Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Act I, Scene 3

Mendelssohn was at no point in his life a Jew. Though not baptized until age seven, he was not circumcised and never attended a Jewish school or entered a synagogue. But he came from a prominent Jewish family and had many Jewish relatives. (Certainly this was more than enough for racists like Richard Wagner to consider him Jewish.) So it is reasonable to see, as many do, Elijah as Mendelssohn’s effort to reconcile his Jewish heritage with his Protestant faith. In such a reading, Elijah acts as a kind of surrogate or precursor to Jesus, with Obadiah doing the same for John the Baptist. (One could take this further, with Ahab and Jezebel acting as Herod and Pontius Pilate, and the Baal worshipers as the Pharisees, or the Jews of “free Barrabus” fame.)

In any case, Christian audiences are likely notice similarities between the events of the Gospels and those of Elijah’s life as he retakes the stage for the first time since since the Introduction: hermitage in the desert, turning a limited food supply inexhaustible, and raising the dead.

An angel appears to Elijah, telling him to hide in the desert by a wadi (a riverbed where water runs only intermittently) called Cherith, presumably to avoid the wrath of those affected by the drought, where ravens will feed him. Mendelssohn originally intended to include some bird-like music, though apparently the idea was scrapped. Instead, the chorus sings to Elijah that angels will protect him. It’s three minutes of music, but it covers three years of Elijah’s life: if Elijah were a movie, this chorus would serve as the music for a montage of Elijah’s activities at Cherith: wandering, eating food from the ravens, and (probably) praying.

When the wadi runs dry, the angel reappears and tells Elijah to find a widow in Zarephath, a town then in Sidon, now in Lebanon. The angel mentions that the widow’s puny stock of meal and oil will be miraculously replenished, but the widow doesn’t know this, so when Elijah appears and asks her for bread, she’s less than thrilled. (Mendelssohn leaves this out, but in the Bible the widow essentially says, “I’m going to make what little I can for me and my son, and then we’ll both die.”)

What follows is one of Elijah’s major setpieces. The widow’s son falls gravely ill (it’s not initially clear if he’s actually dead: there’s “no breath left in him”), and she takes out her despair on Elijah: “What have I to do with thee?” (Basically, “Can’t you just leave us alone?”) The solo oboe acts as a kind of avatar for the widow, personifying her agitation. The curse motive makes an appearance, on “affliction,” “go mourning,” and “lie down and weep.”

Elijah agrees to beseech Yahweh for aid, in a mini-aria whose key (E major) and repeated string eighth notes echo “Comfort ye” from Handel’s Messiah. The widow grows increasingly skeptical as Elijah’s pleas have no effect. (In the Bible, it’s explicit that Elijah cries out three times, which, as future scenes show, is the typical number of attempts one needs to call upon a god.) Elijah’s final plea, less lyric, more emphatic, and aided by trombones, is effective: the son lives. We hear the curse motive again (on “reviveth”) but of course this act of God is not a “curse” but a blessing, and the motive is flipped: the tritone leap goes up instead of down. The widow finally comes around, and she and Elijah sing a joyous and grateful duet.

This scene is one of the most overtly operatic numbers in Elijah, with a clear narrative progression like what one might find in duet between lovers: first each of the pair sings individually, lamenting some difficulty in their circumstances, before reconciling at the end. (This is the only place in the oratorio where two specified characters sing simultaneously.) It’s not hard to hear the widow’s final vow to love Him “with all my soul, and all my might” as referring to a lover rather than Yahweh.

The duet of Elijah and the widow is followed segue by theological commentary from the chorus – “Blessed are the men who fear Him.” While not part of the narrative, it shows the affects of the first major development of the oratorio: the curse motive of the drought transfigured to express the resurrection of the child. Thus the chorus ends with the curse motive used on the word “Blessed” – blessing and curse are one.

Next: Elijah confronts Ahab.

