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Elliott Carter: Celebrating a Long Life of Music

December 11, 2012

On November 5th of this year, the classical music world lost one of its giants. Elliott Carter would have celebrated his 104th birthday today, most likely by attending a concert or composing a new piece.

Elliott Carter

Born in New York City on December 11, 1908, Mr. Carter became interested in modern music in his teens. Attending the New York premiere of The Rite of Spring in 1924 was an early inspiration for the aspiring composer.  He found a mentor in Charles Ives who helped him get into Harvard, where he studied with Walter Piston and Gustav Holst.  After completing his master’s degree in music at Harvard, he went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, and received his doctorate in music from Ecole Normale in Paris.

Over his long career, Mr. Carter taught at the Peabody Conservatory, Queens College, Columbia, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell and the Juilliard School, and was on the faculty of the Tanglewood Music Center.  He received many awards, among them the National Medal of Arts, The Trustees Award (a lifetime achievement award given to non-performers by the Grammy Awards), and two Pulitzer Prizes.

Not slowing down in his later years, Mr. Carter composed over 4o of his 158 works between the ages of 90 and 100, and at least a dozen more after turning 100. His first opera, What Next?, was completed when he was 90 and his last work, 12 Short Epigrams for piano, was completed in August of this year.  He celebrated his 100th birthday in 2008 at Carnegie Hall at a concert which included his Interventions for piano and orchestra written the previous year.  The concert also included a performance of The Rite of Spring.

Often a polarizing force in contemporary  music, Elliott Carter was at times criticized for being too intellectual and inaccessible, but was also celebrated for his complex and challenging compositions.  His music spanned neoclassicism, populism, atonality, rhythmic complexity, and his own form of serialism, eventually arriving at a more lyrical style late in life.

Join us in remembering a life spent reinventing modern music.  We hope you enjoy this selection of Elliott Carter’s compositions.

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The Sounds of Summer: Music at the Movies – Part II

July 5, 2012

A continuation of the discussion of the value of cinematic soundtracks to the world of both serious music and to music education…

Each year, as Hollywood offers the movie-going community an array of new film scores to appreciate, publishers of educational music wisely pursue the most iconic of these scores to arrange for young musicians. Artists like Ted Ricketts, Douglas Wagner, Jerry Brubaker, Mike Story, and Victor Lopez all understand the value of arranging movie soundtracks, “the new classical music,” for student ensembles. But why should a school instrumental director consider a film score arrangement as part of his or her concert or marching program?

Victor Lopez, who works as an arranger for Alfred Music Publishing, has this to say about the value of cinematic soundtracks to the educational market:

“Today, students have many opportunities to listen to all kinds of music via radio, television, YouTube, iTunes and other mediums.  However, not all of the music provided to the public is truly educational or quality literature.  On the other hand, most of the music in cinematic soundtracks seems to require a high level of creativity and sound musical knowledge.  Movie music is an art form that is created for a purpose… although putting together a collection of pop songs may constitute a cinematic soundtrack, in my opinion, that’s not really movie music.

“Most film music is an art, and because of its artistic value, the material is perfectly geared for music education programs and becomes extremely beneficial in music curricula.”

Arrangers from publishing companies across the educational spectrum universally point to John Williams as one of the most significant composers in film history, and agree his material provides excellent content for student musicians.  The melodic quality of Williams’ work is the “something” that sets his music apart, makes it so memorable, and takes it beyond incidental background material.  By providing band and orchestra arrangements of his scores (as well as the rousing themes of other composers in the genre), arrangers make this fun and relevant material available to student organizations.

An educator who chooses a well-arranged cinema theme for band or orchestra bridges the gap between this sense of relevance and content that will challenge them artistically, a bridge that exists nowhere else.  That pursuit of what instrumentalists find exciting now may not only be an invaluable investment in students’ education, but the future appreciation of serious music as well.

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The Sounds of Summer: Music at the Movies-Part I

June 20, 2012

Summer has hardly begun, but the summer movie season is already in full swing.  Every year, a parade of blockbuster films compete with each other for the millions of dollars moviegoers will spend in search of a journey into the magic of the movies.  For the music enthusiast, however, this season of film after film brings another art form into the spotlight:  the soundtrack.

