Billboard’s Top Classical Recordings


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The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles

The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles

As music critics assemble their best-of 2014 lists, another, probably very different barometer of musical taste has been revealed. Billboard has reported that, for the second year in a row, the top-selling classical artists were the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, a community of nuns from rural Missouri.

The sisters’ Lent at Ephesus and Angels and Saints at Ephesus – collections of ancient chants and hymns – were the first- and second-best selling traditional classical albums of 2014 (the traditional classical category excludes crossover releases, according to Billboard). Lent at Ephesus sold about thirty-four thousand copies this year and spent thirty-eight weeks on the chart. Angels came in second place with twenty thousand copies over forty-five weeks. Billboard’s rankings are based on sales data for the year’s top sellers compiled by Nielsen Music.

While interest in chant and spirituality has been a cyclical phenomenon in the recording industry – and almost entirely separate from the classical concert world – 2014 saw interest in this category grow. Other top-selling sacred albums included the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s He Is Risen, an Easter-themed collection (no. 4 on the traditional classical chart); Rumi Symphony Project: Untold, by classical Iranian composer Hafez Nazeri (no. 10), and Mater Eucharistiae, by the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, a monastic order outside of Ann Arbor, MI (no. 11).

Billboard’s top 15 list (which is behind a paywall at also included mainstream classical fare including Anne Akiko Meyers‘s recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and an all-star pairing of Yuja Wang and Gustavo Dudamel in piano concertos by Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev. New recordings of Bach by mandolinist Chris Thile, pianist Simone Dinnerstein and violinist Joshua Bell also made the top 15. The surprise entry, at no.7, was Hilary Hahn‘s 27 Pieces, a collection of encores by twenty-seven composers that the violinist commissioned.

There’s another, even broader measurement of popularity to consider: When factoring in crossover music, Billboard’s most popular classical album of 2014 was Shatter Me by the pop violinist and YouTube sensation Lindsay Stirling.

Brian WiseWQXR

Abendmusik in Lübeck


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St. Mary Church, Lübeck

St. Mary Church, Lübeck

At the age of eighteen, Bach was offered the job of organist at St. Boniface Church in Arnstadt. In spite of a rather generous salary for so young a musician, he bristled at the poor quality of singers in his choir and the appointment only lasted a few years. In October 1705, Bach requested leave to travel to the northern city of Lübeck to hear the great organist and composer, Dieterich Buxtehude, and “take in all I can of his art.” Granted four weeks off, he set out for Lübeck to meet his idol, traversing the 260 miles in early winter and reportedly on foot! Instead of a month, Bach ended up staying three months before returning to Arnstadt a changed man; he had found his inspiration.

While Bach undoubtedly longed to meet the famous organist, Buxtehude’s Abendmusik concerts at St. Mary Church were likely what precipitated the teenaged Bach’s road trip. Under Buxtehude’s watch, the Abendmusik concerts – privately funded musical programs featuring a highly skilled group of municipal players performing stunning, new instrumental and vocal works by the town’s famous music master – had developed into significant annual attractions. In 1697, several years before Bach’s visit, a travel writer noted the organist and his concerts as one of Lübeck’s principal draws:

On the west side, between the two pillars under the towers, one can see the large and magnificent organ, which, like the small organ, is now presided over by the world-famous organist and composer Dietrich Buxtehude. Of particular note is the great Abend-Music, consisting of pleasant vocal and instrumental music, presented yearly on five Sundays between St. Martin’s and Christmas, following the Sunday Vespers sermon, from 4 to 5 o’clock, by the aforementioned organist as director, in an artistic and praiseworthy manner. This happens nowhere else.

Though not bound by liturgical concerns, the Abendmusiken occurred each year on the final two Sundays of Trinity and first three Sundays of Advent, so roughly once a week from throughout November and December, excluding the week of Christmas. The events had begun under the stewardship of Buxtehude’s predecessor, Franz Tunder, but developed considerably in the late seventeenth century and continued long after Buxtehude’s death. In 1752, one writer recounted the history of the concerts, especially their development over the years from humble beginnings:

In former times the citizenry, before going to the stock market, had the praiseworthy custom of assembling in St. Mary Church, and the organist [Tunder] sometimes played something on the organ for their pleasure, to pass the time and to make himself popular with the citizenry. This was well received, and several rich people, who were also lovers of music, gave him gifts. The organist was thus encouraged, first to add a few violins and then singers as well, until finally it had become a large performance, which was moved to the aforementioned Sundays of Trinity and Advent. The famous organist Diederich Buxtehude decorated the Abendmusiken magnificently already in his day. His successor, Mr. Schiefferdecker, did not fail to maintain the reputation of these concerts and even augment it. But our admirable Mr. Kuntze has brought them to the highest level. He has gotten the most famous singers [both male and female] from the Hamburg opera; he has even employed Italian women.

Like most musically inclined Germans in the early 1700s, Bach knew about the Abendmusk concerts and undoubtedly timed his visit to Lübeck accordingly. He also must have known that a four-week leave would not be adequate to fully take in the concerts, but he failed to mention this detail before leaving. Bach was not entirely happy with his post in Arnstadt, so missing more than a month of work bothered him less than it upset his employers. Interestingly, however, when Bach returned and was reprimanded, his most serious offense was not his AWOL status; it was for introducing strange notes and musical gestures into his services in January and February 1706! The experience of hearing and playing Buxtehude’s music in the Abendmusiken (some have suggested that he performed in some of the concerts) had inspired Bach and directly influenced his musical voice and ambition.