Earlier:
Overview
Act I, Introduction and Scene 1
Act I, Scene 2

Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Act I, Scene 2

The introduction and opening numbers of Elijah show us the suffering of the Israelites during the three-year drought Elijah brings upon them. The population, including King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, has abandoned Yahweh and have taken worshiping Baal. One of the few remaining faithful to Yahweh is Obadiah, who runs the king’s palace. Knowing that their faithlessness has led Elijah to “close the heavens,” he pleads with the Israelites to revert to worshiping Yahweh, without reservation.

(As an aside, Obadiah’s aria is one of the staples of the tenor repertoire: a good length for auditions, challenging enough to show skill but not absurdly difficult, and a good tune to boot. Fairly or not, Mendelssohn is sometimes compared with Beethoven and found lacking, but writing idiomatically for voice is one way in which Mendelssohn is undeniably superior.)

It doesn’t work: the people believe that Yahweh ignores and mocks them, and will eventually destroy them; their chorus is filled with the interlocking tritones of the curse motive (“his curse hath fallen on us”). It’s important to note that they doubt neither the existence nor power of Yahweh, but instead have given up hope. Yahweh is a jealous God who punishes later generations for the sins of their ancestors; they do not believe succor from Yahweh is a possibility.

Yet the chorus ends in a peaceful C major with gently undulating strings and a text of reassurance: “His mercies on thousands fall.” The incongruity of this sentiment (essentially a reiteration Obadiah’s message of faithfulness) with the earlier anger and hopelessness suggests that this passage is best heard as extra-narrative; the chorus has switched from its Israelite crowd role to its commenting observer role. Mendelssohn and his librettist may have felt that the Israelites’ despair was too pessimistic to be left without an immediate rebuttal.

Next: Elijah makes a journey.

Earlier:
Overview
Act I, Introduction and Scene 1

Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Act I, Introduction and Scene 1

Mendelssohn introduces us to Elijah much as he is introduced in Bible: with virtually no preamble. In 1 Kings, Elijah is given no origin story nor genealogy; the only biographical information we get is that he is from Tishbe in Gilead. Yet he has earned enough clout as a prophet to gain audience with Ahab, the king of Israel, and declare: “As God the Lord of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall be no shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.”

When Elijah declares the drought, we hear for the first time a series of twisty interlocking tritones, a melodic fragment associated initially with curses and affliction but which will eventually go through various transformations and take on new meanings – a leitmotif if ever there was one. (And pervasive: this instance, 30 seconds into the piece, is the first; the last will be 30 seconds from the end.)

Mendelssohn initially intended to go directly from the Introduction to the first chorus, but his English translator convinced him to insert an instrumental overture between the two, resulting in the unusual scenario where the Overture occurs in the midst of the drama, connected both to the preceding and following numbers. Thus the Overture, a fugue which gradually becomes more and more agitated (and whose fabric is shot through with the curse motive), can be heard as the increasing desperation of the starving Israelites.

(The Introduction and Overture also thus combine to form a structure typical of overtures by Bach and Handel: a slow, declamatory beginning followed by a faster, fugal section. Both Bach’s B Minor Mass and Handel’s Messiah, among many others, follow this pattern.)

The Overture culminates with a segue into the first Chorus, where the Israelites cry for relief at the top of their lungs (“Help, Lord”) and describe the difficulties of their situation (“the rivers are exhausted, the children ask for bread”). This Chorus too is a fugue, giving the impression of a crowd of people speaking over top of each other while once again evincing the work’s Baroque inspiration.

While much of Elijah is dramatic, its status as an oratorio means that at semi-regular intervals, we step outside the narrative to provide commentary or reflection. The first of these, a Duet with choral interjections, follows immediately from the opening Chorus: a lament on behalf of the Israelites (“Zion spreadeth her hands for aid, and there is neither help nor comfort”).

These first four pieces (Introduction, Overture, Chorus, Duet), which are performed attacca without interruption, serve to set the stage. Next we meet one of the few Israelites faithful to Yahweh.

