Gabriella Smith: “Carrot Revolution”

The future of classical music is a shaping up to be a promising one, especially with such a solid generation of young composers on the horizon. From the hyperkinetic sound worlds of Andrew Norman to the Hindustani influences of Reena Esmail, there is sure to be no shortage of vibrant new music in the future. (Though it will be up to orchestras and other arts organizations to actually program this music—stay tuned for a post about this in the near future…)

Located within this department of “up-and-coming composers you should know about” is the Northern California-born Gabriella Smith. With a number of prestigious chamber and orchestral performances already under her belt (including the LA Phil), she clearly has a promising career ahead.

Currently, one of Smith’s best-known pieces is the amazingly-titled string quartet Carrot Revolution, written for the Aizuri Quartet in 2015 and recorded for the first time this past fall. The work immediately strikes the listener as something totally fresh, yet familiar. Percussive string effects at the opening give way to a wild musical journey, complete with snatches of minimalism, bluegrass, and rock along the way. (Keep an ear out for a glimpse of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley“). It’s a breathtaking, eleven-minute ride for both the quartet and listeners, but one that is well worth taking.

John Adams: “El Niño”

As a native Southern Californian, the phrase “El Niño” conjures up associations of rain—lots of it. However, as a classical music lover, it also brings to mind the title of John Adams’s marvelous Christmas oratorio.

You’re so close, Chris Farley! “El Niño” is actually Spanish for the Christ child.

Composed in the year 2000, El Niño is sort of a distant, twenty-first-century cousin of Handel’s Messiah. (I wrote about a twentieth-century equivalent last year, which you can check out here.) Adams’s music and text settings are amazingly eclectic. Here, old texts from the Gospels (both the traditional and the Apocrypha), Martin Luther, and the Wakefield Mystery Plays fit comfortably alongside contemporary poetry by Spanish, Mexican, and Latin American authors. The music is similarly wide-ranging, encompassing Gregorian chant and classical choruses to minimalism and bebop. The result is a dazzling and ultimately, profoundly moving, account of the Christmas story.

To celebrate the Christmas season, here are a handful of my favorite excerpts from Adams’s oratorio. The complete work can be heard in the Spotify playlist at the end of this post.

1. The Babe Leaped in Her Womb/Magnificat

Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth is given an intriguing musical treatment in Adams’s oratorio. Setting words from the King James Version of Luke’s Gospel, three countertenors (who act as narrators throughout the work) recount the story above a gentle instrumental backdrop—colored by guitar and tuned percussion—with occasional interpolations from the chorus. The titular phrase “The babe leaped in her womb” is set with buoyant cross-rhythms—a delightfully ear-catching moment.

Following this is Mary’s famous canticle of praise—the Magnificata text that has been set by countless composers over the centuries. Adams’s version is mostly reserved, yet brims with awe at the magnanimity of Mary’s situation. (In the oratorio’s only official recording to date, this portion is ravishingly sung by the American soprano Dawn Upshaw.)

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Happy Birthday, Lenny!

Today—August 25, 2018—would have marked the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein. One of the most (if not the most) distinguished American-born classical musicians, Bernstein succeeded in almost every aspect of musical life. He composed both “serious” classical pieces and lively theatrical works, sometimes even bridging the gap between the two. He conducted orchestras worldwide and served as music director of the illustrious New York Philharmonic for eleven years. He made hundreds of recordings, which encompass everything from canonic works to his own compositions. To top it all off, he was a fine pianist and a charismatic music educator, introducing both children and adults to the wonders of classical music.

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Lenny in his element!

Bernstein’s life was not without its flaws, though. His personal life was often complicated and marred with controversy. (Some aspects would undoubtedly raise more than a few eyebrows in the climate of the current MeToo movement.) He smoked almost constantly. He could occasionally be short-tempered and confrontational in rehearsal—one of my favorite clips, albeit a cringe-worthy one, involves Bernstein dealing with a miscast José Carreras during a recording session for West Side Story. It’s clear that Bernstein’s larger-than-life personality could sometimes get the better of him.

However, there’s no question that Bernstein succeeded in bringing classical music to millions of people, and his wide-ranging achievements are being celebrated this year by orchestras around the world.

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