The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi

Ottorino Respighi became what seemed unthinkable a hundred years ago: an Italian composer of orchestral music. He composed no successful operas at all. Instead, he wrote the first significant Italian contributions to orchestral music since the Baroque era. He studied composition with the Russian Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Under his influence, and that of the French Impressionists and Richard Strauss, Respighi wrote some very successful symphonic tone poems, foreign in form, but  very Italian in subject matter. The Pines of Rome (1924), the best known of them, is one of three tone poems that celebrate Rome–along with The Fountains of Rome (1918) … Continue reading

Jeux by Claude Debussy

Debussy wrote his last ballet and last orchestral work, Jeux, (or Games for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, with Vaslav Nijinsky as choreographer and lead dancer. The first performance puzzled its audience, and as it took place only two weeks before the tumultuous premiere of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, it was nearly forgotten in the uproar. On closer inspection, Jeux was every bit as revolutionary and forward-looking as Sacre and even more daring harmonically. Debussy’s most nearly atonal work, Jeux‘s formal structure depends to an unprecedented degree on orchestral color and texture rather than pitch relationships. In this way, it … Continue reading

The Fantasticks: book and lyrics by Tom Jones, music by Harvey Schmidt

Musicals, or at least so it seemed according to the example set by Irving Berlin or Rogers and Hammerstein, ought to be big, bold, impressive, with elaborate production numbers, fancy costumes, and lighting effects. Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt thought so when they became friends at the University of Texas and dreamed of conquering New York. Even while serving is different army units, they managed to collaborate on songs by mail. Once in New York, they tried to make an elaborate musical out of a one-act spoof on Romeo and Juliette by Edmund Rostand, Les Romanesques. In hindsight, they attempted … Continue reading

Trois gymnopédies by Erik Satie

Erik Satie, an eccentric composer of minor talent but great imagination, exercised enormous influence on twentieth-century musical thought. Above all a musical humorist, he issued his first published composition as op. 62. His longest work, Vexations, consists of just over a minute’s worth of music played 840 times without pause. The Gymnopédies, composed in 1888 for piano solo, exhibit a different kind of humor, based on Satie’s conscious and deliberate antagonism to verifiable facts. In ancient Greece, the gymnopedia, or festival of naked youth, was celebrated every year in Sparta to honor Apollo, Pythaeus, Artemis, and Ledo. The days-long festival … Continue reading

Rapsodie espagnole by Maurice Ravel

Ironically, in view of Maurice Ravel’s reputation as a brilliant orchestrator, he conceived only Rapsodie espagnole as a purely orchestral display piece from the beginning, and that only in part. He either wrote his other orchestral works for the stage or transcribed them from piano pieces. In fact, the “Habanera” in Rapsodie espagnole was written originally for two pianos. Ravel shared the enthusiasm of many French composers for Spanish music. In his case, he absorbed an understanding of both French and Spanish culture as a child. Son of a Swiss father and Basque mother, he grew up in the Basque … Continue reading

Time for Three: in concert in Greensboro, North Carolina

Last November and December, I heard and enjoyed the group (violinists Zachary De Pue and Nicholas Kendall, and bassist Ranaan Meyer) Time for Three (Tf3) a couple of times on NPR’s Performance Today. They are classically trained musicians with an interest in improvisation and old time country fiddling. Zachary De Pue is son of Wallace De Pue, one of my college theory teachers. Naturally, I was excited to learn that they planned to perform in my current home town with the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra and attended the January 23, 2010 concert. The program opened with a rarely-played concerto for three … Continue reading

Suite(s) from Swan Lake

The community orchestra I play in just played the suite from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake–at least that’s what I thought it was when we first started rehearsing. I certainly didn’t know anything unusual about the piece. I’d heard the waltz many times, and it was nice to have a chance to play it. Some of the other movements have fun trombone parts, too. Trombone parts in orchestral music always have lots of long rests and seldom have good cues. If I don’t already have a recording of the pieces we perform, I try to get one. So I went online and … Continue reading