To many people, the initials SAS are synonymous with the Scandinavian air carrier. Musicians, however, tend to view those letters as a shorthand for “synthesis, analysis, synthesis.” It’s one of many learning styles used in the pedagogy of music. With this approach, a performer follows a logical progression of study that will ultimately lead to mastery and musical independence.
The first stage – synthesis – describes a performer’s initial exposure to a new work. Often referred to as sight-reading, this process provides an overview of a new composition, with clues about its musical period, style and complexity. This stage may also involve a comparison of the musical score with a recording, which allows the performer to grasp the work’s scope and architectural design. The novice may be tempted to make a determination about the work’s value at this point but it’s far too premature to make such claims.
From there, the real work begins: analysis. Details about melody, harmony, rhythm, form, style and mood are subject to scrutiny at this stage. Depending on the work’s complexity and length, as well as the performer’s degree of musicianship, this process can take weeks, months or even years to realize. One often hears tales of professional musicians who put off performing a work for a period of years because of the overwhelming responsibility involved.
Young concert violinists rarely program the Beethoven violin concerto, for example. Their concerns rarely have to do with technique but rather the ability to convey a compelling performance of a beloved masterwork. Knowing their performance will be judged against the high standards set by celebrated musicians of the past makes their task even more daunting.
The cycle finally ends much as it began. After a significant period devoted to study, this final stage of synthesis results in a much greater understanding of the work’s technical and musical demands. And though the final stage brings the process full circle, the study of music is ongoing. It’s not uncommon for musicians to devote entire careers to the exploration of challenging repertoire: the contrapuntal works of Bach, the late sonatas of Beethoven or the intricate works of Berg and Webern.
Like actors who return to a favorite role throughout their careers, musicians know they will be asked to perform the repertoire’s great masterworks again and again. Yet, each time a performer revisits such a work, there exists an opportunity to further illuminate its beauties and probe its mysteries. When that happens, performer and listener benefit equally from the process.
The orchestral repertoire is filled with works that made their debuts as solo keyboard compositions. Think of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” or Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.” Yet while the basic musical structure remains the same, the process of transcribing a keyboard work for orchestra often allows for greater depth, texture and, especially, color.
When Ravel orchestrated Mussorgsky’s “Pictures,” he, in essence, created an entirely new work. Though still recognizable to those who knew the original, Ravel’s version featured some novel orchestrational touches: the use of saxophone in “The Old Castle” or a tenor tuba in “Bydlo.” Of course, Ravel was a remarkable colorist, whether working with someone else’s scores or his own. The French impressionist transformed his own “Alborada del Gracioso” and “Valses nobles et sentimentales” with equal deftness.
Both Dvorak and Brahms experimented with a larger color palette in their “Slavonic Dances” and “Hungarian Dances,” respectively. With some, I prefer the four-hand piano originals; others seem conceived orchestrally. Alexander Gauk took Tchaikovsky’s piano suite known as “The Seasons” and handily arranged it for orchestra. The results frequently sound as if Tchaikovsky had done his own orchestrations.
Another noted example is Howard Hanson’s “For the First Time.” If we view the piano suite as being two-dimensional, these brief movements emerge anew when “colorized” with Hanson’s vivid orchestral palette. Percy Grainger qualifies as one of music’s most prolific meddlers, typically arranging his own works for multiple combinations of instruments. He even invented the term “elastic scoring” to describe his approach.
Grainger’s “The Immovable Do,” for example, has found its way into multiple published versions, including arrangements for band or mixed chorus (with or without organ); full orchestra; string orchestra or wind choir; pipe, electronic or reed organ; clarinet choir (saxophones at will) and woodwind choir. In cases such as these, keyboard works illustrate their versatility and adaptability to many different treatments; think of them as variations on an original theme. The result is a musical transformation whose myriad colors often cast the original in a flattering new light.
