The sui generis Brazilian singer Rita Lee died a few days ago, on May 8, and I didn’t want to let the sad occasion go unremarked here, even though I don’t have time to write the tribute she deserves right now. (Filthy lucre! But the good kind.) So I went through the ol’ archives and found a record review that I wrote in 1999 about the great Luaka Bop compilation (curated by David Byrne) Everything is Possible!
The RFT links are always iffy for me, so I’m cutting and pasting the review here instead. And if you don’t have any Os Mutantes records, you could do worse than start with this collection. Really, though, you can’t go wrong with any of it. Back when I did a weekly community radio show on KDHX FM-88, I played a lot of Os Mutantes, probably at least a track or two every month, and found that it always went over well. It’s impossible to quantify but safe to say that Rita Lee’s artistry and charisma are a big part of the timeless appeal.
Everything Is Possible! (Luaka Bop)
By René Spencer Saller on Wed, Jul 21, 1999 at 4:00 am
To say Os Mutantes, a Brazilian trio formed in the late ’60s, were ahead of their time is to understate their singular genius, to suggest that we’ve somehow caught up with them. If only! The music founding members Arnaldo Baptista, Rita Lee Jones, and Sergio Dias created together, a crazy amalgam of psychedelia, bossa nova, experimental rock, samba and pop, is timeless: it sounds as innovative today as it must have sounded 30 years ago, and it will probably sound just as brilliant 30 years from now. Everything Is Possible! is a fabulous compilation of songs the Mutantes recorded between 1968 and 1972, ranging from the trippy, cannabis-inspired “Ando Meio Desligado,” which sets Jones’ silvery vocals against a bass line cribbed from the Zombies’ “Time of the Season,” whacked-out keyboards, and distorted electric guitars, to the exquisite “Fuga No. 11,” with its tinkly bells and majestic Sgt. Pepper-inflected strings and horns. Every song on the CD is at once gorgeous and freakish, catchy and cacophonous, familiar and deeply mysterious. It’s no surprise that fans of the Mutantes include Beck, David Byrne, Stereolab’s Tim Gane, Arto Lindsay, and the late Kurt Cobain (who tried unsuccessfully to convince them to reunite so they could open for Nirvana in 1993).
With Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Tom Z, and Gal Costa, Os Mutantes were part of the Tropicália movement, an avant-garde group of leftist musicians who sought to revolutionize Brazilian pop culture with the use of electric instruments, subversive humor, far-out stage personas, and surreal arrangements. They pissed off just about everybody, from uptight leftist folkies (think of the guy who screamed “Judas!” during Bob Dylan’s electric tour in 1966) to the draconian military dictatorship, which effectively killed the movement shortly after its inception by arresting Gil and Velosa and forcing them into exile. Even under censorship, however, Os Mutantes continued to record, releasing a handful of albums (the first three, reissued on the Omplatten label, are highly recommended) before they broke up for good in 1978. Live, they dressed up like Sancho Panza, a pregnant bride, and space aliens. They wrote songs with outrageous titles such as “Ave Lucifer” (“Hail Lucifer”). They created their own instruments, from the backwards wah-wah pedal on “Dia 36” to the can of bug spray used in place of a high hat on “Le Premier Bonheur du Jour.” What more could anyone want from a band? They’ll blow your mind, they’ll crack you up, they’ll steal your heart, and they’ll make you believe that everything is possible.
A very fine organist passed on a fellow very fine organist‘s compliments on my recent annotations to his recital today on the Lay Family Organ at the Meyerson in Dallas, and he even urged patrons to read them, which goes way beyond my wildest expectations for this Sunday. Obviously, getting compliments is a nice boost in general (unless, I guess, the compliments are coming from actual Nazis—poor Orff!), but for me, someone who is constantly aware of my overall organ ignorance, especially when it comes to the technical details that are at the very heart of organ artistry, I know just about enough to feel unequal to the task. At any rate, I’m always especially nervous about writing organ notes because I’m not an organist. I do know several organists, though, and I know how scrupulous and knowledgeable they are (and how likely to notice errors). One of my favorite classical critics, the prolific freelancer and longtime Dallas Morning News critic Scott Cantrell, trained as an organist, and I know he attends all those concerts. I have extra incentive not to screw up and embarrass myself in front of someone I respect so much.