Earlier posts:
Overview

Mendelssohn’s Elijah, In Installments

The ISCS will be performing Felix Mendelssohn’s dramatic oratorio Elijah on Friday, April 28. It’s a big piece – a little over two hours – and a lot to take in all at once. (It beggars belief that, at the premiere, they actually played more stuff after Elijah was over.) Since people like music that they already know, and since the piece is so extensive, I wanted to provide a place for people to get to know the music in digestible chunks, rather than having to jump in all at once. So over the next couple weeks I’ll update this blog with tidbits about the various setpieces in the work one at a time, with the hope that, when the performance comes around, it’ll be that much more meaningful, and less overwhelming.

First, though, some context. Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) grew up the son of a banker in Berlin, with all the privileges money could buy.  (How rich were they? The family home would eventually be bought by the state and used for meetings of the Prussian House of Lords.) In particular, this meant the best education Berlin had to offer. Mendelssohn had a few music teachers, but the most influential was certainly C.F. Zelter, director of the Singakademie and professor at the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts. Opinion of Zelter’s abilities varied, but two things are clear: his musical tastes were about 80 years out of date (his preferred composition treatises were from the mid-1700s), and young Mendelssohn admired him greatly.

This gave Mendelssohn a uniquely historicist bent from an early age. His teenage compositions are riddled with intricate counterpoint reminiscent of Bach’s time, and throughout his life both his compositional style and preferred performance repertoire reflected interest in multiple eras, both present and past. (You can make the case that Mendelssohn was the prototype for our current conception of a “classical” musician.) So when Mendelssohn took on Elijah in earnest in the mid-1840s, Bach’s Passion settings and Handel’s oratorios were his models: the influence of these quasi-dramatic pieces on Elijah is obvious and pervasive.

It is perhaps best to think of Elijah as a concert opera, the closest the adult Mendelssohn would come to writing in the genre. (Though he contemplated doing so many times, Mendelssohn never wrote a “mature” opera; the stage works he did write were adolescent pieces intended for private performances at home.) Like Bach, his most ambitious dramatic works came in oratorio form. Unlike Handel’s Messiah (but like Samson and Saul), the soloists in Elijah play explicit roles: the baritone is Elijah, the tenor Ahab and Obadiah, the soprano the widow at Zarephath, the alto Jezebel. (Both women also serve as angels.) There are places where the narrative is interrupted by theological commentary, but the majority of the piece is “action” – either a performance or description of the significant events of Elijah’s career.

To get a better handle on these events, it’s worth setting forth the biblical context as well:

After escaping slavery in Egypt, the Israelites find themselves trying to establish a foothold in what we now call the Near East (modern-day Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon). Predictably, the already-existing populations in the region aren’t interested in being evicted, and a series of messy and bloody wars ensue, including several instances of what can fairly be called genocide. Eventually, the Israelites are able to settle semi-successfully, forming a confederation of states corresponding to eleven of the 12 Tribes of Israel (the Levites being assigned the priesthood). But they can hardly be said to have conquered the region: other nationalities reside alongside them, occasionally allies, often adversaries.

Because of the continuing foreign threats, the Israelites (some reluctantly, some enthusiastically) decide to establish a monarchy. The first king Saul is an imposing figure and effective battle commander but prone to jealousy, especially when the young upstart David starts eclipsing his reputation. David spends his early career eluding both Saul and the Philistines, and only upon Saul’s suicide is he able to finally establish a truly unified Israelite monarchy. The kingdom would then see the height of its wealth and power during the reign of his son Solomon.

Solomon, for all his wisdom, is unable to avoid the trap which ensnares most of the Israelite kings – apostasy – leading to a division of the kingdom upon his death. (This is Yahweh’s punishment for Solomon, inflicted on his successors.) Solomon’s son Rehoboam leads the kingdom of Judah in the south while the rebel Jeroboam rules Israel in the north.

