What’s Playing at Tonal Diversions – September 2017

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these posts, and thought it was time to do another.

Rarètes Romantiques

Just for Winds recently ran a promotion to receive a free CD, so I took advantage of this and ordered Rarètes Romantiques, performed by Anne A. Watson (clarinet) and Gail Novak (piano). It’s a compilation of lesser known works for clarinet and piano from the Romantic period. All of which happen to have been composed by women. This is an important recording, as women during that time period 1) weren’t encouraged to pursue composition (or music in general) as a career, and 2) societal norms at the time dictated which instruments women were and weren’t allowed to play, so there were very few female clarinet players.

I’m enjoying this CD quite a bit. I think the performers are excellent. I like the selection of pieces, and have already found the sheet music to one of the pieces (“Griechische Sonate” by Ella Adaïewsky). I need to listen to the CD a few more times to thoroughly absorb everything, and I’m looking forward to that.

2017 Tony Awards Season

Apparently this is the first year they’ve done a compilation CD, and one wonders why in the world they hadn’t done one before. But, better late than never! I liked getting a taste of what appeared on Broadway recently. I’ll probably get around to listening to all the individual cast albums, but I have more of an idea of where I want to go first. One of my favorites is the first track (“Deep Beneath the City/Not There Yet”), which was from In Transit, the first a cappella musical. It had a great energy that set the scene of the subway during a daily commute. The song from Amélie (“Times are Hard for Dreamers”) was enjoyable and I’d like to hear the rest of the songs. I liked the storytelling in “Me and the Sky” (from Come From Away). “Sincerely, Me” (from Dear Evan Hansen) was quite entertaining and I’m curious to know more of the story.

The Science of Mindfulness by Ronald D. Siegel

While it’s not music, and I’m only about 1/4 the way through, I really like this entry in the Great Courses series. Dr. Siegel is an excellent presenter and the subject is something I’ve been interested in more lately. A lot of public libraries carry these series, so you might be able to check it out from your local branch.

So, what are you listening to? I’d love to hear from you!

Help Celebrate the 150th Birthday of This Pioneering Composer

Happy birthday, Amy Beach!

Photo of Amy Marcy (Cheney) Beach (1867-1944)

Amy Marcy (Cheney) Beach (1867-1944)
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Who’s Amy Beach, you ask? Sadly, too many people ask that question, despite her being one of America’s foremost woman composers. As today is the 150th anniversary of her birth, I wanted to introduce you to her.

I do have to admit, that while I knew of Amy Beach, I had not heard much of her music. This post gives me a chance to really sit down and listen to some of her work. (I won’t get through her entire catalog right away; she was quite prolific and composed over 300 published pieces!)

Born in 1867 in New Hampshire, Beach was a music prodigy. She was memorizing a large catalog of songs at one, playing hymns and composing by four, performing pieces by the likes of Chopin on piano at seven. She made her public performance debut at age sixteen in Boston, as well as getting compositions published that same year. Two years later, she performed a Chopin piano concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

 

Here are some of Beach’s earlier works, composed between 1887 and 1891.

At this point, Beach’s story has a familiar aspect to it, especially for female artists. Her family discouraged any sort of true career in music, and her new husband (Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach) wanted her to limit performing in public. Although he encouraged her to pursue composition instead, that encouragement still came with strings attached. Her husband did not allow her to take any lessons or classes that would have furthered her studies.

But Beach was determined. While she’d previously had one year of formal training in harmony and counterpoint, she largely taught herself. She studied and analyzed the music of great composers before her. She read books on composition. She gave herself an education.

Her education paid off. In 1892, the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston premiered her Mass in E-Flat Major.

Then, in 1896, her “Gaelic” Symphony was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

While her music was accepted and praised, there was often a shadow of “… for a woman” involved; in one instance, a critic praised her by basically saying she didn’t sound like a woman (“… difficult to associate with a woman’s hand”).

A recent New York Times article goes more in-depth on Beach’s life and attitudes about women in music. It is a worthwhile read, and served as part of the impetus for my own post.

In 1910, Dr. Beach died, leaving Amy a widow at age 43. With no one to tell her “no,” she traveled to Europe to resume performing and present her own works. After a successful tour, she returned to Boston in 1914. She later divided her time between New York City, Cape Cod, and the MacDowell Colony.

She continued to compose a wide variety of music before her death in 1944, such as:

String quartet:

Piano music (solo and duet):

Woodwind quintet:

And so much more (like I said, she was prolific!) I hope you take some time to explore her work. I know I’m ready to hear more!

