Friday, December 21, 2012

CCC 054 - Sergio Berlioz

Mexican composer, conductor, and educator Sergio Berlioz is our Consonant Classical Challenge subject this week. Berlioz, like Heitor Villa-Lobos, effectively combines elements of his native music with classical forms. The resulting works are attractive and accessible to even casual classical music audiences, without sounding derivative or trite. Berlioz has a unique compositional voice, and it's one he's honed to perfection.

Berlioz has an impressive catalog -- he's written two symphonies, six string quartets, concertos for both flute and cello, as well as a number of other chamber and smaller orchestral works. With his background as a conductor, Berlioz brings an intimate knowledge of instruments to his compositions. And that experience shows in the effectiveness of his orchestrations.

Toledo - la ciudad de las generaciones, Opus 13 demonstrates Berlioz' mastery of orchestration and his compositional balance between folk and classical traditions.

Quinta sinfonía "La luz de mayo" Opus 59 is an interesting work that gradually builds to a stirring climax. Composed for orchestra and chorus, Sinfonia No. 5 seems to open up like a blossom as Berlioz adds more forces as the music progresses.

The Cello Concerto, Op. 26 has the soloist and ensemble performing as near-equal partners in the musical conversation. Berlioz's writing for the solo cello is particularly effective, letting the instrument sing.

Sergio Berlioz writes music would be a welcome addition to most any concert program. It's contemporary -- decidedly communicating with modern audiences -- and it represents a continuation rather than a break with classical traditions of the past.

Normally I list some recommended recordings, but there are none available for Sergio Berlioz. Instead, below is a list of some recommended YouTube videos. Most of these are live recordings, and the ensembles aren't always playing at the highest level. But still, it's better to have some examples of Berlioz's music to enjoy than none at all.

Recommended Videos
Zarabanda for orchestra

Divertimento No. 2 for strings, Op. 23

Canto for flute and orchestra, Op. 41

Magma for string quartet, Op. 51

Dedalos for voice and string quartet, Op. 52

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Hailstork: An American Port of Call

Adolphus Hailstork: American Port of Call
Virginia Symphony Orchestra
JoAnn Falletta, conductor

American composer Adolphus Hailstork has been quietly building up an impressive catalog of well-crafted works. This new collection brings some of them to light.

Hailstork's Symphony No. 1 is an expansive work with plenty of energy. Hailstork's melodies are always tuneful and rhythmic, which makes this symphony sparkle. For the most part, the work's thinly orchestrated. In some ways it's more of a symphony of small instrumental groups rather than a big ensemble.

Whtiman's Journey is a large-scale work for orchestra and chorus. Whitman's a quintessentially American poet, and Hailstork's open, Coplanesque composition brings out that aspect of poetry. It's a warm, elegiac work that's a satisfying blend of words and music.

An American Port of Call shares some characteristics of  William Walton's Portsmouith Point. both are short orchestral works depicting a busy seaport. Hailstork's composition has all the energy of a bustling waterfront, with different musical themes moving back and forth in crosscurrents. A splendid curtain-raiser.

Hailstork draws on his African-American heritage for Three Spirituals. Although there's some jazz inflections in this work, Three Spirituals is first and foremost a concert piece for orchestra. The melodies may be familiar, but Hailstork develops them in interesting ways that, while symphonic in nature, remain true to the character of the source material.

Fanfare on Amazing Grace is an imaginative treatment of this well-known (and perhaps over-performed hymn). The tune provides the starting point from which he builds a superstructure of original material, that reveals new insights about this melody.

Adolphus Hailstork lives in eastern Virginia. The Virginia Symphony, is a hometown  ensemble, well familiar with Hailstork's music. Under the direction of JoAnn Falletta, this regional orchestra turns in credible performances. Sometimes the ensemble playing isn't as precise as it needs to be, but that's a minor quibble. It's a joy simply to hear these works played.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

100K - Our top five posts

We last checked the popularity of our entries when we hit 1,000 posts. Since that was back in September, the line-up hasn't changed much. But some of my thoughts about why these keep showing up do.

