Gyndebourne’s “Turn of the Screw”

Turn of the Screw - Glyndbourne CD

Over the last couple of years the Glyndebourne Festival in England has been producing a series of CD recordings of outstanding past opera performances from the festival, made from live performances. The latest of these recordings is from a very fine production of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw in 2007, with soprano Camilla Tilling as The Governess and tenor William Burden in the dual role of The Prologue and the ghost Peter Quint. Edward Gardner conducts members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Henry James’s ghost story, in which nothing is certain and everything might be imagined, is turned by Britten and his librettist Myfanwy Piper in 1954 into a creepy opera in which Britten portrays the ghosts Peter Quint and Miss Jessel as very real and on the make for the two children, Miles and Flora, left in the Governess’s charge by an uncle who is too busy to care for them himself.

The performance is excellent. Camilla Tilling’s portrayal become increasingly unhinged as the story progresses. William Burden’s bright, light tenor is a worthy successor to that of Peter Pears, Britten’s life partner and the originator of the role. The two children are played by Joanna Songi (Flora) and Christopher Sladdin (Miles). Since this recording is taken from a live performance, there is a considerable amount of stage noise, especially during the scenes when the children are playing together. The elderly housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, whose belief that the Governess has seen the ghost of Peter Quint, the former valet, sets the story in motion, is by mezzo Anne-Marie Owens. Soprano Emma Bell plays the small but essential role of the former (and now dead) Governess Miss Jessel, who was forced to leave the house because of an unnamed scandal with Peter Quint. Conductor Edward Gardner leads a taut performance. A few of the vocal/orchestral balances are not quite right, but this is undoubtedly because of the conditions of live performances. The orchestral playing is precise and virtuosic. The opera is a set of variations on a theme that appears at the beginning of the first scene. Each variation sets the tone of the next scene; thus, the orchestra is a prime character in the drama.

Glyndebourne’s CD production is lavish. The two CD set is bound into a 60 page book featuring color photos of the production, synopsis and complete libretto, and an essay about the opera by Britten scholar Michael Kennedy. The CDs are already available in the U.K., and will be released in the U.S. later in June 2011.

I highly recommend this new recording. It stacks up well with the composer’s own recording (in mono) with the original cast, as well as such later recordings as that by Britten expert Steuart Bedford with the excellent Felicity Lott as the Governess.

In memoriam: Rosie the Corgi, April 20, 2011

Rhosymedre (“Rosie”) Corgi Barnum-Robson died of natural causes at her home in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, April 20, 2011, after a long battle with canine degenerative myelopathy (DM), which left her unable to walk for the last year of her life. She had been in decline in recent weeks, but after a month in her Cleveland home with her human companion Tim Robson, she had returned to Washington, with her other human companion, George Barnum on Sunday, April 17. She crossed the Rainbow Bridge peacefully in her sleep while George was at work. She was thirteen years old and was born near Boise, Idaho. She came to live with George and Tim (flying as carry-on luggage) when she was nine months old.

Rosie was well known for her winning personality and friendly smile to one and all. She was rarely in a bad mood, and until she became unable to do so, she never walked anywhere when she could run. Some of her favorite things were chasing her kong toy, scratches behind the ears, sniffing things on a walk, tummy rubs, toast, milk bone biscuits, rides in the car and most of all being close to her people. She was especially pleased in her retirement when Tim let her sleep up on the bed with him. She had never agreed with the philosophy that dogs should sleep on the floor.

Rosie was very well traveled, commuting regularly for her whole life between her Cleveland and Washington homes.

She was very fond of going to “corgi camp” in Parma with her friends Karen and Tom Oye, when Tim and George both needed to be out of town at the same time. She was always disappointed to come home again and discover that her regular caregivers didn’t lavish the same kind of undivided attention that she felt she deserved at all times.

After the DM caused Rosie to be unable to walk unassisted, for over a year she used a set of custom-made “wheels” that enabled her to get around at top speed and to continue her chase-the-kong games. Despite her almost total incapacitation during the last year of her life, she continued to have her smiling and inquisitive disposition.