A rose by any other name might smell just as sweet, but a musical burdened with an obscure title may never achieve the distinction it deserves. Consider “Away We Go,” “Welcome to Berlin,” “My Best Girl” and “The Silver Triangle.” People with a penchant for theatrical trivia will recognize “Away We Go” as the working title of the musical “Oklahoma!” But it wasn’t until the song “Oklahoma” repeatedly stopped the show that the authors changed the title to the more familiar “Oklahoma!” Residents of the Sooner State have been grateful ever since.
“Welcome to Berlin” was Kander and Ebb’s first big hit, renamed “Cabaret.” “My Best Girl” was eventually dropped as the title of Jerry Herman’s musical “Mame,” although it still exists as a song title in the same show. And “The Silver Triangle” would become Meredith Willson’s runaway hit, but not until its title was changed to “The Music Man.”
Other musical titles sound more like misnomers than actual show titles. The innocuous “Hard to Get” was changed to “Bon Voyage” before it became Cole Porter’s delightful “Anything Goes.” And while “I Picked a Daisy” and “The Roman Comedy” would have taken up considerably less room on theater marquees, these shows eventually became known as “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
Shows whose titles were modified before opening on Broadway include “East Side Story” and “Dolly: A Damned Exasperating Woman.” They’re better known, of course, as “West Side Story” and “Hello, Dolly!” You’re a true theater fan if you can decipher “I Am Listening,” “Rainbow” and “Little Paris.” These titles eventually became “Lady in the Dark,” “110 in the Shade” and “Naughty Marietta,” respectively.
And had Stephen Sondheim stuck with his original title for “Anyone Can Whistle,” Henry Krieger would have been forced to choose a different title for “Side Show,” his 1999 musical about conjoined circus performers. One of the most humorous examples came from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, who allegedly thought about calling “Jesus Christ Superstar” simply “Christ!” Fearful that religious groups might take exception, they also decided to pass on “How to Succeed in Egypt Without Really Trying” in favor of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
It makes you wonder why “Onward Victoria,” “Dance a Little Closer” and “The Utter Glory of Morrissey Hall” never had their titles changed. Their cumulative runs might have totaled more than just three performances.
You rarely see them anymore, those music enthusiasts who file into the concert hall with scores carefully tucked under their arms. They often sit near the stage, flipping pages of their score in unison with the conductor. I last observed this practice in April during an open rehearsal by the New York Philharmonic. Sitting in front of me was a woman with a score of the “Symphony No. 4″ by Charles Ives. I never figured out if she was an Ives scholar (the Fourth Symphony is rarely programmed these days) or just wanted to follow along as Alan Gilbert conducted this curious piece.
This type of exercise is encouraged in most music schools, as students are expected to become reasonably proficient at score reading. Those planning to become band, orchestra or choral directors need to become adept at reading multiple lines simultaneously. The ears are capable of processing an infinite variety of sounds, pitches and timbres, a phenomenon that leads many to believe a concert experience should be purely auditory. Others prefer to link sounds with a visual image, thereby bringing two of our five senses into play.
I, too, enjoy listening to a composition unfold as I follow along in my score, but I don’t often make a practice of doing so in the concert hall. It can be an unnecessary distraction. I have also discovered that with some works, I actually end up hearing differently when I listen with score in hand. Pianist Van Cliburn once told me that whenever he played in Japan, he’d see hordes of students following every musical nuance in their printed scores. That led him to ponder just exactly what they were hearing. Was the performance providing them with an emotional response or an intellectual one? Was the eye tricking the ear into hearing something that wasn’t actually happening? Or did the visual aid of having a score in front of them somehow enhance the listening experience?
Low lighting in concert halls also makes score reading impractical, so, when one considers the potential for distracting other listeners, the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages. Score reading can be invaluable during rehearsals, however, particularly when the work in question is new or simply unfamiliar. That’s extremely beneficial when we as critics are asked to assess a performance.
Under those circumstances, one can better grasp the work’s structure, musical language and orchestrational devices. I did appreciate having the score to Jennifer Higdon’s “Percussion Concerto” when Colin Currie gave the work its Oklahoma premiere with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic in February. Being able to watch this complex work unfold on the page was immensely rewarding.
Ultimately, it brings to mind a familiar adage heard in music schools everywhere: “You should have the score in your head, not your head in the score.”
