Sunday, March 02, 2008


This blog is moving and changing names. You can find everything on this site and more here: This is a move and a name change that I have been considering for awhile.

The move will take some time for the change to be complete, but I do think Wordpress will be a much better platform as the blog grows and expands.

Sorry for any confusion and thank you for your patience while this change is underway.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Focus: American guest conductors

The Seattle Symphony released its 2008/2009 season last week. The theme the season is built around is American guest conductors. I harbor ambivalence about season themes. On the one hand themes, especially when used to develop concert programs, can be a good device to explore unfamiliar repertoire. On the other hand, themes are often so poorly done that they end up hurting the season more than helping. Fortunately for Seattle audiences Schwarz has developed programmatic themes that are interesting and unlike other orchestras. There is no season long Brahms festival for Seattle, but we do get refreshing Central Europe, immigrant composer, and contemporary American music programs.

This season’s unifying theme could be very good. The composer’s being tapped are big names. Andre Previn comes for two weeks. Dennis Russell Davies, the conductor of the Bruckner Orchestra of Linz, does too. Leonard Slatkin makes his debut with the Seattle Symphony and conducts Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Joann Falletta, arguably the first woman to head a “major” American orchestra (she leads the Buffalo Philharmonic) will conduct Faure’s Requiem. Saint Louis Symphony’s David Robertson is also coming to town. All in all the talent on the podium will be fun to watch and hear.

Unfortunately, Rossen Milanov will be conducting one of the Mostly Mozart concerts. When I lived in Iowa, Milanov came through town. Fresh after being appointed to Philadelphia, Milanov put together an exciting performance of Franck’s Symphony with my town’s resident part time orchestra.

The visiting orchestras are also pleasing. The San Francisco Symphony, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and the Academy of Ancient Music will each perform.   

But there are still pieces of the season that puzzle me. For instance, how does a complete cycle of Beethoven string quartets fit with the overarching subject of the season? For me it is an intriguing addition, but one that seems oddly juxtaposed alongside a robust orchestral season. It may not compliment the American guest conductor theme, but it does add a chamber music dimension to the season.

Best of all, the season opener is Mahler’s gargantuan Symphony No.8. Last fall I was talking with a record store clerk and I let him know that I wanted to hear each of Mahler’s symphonies performed live at least once. The record store clerk thought the eighth would never be performed. Cost would prohibit Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand from ever reaching the stage. Thankfully, Schwarz and Phillion decided to perform the piece anyway.

If your like me and can't wait to hear Mahler's No.8 check out this wonderful clip of Simon Rattle conducting the piece at the 2002 Proms.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Winter nights

The history of Russian music and as a result Russian chamber music, can be divided before opera and after opera. Prior to the arrival of opera, Russian musical tradition could be generously described as primitive. There were no composers of note and no real instrumental tradition. Folk songs and folk performances were typical, but even those were discouraged by the harsh influence of the Orthodox Church.

We know that this isn’t the whole story of Russian music. We would never have heard Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Prokofiev if it were.

The arrival of opera marked a dramatic shift and musical renaissance within Russia. In less than fifty years, Russia was able to establish itself as a global musical force influenced by the west but with its own unique voice. Early Russian musical pioneers successfully reconciled Western forms and influences with a unique Russian imprint.

The Russian Chamber Music Foundation’s inaugural concert last night at the Nordstrom recital hall may do the same thing for Russian chamber music in Seattle.

Russian Chamber Music was founded in 2007 by Dr. Natalya Ageyeva. Ageyeva began formal piano lessons at the age of thirteen when she was accepted at Moscow’s Special Music School for Talented Children. She came to the United States to complete her PhD at the University Washington. Local music audiences remember Ageyeva as the Finisterra Trio’s pianist.

The goal of Russian Chamber Music is ambitious: “to bring the best of Russian chamber music to American audiences.” Choosing the best is almost an impossible task because there is so much good, interesting Russian chamber music out there. Moreover, defining what is “Russian” is equally as difficult. Do we include Ukrainian, Georgian, Estonian and other regions that are not ethnically Russian but were associated with Russia and the Soviet Union? Arensky, Taneyev, Silvestrov, Gubaidulina, Glinka and Miaskovsky come to mind as “Russian” composers worth exploring and with any luck Seattle will occasionally hear more music from these and other composers that don’t often show up in Seattle concert programs. Ultimately these are challenges, as artistic director, for Ageyeva to determine.

Nevertheless, how Ageyeva defines what is “Russian” and what constitutes the “best” may not matter much as long as Ageyeva and her fellow musicians perform like they did last night.

Ageyeva was joined by local favorite cellist Josh Roman and Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center violinist Arnaud Sussman. The three don’t regularly play together and while this was apparent at times, especially when one player would dominate the other, they dug into the music, exploring both the dark and light.

Sussman was especially fine. His performance of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir D’un Lieu Cher and Waltz Scherzo flowed effortlessly. His playing was nuanced and shimmering.

The meat of the performance, Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata and the ubiquitous Shostakovich Trio Op.67, were framed by three short pieces by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Prokofiev’s Op.119 sonata was one of the composer’s final works, having been composed while Prokofiev carried the burden of being denounced as a “formalist.” Roman had a clear affinity for the music. Roman’s performance was sympathetic and very warm. Even the furious passages for the cello were handled well.  Sean McLean, the host for the evening, suggested Roman's performance of the sonata may even show up on a recording when the cellist strikes out as a solo artist at the end of the Seattle Symphony season. 