One of her last public appearances was at the Kelvin Smith Library staff picnic in the summer of 2010, when she rolled around ensconced on her fuzzy red plush blanket in her red wagon. She was still able to put the other more mobile dog guests in their place, with a fierce woof and a display of her remaining teeth.

Besides her human companions, Rosie is survived by Mitsou the Himalayan cat, with whom Rosie had a lifelong uneasy truce. Except for Mitsou, who doesn’t really care, she will be missed by a host of friends.

Rest in peace, Rosie.

Here is a small Rosie movie to download.

Penderecki’s “Passion”

Penderecki Passion According to St. Luke

This evening I have been listening to a recording of Krzysztof Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion, composed in 1966 to commemorate the thousandth anniversary of the introduction of Christianity into Poland, and for the 700th anniversary of Münster Cathedral, where it was first performed. Penderecki has been a leading light of the European musical avant garde since the early 1960s. His Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima was a landmark (and has been used as source material for any number of movie soundtracks.)

The Passion is for three mixed choirs, boychoir, soprano, baritone and bass soloists, spoken narrator, and very large orchestra. It is a daunting work combining twelve-tone writing with vocal lines based on Gregorian chant, aleatoric passages as well as huge climaxes that end on shockingly diatonic major chords. The form is similar to the Bach passions: large choruses interspersed with narration and arias that comment on the action in Luke’s gospel. Other contemplative texts are taken from the psalms, Roman Catholic antiphons and hymns, sequences (Miserere mei Deus; Pange lingua; Stabat Mater, etc.)

The drama of the choruses is astonishing. Who could not be shocked by the screams of “Crucifige ilum.” (Crucify him)? Later there is an a capella setting of the “Stabat mater” describing Mary, the mother of Jesus, at the foot of the cross. The final chorus proclaims, “In Te, Domine, speravi, non confundar in aeternum.” (In Thee, O Lord, I put my trust; let me never be ashamed.)

Penderecki’s Passion is a masterpiece that should be performed more often. Too bad it’s so expensive to produce and no one (but me) wants to hear it….

(And of course, I’ve been listening to Penderecki while procrastinating practice the organ continuo part for the Bach Passion I have to play on Friday evening.)

A Year Ago… EACC fire remembered

Euclid Avenue Congregational Church Euclid Avenue Congregational Church fire Ruins of Euclid Avenue Congregational Church

It was a year ago today in the early hours of the morning that fire destroyed Euclid Avenue Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ, which was my church home (and employer) for twenty-seven years. The fire began during a freak thunder and lightning storm late the night before. I’d had Rosie out for her last walk of the night, and I remember wanting her to finish her business because it was starting to thunder. I’d also had a series of annoying spam calls on my cell phone, so I had turned it off before I went to bed at midnight. Had I not done that, I would have been among the first (perhaps the first?) to get the call about the fire, since I live in close proximity to the place and occasionally would receive calls from the Cleveland Clinic security about issues at the church. As it was, I did not know anything until early the next morning.

This all took place the Wednesday before Palm Sunday and Holy Week. There was a meeting of church leaders and staff in the morning on Wednesday, and by the end of the day the church found a temporary home thanks to the congregation of the former First United Methodist Church, who had recently vacated the church to merge with the former Epworth Euclid United Methodist Church. It was quite a miracle—a spacious facility with a large pipe organ, grand piano, hymnals in the pews. The EACC congregation is still meeting there a year later as they determine their future as a church.

The impact to me personally was considerable, since the church’s organ was lost, as was the choir’s music library and much of my own personal organ music library. I received a very generous insurance settlement, and I have replaced a lot of the music; I also received several very generous gifts of organ music from professional colleagues. Almost every week, however, I still discover something else that is gone. And money alone can’t replace the personal nostalgia that I had for some of the music, with its accumulation of forty years of markings, fingerings, and teachers’ markings. Some of the music was falling apart; other things had never been played.

There have been, of course, many challenges since then, and I salute those church leaders who have worked so tirelessly over the past year. The year was not without conflict, but the EACC congregation continues to be the resilient body it has been for over 160 years.