American Bach Soloists

Pairing Bach with Bruckner


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The Bruckner Organ at St. Florian Monastery

The Bruckner Organ near Linz, Austria

Bach and Bruckner are not often paired on the same program. Yet the composers had much in common: both were frustrated, provincial schoolteachers who happened to be world-class organists. And though Bach was a devout Lutheran and Bruckner was Catholic to the core, the BBC Philharmonic’s inspired pairing on 5 December 2014 at Bridgewater Hall in Manchester left no doubt that both worshiped the same God.

Among the two hundred of Bach’s church cantatas to have survived only one – Gloria in excelsis Deo (BWV 191), for performance on Christmas Day – has a text in Latin. Its concise three movements are familiar, as it recycles material from an earlier setting and was later reincorporated in the great, career-summation of the Mass in B minor (BWV 232). Juanjo Mena’s radiant performance with the Manchester Chamber Choir provided a crisp, contemporary account of the material Bach employed to serve Christmas past, Christmas present and Christmas yet to come.

Bruckner worshiped Bach; and though his Fourth Symphony is a vast, mysterious and sometimes occluded work, the contrapuntal influence of countless hours grafting in the organ loft is present in every bar. Mena negotiated the switchback journey of giant crescendos and hushed chorales as if moving through a craggy, Germanic landscape in which devout pockets of worshipers are discovered nestling among the peaks.

It’s a moot point whether the work’s “Romantic” designation holds any real significance. Yet if this most chivalric of symphonies has a real hero it has to be the horn, whose burnished tone led the charge from the mysterious statement of the opening to the numinous solo that emerged from the hymn-like initiation of the finale. Mena prefers to become thrillingly absorbed in the moment rather than to stand back and appraise the structure; between movements he repeatedly stepped down and shoved the podium a few inches further forward, as if determined to envelop himself in the sound more completely.

Alfred HicklingThe Guardian

Richard Powers on Music


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Richard Powers

Richard Powers

Did you ever read a book review and realize that you have to get your hands on a title you’ve never heard of? That happened to me years ago, when I read a review in The Wall Street Journal of The Gold Bug Variations, a new novel by Richard Powers. In one sense, the plot was a love story about two different couples. It was also about many other things, including the intricacies of the genetic code, and composer Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations [BWV 988]. Powers immediately became one of my favorite writers.

Known as a brainy literary fiction writer – he won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1989 – Powers has attracted an intense following. The former computer programmer and physics major (he later switched to English) always puts in a great deal of research into science, musicology and other disciplines, but his novels also explore the pleasures of romantic love, music and literature. His ninth novel, The Echo Maker, won the National Book Award for fiction. The main character has suffered a brain injury in an accident, but while you’ll learn a lot about cognitive science, the judges also must have been impressed with the clever mystery story that showed off Powers’ ability to construct a good plot.

Powers’ latest novel is Orfeo, about a modern classical music composer who attempts to obtain an immortality of sorts by rewriting the genetic code of bacteria, thinking that his biological “compositions” will live on when his music is forgotten. Instead, in the current atmosphere of fear about terrorism, he is labeled the “bioterrorist Bach” and becomes a fugitive from the US government. Ironically, the bad publicity finally allows his music to become better known.

Powers is the the Phil and Penny Knight Professor of Creative Writing in the Department of English at Stanford University in California. He answered my questions after flying back from New York City, where he did a reading at a concert that featured music mentioned in Orfeo.

Tom Jackson (TJ) One of my hobbies is listening to modern classical music – not a common pastime – so when I read Orfeo, I had a weird feeling that one of my favorite novelists had written a book for my personal enjoyment. Were you worried that a novel that discusses Steve Reich, Olivier Messiaen, etc. would lack mass appeal?

Richard Powers (RP) Well, I was sure that it wouldn’t have mass appeal! But then, in a time when there is so much creative work in all forms, and when the audience for books is dwarfed by those for film, television, games, and the Internet, I’m not sure that “mass appeal” is a meaningful goal for a literary novelist. The book itself takes art and connection as one of its subjects, and the life of Peter Els (the book’s hero) is a constant exploration of the trade-off between the expressive potential of music and the need to connect with large numbers of people. Orfeo is in part a meditation on the difficulty of making art in the age of “mass appeal” and the diversity of art that still gets made in obscurity. So I was pleasantly surprised, having written a story about a composer whose performances always have more people on stage than in the audience, at the numbers of people who bought, read, and wanted to talk about the book. A lot of people who thought they could never hear and enjoy “difficult” music discovered new sounds as the result of reading the book, and that thrilled me as much as any larger audience could have.

TJ Do you listen to music when you write, or do you prefer to work under silence?

RP Several of my eleven published novels have featured music of one kind or another in a starring role. One of the reasons I have come back to that subject again and again is that it gives me the chance to steep myself in listening, during the years that it takes to write a book. I can’t write at the same moment that good music is playing; the sounds are too interesting to concentrate on anything else! What I do is alternate, all day long: an hour or two of writing, then half an hour to an hour of intense listening, for refreshment and inspiration. It’s a great, two-stroke engine. When I wrote The Gold Bug Variations, I must have listened to one or another of Bach’s gems thousands of times.

TJ The Gold Bug Variations, Genie and Orfeo all discuss the genetic code. Do you view the genetic code as the primal code behind all other codes, such as language and musical notation?

RP Self-replicating molecules have set every living thing in motion, and that pattern-making impulse, at the inanimate level, is, in some profoundly mysterious way, the mother of all animate pattern-making and pattern-seeking urges. Of course, there are a lot of changes in nature as you move from molecules up to neurons and then to social institutions. But kinds of natural (and unnatural!) selection are at work all the way up and down the great hierarchy. Meditation on our molecular roots is tremendously inspiring, and thinking about the journey from the first self-replicating molecules to the pinnacles of human achievement is the deepest kind of spiritual reflection. As Darwin said at the end of The Origin of Species, “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

TJ Did you find that readers of Galatea 2.2 assumed that the character “Richard Powers” was in fact Richard Powers? If they assumed that, were they largely right?

