We have a special DATEBOOK birthday to note today, for on this date in 1894 one of music's great "date-meisters," Nicholas Slonimsky, was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. A self-described "failed wunderkind," Slonimsky became an accomplished conductor and relentless new music promoter, giving the first performances of avant-garde works by Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, and Edgard Varese, to name just a few. A composer himself, Slonimsky's own works include settings of actual advertisements he found in the Saturday Evening Post circa 1925, and a symphonic work that culminates in the triple-forte explosion of 100 colored balloons. Slonimsky was an obsessive collector of the dates, venues, and premiere performers of concert music in the 20th century. Slonimsky's chronicle, entitled Music Since 1900, runs well over 1000 pages and went through several editions during his long lifetime. Slonimsky also served as the editor for several editions of Baker's Biographical Dictionary, writing many of the wittiest contributions himself. Slonimsky's scholarly writings include a 1947 Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, an inventory of all conceivable and inconceivable tonal combinations, a work that became a cult classic among BeBop jazz musicians, including the legendary saxophonist John Coltrane. In 1952, Slonimsky published his Lexicon of Musical Invective, a collection of some of the juiciest bits from the devastatingly bad reviews many musical masterpieces received at the hands of contemporary critics, and in 1968, for the Music Library Association of America, a painstakingly researched report entitled Sex and the Music Librarian. Nicolas Slonimsky died in Los Angeles in 1995, just 4 months shy of his 102nd birthday.
On today's date in 1891, a small group of music patrons gathered at one of New York's docks to greet the Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who had been invited to America to take part in the grand opening of a new music hall. Back then, it was just called "The Music Hall," but over time it took on the name of the wealthy steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who funded its construction.
"Carnegie is an amazing eccentric," wrote Tchaikovsky to his friends back in Russia. "He rose from being a telegraph boy, transformed with the passing of years into one of America's richest men, but one who has remained a simple, modest man who does not at all turn up his nose at anyone."
And, despite his legendary melancholic funks and chronic bouts of homesickness, Tchaikovsky admitted he found the rest of New York rather impressive: "American customs, American hospitality, the very appearance of the town, the remarkable comfort of my accommodations – this is all very much to my taste and if I were younger I would probably be greatly enjoying my stay in an interesting new country."
On the down side, Tchaikovsky reported you couldn't buy cigarettes on a Sunday, and it was sometimes hard to find a public bathroom when you needed one – a common complaint of New York tourists even today!
"All told," Tchaikovsky concluded, "I am a much bigger fish here than in Europe. Incidentally, Central Park in magnificent."
Today's date marks the anniversary of the first performances of two 20th century chamber works.
On April 25, 1931, Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev's String Quartet No. 1 received its premiere performance by the Brosa Quartet at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Accepting the commission from the Library's Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, Prokofiev set about studying pocket scores of the string quartets of Beethoven, which he perused on trains while shuttling between concert engagements.
Prokofiev himself described the work's opening as "rather classical," but when the new quartet was premiered in Moscow, the verdict of the all-powerful Association of Proletarian Musicians was that it was too "cosmopolitan," a pejorative adjective in Soviet arts criticism in the Stalinist Era that meant something like "unacceptably modern."
Our second chamber music premiere occurred on April 25th in 1980, when the Octet for Winds and Strings by the American composer George Rochberg was performed for the first time at Alice Tully Hall in New York City. The occasion was a concert by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, who had commissioned the new piece.
At the time, Rochberg was a rather controversial figure for shifting from his earlier, strictly atonal style into a more emotionally charged neo-Romantic approach to music making, often referencing earlier composers and musical styles of the past. The music critic of The New York Times thought he heard a touch of Rachmaninoff in Rochberg's new piece – an observation that some at the time would translate as really meaning the work was "unacceptably old-fashioned."
"In an ideal musical world," says Joan Tower, "a composer should have a friendly, creative, and ongoing working relationship with performers for whom she writes." For Tower, who has emerged as one of the most successful American composers of her generation, a friendly, creative, and ongoing relationship with chamber ensembles, symphony orchestras, and soloists has resulted in a number of musical works. Tower's Violin Concerto, for example, was written for the American violin virtuoso Elmar Oliveira, who gave its premiere performance on today's date in 1992 at a Utah Symphony concert. Tower wrote the piece with Oliveria in mind: "A lot of violinists are speed freaks," she wrote, "but Elmar can play both virtuosically and with an innate singing ability." The more lyrical and emotional heart of the work was written as memorial to Olivera's older brother, also a violinist, who died of cancer during work on the new concerto. That's not to say Tower didn't supply some flashy, pyrotechnical passages for her star soloist, however. As Oliviera put it: "It's the kind of flashiness an audience can relate to. Joan doesn't need avant-garde gimmicks, because now she's completely comfortable speaking her own language, one that is expressive and natural to her." Or, as Tower herself put it: "Sometimes it's a struggle to find out what you're good at. It took me a number of years to decide how I wanted to write with my own voice."