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Music Appreciation: Danzon No. 2 by Arturo Márquez

Let’s explore beyond most of the pieces I’ve discussed so far here on the blog and travel to Alamos, Mexico, birthplace of composer Arturo Márquez. Márquez was born in 1950 in Alamos, living there until 1962,

Dancers

Dancers

when his family moved to Los Angeles County, California. He was exposed to music early on, as his father played violin and was a mariachi. The younger Márquez learned several instruments, primarily violin, and began studying composition. His studies lead him around the world, and he currently resides in Mexico City. He has a large body of work that is worth exploring (I know I want to check out his Zarabandeo for clarinet and piano).

Márquez composed a series of eight Danzones, which fuse Mexican and Cuban musical influences. His most popular Danzón, number 2, is the one we’ll discuss today in my music appreciation series. If you’ve watched the Amazon series Mozart In the Jungle, you’ve heard this piece. I do recommend listening to all eight, though.

 

 

 

The piece begins quietly, with a sparse, seductive, and dreamy ensemble of clarinet (Theme A), piano, pizzicato strings, and claves. The claves are beating out a standard rhythm of Latin music. The oboe takes over the lead at 0:50 (Theme B), with the clarinet sometimes answering, sometimes running along, but always dancing together. At 1:15, the two lead us into a slight mood shift. The violas and flutes enter with Theme A, while the oboe and clarinet perform an obbligato (brilliant countermelody that is integral to the piece). The theme ends on a bit of a suspenseful chord, and the piano plays a plinky, syncopated transition into the next section (1:45).

We change moods here– more forceful and insistent (1:51). The strings start sawing away with new thematic material for the transition, with some accents from the brass and piano. Around 2:11, the oboe (and other winds?) run up a scale, encouraging the ensemble to modulate at 2:13. You’ll notice that we’ve also increased tempo quite a bit during all of this as well. The strings keep doing their thing, then at 2:20, the horns announce their entrance and the strings run up a scale to take us to a new section.

Now we’re really dancing (2:24)! Márquez has introduced a new theme (Theme C), which is a syncopated back-and-forth between the sections of the orchestra. Check out 2:41, where the brass echo actually calls back to something we heard earlier in Theme A. You think we’re going to continue that phrase, but no, it’s just a teaser. Instead, we get into even more new thematic material (Theme D) in the strings (2:47).

The strings change the mood a little in their new theme. It’s much smoother, with a lot of notes happening in the runs. But things still feel urgent, dizzying. The upper strings and piano take the lead, but listen for the countermelody lower in the cellos. There’s some fun stuff happening here.

At 3:07, the brass interrupt with their own small (but mighty) motif. The strings then back out of the way, allowing for a piccolo and piano duet to come through (Theme B modified). I’ll admit I don’t think I’ve ever heard that in a large ensemble piece, but it definitely works. The winds hold chords underneath. While the accompaniment is much calmer now, the tempo is still quite fast and insistent.

The piano and piccolo finish their theme and the strings pluck out a rhythmic accompaniment (3:23) accentuated by a brass “Hey!” at 3:28. The winds bring in even more new thematic material (Theme E). It’s smooth yet syncopated, and the brass keep shouting out in the background. The winds’ theme finishes around 4:05, but the mood is still suspenseful, alternating between two chords. We get a hint of something more from the trombones starting around 4:08. The group crescendos into a big, unison statement from the low brass at 4:16, slowing us down for the next theme.

One voice rises out of the cacophony we just heard– the piano. Solo, playing a rather sultry intro to this section (4:21). We return to Theme A, this time as a duet between violin and clarinet. They play a beautiful duet, then the rest of the strings (and piano) join them at 4:58 to usher in a lush, full, version of Theme A.

At 5:31, the strings subside and the clarinet solo comes in with the modified Theme B. It turns into a conversational duet with the flute at 5:35, with the piano continuing a rhythmic, octave accompaniment underneath. It feels very dreamlike here, like two lovers talking deeply while the entire world simply blends into the background. Eventually the lovers must say goodbye, and the world emerges once more (6:13).

The strings harken back to the transitional material they played at 1:51, but this time it becomes an accompaniment to a trumpet solo (6:25). This is a brand-new melodic material (Theme F). It starts brash and loud, then has a subdued section at 6:37. It doesn’t last long, however, and we’re back to brash at 6:44. At 6:52, there’s a hit, then a forceful statement from the high brass. They elaborate for a few moments, along with more hits from the orchestra, then move to a faster pace and more chaos (7:02).

Suddenly, at 7:23, the mood shifts, but briefly. Márquez breaks the tension, only to have the strings build back up immediately. He also brings back Theme C, followed by Theme D. Everyone is partying now! The brass interrupt at 8:17, just like they did earlier, and we get another listen to the piano/piccolo duet. We then go back to Theme C for another round (8:35).

When the brass interrupt again at 8:55, it’s to signal that the piece is nearing the end. Most of the ensemble either softens immediately or drops out completely, but there’s still an insistent single-pitched rhythm over a syncopated bass line. This grows, adding both instruments and volume, riling us up until the final two, solid notes.