RP Readers (and even some sophisticated critics) often confuse a central character with the author. Our high school English teachers tell us not to, but we can’t help it. And when the central character has exactly the same name, age, and biography as his author, the invitation for conflation is pretty strong! Galatea is me having fun with this most basic of reading fallacies, as a way of reflecting on the power of fiction and imaginative reinvention. Nevertheless, the Richard Powers at the heart of that story is himself an invention and one who finds himself in the heart of one of the oldest fictions in the world: the one where a person’s creation – in this case, an artificial intelligence program – comes alive.

TJ If we are waiting for you to pop up on Twitter, will we have a long wait? (Orfeo includes Tweets from the book’s protagonist).

RP I’m afraid so!  I’m a long-form guy. I need space. But I did once write a six-word novel: “Lie detector eyeglasses invented; civilization collapses.”

Tom JacksonSandusky Register

Stradivari’s Trees


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Marcello Mazzucchi in the Fiemme Valley

Marcello Mazzucchi in the Fiemme Valley

Antonio Stradivari, the master violin maker whose instruments sell for millions of dollars today, has been dead for nearly three centuries. Only six hundred fifty of his instruments are estimated to survive. But the forest where the luthier got his lumber is alive and well. And thanks to the surprising teamwork of modern instrument makers and forest rangers, Stradivari’s trees are doing better than ever.

These spruce trees have been growing for hundreds of years in the Fiemme Valley, the same corner of the Italian Alps where Renaissance luthiers such as Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati hand-picked the trees that would be turned into some of the world’s finest instruments. Thanks to a serendipitous combination of climate and altitude, these have come to be called “Il bosco che suona” – The Musical Woods.

Marcello Mazzucchi, a retired forest ranger with an uncanny knack for spotting timber that’s ideal for instruments, walks among the trees, tapping on their trunks. Mazzucchi’s skill has led some to call him “The Tree Whisperer,” but he laughs off that nickname. “I’m really more of a tree listener,he says. “I observe, I touch them, sometimes I even hug them. Look carefully and they’ll tell you their life story, their traumas, their joys, everything. Such humble creatures.”

He goes from trunk to trunk, crossing flawed candidates off his list. “This one over here was struck by lightning,” he says. “Who knows what kind of sound its violin would make?” Then he finds a contender: “It shoots up perfectly straight. It’s very cylindrical. No branches at the bottom. If you ask me, there’s a violin trapped inside.”

Mazzucchi takes out a manual drill called a borer, and twists it like a corkscrew through the bark. He listens carefully to the knocking sound the borer makes each time it hits a new tree ring. Pulling out a core sample shaped like a pencil, he concludes the tree is an excellent specimen. A lumberjack chops down trees like this one and carts them to a lumberyard nearby, where the spruce is milled into sections.

Local instrument maker Cecilia Piazzi examines a piece of that milled wood, and declares it “magnificent.” “We use it for making the table – that’s the beautiful part on the front of a violin or cello, with the soundholes on the surface,” Piazzi says. “Yes, this piece is the right piece. I can tell just by flicking it.”

It takes months to complete a single instrument, which can cost over $10,000 – a bargain, when you consider a Stradivarius that came from the same forest can go for over $10 million. But it’s enough to keep this community humming. The Fiemme Valley is one of Italy’s most prosperous areas, thanks in large part to these musical woods. And it’s going to stay that way, because people like the Tree Whisperer take care of it. “I’ve felled one million trees in my career,” Mazzucchi says. “But in their place, 100 million more have grown up.”

Before a tree hits the chopping block, Mazzucchi looks around to see if there are any tiny saplings struggling to grow nearby. If so, removing an adult tree will let more sun in and actually help the babies mature. Bruno Cosignani, the head of the local forest service, explains that light is the limiting factor on tree growth. “As soon as a tree falls down, those who were born and suffering in the shadows can start to grow more quickly,” he says. And centuries from now, those trees, too, might become musical instruments.

National Public Radio

Bach Reloaded


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Burhan Öçal

Burhan Öçal

The music of Johann Sebastian Bach receives an innovative eastern spin in the hands of musicians Burhan Öçal, a Turkish percussionist, and Ukrainian pianist Alexey Botvinov, in their interpretation of the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988). Since debuting the work in 2010, “Bach Reloaded” has been performed across Europe and recently received its Middle East debut in Abu Dhabi at the Emirates Palace.

interviewed Burhan Öçal to learn more about the project:

Saeed Saeed (SS) How did you and Botvinov come up with the concept of Bach Reloaded?

Burhan Öcal (BÖ) I’ve been dreaming about this project for fifteen to twenty years. However, as you know, Bach is such a prominent composer in the western classical-music world that it is very risky to even play his non-religious compositions, and not a lot of people have the courage to do this. So, it was not easy for us to revise his compositions with Turkish percussion and play it live.

We feel that we need to show the audience that these compositions are not for  religious purposes and that they are fully [musically] successful in their very nature. We’ve played these shows in Kiev, Zürich, Paris, Istanbul and at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and each time the audience was mesmerized, so we are trying to connect with the audience in Abu Dhabi in the same way.

SS What is it about Bach’s compositions that lends them to a fusion of percussion and piano?

Bach’s music is so strictly mathematical that you cannot change the structure whatsoever. So this leads Bach’s compositions to be very rhythmic. Of course, these are very hard variations. I’ve maybe listened to the variations hundreds of times to be able to adapt to the piano and percussion. The ten-finger technique used both by the pianist and the percussionist also plays a big role in being able to create a fusion between these two instruments.

SS You and Botvinov focus on Bach’s Goldberg Variations. What is it about that piece that inspires you both to perform it?