Most of all, though, I don’t want to mess up the organ notes because I genuinely believe that more people would be interested in the pipe organ and its glorious repertoire if they knew more about it. I do not want to be a bad ambassador. Speaking for myself, I probably wouldn’t have become interested in the pipe organ if I hadn’t happened to have wandered into a free recital at the Notre-Dame Cathedrale in Paris, when I was a cash-poor and awe-struck 19-year-old fille au pair from Missouri who had never visited a city bigger than Chicago or older than New Orleans. If there was a program, I didn’t see it, and to this day I can’t remember what I heard, only that I loved the way the chords inhabited my body for a time, how the sounds could be felt as well as heard, inscribed on my musculoskeletal system like notes on staff paper.
To this day I feel certain that more lives would be greatly enriched by regular exposure to the king of instruments. You could listen to nothing but J.S. Bach fugues for the rest of your life and still find plenty to discover, but you don’t have to stop there, and you won’t want to after you get to the rest of the repertoire. Maybe you will find yourself drawn to the Bachian rigors of Max Reger, or the trance-inducing tintinnabulations of Arvo Pärt, or the languorous chromaticism and birdsong mimicry of Olivier Messiaen, or the sublime and inimitable Franckness of César Franck, but I urge you to give it a shot, especially if you associate the pipe organ with dreary sermons or civic occasions (in which case, I prescribe an immediate dose of Charles Ives’s organ music, stat!).
I’m already falling behind on both my blog content goals and my annotation schedule from my miraculously patient clients, so here are my program notes for the wonderful Christian Schmitt program. Insofar as all my links seem to be going bad, I’ll just cut and paste them from my Word document rather than linking you to the Dallas Symphony website, where they also appeared, as well as in the printed program. I extend my eternal thanks to all the organists who keep this vital art form alive. And the rest of you should try to find a local pipe organ recital in your cities and see if this music speaks to you the way it does to me and so many others.
Schmitt Organ Recital
By René Spencer Saller
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750): Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582
Although regionally famous for his mind-bending organ improvisations and locally infamous for his hot temper, Bach lived in relative obscurity. He spent his entire life in Germany, where he was born. As an organist, a court musician, a choir master, a music teacher, and the father of 20 children, he was probably too busy to tour the continent. Yet somehow he cranked out more than a thousand compositions, in every major genre except opera. Many scholars estimate that he wrote about twice that much. Although few of his compositions were published during his lifetime and most of his original manuscripts were lost, his contributions to the solo organ repertoire are incalculable: at least 200 known works.
The Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor is among the finest of these. The passacaglia form calls for a series of variations over a repeated bass figure (basso ostinato—Italian for “obstinate bass”), usually in 3/4 or 3/2 meter. The genre was already more than a century old when Bach composed this, his only surviving organ passacaglia, probably in Weimar between 1708 and 1712. Somewhat unconventionally, he crossed the passacaglia with a chaconne—a related form that also features a basso ostinato—and created a spectacular double fugue.
Arvo Pärt (b. 1935): Annum per annum for Solo Organ
When Pärt was born, his native Estonia was an independent Baltic state. Five years later, the Soviet Union launched an occupation that would last for the next half-century (not counting a three-year stint under German rule). Although he attended conservatory, Soviet bureaucrats went to great lengths to prevent Pärt and his peers from hearing any music created outside the Soviet Union, aside from a few contraband scores and tapes here and there.
Although commentators today call him a “holy minimalist,” Pärt first embraced the neoclassicism of Bartók, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev before shifting to the serialism of Schoenberg. Most of the music Pärt preferred was banned by Soviet censors. Frustrated, he immersed himself in the study of plainsong and Gregorian chant—the sacred roots of early European polyphony. By focusing on the distant past, he found an original voice: austere, tonal, liturgical, and deceptively simple. He was particularly inspired by a technique he called tintinnabulation, which refers to the ringing of bells, or more specifically, to the way that sound resonates, how it blooms and decays in space over time.
In 1980 Pärt fled the Soviet Union for Vienna, later settling in Berlin. That same year he composed the organ mass Annum per annum for the 950th anniversary of the Speyer Dome Church. The mass is dedicated to Saint Mary, Mother of God and the guardian of the dome; to Emperor Conrad II, the founder of the dome; to St. Cecilia, the patroness of musicians; and to Leo Krämer, the organist at Speyer Dome Church who premiered the piece.
Annum per annum consists of five movements, all variations on cantus firmus, the literal Latin translation of which is “firm song.” In polyphonic music the term refers to the foundational melody, the source from which all subsequent musical procedures spring. Each of the five movements contains an introduction and coda, although Pärt indicates in the score that these may be omitted by the organist if desired. The movements are distinguished by the letters K, G, C, S, A, which refer to the five ordinary parts of the Catholic mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei).