You wonder what recording executives were thinking when they suggested album titles such as ”Classical Music For People Who Hate Classical Music,” “Power Classics! Classical Music for Active Lifestyles” or ”Top Ten Reasons to Listen to Classical Music.” They seem to have lost faith in their product’s ability to generate revenue based on the music’s own merit. Today, the market is flooded with repackaged releases that advertise music appropriate for dining, romance, exercise, relaxation and a host of other activities.
Whatever happened to listening to music for music’s sake? I shudder to think that so many of the classical repertoire’s great masterpieces have been relegated to the world of Muzak. Today, people hear rather than listen. You also wonder who decided which works were deemed appropriate for a specific activity. Sony’s “Dinner Classics – Just Desserts” gives us an all-Mozart program, while the same label’s “Dinner Classics – A Cocktail Party” compiles music by Claude Bolling. “Dinner Classics – American Picnic” rightly features music by Gershwin, Copland and Scott Joplin, but for some unknown reason also includes a selection by the Belgian composer Henri Vieuxtemps.
The Eclipse label wins the most ludicrous prize with its “Classical Music for Women.” One might suspect this to be a collection of music by the likes of Ccile Chaminade, Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich or Cindy McTee. Instead, it’s an operatic compilation featuring arias by Puccini, Bizet and Donizetti.
Such discs drive home the point that recording companies are no longer run by musicians but rather by businessmen who presumably have little interest in the product they’re hawking. Pity the poor CEO who assumes Elgar’s “Cockaigne Overture” is about an illicit drug or mistakes Haydn’s “Seasons” for Tchaikovsky’s. These marketing geniuses seem content to disguise the music to suit the public rather than trying to reach listeners based on the music’s own merits.
When readers call to request information about New York City, you can usually hear the trepidation in their voices. It’s almost as if they were planning to visit some foreign city and had no command of the language. New York can have that effect on people, particularly for first-time visitors whose perception of the city often stems from the lurid accounts they see on television crime dramas.
Most of the calls I take are from people who want to know how to obtain tickets for Broadway’s hit shows. That, too, can be a challenge, although today it’s considerably easier than it was two decades ago. With orchestra seats approaching the princely sum of $150, you clearly want to know your seat location. The major ticket sources weren’t always so accommodating; they’d sell you an orchestra seat but weren’t allowed to disclose its location.
As a result, I’ve had to sit on the back row of the theater and near the side wall, both times, ironically, at the same theater, the Imperial. Today, you can request seats in a general area of the theater or even a specific seat if you know the theater’s layout. The old Boy Scout motto “Be prepared” clearly applies here. Before calling to order tickets – weeks in advance of the performance if possible; months for a hit show; longer for blockbusters such as “Wicked” or “The Book of Mormon” – find a copy of the theater’s seating chart.
They’re available online at Playbill.com (in the column at the left, look for Reference and then click on seating charts). Frequent visitors usually pick up a copy of “Seats New York: 180 Seating Plans to New York Metro Area Theatres,” a book that features seating charts for Broadway theaters, music halls and sports stadia. The next step is calling to reserve your tickets. Once again, go to Playbill.com and under Listings/Tickets, click on Broadway or off-Broadway and select the show you’d like to see. You’ll find links there to buy tickets.
If you wish to hold off buying tickets until you arrive in New York, you can go directly to the theater box office or head to the Times Square TKTS Booth. The latter sells discounted tickets for the current day’s performance only. Most hotel concierge desks also have ticket brokers who can usually arrange for tickets, but they will charge considerably more for the convenience.
Once you have your tickets, plan to arrive at the theater at least 20-30 minutes before curtain time. There’s often a large crowd trying to find seats at the last minute. Finally, sit back and enjoy the performance. All that hard work will have paid off.
For the Oklahoma City Philharmonic’s 2012-13 season finale on May 11, the program will feature Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” an elegiac work that rises to a huge climax before fading away in hushed string tones. It’s one of just a handful of orchestral works that have quiet endings.