There have been many changes in the past year: Rev. Terri Young, the Interim Pastor at the time of the fire, has moved on to a new situation; the church has called Rev. Courtney Clayton Jenkins as its permanent pastor; and I have retired from the church as its Director of Music, with the intention of not playing every Sunday.

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t still think about the old church, and the magnificent Karl Wilhelm organ, which can never be replaced at any price. It was a unique instrument in a specific environment. One of the wonders of being an organist is that one’s instrument is integral to the architecture in which it is installed. Sometimes that equation works; other times it’s out of kilter. The Wilhelm was a perfect fit.

As Isaac Watts’ hymn said, “time, like an ever-rolling stream,” keeps on going. We survive; things change; things get better or worse. All the tears in the world won’t bring back the past. Optimism for the future is what sustains us.

There will be a service of remembrance at the site, 9606 Euclid Avenue, tonight, March 23, 2011, at 6:00 PM.

Our God, hour help in ages past,
Our Hope for years to come,
Be thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.
– Isaac Watts, 1674-1748

“The Social Network” – Better than I thought it would be

The Social Network

I had resisted watching the movie The Social Network for no particularly good reason, other than why would I want to watch a fictionalized (and, presumably, sensationalized) version of the creation of Facebook. But last night I did finally watch the DVD of the movie, and I confess that I found it riveting. Whether or not any of it is true is irrelevant, because it was a good story well told. Jesse Eisenberg caught that socially inept quality that a lot of computer geeks have. (The character reminded me in his argumentatively brilliant way of a brilliant person I used to work with, where whatever you said would be met with some challenge.) I can see why he was nominated for an Oscar. It will be interesting to follow his career and see if his acting range is greater than a 20-something computer guy.

Tomás Luis de Victoria: The Tallis Scholars’s celebration of 400 years

The Victoria Collection

As its contribution to the 400th anniversary of the Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria’s birth (1548-1611), The Tallis Scholars are making available a compilation at a bargain price of three of the Scholars’ discs of music by Victoria. This collection includes Victoria’s three most important works, the Requiem, the Lamentations and the Tenebrae Responsories. The recordings are on the Scholars’ own Gimell label. Through the Gimell site you can get it either as a specially-priced 3-CD set or as a download in either mp3 or (for $1 more) uncompressed FLAC files.

As usual with the Tallis Scholars, the performances are intense, with perfect blend and impeccable musicianship, and the sound of the recordings (I’ve been listening to the FLAC versions converted to AIFF format.) is clear and full. Listening to these great works, by these great performers, is almost a religious experience in itself. I highly recommend this music and especially these performances.

The International Music Score Library Project

An article in today’s New York time by music critic Daniel J. Wakin about the International Music Score Project library (also known as the Petrucci Library), draws attention to this vast digital library of music scores and parts that are in the public domain. That is, these editions of published music are no longer protected by copyright and can be freely downloaded, reproduced and used for whatever purpose.

I have used the IMSLP quite often in the past year, especially after the Euclid Avenue Congregational Church fire, when much of my personal organ music was destroyed. There were many things that I had originally purchased that in subsequent decades have now become public domain, including works by Bach, Franck, Reger, Guilmant, and many others. Among other things that church choirs use all the time are the G. Schirmer scores of standard choral works: Messiah, Elijah, Brahms’ Requiem, etc. Debussy’s works are now all in public domain (in the same Durand editions that you can pay through the nose for), as are many of the works of Sibelius and Mahler. Most of the operas by Puccini are there, as are the operas of Verdi and Wagner, often in multiple editions.

The NYTimes article points out that the public domain scores are old and don’t have the benefit of modern scholarship that might be available in new editions. But often new editions don’t provide great value (or at least not as great a value as their editors might have us believe.). While the music of Johann Sebastian Bach has had much valuable scholarship since the Bach Gesellschaft Edition was published in the 1800s, there is not a lot of recent work on Guilmant or Reger. Sometimes I just want to look at a score and then later decide to purchase it. There is value added by having a professionally printed and bound score. Some of the scores in the IMSLP are available commercially through such publishers as Dover and Kalmus.

Whether you’re a poor student, interested amateur or professional musician needing a quick look at at a standard repertoire work, the IMSLP is an invaluable resource.