The first reason in choosing the Goldberg Variations is that the composition itself was not written with religious purposes. The second reason is that the piece was composed beautifully with its mathematics and rhythmic structure.

SS How would you describe your musical chemistry with Botvinov?

First of all we both are very disciplined musicians. His is a ten-finger technique and mine also, because I do not use drum sticks. This leads us to use our twenty fingers in perfect harmony.

SS What makes it so appealing to international audiences?

I think that the reason behind the performances being appreciated is that it is that, for the first time, such a courageous project is actually being accomplished and is a success.

SS In Abu Dhabi, do you feel people identify with your percussion. Does this feel familiar to Middle East audiences?

I think that they find the music to be familiar, and, as a result, their reaction is definitely positive. Because of this, I am also playing some Middle Eastern Arabic rhythms and solos for this audience.

The National

Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland


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Nu kom der Heyden heyland in the Erfurt Enchiridion of 1524

Nu kom der Heyden heyland in the Erfurt Enchiridion of 1524

The First Sunday of Advent begins the liturgical year, and three hundred years ago in Weimar, on 2 December 1714, Bach marked the occasion by performing the six-movement cantata Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV 61). Written for a small ensemble consisting of soprano, tenor, and bass soloists, a four-part chorus, two violins, two violas and basso continuo, the cantata text, combining the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem with his promise to  enter the heart of the individual Christian, was provided by Erdmann Neumeister.

The opening chorus is based on the first stanza of Martin Luther’s chorale Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, which in turn is based on Veni redemptor gentium by Ambrose. The last verse of Philipp Nicolai‘s Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern serves as the closing chorale.

As director of music of the main churches of Leipzig, Bach repeated the performance of Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland on 28 November 1723.

Getting in Tune


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Galileo at his telescope

Galileo at his telescope

On being subjected to long stretches of tuning at some early music concerts I’m reminded of the old joke about going to a fight and having a hockey game break out. Even if the tuning doesn’t actually take longer than the musical works on the program, its repeated eruption throws things badly out of balance: before the music has even begun, the listener’s excited anticipation deflates. Between the pieces the flow of the concert is continuously diverted because of all those finicky viols with their profusion of strings, and even worse the lute in the unwieldy state to which it had evolved by the eighteenth century. One contemporary wag quipped that having such an instrument was more expensive than keeping a horse, and that if a lutenist lived to sixty years of age, forty of those had been spent tuning the beast.

In a modern symphony concert the tuning proceeds quickly and has a strictly policed ritual form that hearkens back to the militaristic origins of the orchestra as an institution. The second-in-command – the concertmaster – orders an A from the oboe and then directs the various platoons to fall in line with the pitch. The present-day orchestra has modernized musical weaponry that can be quickly calibrated: the mustering of the troops takes about a minute. This demonstration of uniform sonic discipline then quickly recedes into respectful silence for the entry of the generalissimo – the conductor – who leads his army into battle against the massed armies of one great power or another – Brahms, Beethoven, or some new contender.

Such discipline is often absent among the disorganized irregulars of many an early music battalion. Their dutiful fussings are necessary perhaps, but often dispiriting.

In the eighteenth century tuning was typically done to a prelude improvised by the organist or harpsichordist. He was charged with slowly traversing harmonies that made for useful references for the adjustments of the stringed instruments. The American musical traveler and collector Lowell Mason heard precisely this approach in the nineteenth century in Bach’s old church of St. Thomas in Leipzig. Mason reported that the result was the most out-of-tune band he’d ever heard.

Nowadays there are apps for iPhones and kindred gizmos that make off-stage tuning possible for strings and winds. But some recalcitrants cleave to their twentieth-century ways rather than go back to the eighteenth or join the twenty-first.

Imagine never having to listen to protracted tuning at a concert – neither before nor during. Such a concert would have two robust halves of music separated by an intermission that felt like it had been earned rather than just being more dead time to added to that already killed by the tuning.

And while we’re bent on focusing our concert on content, uplift, and edification, let’s dispense with the clutter of applause and move things along directly between the pieces with an enlivening script presented by a fabulous speaker/actor who brings the story of the concert to life as no set of stuffy program notes could ever do. And since we’re cleansing the stage of distraction, let’s sweep aside the scores and the music stands. Disappear the conductor, too.

Impossible, you say, to ask every one of the dozens members of an ensemble to memorize their own parts in a program that approaches two hours in duration. And to expect all these disparate minds to remain on track without traffic-cop direction given by a conductor will lead to too many collisions to count. How can all these folks remain on the same page when there is no page in the first place?

But banish these objections for a moment further and picture these unencumbered players interacting with one another musically and physically, sometimes moving about the stage in a kind of dance and assuming visually striking formations. The seated soldiers of music rise up to become ever-changing tableaux vivants.

What this revolutionary approach opens up is the possibility of a concert as theatre in which the grace and vibrancy of bodies at music become integral to the performance.

Such a vision of performed music, be it is classed as early or modern, is no mere pipedream. One of the world’s great baroque orchestras, the Toronto-based Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra has brought this ideal to eloquent and unforgettable reality with its “Galileo Project” conceived for the International Year of Astronomy in 2009, marking four hundred years since Galileo Galilei made his first astronomical observations and Johannes Kepler published the Astronomia nova.