Thanks for joining me on this journey! I’ll leave you with a final video: it’s of the National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain’s Main Orchestra doing a fantastic job on this piece.

 

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In High Praise of the Adult Amateur Musician

I attended the first-ever Chicago Clarinet Symposium this weekend at Northeastern Illinois University. It was two days filled with everything clarinet: master classes, concerts, vendor displays and sample instruments. I enjoyed my time there. I took lots of notes, discovered new-to-me repertoire, heard amazing performances, and met some nice (and talented) people. I even met my bass clarinet hero. We were all kindred spirits in our love of the clarinet.

One thing that became clear to me, however, was that I was not part of the target audience for this event. I am not a college student, professor, or full-time professional performer. I have a Bachelor of Music in Theory and Composition, a Master of Library Science, and work as a cataloger for a public library.

Me performing "The Old Grumbly Bear" with the Crystal Lake Community Band, July 2015

Me performing “The Old Grumbly Bear” with the Crystal Lake Community Band, July 2015

I do cobble together some of my income from music. I teach private clarinet and piano lessons to middle and high school students, sell my compositions and arrangements at Sheet Music Plus, and sometimes get paid for performing. I consider myself a semi-pro musician in that I do make money from music, but it is not my primary income (and as of yet, does not come remotely close to matching my primary income).

I felt some inkling of not-really-belonging as I registered, as the master class performance options were nearly full already. Once I arrived and saw my fellow conference-goers, it seemed even more clear that I was an outlier. On the second day, I appeared to have completely flummoxed one woman I was chatting with in that I didn’t fit any preconceived notions about The Attendees beyond the fact that I played clarinet (and even that seemed to stump her when I said my degree was in theory/comp, not clarinet performance). She seemed surprised that I’d even heard about the event, much less had the interest and inclination to attend.

I do want to reiterate here that I did enjoy myself. I may not have been part of the target audience, but I still gained immense value by attending. Besides, I’m actually kind of used to being the odd duck and a bit of a loner, so I wasn’t uncomfortable by any means. I also know that a couple of my peers would have liked to attend, but the scheduling just didn’t work out for them this time.

But this did get me to thinking about so many of us musicians who are my true kindred spirits: those of us who took the practical route after getting our BMus degrees (or didn’t pursue music degrees at all); those of us who earn most or all of our income through non-music careers; those of us who still want to participate even if we’re not the ones taking center stage at a prestigious concert.

Those of us who still want to learn. We are in community bands, teach private lessons, have jam sessions with friends, play the local pit orchestras, and participate in any number of other musical activities. We’re out there.Just because we’re not full pros or still in our youth doesn’t mean that we are done learning. Click To Tweet

Just because we’re not full pros or still in our youth doesn’t mean that we are done learning. In fact, some of us finally have the resources (and some time) to put toward that goal. I have felt a pull toward taking lessons again myself, though finding a college-level teacher when you’re not in college anymore is a challenge. It’s hard to know where to start, how to discover who is willing to take on a middle-aged clarinetist who isn’t working toward landing a symphony job, how to work lessons and practice time into an already-crammed adult life schedule. And I don’t even have kids that I’m shuttling back and forth to their own numerous activities.

(Of course, this also leads to examination of the past, and how much time I could/should have spent practicing and networking, but didn’t. For a variety of reasons. But that subject will have to wait for another post.)

What, then, can we do to encourage and include the adult amateur and semi-pro? I believe there are large numbers of us. Do we start our own conference? Do we speak up to event organizers to see if they will include some tidbits for us? Some sports have pro-am events—can we incorporate this idea into our music world? Or do things like this already exist? I’m not sure, and I’m just starting to really mull all this over.

Knock on Wood rehearsal, January 2017

Knock on Wood clarinet choir rehearsal, January 2017

I am the founder and organizer of Knock on Wood, a clarinet choir based in McHenry County, Illinois. We are a community group of over twenty musicians. We range in age from teenagers to octogenarians and range in clarinets from the itty-bitty E-flat sopranino to the ginormous contrabass. We play in this group because we love the clarinet family and the gorgeous music that can happen when you get large numbers of us together. We want to sound good. We want to improve ourselves. We want to simply enjoy playing our favorite instrument with fellow clarinerds. (And we’d love for you to stop by our Facebook page to see what we’re about).

We’ve discussed having our own Clarinet Day, with a few master classes and a mass choir that invites those who don’t regularly play with us to join us for the day. While yes, we want to encourage our high school (and even middle school) players to come to the event and participate, I want to make sure we still give opportunities to our adult players.

