Author Archives: eliaspattn

Cataclysm Catechism

When it comes to composing music about terror, Dmitri Shostakovich is the dean of despair, the ace of anguish, the tsar of horror. He was a master of his craft who knew how to get the desired effect. And, after all, the poor man barely survived perhaps the most wretched period of history–with its revolutions, civil wars, purges and pogroms–any country has ever endured.

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Shostakovich

This past weekend the Boston Symphony performed his Symphony No. 11, “The Year 1905.” The hour-long symphonic historical novel depicts the massacre of innocent petitioners in musically graphic terms, such as a militant battery of concussive percussion instruments, including snare drums imitating machine guns mowing down the praying women and children. There are almost unendurably long periods of demonically frightening loud and fast music interspersed with almost unendurably long periods of lugubriously slow, sotto voce music.

I don’t doubt Shostakovich’s sincerity in attempting to convey to the concert hall the terror so many Russians felt for so long. However, he had gone down this same road many times—and more effectively—before; for instance, in the Tenth Symphony which immediately preceded “The Year 1905.” One gets the sense that Shostakovich felt a need to outdo himself each time. Unfortunately, when terror becomes old hat there is a danger it ceases to be perceived as terror, whether in the concert hall or the real world.

Paired with the Shostakovich on the BSO program was the Beethoven Piano Concerto in G, Op. 58. It contains one of the most remarkable movements in the orchestral literature, the second movement Andante con moto. With only a Mozart-sized string orchestra playing in unison and juxtaposed with the piano Beethoven creates a more powerful contrast between torment and prayer in five minutes than Shostakovich did with an army of an orchestra in an hour. And the final movement of the concerto is sheer joy. Shostakovich would have done well to listen to the concerto before he wrote the eleventh symphony. Both men were very familiar with tribulation. One was able to go beyond it.

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Beethoven

After the concert, I took my fifteen-minute walk back to my apartment on Newbury Street. There were swarms of people. Concertgoers, Saturday night revelers, tourists, scads of Berklee College of Music students carrying instruments, and beggars. The beggars were ignored, even the ones sleeping on the sidewalk, rendered invisible because no one wants to have a shadow overcasting a pleasant evening. It is slow, silent despair, not the stuff of a grand musical statement, and I wonder who is going to compose the symphony for them.

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Street person

 

 

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Life is a Grove of Cherries

Yesterday I took a break from work to stroll along the Esplanade on the banks of the Charles River in Boston, and read Al Franken’s new book, “Al Franken: Giant of the Senate.” There was a stiff breeze, so after an hour or so I packed up my book and headed back to my postage stamp rental on Newbury Street.

There were a couple of years back in the late ’70s, when we–Cecily, my future wife, Poggi, our dog, and I–lived in a 500-square foot studio apartment on the fourth floor of 395 Beacon Street. It was only a block from the Esplanade, so twice a day everyday, I put Poggi on her leash and headed out there. One spring, the City of Boston, in its great wisdom, decided to plant dozens of flowering cherry trees. Without question, a wonderful idea. There are few things as beautiful as groves of flowering cherries, especially in such a charming location.

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The problem with trees, however, is that, like other living things, they grow. And things that grow need taking care of. And the City of Boston apparently hadn’t considered that, because by the time fall rolled around, the trees were full of crossing branches, suckers, and shoots. If left like that, the trees would soon become eyesores rather than eye candy.

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I’m not one who  abides bureaucracy with grace and patience. I suppose I’m not alone in that regard. But maybe where I am a little different is that rather than deal with bureaucracy I tend to take matters into my own hands until someone says, “Stop.”

So one fine winter evening when the trees were dormant, I put on my old lime green parka and my bright orange ski cap (great for not getting shot during hunting season), and packing a lopping shears and pruning saw, went over to the Esplanade and got down to work. (I should mention here that pruning fruit trees is one of my passions. I knew what I was doing.)

After about 15 minutes, I was cautiously approached by one of Boston’s Finest. Fortunately, those weren’t the days of shoot first, ask later. He asked me what I thought I was doing, so I explained to him what a great service I was doing for the city of Boston, and how much taxpayers’ money I was saving. He didn’t totally buy it, but at least he no longer thought I was a derelict cutting down trees for the firewood, which–given my outfit–he had every reason to believe.