Some people can watch an entire film and never truly hear a note of the soundtrack, but there’s no doubt every viewer would miss the intricate underscore if the filmmakers left it out.  From the winsome, pastoral flute of the Shire theme in Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings scores to the driving electronica that intermixes with the works of Hans Zimmer, film soundtracks set the mood and the pace of the story in a visceral way the viewer may not be able to verbalize, but feels nonetheless.

This summer promises to offer yet another constellation of musical themes. Most of the names soundtrack enthusiasts know will be present at the box office this year, including Danny Elfman on Men in Black III, Alan Silvestri on the already wildly successful The Avengers, James Horner with The Amazing Spiderman, Hans Zimmer in The Dark Night Rises. Patrick Doyle, noted for his past work on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire as well as Thor will offer his talents to the score of Disney/Pixar’s Brave.

Aside from entertainment value, cinematic soundtracks bear a greater burden of artistic value than they may seem to carry on the surface. Michael Story, editor and arranger for Alfred Music Publishing, underscores cinematic music’s relevance and value:  “For many people, movie music is the ‘new’ classical music. Many symphony orchestras now present concerts that include movie music as part of their repertoire — partially because it is a way to get new people to the concerts, but also, and just as important, because so much of it is so good. Howard Shore’s successful ‘Lord of the Rings Symphony’ tour a few years back is a great example of this.”

In a time when a baseball team can sell out four seasons of games in a row while in the same city a world-class orchestra files for bankruptcy, clearly the task of generating current and future audiences for orchestral music is an urgent concern.

A love for serious repertoire is something the music educators of today have the unique privilege of cultivating in young people while their attitudes are open to the exposure. Coming soon, in a second part to this discussion, learn how school music directors can utilize movie soundtracks to plant seeds of appreciation of classical music in their students and community.

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The Ahn Trio: A Powerful Force in the Music World

February 8, 2011

A few months ago I came across a program on PBS called On Canvas: The Ahn Trio which presented a live performance from Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.  Three young ladies, Angella, Lucia, and Maria, are sisters who were born in Seoul, Korea and eventually moved to the United States.  They had the good fortune of being classically trained at The Julliard School of Music in New York City.  Angella is the violinist, Maria is the cellist, and Lucia plays piano within the trio.

Growing up, they learned to play and appreciate the classical compositions of Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, and Smetana.  But the Ahn Trio have also been performing commissioned pieces by modern-day composers such as Pat Metheny, Michael Nyman, Kenji Bunch, and Paul Schoenfield, just to name a few.  These young ladies are not afraid to think outside the box regarding the music that they play, exploring various forms of artistic expression by combining performances filled with other types of performing and visual artists.  The Ahn sisters have collaborated with painters, dancers, pop singers, DJs, photographers, and other artistic groups, adding even more energy and excitement to their shows while still displaying their classical prowess.

They are also making their presence known on the record charts, too.  They’ve recorded CDs such as Paris Rio; Dvorak, Suk, Shostakovich:  Piano Trios;  Ahn-Plugged;  Groovebox and Lullaby for My Favorite Insomniac. They’ve even recorded a European version of Lullaby for My Favorite Insomniac made exclusively for iTunes.  This was number eight on the Billboard Classical chart for 26 weeks.  The trio has been touring for the last ten years and are already scheduled to perform in 2011 at high schools, universities, and concert halls within the United States and around the globe.

The Ahn sisters don’t just play concerts, they’ve also been performing and teaching at musical workshops and master classes nationally and internationally.  Their success just doesn’t seem to stop. Their talent, flair and style are recognized by magazines like Time, GQ, People and Vogue.  Photographers such as Walter Chin and Ellen von Unwerth  have captured their young faces  and popular retailers like Anne Klein, Gap and The Bodyshop have featured the Ahn Trio in ad campaigns.  These young ladies will definitely make your ears perk up and take notice of their musical talents when you listen to them play.  Then you’ll truly understand why the Ahn Trio is a powerful force in the music world.

http://www.ahntrio.com/v2/

http://www.ahntrio.com/v2/ahntrio.html

http://video.whyy.org/video/1524351067/

http://www.facebook.com/ahntrio

http://www.myspace.com/ahntrio

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3VT2SOv2Z0E

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A Different Role

July 23, 2010

Recently I met with one of my former professors, a terrific mentor and now colleague.  Addressing him by his first name is a bit surreal after many years of sitting in his classroom.  The purpose of the meeting began rather selfishly:

  1. We both enjoy a good cup of coffee.
  2. I needed to retrieve my graded final paper in hopes of using it as a writing sample should I ever need to submit one.
  3. I am one of those academic types that actually enjoys research and I wanted to bounce around a few ideas.