With overtures, concertos and, especially, symphonies, most composers seem to go for a dramatic finish. They accomplish this in a variety of ways, from the steady, incessant crescendo (Ravel’s “Bolero”), majestic brass chorales (Hindemith’s “Mathis der Maler”), the sustained final chord (Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”) or with music’s equivalent of the exclamation point, the accented final chord (Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 7″).
But the repertoire also boasts its share of quiet endings, leaving the listener with a sense of repose, wonder, serenity or questioning. It’s not unlike watching an old Western in which the cowboys ride off into the sunset.
At first glance – perhaps listen would be the more appropriate term – many might assume hushed endings to be less effective when compared to the grandeur of a Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” or the flourish of a Brahms “Symphony No. 2.” But good composers have an uncanny way of keeping a listener engaged, regardless of the dynamics they choose.
In “Appalachian Spring,” Copland achieved cohesion by ending the work as he began it, with the now-familiar open chords. Mendelssohn took a similar approach with his overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” its opening chord progression restated by the woodwinds in the final measures.
Some works seem destined to end quietly, among them, Howard Hanson’s “Fourth Symphony,” written as a requiem for his father; Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols” with the fading sounds of its choral recessional; or “Neptune the Mystic” from Holst’s “The Planets,” whose score indicates that the final measure is to be repeated until “the sound is lost in the distance.”
Other marvelously effective conclusions include Brahms’ “Third Symphony,” which winds down to a final chord in the winds; Respighi’s “The Fountains of Rome” with its tolling of a distant bell; Shostakovich’s “Fifteenth Symphony,” whose use of triangle, woodblock, bells, snare drum, xylophone and tympani creates a curious effect; and Liadov’s “The Enchanted Lake,” whose sound evaporates into the dense mists.
Like Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” where two roads diverged in a wood, composers are presumably sorry they cannot travel both paths as they write the final measures of a work. Yet, every now and then, listeners are undoubtedly glad composers “took the one less traveled,” thereby giving us a chance to admire their skill at handling music’s more subtle moments.
The late 19th century had its “Mighty Five” (composers from Russia) while the 20th century celebrated the accomplishments of “Les Six” (France), the “Second Viennese School” (Austria) and the New England School (America). It’s all part of a trend that satisfies people’s desire to categorize, quantify or pigeonhole artists. Yet these conveniences rarely do their membership full justice, often blurring the lines that separate their individuality or, worse yet, applying a set of principles to a group whose members don’t always fully embrace them.
But ours is a society that thrives on classifications, whether it be David Letterman’s Top Ten lists, the 100 greatest films of the century or the most important people of the millennium. Composers rarely adhere to any kind of predisposed classification, though, often producing music that varies considerably in popularity and quality over time.
Prolific composers such as Bach, Beethoven and Brahms (the Three Bs) all made lasting impressions on the repertoire, with the bulk of their music considered of extremely high quality. That said, their musical styles are as unique as a fingerprint. But others haven’t always adhered to one musical style.
Schoenberg is remembered as an advocate of the 12-tone system of composition, but his early “Transfigured Night” is solidly tonal; Copland is often equated with his “American-sounding” “Appalachian Spring” or “Rodeo,” but late works such as “Connotations” or “Inscapes” explore far more adventurous musical realms. Others, such as Hanson, Hindemith, Holst and Hovhaness, had compositional styles that made their music instantly recognizable.
One can find the occasional chameleon in the compositional firmament, however, a composer who periodically breaks with tradition to create a work that belies his usual sound. Think of Stravinsky and his “Pulcinella” or Piston and “The Incredible Flutist.” Finally, there are musicians who defy classification because their work is so stylistically varied – people such as Leonard Bernstein with his forays into symphonic music, the musical theater and jazz, along with any number of composers from the past two decades.
Aside from the recent Minimalist craze, one wonders how late 20th-century composers will someday be grouped. It’s difficult to imagine people such as Michael Torke, John Corigliano, Frederic Rzewski, Thomas Ades, John Adams and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich being easily classified. One also wonders to what extent music enthusiasts of our century will be able to readily identify their styles. As Bob Dylan once wrote, “the times, they are a-changin’.” No doubt they’ll continue to do so.