Annum per annum is best known for its dramatic opening, in which the organist holds a gargantuan, loud-as-God chord, and then lets the notes dissipate as the air is shut off. The effect is experienced by the body as much as the mind—and who knows, maybe even the soul.
César Franck (1822–1890): Choral No. 3 in A Minor
As a composer, Franck was something of a late bloomer, although his life in music began quite early. His greedy father bullied him into the role of child prodigy on the piano-recital circuit, and he was relieved when the passage of time ended that phase of his career. Introspective and painfully awkward, he preferred poring over his counterpoint exercises and experimenting with new organ registrations. After angering his father by leaving the family home in his early 20s, he supported himself by teaching music.
A few years later, after his marriage, Franck became a church organist, a position he cherished and retained for the rest of his life. He was widely beloved by his apprentices and students at the Paris Conservatoire, who called him Pater seraphicus (Seraphic Father). His harmonic language was indelibly marked by the magnificent Cavaillé-Coll instrument that he played for more than 30 years at Ste. Clotilde. Its rich array of stops allowed Franck to create the unique sounds and textures that characterized his compositions.
In the summer of 1890, Franck suffered a head injury after a horse-drawn trolley collided with the cab in which he was riding. Although he dismissed his symptoms as minor, they quickly worsened, and before long he could barely walk, much less fulfill his duties at the Conservatoire. He hoped to recover over vacation, and he felt well enough to compose three remarkable Chorals in just two months, completing Choral No. 1 on August 10, Choral No. 2 on September 12, and Choral No. 3 less than two weeks later. But almost as soon as he resumed teaching, he caught a cold that turned into pneumonia. He died on November 8, 1890.
The Choral No. 3 in A Minor, the last of the set, opens with a glittering two-part Toccata surrounding a lyrical Adagio, which introduces a new theme, rapturously sung by the Trompette over soft accompaniment. Although the Choral is consistent with genre conventions, Franck finds ingenious ways to combine his three main themes, weaving them into a spectacular polyphonic tapestry. You might detect the influence of Liszt, particularly his “Weinen, Klagen” Variations, as well as traces of Bach and Beethoven, but Franck retains his unmistakable Franckness throughout: psychedelic but also heavy, an unlikely mixture of the delicately ornate and the sludgy-visceral.
A quick note on nomenclature: the word choral, as Franck understood it, refers not to the chorale, or Lutheran hymn-melody, but simply to an original theme harmonized in the style of a chorale.
Theo Brandmüller (1948–2012): “Die Kruezigung” (The Crucifixion) and “Pieta” from Sieben StückezurPassionszeit (Seven Works for Passiontide)
Born in Mainz, Germany, Brandmüller began making his first public appearances as a pianist and composer while still in his teens. From 1968 to 1972, he studied music education and sacred music in Mainz and Detmold. He underwent additional training in composition with Giselher Klebe from 1970 to 1975, then with Mauricio Kagel in Cologne and Cristóbal Halffter in Madrid. In 1977 and ’78, Brandmüller studied organ with Gaston Litaize and composition with Olivier Messiaen in Paris before transitioning to a teaching career. At the time of his death in 2012, following a sudden illness, Brandmüller was a professor of composition, analysis, and organ improvisation at the Hochschule für Musik Saar, in Saarbrücken, Germany, and the recipient of many international awards and prizes.
Brandmüller composed Sieben Stücke zur Passionsveit, from which “Die Kruezigung” and “Pieta” are extracted for this performance, in 1983. In addition to organ, it is scored for metronome and speaking voice. Brandmüller was at the console for the world premiere on April 26, 1983, at the St. Georg parish church in Mainz.
The Composer Speaks
“The thoughts of the seven small musically related pieces revolve around the events of the Passion. Realistically ‘described’ details of the passion theme become—increasingly clear—visions; melodic sound-shapes emerge from the rhythmically bizarre initial position; the central piece, The Sweat Cloth (of Veronica), thanks to its sound mirrored form, is a reflection of today’s situation, our current situation!
“A sarabande (The Crucifixion) and a circular canon on ‘Dona nobis pacem’ (from Bach’s Mass in B Minor) conclude the cycle.
