John Adams: “Naïve and Sentimental Music”

This is the first installment of a new series I am calling Quick TakesSince I am a busy grad student and don’t always have boatloads of time to write lengthy, in-depth blog posts (as much as I would like that!), Quick Takes will hopefully allow me to generate more occasional posts that shorter and blurb-like. Each will be around 250-500 words (roughly speaking) and focus on one specific item – a favorite piece of mine, a composer who I am currently into, or anything else of musical interest.


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American composer John Adams (b. 1947)

John Adams is one of my all-time favorite living composers. His music, which ranges from full-length operas to concerti, is filled with stunning harmonic worlds, inventive orchestrations, and an irresistible groove that seems innately “American.” (It’s also extremely difficult stuff to play – trust me, I speak from personal experience!) Many of his pieces – especially those from his so-called “minimalist” phase like Short Ride in a Fast Machine, The Chairman Dances, and Harmonium – have become twentieth-century classics. However, a bit lesser known are some of his more recent works from the last twenty years, when Adams began to develop and expand his musical palette.

One such work is Naïve and Sentimental Music, a vast, three-movement “symphony” that was premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen in February 1999. Sadly, this piece doesn’t turn up in concert all that often, possibly due to the immense orchestral forces required and the sheer challenge of the music itself. Further, only one commercial recording currently exists (albeit a fantastic one by the LA Phil – posted below), but the Royal Scottish National Orchestra will be releasing the work’s second recording in May.

Continue reading “John Adams: “Naïve and Sentimental Music””

Hidden Gems: A Twentieth Century Christmas (Part II)

Here are four more neglected classical Christmas works from the twentieth century, which is the second of my two part series. (You can read the first part here.) Without further ado, let’s continue…

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May you be as excited as Will Ferrell this holiday season!

1. Daniel Pinkham: Christmas Cantata (1957)

An American composer and organist who excelled at composing pieces for choir, Daniel Pinkham’s musical language embraced the gamut of twentieth century composition, including both tonal and atonal idioms. His Christmas Cantata, written for choir, organ, and two brass choirs, is perhaps his best-known work.

The piece is divided into three movements – the first opens dramatically, as the choir (singing in Latin) implores the shepherds to tell them what they witnessed at the manger. The music then becomes upbeat and dancelike as the shepherds speak of the marvel of seeing the newborn baby Jesus. (The score here is reminiscent of Stravinsky, full of tricky rhythmic devices and unusual harmonies.)

The second movement is a transcendent setting of the famous Latin text “O Magnum Mysterium,” which recalls the long, flowing melodic lines of Gregorian chant. The third and final movement sets the words of the angels – “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (“Glory to God in the highest”). It begins with soft excitement but gradually grows in volume before ending on a splendorous “Alleluia.” Surprisingly, Pinkham manages to pack a ton of musical material into a tight, economic package – all three movements combined are only about ten minutes total.

Continue reading “Hidden Gems: A Twentieth Century Christmas (Part II)”

Hidden Gems: A Twentieth Century Christmas (Part I)

There’s a ton of great classical Christmas music and carols out there but to be honest, there’s only so many times that I can hear “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” or the “Hallelujah Chorus” before wanting to kick a Christmas tree over (OK, not really!) Feeling the same way? Well, as the angel Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid!” In this post (which will be split into two parts), I will bring to light eight lesser-known classical Christmas pieces from the twentieth century, which are sure to provide some variety to your Christmas playlist and help ignite the spirit of the season. Here are the first four:

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Same.

1. John Tavener: Today the Virgin (1989)

Not to be confused with the Renaissance composer John Taverner, the twentieth century English composer John Tavener is often labeled as a “holy minimalist” alongside his contemporaries Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt. While the accuracy of that label is debatable, Tavener’s music is, without a doubt, steeped in spirituality. Specifically, his deep love of the Russian Orthodox religion and subsequent conversion in 1977 informed much of his creative output; many of his pieces set texts from the Orthodox liturgy and evoke the sounds of the church’s rich choral tradition (such as his frequent use of static vocal drones). Tavener (who died in 2013) is probably best remembered for his choral piece Song for Athene, which was heard by over two billion people worldwide during the broadcast of Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997.

Eight years prior, in 1989, Tavener penned the short a cappella choral work Today the Virgin. The piece is a delightful setting of a text by Mother Thekla, which celebrates the wondrous mystery of Mary giving birth to Jesus Christ. Throughout the piece, a single-note vocal drone resonates underneath the words and the repeated refrain – “Rejoice, O World, with the Angels and the Shepherds, give glory to the Child!” – is punctuated by a melismatic “Alleluia,” which increases in length and joyfulness as the work progresses.

Continue reading “Hidden Gems: A Twentieth Century Christmas (Part I)”