The Shostakovich Trio has been popular this year. Earlier in the year, I heard Ageyeva’s former ensemble, the Finisterra Trio, perform the same piece. And not too long after the Finisterra’s performance the Onyx Chamber Players took on the piece. Compared to the Finisterra’s performance last fall, Saturday’s performance was highly rugged. The Allegretto was even more intense than usual with Sussman, Roman and Ageyeva letting Shostakovich’s music to lash out wildly as if they were tempting their own skill to keep it all together. For people who like their Shostakovich unbridled, the three young performers delivered.

Hopefully the Russian Chamber Music Foundation is successful. There is much to love in the Russian chamber repertoire. The next concert doesn’t come until November 5, 2008 but will feature the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in a Rachmaninov inspired concert. Mark your calendars now because I suspect the next concert will be even more popular than Saturday’s inaugural performance.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Four concertmasters

The Seattle Times reports the Seattle Symphony's four concertmaster experiment is causing some distress among the players.  Essentially, no part time positions are allowed and with four concertmasters you have four part time players.  

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Way

Last night, St. James Cathedral demonstrated once again why they are central to musical and religious life in the Emerald City. The occasion was the Stations of Cross, presided over by Father Michael Ryan. The music was Antonin Dvorak’s Stabat Mater.

For those not familiar with the Stations, it is essentially a reduction of the Passion of Jesus Christ. For Catholics, it is a representative and popular spiritual journey for worshipers during Lent. Worshipers meditate and pray on each step of Jesus’ journey as they go on their own personal journey.

The Stabat Mater is frequently used during the Stations of the Cross. The Stabat Mater attempts to convey Mary’s suffering as she bears witness to the suffering of her son, Jesus Christ. Composers from Arvo Part to Richard Davy have written Stabat Mater's. However, there are few composers who have captured the profundity of the setting as movingly as Antonin Dvorak.

The composer’s own personal tragedy likely motivated his heart wrenching music. In three short years Dvorak lost three children. In 1875, the composer’s infant daughter Josefa died. In 1876 Dvorak began to channel his grief into initial sketches of his Stabat Mater. In 1877 Josefa’s death was compounded by the death of his daughter Ruzenka who died of poisoning and their son Otakar who died of small pox.

After the death of Otakar, Dvorak quickly finished his Stabat Mater, needing only two months for the task.

St. James has a long history of incorporating “classical” music into worship. There are times during mass when Bach or Bruckner will come pouring out of the cathedral organ. Moments like these startle and comfort me. Growing up in a dusty manufacturing town In Iowa my mass experience was generally limited to unconvincing attempts to make church music fun and meaningful. Most Catholics can recount similar bad post-Vatican II music experiences.

When I started listening to classical music in the mid-90’s, classical sacred music became a mild obsession of mine. I wondered why actual church music seldom resembled the wonders I was finding in recordings.

That changed when I moved to Seattle. My first experience with Seattle’s robust religious music scene was St. Mark’s Sunday evening Compline. Not too long after that, when I was shopping around for a new home church I found St. James.

It is almost impossible to write objectively about an event, like last night’s Stabat Mater/Stations of the Cross. St. James’ music department deserves immense credit for infusing religious worship with extra dimensions. Months ago readers may recall I heaped praise on the cathedral for their setting of Mozart’s Requiem.

Even though the various performances at St. James are far from definitive, I firmly believe there is no better place in Seattle to have both a musical and a spiritual experience.

Last night was no different. After a long week at work I was barely able to sit up, but as soon as cathedral organ began playing Dvorak’s introduction followed by the choir mournfully singing “Stabat Mater dolorosa…” (the mother stood grieving). I knew the entire service would provide ample reflection on the tragedy and uplift of Jesus’ last moments. Of course, Dvorak’s shifting from minor to major keys helps with the uplift too.

Even if you aren’t Catholic, St. James should be a required stop for anyone who loves sacred music. I know the mechanics and opulence of Catholic religious practice can be intimidating, but being uncomfortable for only a few hours is a small price to pay for the beauty and emotions inherent in most St. James services.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

New links

Just a quick post to draw your attention to two new links.  The first is Cappella Romana.  The ensemble is one of the few truly professional vocal groups in the Northwest.  They perform frequently in both Seattle and Portland.  Their recent performance "Arctic Light" was positively covered.  You can watch a clip of Cappella Romana in a dress performance below.



The other link is the newly created Russian Chamber Music Foundation of Seattle.  This organization's inaugural concert is this week on February 23, 2008.  As a fan of Russian music, including chamber music, I am hopeful this organization will take off.  The inaugural concert features Shostakovich's frenetic Op.67 trio and Prokofiev's Sonata for Cello and Piano.

Both Cappella Romana and the Russian Chamber Music Foundation of Seattle are well worth looking into.      

Friday, February 15, 2008

The commercial power of blogs

The Hollywood Reporter has a short piece on the commercial influence of blogs.  According to an NYU professor, if a record is mentioned more than forty times the record sales three to five times above average.