“All seven pieces are inspired by the passion cycle of the sculptor Richard Hess, whose unembellished, deeply felt reliefs begin to speak musically.” —Theo Brandmüller
Born in Lyon in 1844, Widor seemed destined to serve the king of instruments. His father was the organist at Saint-François-de-Sales for more than 50 years. Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, who revolutionized the pipe organ for the French Romantic age, was a family friend. In 1870 Widor was hired temporarily to play organ at Saint-Sulpice, in Paris. He held on to the job until 1934, just a few years before his death at 93. (He was even buried in the crypt of Saint-Sulpice.) Among his many compositions are 10 organ symphonies; three symphonies for orchestra with organ; and Bach’s Memento, six original arrangements of music by J.S. Bach.
Nicknamed after the architectural style of the two churches to which they were dedicated—the gothic Saint-Ouen abbey church in Rouen and the Romanesque basilica of Saint-Sernin in Toulouse—Widor’s last two symphonies represent his crowning achievement for organ. The Ninth, or “Gothic,” repurposes the Christmas Day Introit “Puer natus est nobis” (Unto us a Child is born), and the 10th, or “Romane,” uses the Easter Gradual “Haec dies quam fecit Dominus” (This is the day the Lord has made). In honoring the churches, these two symphonies also pay tribute to the organ builder, Cavaillé-Coll, whose state-of-the-art instruments grace each structure—and inform the music of each symphony. Widor himself debuted the “Gothic” in its namesake church in Rouen.
Widor’s “Romane” Symphony takes full advantage of the rich sonorities available on the Saint-Sernin’s Cavaillé-Coll. In his later years, Widor came to believe that organ music should derive its themes from sacred music; his 10th Symphony, like its predecessor, is steeped in plainsong.
In his preface to the published score, Widor described his Easter Gradual “Haec dies” theme as “an elegant arabesque ornamenting a text of several words—about 10 notes per syllable—a vocalise as elusive as birdsong; a sort of pedal-point conceived for a virtuoso free of restraint. The only means of holding the listener’s attention with so fluid a theme is to repeat it incessantly. Such is the plan of this movement that sacrifices everything to the subject. Here and there the composer has somewhat timidly embarked in development, but this departure is quickly abandoned and the original plan of the work resumes.”
Franz Liszt (1811–1886): “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen”—Präludium nach J. S. Bach
Franz Liszt, the first superstar piano virtuoso, retired from concertizing at the peak of his fame, when he was 35 years old. A year later, the handsome and charismatic Hungarian set up house in Weimar with Princess Carolyne von Sayn Wittgenstein, whom he had met on his last tour and hoped to marry, pending a papal dispensation. While Liszt served as Kapellmeister to the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he also cultivated a flock of eager young acolytes, including his daughter Cosima’s future first husband, Hans von Bülow. Up to that point Liszt had only played organ once in public, but he was a quick study. He composed most of his organ music during these Weimar years, while also conducting the works of other composers he admired, especially Beethoven; Berlioz; and his second future son-in-law, Richard Wagner, for whom Cosima left Bülow.
One composer Liszt held in particular esteem was J.S. Bach, who had, more than a century earlier, spent several productive years in Weimar. In fact, Bach was working in Weimar when he composed the church cantata “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” (“Weeping, lamenting, fretting, fearing”), BWV 12, for Jubilate, the third Sunday after Easter. He led the first performance at the court chapel in Weimar on April 22, 1714, the same year that he was appointed Konzertmeister, a post that required him to write and perform a new church cantata every month.
One reason for Liszt’s renewed interest in the organ: Bach’s complete organ works, which had only recently been published for the first time. Among Liszt’s first completed works in Weimar were his piano transcriptions of a half-dozen of Bach’s preludes and fugues for organ.
Liszt composed his variations on “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” in 1859, as a prelude for solo piano. After his daughter Blondine died in 1862, he extended the prelude into a set of 30 variations, turning it into a kind of elegy for her. He transcribed the work for organ the next year, while living in Rome, where he had moved in a last-ditch (and ultimately futile) effort to get the Pope to annul his lover’s marriage.
So far this week, I have rewritten some notes* about a contemporary composer for a major new client—some notes that may well end up translated into French when the piece is performed in Paris—and I have also reviewed numerous proofs and edited several performer bios, among other satisfying duties associated with my various music-related freelance jobs, but my most exciting achievement by far is the progress I just made befriending the neighborhood murder. I don’t care if my neighbors think I’m crazy (although I can’t help hoping they didn’t overhear my shrill endearments to the uppermost branches of the silver maple) because I’m certain that the crows understood and are beginning to associate me with the corn and other seed. Once I’m sure they trust me, and possibly as soon as tomorrow, I’m going to make them some hardboiled eggs. Share your corvid inducements in the comments section if you have wisdom to share! (I hear they like roadkill, but I’m not prepared to acquire or handle it.)
