composer, with major posts at a variety of major American universities on both coasts, and managed, despite his teaching duties, to produce a sizeable body of chamber, orchestral, and vocal works.
These days, Randall Thompson is perhaps best known as a choral composer. His 1940 choral setting of the “Alleluia” has become a familiar choral repertory classic. Thompson’s orchestral works, on the other hand, are not heard all that often anymore, which seems a shame.
But then, as Thompson himself saw it, he was always writing for the American audiences of his own time. As he put it: “A composer’s first responsibility is and always will be to write music that will reach and move the hearts of his listeners in his own day... Literal and empty imitation of European models must be rejected in favor of our own genuine musical heritage in its every manifestation, every inflection, every living example.”
On today's date in 1986, the Finnish Radio Symphony gave the premiere performance of the Symphony No. 5 of the Finnish composer, Einojuhanni Rautavaara.
The Finnish Broadcasting Company had come up with the idea of commissioning a whole evening’s worth of orchestral pieces by Rautavaara, which, when taken together, would form a conventional concert program of overture, concerto and symphony. These three works have come to be called the “Angel Trilogy,” since each of the pieces has a title with the word “Angel” in it.
Rautavaara’s Fifth Symphony, with the working title “Monologue with Angels,” was originally to be the symphonic conclusion of this triple commission. But Rautavaara dropped the title, and his Symphony No. 7, subtitled “Angel of Light,” ended up being the third part of the “Angel Trilogy,” alongside an overture entitled “Angels and Visitations” and a double-bass concerto entitled “Angel of Dusk.”
Now, if you asked the mystical Rautavaara why he changed his mind, he would probably say it really wasn’t his idea at all. It’s just the way the music came to him from the realm of those very same angels. Rautavaara considers that his compositions already exist in ‘another reality.’ His job, he says, is to bring a composition into OUR world in one piece. "I firmly believe that compositions have a will of their own, though some people smile at the concept.”