Developed by Tafelmusik during a residency at the Banff Centre, the Galileo Project was premiered there in January of 2009. Like a heavenly body migrating through the sky, the Galileo Project crossed Lake Ontario from Toronto to Ithaca, New York five years later to light up the Saturday night firmament in Cornell University’s Bailey Hall, a century-old neo-classical pile whose cavernous interior sometimes seems as if it could accommodate a couple of solar systems within its vaults. In spite of the far-from-ideal venue for the intimacies of early music, Tafelmusik filled the place up with the energy of its music and the appeal of the story it told with the aid of movement and image. The musicians traced their own orbits and cycles on stage beneath a large circular image projected behind them whose circumference was ornamented like Galileo’s telescope. It was as if we were looking through his lens at the extraordinary things from across the universe, from here on earth to the most distant stars; from Kepler’s printed words and music about the songs of the planets, to photographs of stunning terrestrial landscapes and fabulous nebulae and comets that we now can see at levels of resolution and magnification never dreamt of by Galileo himself. The well-researched and elegant script was written by the long-time Tafelmusik double bassist Allison MacKay, who has frequently collaborated on what she calls “cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary projects for the orchestra.”

Dressed all in black but with touches of color brightened by the colored hair of two of the female violinists, the players moved silently onto the stage to welcoming applause and started right in – no tuning! – with a Vivaldi concerto whose virtuosic allegro and seductive largo astonished and seduced, two things the night sky is also very good at doing. While this sensuous music of Venice introduced the Harmony of the Spheres in the context of the Galileo Project, it evokes for me the water and tenuous earth of its birthplace, Still, there is also something weightless and celestial in this eighteenth-century top-of the-charts stuff when done by Tafelmusik and its long-time director, Jeanne Lamon, recently retired but for the time-being still at her post.

From Vivaldi’s Venice we moved to France by way of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and comets and skyscapes seen through the Galilean lens to witness Phaeton’s disastrous crash of his father Apollo’s sun chariot. This suite of pieces came from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s 1683 Phaëton, the magnificent tragédie en musique about the ill-fated teenage joyrider. Tafelmusik literally moved from the overweening confidence of the pompous overture to the inexorably elegant and elegiac Chaconne in which twelve of the musicians themselves formed a circle and, like the signs of the zodiac, rotated through their choreographed yearly cycles. These motions allowed for the players to engage in seemingly spontaneous – but in fact carefully staged – dialogues of artistry and emotion in configurations at or near center stage that momentarily escaped the gravitational hold of the group.

From France we vaulted back a century to the musical world of Galileo, himself an amateur lutenist who came from a family of musicians. Galileo first demonstrated his telescope in 1609 in Venice, the same city that would later foster – and occasionally thwart – Vivaldi’s prolific genius. The transition was achieved effortlessly through the recitation of Galileo’s own writings by the narrator, actor Shaun Smyth. An Albertan born in Scotland, Smyth brought with him from the old country a mastery of dialects of the British Islands that he deployed occasionally – and only when called for – with humor, flare, and taste.

Smyth and the musicians traced the chronologically retrograde path from Vivaldi to Lully to Monteverdi Smyth by way of McKay’s insightful and well-researched script. Now with Galileo we heard the streaking comet of Monteverdi’s concerted madrigal Zefiro torna set by Tafelmusik for its two cellists, Christian Mahler and Allen Wheat, singing through their instruments like cosmic angels. Unleashed from the planets Plato imagined them sitting, they ran wild through earthly meadows and woodlands. A deft modulation lead to another treatment of same bassline by a fellow composer of Venetian stamp, Tarquinio Merula. We then retreated the shadows of a solo lute Toccata by Galileo’s younger brother, Michelangelo, the piece played with captivating melancholy and finesse by one of the orchestra’s most potent forces, lutenist/guitarist Lucas Harris. The plaintive voice of his instrument, designed to be heard in renaissance chambers, drew the hundreds-strong Bailey Hall audience into its inner feelings with a pull as strong and ineffable as gravity. It was a piece Galileo would have heard and indeed likely played himself, especially during the years of his long house arrest. These offerings were framed by pieces from the most famous work of Galileo’s time and place, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, which premiered two years before the astronomer first pointed his telescope at the sky.

After a fact-checking peek at the night sky from the plaza in front of the concert hall, I returned from intermission to my seat just as the orchestra marched back on stage for a Purcellian prelude to a re-imagining of the festival of planets organized in Dresden for the Saxon-French royal wedding of 1719: with Rameau, Handel, Telemann and Zelenka we toured Jupiter, Venus, and Mercury.

After Smyth’s hilarious rendition of an eighteenth-century English drinking song that lauds and ridicules the paradigm-shifting discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton, we heard J. S. Bach’s flights of fancy around Venus in the sinfonia to his cantata, How Brightly Shines the Morning Star (BWV 1). The chorale melody around which the other contrapuntal parts orbit resounded from one of the orchestra’s wonderful oboists placed in the hall’s distant balcony – yet another instance of the group’s creative use of the venue as a tool for mapping sound and space.

The evening closed with a rocketing rendition of another of Bach’s beloved cantata sinfonias, the opener to BWV 29. This piece had once been repurposed by Bach from a solo violin work to an organ concerto. It was again transformed by Tafelmusik into a violin concerto during which yet another of the group’s many star fiddle-players had a chance to shine, concluding a concert/performance that among its many marvels was an astounding feat of group memorization demonstrating the limitless reach of music in and as motion that, like the Keplerian cosmos, was never out of tune.

David YearsleyCounterPunch

C. P. E. Bach in Cairo


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Nader Abbassi

Nader Abbassi

“He is the father, we are the children,” said Joseph Haydn, commenting on works by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Paralleling world celebrations of C. P. E. Bach’s three-hundredth birth anniversary, the Cairo Symphony Chamber Orchestra will present a concert with works by the composer as part of the “Composers’ Jubilee” series.

