1812 Overture and 4th of July fireworks: why?

The U.S. and Great Britain fought the War of 1812. Tchaikovsky composed the 1812 Overture, but it commemorates a different war. The 4th of July celebration has nothing to do with the War of 1812, either. So why does the 1812 Overture so often accompany the 4th of July fireworks display? Not many worthwhile pieces include cannon fire, which it makes such an excellent companion to fireworks. Music history is littered with justly forgotten battle music. Such pieces are difficult to write effectively. Even Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory did not succeed as well as the 1812 Overture. It had to jump through … Continue reading

Youth orchestras: killing two stereotypes at once

Young people these days can’t be pried away from their cell phones. They’re lazy and undisciplined. At least, that’s the prevailing stereotype. Classical music is just about dead according to obituaries that seem to appear in magazine articles and well-read blogs every year. No one cares about such old-fashioned music except an increasingly aging population. At least, that’s the prevailing stereotype. Don’t be fooled. Youth orchestras all over the country (and all over the world, for that matter, in case the stereotypes cross international borders) work very hard to polish performances of the standard orchestral repertoire. They love the music, … Continue reading

Getting off the classical music merry-go-round

Last month I examined arguments in the periodic obituaries for classical music and found most of them a bunch of bunk. One, however, rings true. If classical music isn’t “circling the drain,” then it’s on some kind of merry-go-round, covering the same ground over and over. After a while, the charm wears off. The greatest asset classical music possesses is its current audience, people who regularly attend concerts. For all the disrespect heaped on them by people who would prefer that classical music go away, they attend concerts, purchase recordings, and listen to classical radio. Performing organizations always seek to … Continue reading

The Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay

How did the town of Cateura, Paraguay get an internationally known youth orchestra? It sits on the largest landfill in the country. Its citizens pick through the trash to find things to recycle and sell. It’s almost as if both the contents of the landfill and the people who live on it are discards, out of sight and out of mind for most of the rest of the country. The story begins with Luis Szarán, since 1990 the conductor of the Symphonic Orchestra of Asunción. He grew up poor, the eighth child of Paraguayan farmers. He had musical talent. A … Continue reading

A pre-history of orchestra conductors

Long ago, the leader of the instrumental ensemble at a court or large church was called the concert master. Orchestras came later. Nowadays, orchestras still have a concert master. The public notices this person mostly because he or she is the last member of the orchestra to come on stage. The conductor comes next. The earliest orchestras had no conductor the way we think of conductors. Conducting as we know it, was well known by the fairly small choirs of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. In fact, some choirmasters held a rolled up sheaf of paper in their hand (or … Continue reading

Education at the Eastern Music Festival

Now in its 51st season, the Eastern Music Festival features world-renowned classical soloists and chamber musicians from around the world. Very often, musicians of their caliber are in a given city only long enough to rehearse and perform their scheduled concerts. Not so with the Eastern Music Festival. Everything revolves around educating students aged 14-22, and these guests come as much to teach as to perform. A diverse student body This year the student body comprises 177 students, 14 from the US other countries: Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Canada, Germany, and Mexico. In previous years, students have come from Japan, … Continue reading

Summer concerts with movie music

Summer time, and orchestra concerts become less formal. Band concerts, too. Here in Greensboro, City Arts sponsors a series called Music for a Sunday Evening in the Park (MUSEP). Even though the Fourth of July was on Wednesday this year, music by the Greensboro Concert Band at the fireworks was part of the MUSEP series. That, my own orchestra’s upcoming concert, and the outdoor concert by the Eastern Music Festival’s student orchestras got me thinking about movie music. A brief glance at history The concept of “classical” music didn’t exist until the nineteenth century. Neither did the concept of a … Continue reading

What becomes of new music for orchestra?

The most recent concert of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra featured the world premiere of Queen Anne’s Revenge by Mark O’Connor. It is named for the notorious pirate Blackbeard’s ship, which ran aground and sank in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in 1718. Like much of O’Connor’s music, the piece moves seamlessly from the sound of country fiddlin’ to more standard orchestral sounds and back again. I found it absolutely delightful and wonder what will become of it. One big reason why German composers dominated nineteenth-century orchestral music was that so many German towns had orchestras. That meant that a … Continue reading

Student chamber music at the Eastern Music Festival

Somehow I stumbled on to the Eastern Music Festival’s free student chamber music recitals for the first time this year. I wish I had known about them earlier. Five recitals took place over the last two weeks of the festival. They featured standard ensembles (string quartets, brass quintets, piano trios, etc.) and non-standard ones (four violins; horn, violin, and piano; flute, viola, and double bass, and others.) Very few of the groups played every movement of a multi-movement work, and there were seldom two pieces in a row with the same instrumentation. I confess to listening with no little jealousy. … Continue reading

Four new organ concertos from the Eastern Music Festival

What do you get when you cross the Eastern Music Festival and the American Guild of Organists? Organ concertos. Just as the Easter Music Festival was getting started, the Region 4 meeting of the American Guild of Organists was coming to a close. The world premier of four new took place on June 29, 2011 at Christ United Methodist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Three of them were commissioned by Greensboro organist and publisher Wayne Leupold and the last by the Greensboro chapter of AGO. Besides featuring the organ, about the only thing all four pieces had in common was … Continue reading