Conversation led from one thing to another, from suggestions for expansion of that final research topic from a different perspective, to my family, my work at J.W. Pepper and the proverbial “so, now what?”

Does that question ever go away?  His answer of course was one that I and many of you already know — no, it does not.  No matter what the circumstance, our role simply changes.  After more than one cup of great coffee,  I came away with lots of other suggestions and advice as well!

That is the beautiful and lasting thing about teachers that have touched our lives — we never stop wanting their advice.   Perhaps we can all do more to take on the role of giving good counsel to others in the field of music.  I will start here with sharing this interesting article from the New York Times about openings at the nation’s major orchestras:

Need a Job? Help Wanted at the N.Y. Philharmonic

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A New Spectrum of Performance

April 28, 2010

When we think of classical music we conjure sounds of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Ravel, Wagner, and Copland, among others.  But it’s no secret that with that love of the classics often comes a noticeable hesitation to embrace contemporary classical music,  a genre encompassing works composed from the mid-1970s to the present day.

Finding an audience for modern music that is perceived as awkward and unpleasant is not easy.  Fortunately there are major orchestras that, through artist residency programs, openly support works from new composers.  But should we as listeners take a chance on contemporary classical music?  As rhetorical as this question might sound, I believe that I have nothing to lose and attempting to answer it will only help the longevity of classical music as a whole.  In other words, why not?

In this spirit of artistic adventure I attended the debut performance of The New Spectrum Ensemble, a group of San Francisco musicians founded with a mission to combine the old and the new, an innovative approach to programming that pairs classical favorites with contemporary unknowns.  The inaugural concert, held Saturday, April 17, featured the following selections: 

Spaces Between (2006) – Jen Wang

Sonata, for cello and piano – Elliott Carter (b. 1908)

Sonata for Cello and Piano in D major, op. 102 no. 2 – Ludwig van Beethoven

S.T.I.C. (1995) – Dan Becker (b. 1960)

This was a new kind of symphonic experience, an auditory buffet that introduced me to contemporary music paired with pieces that were not so contemporary, without program notes or a pre-concert lecture.  Instead, prior to each piece the members of the ensemble would demonstrate each piece’s contrasting styles through the recitation of  “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”  It was fascinating to realize the vast differences between Beethoven’s counterpoint and Carter’s complexity, explained through a well-known folk tune.

This process gave the audience a chance to learn about each piece and the composer’s creative approach that created it.  It enabled us to personalize the music as it was played, therefore making it more difficult to dismiss it as inaccessible.   Kathyrn Bates Williams, founding member and cellist, states in her blog,  “Listening to all music is important.  It distinguishes the artistic values that we appreciate and those we don’t.  It brings us surprises both good and bad.”  I can’t help but agree with her.  It’s a risk, a small risk that we take in seeing contemporary concerts, equivalent to trying a  new restaurant.

After the concert we filed into the lobby where the composers Jen Wang and Dan Becker mingled with the audience.  Suddenly it dawned on me how important it was for these two artists that there even was an audience, that it possibly didn’t matter whether or not I actually liked their music.

This is an extremely liberating concept for me as a listener and performer.  The New Spectrum Ensemble strives to promote contemporary composers, and to accomplish that it took me on a strange journey made available through their unique, tongue-in-cheek programming.   My journey might result in me not liking everything that I hear and that’s ok.  In the end all that matters is that I showed up and listened.

Meet the members of the New Spectrum Ensemble here: www.thenewspectrum.com.  Additionally, if you are interested in learning more about contemporary classical music or just looking for an informative website from one of today’s most entertaining musical thinkers, please check out Alex Ross, music writer for The New Yorker.  His website and blog are located at www.therestisnoise.com