5) Pardon Our Mess
In this post I took a radio station to task for posting "Under Construction" pages on their website. Why is it pulling in all kinds of traffic? Perhaps its the title, I don't know. I wonder if the subject of that post, WJMA-FM, has experienced any boost as a result. (their site's improved since the posting, but they've yet to change the images on the animated banner)

4) The Straco Layout, Part 10 - Paving the Pegboard Paradise
3) The Straco Layout, Part 2 - Getting the board
The Straco Layout series is about a portable display of early 1960's Japanese tinplate toy vehicles and trains I worked on. I was curious as to why these two posts (out of the 25+ in the series) attracted the most hits, so I typed "Straco board" into a search engine. I got a hit for the board of the Straco Corporation of Singapore. Not sure if it completely explains the traffic, but it's possible.

2) Marching Memes 3 - and a new topic
The only reason I can think of for this remaining popular is the word "meme" in the title. The content certainly doesn't justify the interest (not that it's bad, it's just doesn't have any type of broad appeal). The mystery continues.

And the most popular post of all time remains:

1) Goodnight Opus
Comic strip commentary is a regular feature on this blog. But few of my posts even come close to the traffic generated by this one.  The final installment of Berkeley Breathed's comic strip "Opus" was a major event, and one that continues to garner interest (and hits).

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

100K - and growing

According to our traffic counter, Off Topic'd just past 100,000 page views.

Yes, I know: in the world of  blogs and websites that's no big deal -- some sites get that much traffic in a few seconds.

And I also know that page views don't equal page reads. Tomorrow we'll look at our five most popular posts, and  I suspect a good many of those hits were just someone opening the page, instantly realizing it wasn't what they thought it was, and moving on.

And I also know that page views don't equal readers -- one person can view multiple pages. And those people don't even have to be real. Some of the loopy comments I've recently received (but have been blocked from publication) are clearly coming from bots.

But still.

I don't have any professional goals for this blog. I'm not after any particular number of viewers, or need to monetize the content, or establish myself an expert in anything. During the day I spend a lot of time working in the realm of social media, writing highly focused content designed to do all of those things. This blog's for fun, and I know that by covering several subjects rather than sticking to one, I diminish my chances to build an audience.

That's OK. I'm having fun writing. Yes, I'm taking that 100,000 number with a large grain of salt, but even filtering out all the factors outlined above, it shows that someone's reading a post or two.

And for that, I thank you.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Mark-Anthony Turnage Ochestral Works: Great performances by the LSO

Turnage Orchestral Works
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Various conductors and soloists

Mark-Anthony Turnage was the London Philharmonic Orchestra's composer in residence for five years, and this is the third volume of his works written for the ensemble. The recordings are all take n from live performances, which gives them an added sense of freshness and energy.

On Opened Ground is kind of a disjointed jazz-flavored concerto for viola. The music moves in fits and starts with the viola (Lawrence Power, soloist) popping in and out in surprising ways, while still providing most of the melodic content. Sometimes it seems like the soloist and orchestra are playing two different pieces, then there's a sudden shift, and it turns out all to be part of Turnage's plan.

By contrast, Texan Tenebrae is an emotionally wrought little gem. It grew from Turnage's opera Anna Nicole, and is a work contemplating the death of the Texas Playmate-turned-trophy wife. Turnage effectively uses dissonance to both ratchet up the emotion and suggest that, despite the placid nature of the music, all is not right

Turnage composed the Lullaby for Hans for his mentor Hans Werner Henze. This string orchestra work pays fitting homage to Henze's style. The ensemble drifts about in thick chordal clouds of sound, sounding ethereal, and -- despite the dissonances -- strangely restful

The clarinet concerto Riffs and Refrains would make a great companion piece to Bernstein's "Prelude, Fugue and Riffs." Both works take the sound of the jazz clarinet, and jazz motifs and recast them as building blocks from contemporary classical works. In Turnage's case, the piece is prone to sudden bursts of energy, followed by slow sections that seem to be holding the motion of the music back (but only for a little while). Michael Collins effortlessly switches back and forth from classical to jazz playing, making this an effective work that brings together both worlds.

