Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Sleigh Riding with Leroy Anderson

Around Christmas every year Leroy Anderson has his time to shine once more. Even if people don't know his name they'll know his Sleigh Ride and Christmas Festival. This year I decided I wanted to know what else he did. It turns out quite a lot and all with a wonderful sense of fun and invention.

You can find out about his biography on the official Leroy Anderson website, but the important point here was he was picked up by Arthur Fiedler as a skilful arranger and was then asked to write original works. Fiedler was head of the Boston Pops Orchestra at the time and Anderson became a key composer for the group.

Most of his works are orchestral miniatures just like Sleigh Ride, and also like that piece they make use of percussion and other instruments to suggest elements of sound associated with the piece. Sleigh Ride has the bells of the sleigh and the suggestion of the clip-clopping of the horse's hooves. This live video of John Williams conducting the BPO in it shows the clashing of two planks for effect.

The Syncopated Clock has the sound of the clock running as an underscore all through it and in The Waltzing Cat the string section does a wonderful 'meow' effect which is right up there with the braying donkey in Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream. This video has Anderson explaining that effect and how he comes up with lyrics to his miniatures.

Anderson took this idea further in his piece Typewriter, which does have a typewriter as the solo instrument. To work out not only the tune, but the timing so it never ran out of paper or overshot the line, is an impressive piece of work.

He made one attempt at what would be called 'serious' classical music as opposed to the miniatures. That is his Piano Concerto in C, not a well-known piece by any means but apparently played fairly often (according to his official website). I've only listened to the first movement so far and it's a nice piece and worth some attention but I don't think it will ever become a front line concerto.

But for his invention and the sheer joy in his music Anderson deserves a lot of respect and I recommend exploring his work, even if it is just on YouTube which has a fair amount of it floating about. Enjoy the ride.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Cracking Some Old Nuts

This is a day late but I was otherwise occupied yesterday I do apologise. However, yesterday was, as anyone who used Google will know, the 120th anniversary of the first performance of the ballet The Nutcracker. ABC Classics pointed out the interesting fact that it was actually December 6 according to the records but because Russia wasn't on the same calendar as we are now it translates as December 18. Ain't time fun?

The Nutcracker, unsurprisingly, was one of the first classical works I was aware of. I remember it was one of two pieces I played (I'm sure it was one dance) in the class band in infants school. I was one of the tambourines so I shook it on the red notes. It was a lot of fun. The other piece was a theme from Eine kleine nachtmusick.

So to honour this most famous (arguably) of ballets I thought I'd have a bit of a look at where it came from. The original story was by the wonderful storyteller ETA Hoffmann and was a novella called The Nutcracker and The Mouse King. I haven't read it yet but it's available on the Open Library with some beautiful illustrations from an 1853 edition (just hit the link in the title). That was published in 1816 and was followed by a watered-down version in 1844 by Alexandre Dumas pere.

It was that second version that was used for the ballet which further simplified the story, which did explain why the prince was a nutcracker in the first place. While we all know Tchaikovsky wrote the music, it's interesting to discover who wrote the libretto. That was Marius Petipa, a dancer and choreographer who started his long career in France, worked for a time in Madrid then worked with the Russian Imperial Ballet during its golden age and had a huge influence not only on that company but ballet itself. He revived numerous ballets from the first half of the century and created many more.

It turns out The Nutcracker was not one of his most successful works at first. The initial performance was widely deemed a failure, partly through choreography and also the abrupt shift from the 'real' world to the 'fantasy' world. The music was mostly appreciated however and Tchaikovsky arranged the suite we're all familiar with - plus another one we're not so familiar with. It wasn't until the 1960s that the ballet itself became popular with audiences.

Intriguingly, it is said that Pepita wrote very demanding and precise guidelines in the libretto which told Tchaikovsky not only key signatures but how many bars he was allowed per movement. These restrictions on his creativity rankled him somewhat so, if this true, he didn't enjoy writing the piece one bit. There's also a story that the adagio in the pas de deux was an answer to a friend's challenge that Tchaikovsky couldn't write a melody using the notes in a one octave scale in sequence. Another story is that he wrote a melancholy dance because his sister died during composition.