The concert will take place on Saturday, 22 November 2014 at the Main Hall of the Cairo Opera House and will include three compositions by the second son of Johann Sebastian Bach: Symphony no.1 in D Major, Concerto for Flute in D minor with Peter Olah as soloist, and a Magnificat featuring vocal soloists soprano Iman Mostafa, alto Amina Khairat, tenor Hisham El-Gindy and baritone Raouf Zaidan. A Cappella choir, with choir master Maya Gvineria, will also participate.

The Cairo Symphony Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Nader Abbassi, is a newly formed ensemble consisting of Cairo Symphony Orchestra musicians. As a smaller formation, the chamber orchestra will give several concerts including compositions by C. P. E. Bach during this season.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach represents a transition between the Baroque music period and the following classical period. Throughout 2014, he has been celebrated across the world, particularly in German cities where the composer spent most of his life.

Ahram Online

Adversaries Sharing a Love of Bach


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Niklas Frank, author of In the Shadow of the Reich

Niklas Frank, author of In the Shadow of the Reich

In the dock at the Nuremberg trials of 1945 and 1946: Hans Frank, born in Karlsruhe; once Adolf Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of Poland for the Third Reich, now charged with crimes against humanity for his part in the murder of three million people, including those in the death camps at Treblinka, Sobibór, Bełżec and Majdanek.

For the prosecution: Hersch Lauterpacht, who grew up in the Austro-Hungarian empire, near the city now known as Lviv in Ukraine, and who, after studying law in Vienna and London, went on to teach at Cambridge. He was a key figure in developing the idea of “crimes against humanity”, laying the foundation stones for international law and the modern laws of war. In his 40s, he was part of the British prosecution team at the trials of Frank and others.

There were strange connections between the two men, on opposite sides in the courtroom. The area in which Lauterpacht had grown up had been invaded by the Germans in June 1941. Lauterpacht was in England during this period and had been unaware that most of his family had been among the three million exterminated on Frank’s orders.

And there is this: as the trial proceeded, Lauterpacht would repair to listen to his favorite piece of music, from which he took inspiration for this onerous task: St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244b) by Johann Sebastian Bach. Meanwhile, Frank, in his cell, discussed with the prison psychiatrist and summoned up in his head – seeking not only solace but affirmation – St. Matthew Passion.

Each man heard in the great masterwork – in the same sublime solos and chorales – an entirely different, indeed contradictory, message; two opposed promulgations in the same score, two contrary cries in the same edifice of beauty.

Human rights lawyer Philippe Sands came across this unsettling coincidence while researching a book about his own family, to be published in 2016. He has now turned this compelling discovery, and other circumstances around the trial of Hans Frank (for example, also working for the prosecution was Raphael Lemkin, who had studied in Lviv – in the 1920s, when it was part of Poland and called Lwów – and had recently coined the term “genocide”. Sands believes that his family, too, had been obliterated on Frank’s orders), into a remarkable event to be staged at the end of this month by one of Britain’s leading young directors of opera, Nina Brazier. It combines narrative, which Sands will read with Vanessa Redgrave, images and music (from Bach via Ravel to Leonard Cohen), with Sands’s friend from childhood, French bass-baritone Laurent Naouri, accompanied by Guillaume de Chassy on piano.

Among the more extraordinary elements will be a “hymn” written to Hans Frank by Richard Strauss, the text for which appeared in a book by Frank’s son, Niklas, who has himself been involved in preparations for the performance. “We became immediate friends,” says Sands of Niklas, “after an initially strange handshake with the man whose father murdered my grandfather’s family, and three million other people.” There will also be never-before-seen film from the Kraków ghetto found in Niklas Frank’s family archive.

Philippe Sands is an Anglo-French lawyer with Jewish family origins around what is now Lviv also. He is best known for his books Lawless World, which detailed the illegality of Tony Blair’s war in Iraq, and Torture Team, about instructions for interrogation from US secretary for defense Donald Rumsfeld that led to calls for him and others to be indicted for war crimes. On a wall at his home beside Hampstead Heath in London hangs a map of the small town of Zhovkva, whence his great-grandmother came, from the same street as Hersch Lauterpacht.

Sands’s staging tells how Lauterpacht left for England, Lemkin for America and then converged home, in their way, to the trials at Nuremberg. (Sands’s own career has proceeded in the slipstream of the work of Lauterpacht and Lemkin.) Hans Frank was Adolf Hitler’s lawyer in cases dating back before the Führer’s rise to power, a loyalty for which he was appointed governor general of Poland in October 1939, to which he promised: “We bring art and culture.” He also guaranteed that “the Jewish problem will be addressed”.

Frank was a man of letters, a talented pianist and friend of Strauss. The remarkable book by his son is unprecedented in Holocaust literature (published by Alfred Knopf in America as In the Shadow of the Reich, but incomprehensibly refused by British publishers) and a monument to his German generation’s reckoning with the Shoah. It is a visceral challenge to the father, whom the text addresses in the second-person singular like an open letter, but also describes him thus: “You could play Chopin so beautifully. You loved Beethoven. You were friends with Richard Strauss.” At the end, as the Red Army rolls back the Wehrmacht’s conquests, “even in the chaos of battle, culture and the arts maintained their same important place on your scale of values”. Towards the end of the Reich, recalls his son, Frank was even chastised by Heinrich Himmler for “gluttonous and inappropriate behavior, with those theatre and opera performances of yours”.

Sands’s narrative includes Frank’s inauguration of a new theatre, “sanctuary of art” in Lviv; Frank wanted rising star Herbert von Karajan to conduct the opening night’s performances of Beethoven’s Leonora Overture and the Ninth Symphony. (He got instead “an unknown Austrian conductor,” Fritz Weidlich.)