Christian Tetzlaff fearlessly performs the violin concerto Mambo, Blues and Tarantelly. The opening section sounds like an angular version of the mambo from West Side Story, and the other parts equally traditional and aggressively modern.That's not to say it's not original music -- it is. Tetzlaff is completely invested in this complex music and turns in a highly focused performance.

If you're already purchased the first two volumes in this series, then you need only know the quality hasn't wavered. If you're looking for an introduction to Turnage, this disc can provide a nice overview of his orchestral writing.

Friday, December 14, 2012

CCC 053 Marjan Mozetich

This installment of the Consonant Classical Challenge features Marjan Mozetich. Although of Slovenian heritage, Mozetich has lived in Canada since he was four years old. His music is somewhat neo-classical, but that doesn't do his compositions justice. Mozetich is very much a composer who's aware of current music trends, and adopts the ones that best suit his compositions.

His Procession, for example, has some traces of minimalism. The work has a strong, forward-moving pulse to it, and relatively simple chordal patterns. Overall, there's a lightness to the work that sets it apart. Minimalist compositions can sometimes feel ponderous, while Procession seems lighter than air.

Affairs of the Heart is a work for violin and orchestra. It shares some characteristics with the early classical period composers. Just like Mozart and Haydn, Mozetich starts with a very simple melody that's mostly comprised of arpeggios. But this simple material proves fertile ground for the composer's inventiveness.

Mozetich can create some rather complex harmonies, but because they remain tonally based, they sound exotic, but not foreign to the audience. The Passion of Angels is an evocative work for harp. In it are sections that sound reminiscent of Ravel, yet retain Mozetich's compositional voice.

Mozetich is well-regarded in Canada, but unfortunately not so well in this country. That's too bad, because his music has an instant appeal to it that audiences should respond to. If they were only given a chance.

Recommended Recording

Affairs of the Heart: Music of Marjan Mozetich

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Dick Tracy Tips His Hat

Broadway Bates, as depicted by
Chester Gould in 1932.
Mike Curtis and Joe Staton have been breathing new life into Dick Tracy. Their imaginative blend of new, relevant stories and homages (but not slavish imitations of) the strip's rich past, as I've noted before. In the current continuity, one of Tracy's earliest villains returns.

Broadway Bates first appeared in 1932. He was also one of the first to torture the detective by applying a blowtorch to his bare feet. Over time, Tracy's foes would become increasingly outre in their appearance (like Pruneface and Flattop), and their torture methods would also become more exotic. (click on images to enlarge)

Curtis and Staton have brought the confidence man back in a story about costumed crimefighters and criminals coming to Tracy's city. And if you think Bates bears more than a passing resemblance to the Penguin, that's not an accident. There's been a strong suggestion in the strip that the Penguin is one of Bate's brothers (mentioned by first name only).

The other nice thing about this sequence is the reference to Fletcher and Collins. Artist  Rick Fletcher and writer Max Allen Collins took over the strip from its creator, Chester Gould in 1977. The team continued working on the strip until Fletcher's death in 1983.

It's just a throwaway line in one panel -- and a nice nod to the past for Tracy fans.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Wolfgang Rihm Violin Works -- Serious music for serious listeners

Rihm: Complete Works for Violin & Piano 
Tianwa Yang, violin; Nicholas Rimmer, piano 

This is music not for the faint of heart. Wolfgang Rihm is an expressionist composer, who cites Mahler, Schoenberg, and Boulez among his influences. Rihm's an extremely prolific composer, and while his music may reflect his influences, it's certainly not derivative. Rihm has a distinctive voice and his music unfolds according to his own logic.

Unber die LInei VII for solo violin is a massive work that presents Rihm at his bare essence. Double-stops and arpeggios are rare in this work -- most of the music is a single-line melody. But what a melody! It skips around in a pointillist fashion, then becomes tenderly lyrical, then hops up to the extreme register for some softly played harmonics. All the while, though, the music has a sense of direction. And that sense helps the listener follow the player through this world Rihm sets them out to explore.

Eine Violinsonate and Hekton come from the early 1970's, and share a similar style. The music is disjunct, with sudden, wide leaps in register. By contrast, Antlitz and Phantom und Eskapade, composed twenty years later, show significant growth in Rihm's style. The leaps are still there, but its now but one aspect of Rihm's musical language, rather than the defining feature of it.