The succession of rulers of both kingdoms are generally found wanting, but the Israelite kings are judged particularly awful, again, based on the standard of faithfulness to Yahweh. When Ahab accedes to the throne, some 40 years and six kings after Jeroboam, he rules from the city of Samaria (built by his almost-as-terrible predecessor Omri on a hill that was presumably easily defensible) and takes to worshipping Baal, the god of his wife Jezebel. Jezebel orders the prophets of Yahweh to be slaughtered, but Obadiah, the palace majordomo, remains faithful to Yahweh and is able to hide some of them away.

Enter Elijah.

Next: Introduction, Overture, and Nos. 1 and 2.

 

 

Gonzaga Needs To Win And Then Lose

I don’t talk about it much, but I’ve wasted a fair amount of my life watching sports, and like a lot of fans, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is one of my favorite events. Yes, drama, storylines, and all that, but it also provides reams of juicy data, and for the analytics crowd (and failed math majors like me), a lot of the interest comes from the numbers. But there’s one feature of the tournament (and all tournaments of this type) that interests me and apparently no one else: the Biggest Loser.

To back up a second: the logic of using a tournament to determine a champion is based on a kind of transitive property: if Team A beats Team B, and Team B beats Team C, then Team A should theoretically beat Team C. It’s not perfect, of course – upsets happen – but it does have its advantages. First, it still favors good teams: the last team standing may not be the best, but it’s all but guaranteed that they won’t be too bad, either. Second, it’s unambiguous: if your goal is to have an undisputed champion, a tournament will give you one – only one team will end up undefeated. Third, it’s efficient: you don’t have to beat every other team in the field to be champion; you just have to beat someone who beat them (or beat someone who beat someone who beat them, and so on). In other words, a tournament takes a relatively small number of games to give you an unequivocal champion that is likely really good. You can do a lot worse.

So you can “prove” that the 2016 champion Villanova was better than every other team in the tournament by using a “transitive chain.” Want to show they were better than Gonzaga? They beat North Carolina, who beat Syracuse, who beat Gonzaga. Better than Yale? They beat Oklahoma, who beat Oregon, who beat Duke, who beat Yale. And again, Villanova is unique: they’re the only team for whom you can make such a chain to every other team in the tournament.

But there is another unique team in any tournament (unique, obviously, in a different way): the aforementioned Biggest Loser. The BL is the team who can “prove” (by tournament logic) that they are worse than the most number of teams. (In a 64-team tournament, that number is 6.) They do this by being the first loss in chain of losing that goes all the way to the championship game. In 2016, the BL was Purdue: they lost to Arkansas-Little Rock, who lost to Iowa State, who lost to Virginia, who lost to Syracuse, who lost to UNC, who lost to Villanova.

It’s important to note that, while the tournament format “proves” that the champion is better than every other team, it does not prove that the BL is the worst. We know the BL is worse than the most other teams, but there’s no way to know (based solely on wins and losses) whether it’s worse than any other team that also lost its first game. Which is probably why the BL, from a basketball perspective, isn’t very interesting to most people.

But while the BL doesn’t tell us a lot, it doesn’t mean that it’s a random result. Because I have lots of free time, I went back through the tournaments since 1985 and checked the seeds of the BLs. (Because I don’t have that much free time, I did it quickly and may have screwed some up.) Here are the results:

1: none
2: none
3: 1 time
4: 4 times
5: 2 times
6: 2 times
7: none
8: 1 time
9: 2 times
10: 1 time
11: 2 times
12: none
13: 5 times
14: 5 times
15: 7 times
16: none

Initial thoughts:

  1. The fact that zero BLs have been 1s or 2s is no surprise: the vast majority win their first game and immediately take themselves out of the running.
  2. The zero 16s is expected as well: while they invariably lose their first game, the 1s that they lose to usually win again.
  3. The largest cluster by far is the 13/14/15 range. Not too surprising, as they generally lose their first games, but a little surprising that 15s were the most. I would’ve expected the 2s to win their second game often enough to keep that number down.
  4. The expected BL based on seed would be 11: 11 loses to 6 loses to 3 loses to 2 loses to 1. So it’s a bit surprising that it’s only happened twice, 1991 and 1988. Only one of those was a “perfect seeding” BL: St John’s in 1988 [lost to Florida(6) lost to Michigan(3) lost to UNC(2) lost to Arizona(1)]. (There may have been other potential perfect-seed BLs whose bid was disrupted in the Final Four – I didn’t look.)
  5. In fact, the whole 10/11/12 cluster seems underrepresented, as the required upsets are few and plausible (for 10, 2 needs to lose its third game; for 12, 1 needs to lose its fourth). Part of it might be the unusual propensity for 12s to upset 5s.
  6. I do wonder, however, if there’s some kind of paradoxical phenomenon going on where large strings of upset-free results are actually unlikely. If a bunch of favorites win in one round, then you get more even matchups in the next, with a higher probability of (nominal) upsets: a 6 is more likely than an 11 to upset a 3. (Some people lamented the lack of first-game upsets this year, until they noticed all the great second-game matchups that happened as a result.) In other words, maybe upsets are more likely to be followed by chalk, and vice versa. Someone who’s better at math than me will have to examine that one.
  7. And of course, there is likely some small sample-size flukiness at play. I’d be curious to see a graph of the expected value by seed.

So what does this mean for this year? Great and historic things, actually. Just as there are four remaining championship contenders, there are four candidates still in the running for BL. All four possibilities have something unusual about them. In ascending order of interest:

4. If South Carolina wins and then loses, the BL will be VCU, a relatively rare 10-seed BL.
3. If Oregon wins and then loses, our BL is 11-seed Kansas State, giving us our second-ever perfect-seeding 11 BL. [lost to Cincinnati(6) lost to UCLA(3) lost to Kentucky(2) lost to UNC(1)]
2. If UNC wins and then loses, we’ll have our first-ever 12-seed BL: Nevada.

1. But by far the coolest result is if Gonzaga wins and then loses. The chain will then be: UNC/Oregon beat Gonzaga beat South Carolina beat Florida beat Wisconsin beat Villanova beat Mt St Mary beat (drum roll) the University of New Orleans. Not only would we get our first-ever 16-seed BL, but we’d do so by going through the number-one overall seed (Villanova) and making it all the way back to the First Four, to a team most of us have forgotten was in the tournament in the first place.

Yes, I understand this is of limited interest. But UNO-as-BL is a freakishly unlikely result, so math-wise it’s pretty neat. (Again, it’d require someone better at statistics to assign a number to the probability.) UNO has a chance to make (or fall backwards into) an obscure bit of history, and I’m rooting for it. So:

Go Zags! Then stop!

Schuller and Sibelius

One of these days I’m going to write an epic diatribe on why Gunther Schuller’s book The Compleat Conductor is the most destructively terrible book about conducting ever written, but until the time to do so presents itself, perhaps this post can tide me over. Schuller’s thesis is simple: composers know their music better than anyone else, and they know how to notate accurately. Therefore, if you deviate from the composer’s notation, you are conducting badly – who are you to say you know better than the composer how the music should go?

There are about a dozen immediately-apparent problems with Schuller’s thesis, but the easiest part to refute is that notation equals intent. Some of you may know Sibelius’s Andante festivo, originally for string quartet, generally more familiar in its string orchestra version. Sibelius doesn’t provide a lot of performance indications in the score regarding tempo, but there are two important pieces of information: the title and the meter.