Nevertheless, he issued me a cease and desist order until I had consent from the city. But he was agreeable enough to tell me to whom I should write. He watched me pack my gear, probably thinking how he’d tell his wife when he got home what a crackpot he encountered.

Though temporarily stymied, I did write City Hall, and amazingly enough, I did receive permission! I went back to work, permission slip in hand, and after a week or so of hard labor was satisfied that the trees had a bright future.

So it was with a sense of satisfaction and nostalgia that I took this selfie yesterday. My little saplings have grown up, and it’s nice to know that someone else has taken over their care.

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Deveau-ted Friends

Thanks to the Jewish New Year–can you believe it’s already 5777?–today was a rare midweek day off for the Boston Symphony. I celebrated by having lunch with a dear colleague who I hadn’t seen for far too long.

David Deveau is a highly acclaimed concert pianist, professor at MIT, and until recently stepping down, artistic director of the Rockport (MA) Chamber Music Festival. We’d been good friends when I lived in Boston but had only been on each others’ peripheral vision for decades. It was only by happy accident that we’ve touched base again.

David Deveau

David Deveau

I’m currently working intensely on my Danse Macabre audiobook, and I desperately needed some excerpts from the fourth movement variations of Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet for a critical moment in the plot. My own former quartet, the Abramyan String Quartet, had never recorded it. Unlike many other quintets, the “Trout” is absent a second violin; in its stead is the string bass. I asked a bunch of my string bass friends if they had recorded it, but I came up with blanks. So I went to that last refuge of the desperate researcher, YouTube, hoping to find a recording that included a colleague who I could beg for permission to use a minute or two of the music.

Eureka! Or maybe not eureka. I did discover a performance that included several of my Boston Symphony colleagues–Elita Kang, Jonathan Chu, Owen Young, Tom van Dyck, and David Deveau on piano–from the 2014 Rockport Festival. However, what was indicated as movement four was in reality, movement five–not the variations movement. Bummer! But it’s an understandable error, as most chamber music compositions have four movements, so whoever uploaded the performance assumed movement four was the finale. So I was still stuck. Only partially daunted, I emailed Elita, who had just finished the BSO Tanglewood season with me and was now vacationing in Iceland, to find out if she might have the audio file of the variations, and if so could she give me permission to use it.

Elita Kang

Elita Kang

Elita graciously took a moment out of her glacier hiking to email me that I’d be welcome to use it, but she didn’t have the file. She directed me to David. Though I was reluctant to make such a bold request of someone I hadn’t seen for so long, I figured the worst he could say is to get lost.

Amazingly, David responded to my email within hours! (That’s what real friends do, by the way.) Yes, I could use the file AND he would have his recording engineer send it to me! Cloud Nine–wherever that is. I was in business, and you’ll hear bits of the their wonderful performance of the “Trout” when the Danse Macabre audiobook is released later this fall.

But the best part is that David and I reconnected, set up a time to get together, and today we had lunch at Santouka, a great new ramen shop on Hereford Street. We talked old times and new times between slurps, and promised not to let years go by until the next time–maybe we’ll even perform together. Something to look forward to.

 

 

 

A New Saga Begins

Today began my three week stint with the Boston Symphony, which begins its 2017-18 season this weekend. The reason: I’ve been invited to join the band for their tour to Japan in November, the tour repertoire is on the docket for the first three weeks, and it makes good sense for the musicians on the tour to have the substantial repertoire under their belt. Today’s rehearsals included Mahler First and the Haydn “Drumroll” Symphony, and although the orchestra hadn’t played together for since the end of the Tanglewood season a few weeks ago, it didn’t take long for everyone to get back into the groove.

The older I get, the more Haydn’s clarity and inventiveness appeal to me in comparison to Mahler’s extra thick barbecue sauce angst, tasty though it might be. (Though among Mahler’s nine symphonies the first is my favorite–perhaps because it’s the closest to Haydn.) But also the older I get, as the novelty of being a wandering minstrel wears off, it’s replaced by the deeper, if less adventurous pleasure of playing great music–yes, of  course that includes Mahler, too–with a great orchestra.