In his engrossing book, Niklas quotes from his father’s diary: “This evening I was . . . at the great festival concert which [Wilhelm] Furtwängler conducted at the Philharmonic Hall for the German People’s Winter Benefit for the Needy.” Hitler, Hermann Goering and Joseph Goebbels were also there. “It was a powerful, profound, thrilling experience,” writes Frank Sr., “to hear this true giant of a conductor recreate the overture to Der Freischütz, Brahms’s Fourth Symphony and Beethoven’s Seventh. A magnificent evening of consecration. With indescribable emotion, I felt the years I have experienced pass before me, accompanied by this glorious music.”

So what did Hans Frank the war criminal and Hersch Lauterpacht who wrote the law on crimes against humanity hear in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion? “I do not stake any claim to expertise in music,” Sands says. “I’m an amateur enthusiast, and not even that when it comes to Bach. But I’ve read and thought a lot about this, and there is an interpretation whereby Bach used the passion of Matthew to register a Lutheran affirmation of the creativity of the individual against the Catholic commitment to the centrality of the group, the whole. It’s about the direct relationship between the individual and God in which, one may infer, Lauterpacht found an inspiration for his idea of individual human rights.

“I wonder about Frank,” muses Sands. “Whether he was an intelligent and cultured man, and if he was, did he really understand St. Matthew Passion? Frank may have heard in these glorious chorales an assertion of the collective, the rights of nation over those of the individual, which was the basis for his defense, such as it was. But there’s an irony here, because Bach writes in such a way as even the chorus sings in the first person singular – ‘ich.’ This is the individual celebrant communing with the deity, which opposes the Catholic idea of communion through celebration.”

In open court, Frank said: “I bear the responsibility” and: “I am possessed by a deep sense of guilt.” In his cell, Frank converted to Catholicism – to the derision of his son, whose book goads the father on his final pleas for divine mercy, for himself and family. Sands is less immediately dismissive: “It’s debatable why he converted, but having done so, he invokes the St. Matthew Passion as an affirmation of his conversion. Which is strange: he must have known that Bach and his intellect were Lutheran. I think Frank’s conversion was a strategic one and as such it reminds me of Blair. They were incomparable, of course, and we assume they converted in good faith, but in a way, Catholicism is the easy way out to self-absolution, and that is one of the things Bach takes issue with in this music.”

Sands explains how he and Laurent Naouri had to choose a section from the St. Matthew Passion to illustrate the obsession of each man. “For Lauterpacht I wanted Geduld, Geduld!” Sands says, “which means ‘patience’, but Laurent said it wasn’t in his range.”

“We chose Gerne will ich mich bequemen,” Laurent says: “‘Gladly would I, fear disdaining/ Cross and cup, without complaining’ – which is about determination and patience. And for Frank, it has to be Erbarme dich – ‘Have mercy . . . regard my bitter weeping’ – praying that he will live. I think he probably knows that he won’t [Frank was executed in 1946], but there is a part of him attuned to this music, some last feeling of hope.”

But did Hans Frank believe his own defense? If anyone can be the judge of that, it would be Sands, who has faced people in Frank’s shadow when he has acted for Human Rights Watch against General Augusto Pinochet, or cases in international courts involving Yugoslavia or Sierra Leone, and who now confides what everyone wonders about trial law: “When you are involved in a case, there’s a moment where you may come to believe your own arguments, however implausible. Frank was a courtroom lawyer too, and in a courtroom there can be this suspension of disbelief. I think Frank as a defendant may well have gone through that process, of not necessarily believing his own argument, but believing it enough to think it might get him off the hook. I don’t think he believed he was innocent, but I think he may have thought he was not sufficiently culpable to warrant the death penalty.” Sands befriended an interpreter from the trial, Siegfried Ramler, who told him: “I looked Frank in the face and thought, ‘This is a man who knows he has done wrong.’ He was looking for mercy, but not exoneration.”

Niklas Frank is a man of wit and charm; the dry humor that charges his book with bitterness makes his conversation agreeable. He became a war correspondent for  Stern magazine and we were both in Iraq and former Yugoslavia, though we never met. I talk to him about finding concentration camps run by Bosnian Serbs in 1992 and he talks about “finding books, some in German, left in abandoned houses in empty Serbian villages” after the Croatian offensive around Knin during 1995. “There,” says Frank, “even the animals were dead. I felt like the loneliest man in the world.”

Niklas Frank was born in 1939 and, as he says: “My memories of the Third Reich were those of a child.” He recalls “a harmonium in the attic at our home in Bavaria, up a narrow staircase. I watched him play. He would improvise a great deal and the music always seemed sad to me, as though he knew what his end would be.”

Hans Frank “was so well educated,” says his son. “He was a close friend of Strauss; he knew every kind of classical music and he loved it. When Strauss discussed music with my father, he was on his own level.” In his book, Niklas recounts how such exciting movements as expressionism and naturalism “passed you by,” but in conversation relates how he found something unexpected in the programming of concerts sponsored by his father in occupied Kraków: “There was work there that was not just the usual cliche of Bach and Beethoven. There was modern music from the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, which would have been considered decadent in Berlin – but this was Kraków. It’s there, being played, and I was astonished to find it.”

To perform such new music, Hans Frank had wanted as his programmer and concertmaster a man called Friedrich Franz Stampe, of whom Goebbels, who controlled the arts, disapproved, “but my father petitioned Goebbels and – amazingly – succeeded.”

The heating system at Laurent Naouri’s home in Paris, where he, Sands and Nina Brazier are rehearsing, has broken, so he has adjourned, as must our conversation, to a hotel on Boulevard Raspail. He gets directly to the point, without so much as a coffee between him and his argument: “Hans Frank was a great pianist; when he had to make a decision, he would play a while on the piano – something beautiful to help him with his thoughts. And it comes as a shock to think of Frank doing this – that he was a mass killer, but he had sensibility, a soul.”