The title gives a tempo indication right away: andante. Often this is described as “walking tempo;” Roger Norrington will tell you it literally means “going.” Either way, it suggests a sense of motion and certainly does not mean slow. (The “festivo” is more ambiguous: yes, it translates to “festive,” but in this case, it might be more accurate to say “ceremonial,” akin to the German feierlich.) The time signature is cut time, half note to the beat. If we combine those two indications, we may not be able to put a precise metronome marking on it, but we can surmise that the intended tempo should be a “moving 2” of some sort. And in fact, some performances do exactly that:

Which is fine – nothing wrong with it, sounds lovely. And it’s a Finnish conductor with a Finnish orchestra, so if you’re the sort of person who thinks that kind of thing provides some sort of authenticity, you’re safe there too. Now let’s listen to a different version:

Yes, that’s Sibelius himself conducting the same piece. We may not agree on exactly the best way to describe this tempo, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone hearing this and calling it “Andante in 2.” I’d probably choose “Adagio molto in 4.” There’s enough rubato (unmarked, incidentally) in the performance that a few of the faster passages might work in 2, but most of this has a quarter-note feel, and even the quarters feel slower than andante (averaging around 56 bpm), to say nothing of the halves.

Absurdly, by Schuller’s logic, the first performance is superior because, by more closely adhering to the notation, Saraste has done a better job of capturing Sibelius’s intent. Sibelius himself, on the other hand, has somehow managed to subvert his own intentions by deviating from the score. If Schuller were to listen to both without knowing who was conducting, he’d insist that the first was closer to Sibelius’s ideal.

While on the face of it that’s completely ludicrous, we shouldn’t automatically consider the composer’s recording more authoritative than the page. There are a variety of reasons the two could deviate: editing mistakes in the score, bad conducting (inexperienced conductors don’t always get the tempos they want), being in a strange mood the day of the recording session (though they may have been in a strange mood the day the ink dried too), and, for older recordings, inaccurate recording speed. In the interest of full disclosure, I have not scoured Sibelius’s manuscripts (Was the original title “Adagio festivo?”) or letters (“My stupid publisher accidentally put cut time when I meant 4/4”) to verify the score’s accuracy.

And even if my score is “correct” in this case, we shouldn’t extrapolate a general trend from one example – which is why we need to point out that this case is far from isolated. If you sit down with Copland’s LSO recording of Appalachian Spring, you’ll find he’s within 4-5 bpm of his metronome mark maybe half the time, and sometimes off by more than 30 bpm. Stravinsky was notorious both for insisting that performers follow his notation and for failing to do so himself. (The last Stravinsky MM I checked was the first movement of Dumbarton Oaks: the score says eighth=152, while his recording is at least 180.) If we’re to believe Schuller’s claim that the vast majority of the time composers’ notation accurately reflects intent, then we have to find excuses for the perhaps 30-50% of the time that composers’ own recordings deviate from the score. That’s an awful lot of editing errors and slowed-down recordings.

Schuller half-heartedly acknowledges this phenomenon in The Compleat Conductor, but his response is a bunch of slippery-slope straw-man nonsense [pg. 43]: “Such occasional anomalies do not automatically invalidate all metronome markings.” For one thing, as I’ve said, such anomalies are hardly “occasional.” And for another, these anomalies may not “invalidate” a MM, but they do mean that we can’t assume uncritically that they reflect intent. The composers themselves have proved over and over again that they often don’t. Instead, we’re going to have to choose tempos based on some other criterion – what sounds the best, perhaps?

ISCS Preview, February 12: Contemporary Hits

There are few phrases which strike as much fear into the heart of a typical concert-goer as “contemporary classical music.” It conjures images of artsy black-clad snobs frowning their way through some incomprehensible, boring, even downright bizarre bit of ugliness. Most modern-day composers don’t like that stereotype (obviously), but it’s certainly true that it’s not always easy to hear the beauty of the more uncompromising composers like Anton Webern or John Cage. It’s not hard to see why someone who’s been burned once or twice by an unpleasant new piece might seek the safety of known quantities (and undisputed greats) like Brahms or Beethoven.