A final interesting aside, composition for the ballet was interrupted because Tchaikovsky had to go to the US to conduct the opening concert at Carnegie Hall. A Russian honouring the opening of an American music icon by his presence alone. There's an irony there, somewhere.

PS The above image I took from the Wikipedia article on the ballet which has a lot of information. It's an original sketch by the designer of the first performance, Konsatantin Ivanov.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Elena Kats-Chernin: A first look

Okay the year is getting on and things haven't been going to plan, so I may shrink the Australian Composer Survey for now, but it will be an ongoing thing I suspect. But I do want to do one more now, which may also become an ongoing thing since the composer in question is alive and kicking, not to mention quite prolific. Of current Australian composers I think she is my favourite. She has written a hauntingly beautiful ballet, works for string quartet, reimaginings of Bach and much more. She is of course Elena Kats-Chernin.

In a switch from Glanville-Hicks, Elena was born in Tashkent and moved to Australia; but like Peggy she also studied music in Europe. And just as Peggy appears to be popular in Germany, Elena has written music for German/French projects namely some silent film soundtracks.

Probably her most famous piece is Eliza's Aria from the ballet Wild Swans. There are numerous versions of this on YouTube and it's readily available one various ABC albums and others. Originally a wordless aria, she has arranged it for solo piano (performed here by the composer herself) and piano and violin too. It's a remarkable piece with its lilting ups and downs, which I imagine are a considerable challenge to sing. Despite its somewhat staccato nature it flows smoothly, I picture it like a gentle river with ripples. The first movement of her second piano concerto works in a similar fashion - I found it by accident while looking for Clocks, her first major composition but it didn't appear.

To finish for now and to give you an idea of her versatility I'll just mention these two videos. The first is a Bucharian Melody, which reminds me a little of Ippolitov-Ivanov, probably from similar geographic origins I imagine but I'd need to investigate more. It definitely has the feel of Eastern Europe, to me anyway. The second is her Russian Rag, one of her ragtime pieces, played here on a delightful array of instruments I'm not even going to try to guess what they all are.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

More Recordings Please - Peggy Glanville-Hicks

One of the first composers I learnt was Australian was Glanville-Hicks, a name I knew because one of her pieces was on the first of the Swoon CDs the ABC put out in the 90s and I played a lot. But it was only really this year that I found out anything about her, even the fact that her first name was Peggy. The fact that this is her centenary year is a nice bit of serendipity I guess.

For an Australian composer however, Peggy only just counts. She was born here and she died here, and she left a wonderful legacy for Australian composition with a Trust, but most of her training and career took place overseas. Sadly that's probably to be expected for the time.

Unfortunately too, it's not that easy to lay your hands on her music. Bits an pieces yes but compared to even some of the more obscure French composers I looked at earlier she is a veritable needle in a haystack. For instance, one of her most famous works - and the one represented on Swoon - is the Sinfonia da Pacifica, and it is on YouTube but only performed by the Community Women's Orchestra performing in a church hall in Oakland California. They do a good job but there's no mistaking they are a community orchestra. Where are the bigger recordings? The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra has made some but a quick search on the ABC Shop online shows they're not readily available - in that they don't even come up under a search.

Christopher Lawrence had Glanville-Hicks as his composer on the pedestal for the last week of Australian Music month. Several of the recordings were private. One of them was the celebrated inaugural recording of her opera Sappho which only happened this year and another was of another opera The Transposed Heads.

Classics Online has a few recordings of her in the NAXOS Archives section, one of which is unavailable in Australia, one is The Transposed Heads and the other has her Three Gymnopedies between two other works by composers I don't know at all. From the samples these are beautiful orchestral snippets. I think the TSO has done them too and I would love to find a copy.

Interestingly, the other YouTube video I have for her is of a Sonatina for Recorder - a delightful exploration of the instrument - performed by a German. This is interesting because the only other album I've found so far with a piece of her music on it is on a German label. So aside from what the TSO has done, it seems she has more of a name in Germany and the States than in her own country. This despite her generous legacy which supports middle career composers. Come on people.