“But the meaning of music is wide open,” Naouri explains. “Most music moves between tension and release, tension and release. Everything is built around the dominant seventh and the tonic, building pressure and the orgasmic conclusion. And this is primal, it affects all beings, whatever their ideology. Why would the same music move Lauterpacht and Hans Frank? Because they are both human beings. They both get hungry and both need food; they both experience these moments of tension that need to find rest. This has nothing to do with morality – it’s physical.”

I ask Naouri about Nazism and the cult of the sublime irrational. “What Bach composes in the St. Matthew Passion is rational,” he replies. “What is irrational is the feeling of sheer beauty that comes out of it. Not how the music was done, but why it does this to us.”

Niklas Frank writes in his book: “Here’s something I don’t want to suppress: a song for you, written by Richard Strauss. Yes, Strauss sang a song for you and accompanied himself on the piano. You were standing next to him, in his home, struck dumb in your vanity, flattered by the fact that this world-famous composer, for you alone, only you, had made up this little ditty and turned it into a song. You hum the melody and I’ll write the text: ‘Who enters the room, so slender and swank?/ Behold our friend, our Minister Frank/ Like Lohengrin sent by God, our master/ To save us all from every disaster . . . ’ What’s he thanking you for, Father? I have yet to discover that,” concludes the author. The song will never have been performed – apart from a dry run at the Hay Festival – until Sands’s event at the end of this month.

Niklas explains: “When my mother died, on my twentieth birthday in 1959, I said to myself, ‘I’ll work through all the papers and pictures, lots of stuff.’ Luckily she had always copied out letters she wrote to my father, by hand that is, words between her and her husband at the time of the Nuremberg trials.

“And suddenly, in the letters she is very excited, as if every danger to his life was passed: a Swiss newspaper had reported Strauss as having written this song to Hans Frank. And she was so excited: Strauss is now saving her husband! We will be free! She was so convinced that in another letter, she plans another child with him.”

Niklas Frank believes the song predates the war. “These are not stupid people,” he argues, “and it’s funny.” He recreates the scenario: “My father is passing by Garmisch, where Strauss lives, and telephones to plan a call at short notice: ‘I’m nearby, why don’t I drop by?’ Strauss thinks up a little welcome, a surprise for his friend. He writes his little song. My father opens the door and there is Strauss at the piano, singing this gay verse. It’s easy-going, an afternoon piece. I think it’s obviously during peacetime; such an occasion wouldn’t make sense during the war.”

The Frank family tried to ascertain whether any music survived, to be told by Schott, publisher of most of Strauss’s music, that it did not. Niklas Frank is unconvinced: “Strauss was a vain character and would never have thrown away even the smallest piece of music. I believe it has been hidden.” Sands was told “it has disappeared.”

But whether the music was lost or is hidden, it does not exist for performance at the Purcell Room. “Could we reconstruct it?” Sands asked Naouri. “We could try,” replied Naouri. “I wrote to a friend, Frédéric Chaslin, a composer, conductor and master of spoof,” he now recalls. “Chaslin brilliantly pastiches Debussy and I asked him to do the same with Strauss. Two days later, back came the score, the full kitchen sink, more Strauss than Strauss!

“It’s not black and white with Strauss,” says Naouri. “He was noted to be in favor of the regime, but he had Jewish relatives. He intervened with the government to keep Stefan Zweig as a librettist. He did what he could for the Jews he knew.” Quotes from his diaries register contempt for a “criminal . . . anti-culture regime”.

In January 1993, Vanessa Redgrave convened a rally at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg to mark the sixtieth anniversary of Hitler’s seizure of power, at which Holocaust survivors and deportees from Bosnia shared a platform, to denounce the gulag of camps in Bosnia, siege of Sarajevo and continued desecration by neo-Nazis of memorials built by Germany to Jews murdered during the Shoah.

Now, Redgrave and I sit outside a cafe near Twickenham Studios in London, while she smokes, drinks coffee and talks about these entwinements across history, of horror and defiance, that propel her work, and command her interest and involvement in Sands’s piece.

After a long opening conversation about Bosnia and the world today, she poses the question that pervades this work: “How and why is it possible that the Nazis knew classical music, and listened to classical music, while the crematoria were aflame? It runs though my head all the time.”

But Redgrave is a proud heretic and adds: “Is all this so far from what we’ve been talking about? How do those politicians in the UK sit in a concert hall and enjoy Beethoven while all this is going on? What do they think they are listening to after what they do?” Her eyes dart from behind spectacles, with righteous rage. “Mass murder was committed in Bosnia, with concentration camps, the torture of rape. Outrageous antisemitic acts of arson in Germany, in 1992/3, coincided with lethal attacks against Turkish immigrants. Then came Srebrenica, which was later defined as genocide. Were not European governments complicit?”

Then she invokes the defiance of art, and her profession, the kind of resistance that made for Rock Under the Siege, lunchtime concerts of chamber music and Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo: “I remember that both in Sarajevo during the siege, and in Kosovo, the artists and musicians played music and performed to strengthen survival and resistance. At all times music and theatre: to help civilians suffering intolerable hunger and war or the violence of occupation.” However, she adds: “The essential horror is that the perpetrators of war, siege, murder and occupation apparently also need, appreciate and promote music! To assist them in mass murder! Which is why I am glad Philippe has asked me to join him for A Song of Good and Evil.”

“I think,” posits Sands, regarding Redgrave’s last point, kernel of his piece, “that we find this unsettling because we want to hope that beauty, the notion of beauty, only makes us better people, that great art is good for humanity. This story shatters that illusion. It illuminates how bad people, too, appreciate beauty – and use it.”

Why, I asked Niklas Frank, could people such as his father love Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, music of such beauty? “I have never found an answer,” he replied.

Ed VulliamyThe Guardian


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