But it’s important to remember that “modern” music (which in the historically-inclined classical music world still usually refers to pieces written since 1900) encompasses a huge variety of styles. The last hundred years have been marked by innumerable stylistic fractures, reactions and counterreactions, rejections and assimilations. (The aforementioned Webern and Cage were about as diametrically opposed philosophically as you can get.) Virtually anything that can be said about contemporary music will only be as true as the opposite. As a result, the last hundred years have simultaneously produced both difficult-to-get-into pieces but also some of the most-loved classical works, including (for example) Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, and Copland’s Appalachian Spring. One of the best-selling classical albums of all time is a recording of Henryk Górecki ‘s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, written in 1976; and of course millions of people in the last two months have gone to hear John Williams’s score for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (as well as, you know, to see the movie).

Thus to describe a piece as “popular contemporary classical” only seems oxymoronic. There are any number of current composers and compositions that are getting lots of performances and finding enthusiastic audiences, and the Idaho State-Civic Symphony will be performing a few of these on our February 12 concert.

Probably the most famous work on the concert is Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral. (Most living contemporary composers tend to avoid giving their works generic names like “Symphony No. 3” and prefer instead to name them something more personal or evocative.) Higdon writes that “as I was writing this piece, I found myself imagining a journey through a glass cathedral in the sky,” and the music is filled to the brim with soaring lyricism and lush romanticism. Additionally, blue cathedral was written in part as a reflection on the recent death of her brother (named Andrew Blue). Andrew had been a clarinetist, and the clarinet features prominently in the score – a chance for us to show off our excellent Principal Clarinet, Dr. Shandra Helman.

In contrast to blue cathedral’s sumptuous beauty, Mason Bates’ Mothership is full of the sorts of driving rhythms and repeated ostinatos that you find in contemporary popular styles. As if the title didn’t make it obvious enough, Mothership has a strong technological bent and includes a part for laptop computer. (The piece was actually premiered by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra.) Additionally, there are several passages which are open for improvising soloists (who are “docking” with the ship, in the words of the composer). This gives us the perfect opportunity to introduce the ISCS audience to the newest member of the ISU music faculty, Professor of Jazz Studies Jon Armstrong, who will be taking the solos in those passages.

Recordings of both the Bates and the Higdon can be easily found online – I encourage you to take a listen if you’re curious. That cannot be said, however, of Christopher Theofanidis’ Dreamtime Ancestors, for the simple reason that the piece is brand new, written in the summer of 2015. Dreamtime Ancestors came to be through a commissioning consortium, where instead of a single person or ensemble asking (and paying) a composer to write something, a number of organizations come together to commission a piece. The result is usually a win-win: the performing organizations get to split the composer’s costs among themselves, and the composer gets several performances of the piece instead of just one. The consortium for Dreamtime Ancestors includes orchestras from all over the country, and ISCS was selected to be the premiering orchestra for the northern Mountain Time Zone.

Theofanidis offers the following poem, based on Australian aboriginal creation myths, as context for Dreamtime Ancestors:

Baiame! Ancestor Maker of Many Things.
Baiame! Baiame!
Bring forth other ancestors from the ground and send them over the seas.

Rainbow Serpent Ancestor, carve rivers, leave stars!
Flow blood, hurl lightning – bring life to empty space!

Eagle ancestor, burst Emu Ancestor’s egg in the air – burst it into flame: the sun!

Crocodile Man Ancestor, whose ridges carve the earth,
Leave a memory of your earthly pain!
Valleys and peaks everywhere!