It’s now been more than three decades since Richard Rodgers died in 1979; even longer since the deaths of Cole Porter (1964), Oscar Hammerstein II (1960) and George Gershwin (1937). That makes it all the more surprising to learn that in the past 20 years, Broadway has featured several new musicals by these Broadway legends.
Cole Porter’s music surfaced in a 1998 Broadway production of “High Society.” Of course, the creative team that labored on that production had to fit their show around existing Porter tunes. George Gershwin, one of Tin Pan Alley’s finest tunesmiths, was represented on Broadway half a century after his death with “My One and Only” in 1983 and “Crazy for You” in 1992. Last season, a “new Gershwin musical” starring native Oklahoman Kelli O’Hara opened on Broadway. After a 14-month run, “Nice Work If You Can Get It” will close in June 2013.
Other noted composers have also had their music introduced to new generations of listeners through such musicals as “Song of Norway” (Edvard Grieg) in 1944, “Kismet” (Alexander Borodin) in 1954, “The Happiest Girl in the World” (Jacques Offenbach) in 1961, “Anya” (Sergei Rachmaninoff) in 1965, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (Fats Waller) in 1978, “Sophisticated Ladies” in 1981 and “Play On!” (both Duke Ellington) in 1997.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’ s “Cinderella” was written for television in 1957 with Julie Andrews appearing as the title character. Eight years later, a new version starring Leslie Ann Warren starred in another version. Pop star Brandy brought the musical back to television in 1997. This season, a new version of “Cinderella” made its way to Broadway and received positive notices.
Featuring a new book by Douglas Carter Beane, the revival supplements the original Rodgers and Hammerstein score with four new songs, two of which were cut from “South Pacific” and “The Sound of Music” respectively. Beane’s new book also introduces the new character Jean-Michel, a rebel who is in love with Cinderella’s stepsister Gabrielle. Beane also gave his narrative a contemporary sensibility. The “new musical” is likely to be nominated for several 2012 Tony Awards which will be announced today.
Productions such as these certainly prove the notion that a good tune, no matter its origin, is timeless in its appeal.
“Are you familiar with a piece of music known as bourree?” someone asked me not long ago. I tried to explain that the term (a type of French dance) is generic. Any number of composers have written them: Bach, Handel, Chabrier, Poulenc, Britten. We never determined which melody he was trying to match with the title bourree, but it did get me thinking about the unusual, often arcane system by which musical compositions are titled.
With popular music, it’s easy. Few will confuse “Stardust” with “When You Wish Upon a Star” or “Satin Doll” with “Nights in White Satin.” Classical music, itself a misnomer given that it primarily describes a type of music written between 1750 and 1825, often clouds the issue. There are easily distinguishable titles such as “The Planets,” “The Carnival of the Animals” and “Swan Lake.” But then you run into things such as “Verklarte Nacht,” “Ma Vlast” or “Le Boeuf sur le Toit.” The situation is further complicated when discussions turn to so-and-so’s Fifth Symphony. Beethoven’s, Prokofiev’s, Tchaikovsky’s, Mahler’s, Shostakovich’s, Bruckner’s? You get the idea.
Popular music may have its Top 40, but classical music – at least that which we consider Western (as opposed to Oriental) – encompasses well over four centuries. Works from the “standard” repertoire alone would require a Top 400 or 4,000. There’s no denying, however, that music titles, like book and film titles, do intrigue listeners. If your curiosity is piqued by the likes of “Wellington’s Victory,” “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear,” “Quiet City,” “Rugby,” “The Wasps” or “Central Park in the Dark,” spend a few bucks and indulge your ears.
Unfortunately, less descriptive titles such as “Adagio for Strings,” “Scherzo Capriccioso” or “Symphonic Dances” can’t begin to persuade as convincingly, even though their musical arguments are enormously compelling. Granted, the classical repertoire contains more than its share of clunkers as well as works that should have long since faded into oblivion. But the truly marvelous examples more than even the score. With some patience and a concentrated period of acute listening, you’ll soon be able to differentiate between a bourree and an allemande or a sarabande and a gigue.