*I will share them once they’re in print. I’m too superstitious to say much more until then.
American composer and conductor William Grant Still
On April 18, 2019, Music Director Designate Fabio Luisi led the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in a concert featuring William Grant Still’s Poem for Orchestra (1944), Frank Martin’s Concerto for Wind Instruments, Percussion, and String Orchestra (1949), and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 (1813).
If you weren’t lucky enough to be present at the Meyerson, you can still check out the concert thanks to the wonders of Vimeo. The video is available to stream until May 23, 2019. It’s an exciting program, and the first two works aren’t programmed nearly often enough.
Here is a link to the concert. Remember to watch it before it disappears on May 23:
About a month ago I interviewed St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Music Director Designate Stéphane Denève for Playbill (pictured with his wife, Åsa, above). He’s a warm, funny, and fascinating person, and he’s very generous with his time, despite his impossibly busy schedule. I greatly enjoyed our lengthy, wide-ranging chat. I might put up a much longer version of our conversation later, but here is the official, much pithier one:
This weekend Music Director David Robertson leads the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in works by Richard Strauss, Alban Berg, and Ludwig van Beethoven. SLSO principal horn Roger Kaza performs Strauss’s Horn Concerto No. 2, and Soprano Christine Brewer sings Berg’s Seven Early Songs. After intermission the SLSO performs Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. If you can’t make it to Powell Hall on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, make sure you listen to the live stream on St. Louis Public Radio at 8:00 pm CST: http://news.stlpublicradio.org/#stream/0
(I love this photograph so, so much: wretched old dreamer Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky, on a settee, flanked by well-upholstered, waistcoated, pocket-watch-flaunting grandees. Apologies to possible copyright holders; I’ll take it down if you like, or attribute credit if you send me the information. This photo must date to about 1890, or so; Tchaikovsky died at 53 on November 6, 1893, after possibly contracting cholera on purpose.)
This weekend Music Director David Robertson leads the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in works by Mackey, Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky, with special guest piano virtuosa Orli Shaham performing Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. If you can’t make it to one of the performances at Powell Hall—and good tickets are still available! —be sure to tune in to the live broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio, which begins at 8:00 pm CST. Here’s the website to listen if you want to hear this gorgeous (Russian-ish) program but can’t make it to Powell Hall in St. Louis: http://news.stlpublicradio.org/#stream/0
This weekend, February 24 and February 25 (but not Sunday, sadly), the St. Louis Symphony and St. Louis Symphony Chorus perform William Walton’s insane and gorgeous oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast. Also on the program are Otto Nicolai’s delightfully nutty overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor and Edward Elgar’s Falstaff, a more nuanced and tragic portrait of the same Shakespearean buffoon. (Sense a literary theme here? SLSO programs are always very thoughtfully conceived, which makes writing an introduction somewhat easier.)
You can tune in to the live broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio if you can’t make it to the concert at Powell Hall tonight. The St. Louis Public Radio broadcast streams live on the website, too, starting at 8:00. Once I figure out how to make a hyperlink again, I will do it; in the meantime, Google is your good buddy. And speaking of good buddies, check out the photo I found featuring William Walton (left) with a baby koala. Baby koala doesn’t seem too impressed, but my huge love for Walton’s facial expression compensates for the fact that he is much older in this photo than he was when he composed Belshazzar’s Feast, a completely koala-free endeavor as far as I can determine.
I had the good fortune of interviewing Shannon Wood, St. Louis Symphony Principal Timpani, for Playbill. We met in his percussion studio/rehearsal space, across the street from Powell Hall. We talked about Kraft’s Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra, No. 2, his mallet business sideline, and lots of other fascinating stuff.
I have been terribly remiss in updating my blog, but better late than never, I suppose. In these program notes for the St. Louis Symphony (this weekend! I know! I suck!), I wrote about the much-misunderstood Richard Strauss: specifically, his tone poems Don Quixote and Macbeth, as well as the final scene from his final opera, Capriccio. I have many more things to say about Richard Strauss than I could express in the allotted space, and I think I’m going to start adding “extra” content to my blog posts. Why not? But not right now because other deadlines are nigh.
Anyway, here is a link to this weekend’s fantastic concert. If you didn’t manage to score tickets, you can listen to the live radio broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio beginning at 8:00 Central Time TONIGHT (Saturday, 9/26). It will be streaming on the St. Louis Public Radio website if you don’t live within the broadcast region of FM 90.7.