To round out the February program, the ISCS has commissioned a piece of its own: a new concerto for percussion and orchestra written (and performed) by our own Principal Timpanist Dr. Thom Hasenpflug. Regular symphony attenders know Dr. Hasenpflug as one of our most dynamic and expressive musicians, and as he teaches both percussion and composition at ISU, having him write a piece featuring himself seemed an obvious thing to do. Dr. Hasenpflug has named the piece Four Mischiefs, and each of the four movements is named for a fictional supernatural being. These characters all have their own distinct traits and personality quirks; if there’s something they have in common, it’s that none of them seem particularly trustworthy. Unlike Dreamtime Ancestors, whose inspiration is taken from existing traditions, Four Mischiefs’ source material is entirely a product of the composer’s imagination.

One of the most satisfying parts of directing ISCS is the variety of music we get to perform here. (We’re following up our February program with a Broadway sampler in March and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in May.) It’s a testament to our audiences here in Pocatello that listeners so enthusiastically embrace the full spectrum of musical styles that orchestras have to offer. We look forward to seeing you soon!

 

Passacaglia

On December 13th, 2012, I met three friends of mine for lunch in downtown Atlanta, in order to discuss the possibility of me writing a piece for them. I like to meet with performers I’m writing for, to talk about what they like to play and what they don’t, music they like, things composers do that annoy them, non-musical interests – anything that might get my mind going – so that the piece really feels like it was written for them, as opposed to for their respective instruments.

Happily, the conversation (and the excellence of the musicians) made the project an exciting one, one which I wanted to get started on right away. So the next day, December 14th, I put down a lot of ideas, some sketchy, some pretty well-formed, which would become the piece Passacaglia. In the midst of this activity, I took a Facebook break, where I learned that someone had walked into an elementary school in Newtown, CT and gunned down 26 kids and teachers.

As they often do after these all-too-familiar mass shootings, several of my musically-inclined friends posted this Bernstein quote on line:

This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly, than ever before.

Written in response to the Kennedy assassination, the quote allows for a variety of interpretations: by making music, do we honor the victims, as Bernstein suggests? Do we balance the scales, by contrasting the horror with beauty? Is it an act of defiance, a way of saying we shall not be broken, that we will put humanity back on the right path? Probably all of these and more.

Nevertheless, there’s something absurd about responding to gunfire by playing Tchaikovsky – how much difference does it really make? It may lighten the mood for a bit, but isn’t it a bit like the band playing on while the Titanic sank? How much does a 10-minute chamber work that only a few dozen people will ever hear actually matter, when kids are getting shot at school?

When I returned to my score, it seemed that the shooting should have completely derailed my compositional fervor. (If this particular act of violence felt especially personal, it was surely because one of the musicians I was writing Passacaglia for – my then-roommate, in fact – had grown up in Newtown.) But instead, the exact opposite happened; the piece suddenly became supremely important.  It’s hard for me to express exactly why, but at that moment, silence and tepidity just seemed like gigantic wastes of time. A world full of bullshit could only be countered with aggressive honesty, and replying to violence with intense, devoted, truthful music-making suddenly made a lot of sense. So I sat down and endeavored to write the holy hell out of the piece.

That of course does not mean that Passacaglia is any good; a former composition teacher once pointed out that a lot of terrible music was written in response to 9/11. Additionally, the piece is certainly not ‘about’ Newtown in any specific way. I didn’t finish the piece that afternoon, after all; I completed it over the course of the next few months, with Newtown at various distances, or completely absent, from my mind. (Audiences are of course welcome to bring their interpretations to the works they hear; certainly someone out there could hear some of the louder dissonant passages as representing anger, rhythmic sections as the play of the children, calm passages as the peace of heaven, or whatever.)

But that day, I simply felt that the piece must say something, clearly and seriously, even if that something didn’t translate to words and had no direct relationship to external events, and that insistence stayed with me throughout the compositional process. Obviously, I can’t predict how anyone else will react to it – if it moved everyone on Earth, it would be the first piece in history to do so. What I can say is that I did what I could to make it true, in my mind and my ear. At least this one time, I said what I meant and I meant what I said, without apology.

Passacaglia will be premiered Saturday, Sept. 19, at Spivey Hall in Atlanta, in its adapted quintet version.