This is still in the very early planning stages. We have things to consider since we’re not affiliated with a university, namely the budget. We also have a challenge that we’re “way out” in McHenry County and not closer to the city of Chicago (that said, I’ll mention again that we have over twenty clarinetists on our roster, with more who would join us if their schedules could fit with ours. People are out here and interested). I do feel that an event like this would add great value to our community of musicians, though, and we can make it happen.We exist, we want to learn, and we want to be included. Click To Tweet

But until we get this event off the ground, I want to encourage those who are beyond the status of amateur to remember that we’re here. We exist, we want to learn, and we want to be included.

 

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Music Appreciation: Discussion by Yves Gourhand

I don’t know how it is where you live, but here in the Chicago suburbs the weather has been glorious for February!

Mod architecture by geralt.

Mod architecture by geralt.
CC0 Public Domain

We’ve been able to take walks outside, open the windows a bit, and our moods are certainly lifted. I know this warm spell won’t last, and we’ll probably get a March (or April) snow like usual, but I’m happy to get a bit of spring.

In deciding what piece to talk about next, I realized I have not talked about any clarinet quartets (for shame! And I’m a clarinet player!). While there are a ton of quartets out there, I chose “Discussion” by Yves Gourhand. It seems to be somewhat obscure. All the more reason to talk about it, right? At this point, I don’t actually remember how I came across this piece– whether I heard about it somewhere or I just found it while falling through the black hole of YouTube. Regardless, it captivated me.

Part of the problem with obscurity, though, is that I haven’t had much luck finding info on Gourhand. He has a few published pieces out there, all focused on clarinet (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in my world!). I’d like to know more about him, and whether he working on any other pieces.

Immediately there’s a quiet intensity to the piece. The first clarinet plays a syncopated rhythm over the bass clarinet, who holds the pitch an octave lower. The rhythmic pitch rises a step, the bass still holding the original pitch, but has a quick change at the end. The intro continues similarly, with the first clarinet continuing to rise in the scale and the other clarinets joining in over time. The bass line also grows more active throughout, and the groups grows louder as they move into the first theme.

At 0:20, we begin Theme A. The first clarinet leads, with the second and third playing pulsing chords and the bass undulating underneath it all. I’m struck with imagery of a cityscape for this theme. It’s very much hustle and bustle, but a beauty within it all. At 0:27, the second and third, then the bass, have a bit of an echo to take us to the next measure. We repeat the first phrase, but listen to how the accompaniment changes at 0:33– the middle clarinets have a short moving line instead of the pulsing chords. The melody changes slightly for the last bit of this second time through.

To bridge the gap to the next theme, the bass clarinet gets a fun run up and down the instrument (0:36). Theme B is full of flying fingers, jazzy sounds, and syncopation. It’s a short theme, but energetic and wild. Of course, as a bass player, I love the great solo lick at 0:55 (It’s fun to play, too!). From there, we return to Theme A in its entirety (0:57), with just a couple of small alterations in the middle clarinets’ accompaniment and a slightly different ending.

We get a new theme at 1:16. The running line moves between the second and third, the bass has a different bass line, and the first has a more of an accompaniment role. The first does take over again around 1:24, then the group plays a syncopated line upward to finish the phrase. There are some octave jumps in the bass to bring us back to Theme A. It’s largely the same, but again he changes some of the middle parts ever so slightly. I, admittedly, did not realize this before when I rehearsed and performed it. However, I was playing the bass part, which doesn’t change during the bulk of Theme A. It’s mainly the ending that changes for that part. This time around, the bass line leads up to a held chord from everyone, signaling something different is going to happen.

We’re into a new theme at 1:54– the “slow” theme (Theme D). As with other pieces I’ve discussed, like “Overture to Candide” and “Festive Overture”, things only feel slow because Gourhand is using quarter and eighth notes, instead of the sixteenth notes and syncopation that we’ve heard until now. The underlying pulse is the same, the note lengths are just different proportions. It’s common, but very effective, composition technique. Theme D begins with the second, third, and bass clarinets in octaves. The next iteration of the theme is in the first part, with the second providing harmonic material (2:12).

At 2:29, the first continues the melody, the third takes over the harmony that the second had been playing, and the second brings in new harmonic material. Finally, Gourhand’s not quite done Theme D yet, and we get one more round of it at 2:46. The third gets to shine on the melody this time, the second goes back to her original harmonic line, and the first takes over what the second was just playing. The bass brings in a new line as foundation for the rest. At the end of the theme, there’s a slight ritard, a chord held for just a moment, and a run back itno Theme A.

We’re treated to a near note-for-note recap of Themes A-B-A. As Gourhand likes to do, he slightly changes the middle parts’ accompaniment rhythms. But largely we have the same as what we heard at the beginning (including that great little bass lick!). However, the last time through the A melody, he writes a call and answer throughout the group, rising up intensely through chromatic chords until the final chord in the soprano clarinets and a run down the bass line.

I hope you’ve enjoyed “Discussion” as much as I have. See you next time, and remember– think spring!
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