On today's date in 2004, the Utah Symphony and conductor Keith Lockhart premiered "Three Latin-American Dances" by the American composer Gabriela Lena Frank. Just a few days later, the same forces recorded Frank's music for a compact disc release, to be sandwiched between Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" and Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances." Frank's first dance, entitled "Jungle Jaunt" opens with what she calls "an unabashed tribute" to the urban jungle evoked in Bernstein's "West Side Story." Her second dance, "Highland Harawi," is more melancholy, perhaps a nod to that strain in Rachmaninoff's music, and evokes the sounds of the bamboo quena flute of the Andes. Her third dance is titled "The Mestizo Waltz," a pun on the famous "Mephisto Waltz" by Franz Liszt. As Frank explains: "This final [dance] is a lighthearted tribute to the mestizo or mixed-race music of the South American Pacific coast. It evokes the romancero tradition of popular songs and dances that mix influences from indigenous Indian cultures, African slave cultures, and western brass bands." Frank herself is of mixed Peruvian and Jewish background. When asked about how her heritage affects her music, she replied: "Sometimes the Latin influences are quite evident, and sometimes they are quite subtle. And of course, 'Latin' can mean so many different things. There is no one single Latin identity, as any Latino/latinoamericano would tell you."
Today is Earth Day -- an annual event started in 1970 by then-Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin as an environmental teach-in.
Senator Nelson wasn't the only one concerned back then, either: the Czech-born composer Karel Husa had noticed dead fish floating on a lake located near a power plant. "The plant was producing hot thermal pollution which in turn killed all those fish," Husa recalled. "In addition, I noticed more beer cans in the water and algae in greater quantities."
A wind band commission provided Husa with an opportunity to create a work he called "Apotheosis of This Earth." In explaining its title, Husa wrote:
"Man's brutal possession and misuse of nature's beauty – if continued at today's reckless speed – can only lead to catastrophe. The composer hopes that the destruction of this beautiful earth can be stopped, so that the tragedy of destruction – musically projected here in the second movement – and the desolation of its aftermath – the "postscript" of this work – can exist only as fantasy, never to become reality."
"Apotheosis of this Earth" was commissioned by the Michigan School Band and Orchestral Association, and its premiere performance took place on April 1, 1970, with Husa himself conducting the University of Michigan Symphony Band at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor. It proved a powerful piece of music.
"As the Postscript finished," recalled the composer, "I saw that the students in the band were somehow moved – there were even some tears."
On today's date in 1937, one of Aaron Copland's LEAST well-known works had its premiere performance. This was an opera written for high school students, New York's Henry Street Settlement Music School, to be exact, and entitled "The Second Hurricane." In his memoirs, Copland recalled that at the time he wrote it, he was living at the Empire Hotel in Midtown Manhattan for $8.50 a week, and that he wrote the score in a studio he rented, located at what is now the site of Lincoln Center. To direct the premiere of his school opera, Copland hired a young actor-director named Orson Welles. Copland's score also called for some adult performers as well, including one professional actor by the name of Joseph Cotton, who was paid $10 for his performance. "The newspapers seem to enjoy the idea that a dyed-in-the wool modernist was writing an opera for schoolchildren," recalled Copland, "so they gave a great deal of attention to every step along the way, particularly the casting. Those kids must have gotten a kick out of seeing their names in the Times and Tribune! The idea of an opera for high school performers appealed to the press, I suppose, for the same reason it appealed to me. My motives were not all unselfish, either: the usual run of symphony audiences submitted to new music when it was played AT them, but never showed signs of really wanting it. The atmosphere had become deadening. Yet the composer must compose. A school opera seemed a good momentary solution for one composer, at any rate."
Religious music, like the religious experience itself, comes in all shapes, forms, moods, and colors. On today's date in the year 2002, for example, this setting of the Song of Isaiah had its premiere performance at the Milwaukee Art Museum during a concert by the Present Music ensemble. The composer of the new setting was a native of Milwaukee named Michael Torke, who writes: "I have always considered that a central religious experience is one of uplifting joy, as opposed to other spiritual expressions of pleading, suffering, atonement, or wrath. It is that state of joy and thanksgiving I am trying to express." Song of Isaiah was commissioned for Present Music's 20th anniversary, and to honor the Archbishop Rembert Weakland. The piece is scored for a singer, clarinet, bass clarinet, string quintet, piano, vibraphone, and a percussionist who plays the rhythmic underpinning with a tambourine, claves, and in the center of the piece, a triangle. "This spirited rhythm," writes Torke, "embodies slower embedded forms that are etched out melodically by the clarinets in octaves, and also by the strings and piano in octaves. In essence, there are no climaxes, as I wish the music to be a meditation, though the feeling is quite lively. Nine sections of the piece serve as episodic variations, and explore different small chunks of text from the Book of Isaiah. The form is a mirror: the first and ninth sections relate, as do the second and eighth, and so on; the fifth section (using the triangle) is in the exact center."
According to Webster's Dictionary, a concerto is "a piece for one or more soloists and orchestra with three contrasting movements." And if you ask the average Classical Music Lover to describe a Violin Concerto, it's likely he or she will think of the big 19th century Romantic concertos by Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, works in which there seems to be a kind of dramatic struggle between soloist and orchestra.
But on today's date in 2003, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and its concertmaster Stephen Copes premiered a Violin Concerto that didn't quite fit that mold. For starters, it had FOUR movements, and this Violin Concerto No. 2 of American composer George Tsontakis might be described as more "democratic" than Romantic – meaning the solo violinist seems to invite the other members of the orchestra to join in the fun, rather than hogging all the show.
This concerto is more like a friendly, playful game than a life-and-death contest, and Tsontakis even titles his second movement "Gioco" or "Games."
And, speaking of games, this new Concerto proved a winner, being selected for the prestigious 2005 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. Even so, George Tsontakis confesses to being a little shy when sitting in the audience as his music is played, knowing full well, he says, that most people came to hear the Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, and not him.