Tianwa Yang and Nicholas Rimmer have firm command of this material -- which is no mean feat. If you're up for some active listening of thought-provoking music, then this may be the disc for you. Rihm's music is adventurous and challenging, but never dull. And you'll hear some darned fine playing, too.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Bach's Evenings at Zimmerman's Coffeehouse

Bach Sonatas for Flute & Obbligato Harpsichord
Evenings at Zimmermann's Coffeehouse
Robert Stallman, flute, Edwin Swanborn, harpsichord
Bogner's Cafe

The subtitle of this release aptly describes the disc. In 1730's J.S. Bach spend a significant amount of time at Zimmermann's Coffeehouse in Leipzig. It was one of the regular performing venues for the Collegium Musicum, which he directed (and wrote music for). Most of his instrumental music of this period were written for this group, including the four flute sonatas in this release. By no means are these major works. Of course, it is Bach, so the sonatas are well-crafted, but the music is intentionally light and simple. This is more the Bach of "Air on G String" than the Bach of the Cello Sonatas.

Robert Stallman performs on a modern flute, but that just gives the works additional charm. The music mostly stays in the lower part of the flute's register, and Stallman produces a very warm sound on his instrument. The result is some attractive playing and a pleasant listening experience overall. Edwin Swanborn provides tasteful accompaniment on the harpsichord. The keyboard obbligato helps move the music along without sounding overly busy or fussy. An attractive program of music played with just the right tone to keep the proceedings light and entertaining -- as perhaps they were in Zimmermann's over three centuries before.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Angele Dubeau -- Game for New Music

Game Music
Angele Dubeau & La Pieta

Are video games art? The Museum of Modern Art seems to think so -- they're assembling a collection of games to display in the hallowed halls of MoMa. What about video game music? The jury may still be out on that one, but Game Music certainly helps make the case for it.

Canadian violinist Angele Dubeau and the chamber orchestra she founded, La Pieta, present a program of current and classic video game themes arranged for the ensemble. It's an enjoyable collection of light classical music that should appeal to both gamers and those that don't know Ms. Pac Man from Master Chief.

Some of the scores have a cinematic feel. Splinter Cell, for example effectively conjures up the atmosphere of a techno-thriller action movie. Music from Heavy Rain and Chrono Trigger are two other selections that sound like movie soundtracks, befitting the serious nature of these games.

The theme to Assassin's Creed has been transformed into an elegiac miniature, with evocative Middle-Eastern touches. Final Fantasy is the most ambitious work on the album, an eleven-minute orchestral piece that would be at home in any concert program.

Not all video games are serious, though, and neither is their music. La Pieta's version of Angry Birds is just as fun as the original. And who knew that the theme from Tetris would lend itself so well to contrapuntal treatment? 

An enjoyable program from start to finish. Game on!

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

NaNoWriMo - Over, but not done with

On the final day of the National November Writing Month challenge I posted my novel on the site to verify the word count. It clocked in at 50,808 words, so I met the challenge -- again. Whew!

As always, it was a challenge, but this will be the fifth novel I've written through NaNoWriMo. And every year it seems to get easier with practice. (We won't talk about quality of writing just yet.)

Although the challenge is over, the work on the novel isn't. As I've done in past years, I'll post a PDF of the rough draft as soon as I clean up the misspellings (A Directory of Literature Sort Of) and other gross errors. But at some point I'll need to start seriously editing this story. I think there might be a good 25K-30K novella buried in there somewhere. We'll see.

Once I finish creating the PDF I'll put the book aside for a few months and look at it afresh sometime next year.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Sally Forth to MST3K

Francesco Marciuliano and Craig Macintosh occasionally move their comic Sally Forth beyond the fourth wall (Meta Forth and Meta Forth 2). Like this Sunday's sequence. (click on image to enlarge)

Ted really establishes his nerd credentials with the reference to Mystery Science Theater 3000. But to have the main characters Crow, Tom Servo and Joel (or is it Mike?) appear in the last panel? Genius.

Of course I'm a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (and the shows current incarnations Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax), so I thought this was a great sequence.

If you're not sure what it's all about, here's a sample.