That’s not to say that spending three weeks in Boston doesn’t have its charms. I’m renting a little studio apartment on Newbury Street, and on the 15-minute walk from the apartment to Symphony Hall I pass approximately 400 restaurants I’d wouldn’t mind sampling. But when I say “little” apartment, I do mean little. Here’s a photo of m”kitchen”:IMG_4553  Yep, that’s it. (That’s the fridge on the left under the 2-burner stove.) Nevertheless, it is my temporary home–not the fridge, the apartment–and to tell you the truth, I’m not relishing the idea of eating out all the time. So tonight I decided to eat in and managed to find enough utensils to do some cooking: fetuccini with a sauce of sauteed peppers, onions, and garlic from our garden in the Berkshires, olive oil, and shaved parmigiana from DeLuca’s Market next door.

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After dinner, I worked on bowings to the string parts of the Sinfonia to the oratorio “La Susanna,” by the underappreciated 17th century Baroque composer, Alessandro Stradella, which I’m conducting in December; watched an episode of House of Cards; communicated with the producer of my soon-to-be-released audio book of my mystery novel, “Danse Macabre;” and am now watching the Yankees take the lead against Minnesota.

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My dining room, office, and entertainment center.

All in all, a fine way to start the concert season.

 

 

A Controversial Interpretation of the Fermatas in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

Beethoven 5 excerpt

Opening of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony; first edition of the 1st violin part

It has always been a matter of interpretation and some mystery. What is the proper length of the four notes under fermatas in the most famous first two lines of classical music, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony?  Conductors usually hold those notes in direct proportion to the size of their egos, and I don’t mean to suggest there’s anything inherently wrong about that. Holding those notes to dramatic lengths certainly keeps us in suspense.

And then there is the question–which will never be definitively answered–if the meaning of the fermata is to hold a note to some indeterminate length, why did Beethoven add a half-note to the second and fourth of those fermatas? (You can read the startling answer below.) The typically reasoned answer is that he wanted those to be longer than the first and third. There is some sense to that, but if that’s what he wanted wouldn’t it have been a lot easier just write the customary word, lunga, over those fermatas?

I think the real answer requires some awareness of the history of the fermata. Perched on our 21st century practice stools we’re used to the notion that the meaning of the fermata is to hold a note longer than indicated. Indeed, that’s the way it’s been for the past 150 years or so. But before that it isn’t so clear.

Here’s the key: The Italian word fermata has nothing to do with length. The word comes from the verb fermare, to stop. In the Baroque era, the fermata was an indication, like the double bar, of the end of a movement. Nothing more, nothing less. And this was an important indication because composers, always an economical lot who didn’t want to waste valuable paper, would start writing the next movement on the same line of music as the preceding movement. The musicians needed to know where one movement ended and the other began. Hence, the fermata. Stop!

Here are a few examples:

Example 1

JB Bach, Overture in G minor, Passepied

Passepied from the Overture in G minor by Johann Bernhard Bach (2nd cousin to JS) 1676-1749

In this Passepied by JB Bach you can see the fermata dead center, right before the repeat sign. This was a common use of the fermata in two-part dance movements in which each part is repeated and then the musicians return to the beginning for one more go at the first part. The fermata indicates where JB wants the movement to end. Whether he also wanted the last note to be held longer is both speculative and secondary. 

Example 2

Veracini, Fugue w:4 subjects, excerpt

Fugue on 4 Subjects by Francesco Veracini (1690-1768)

In this example, Veracini places the fermata not over the last note, but over the last rest. Clearly, the length of this rest is immaterial. The piece is over! If the fermata was meant to indicate holding the silence out, one can only imagine the chagrin of the musicians as the conductor kept his arms up while the audience was already applauding the dramatic ending of the Fugue. 

Example 3

Sarti, Sinfonia in E, excerpt

Sinfonia in E by Giuseppe Sarti (1729-1802)

You can see here that Sarti was not only a skinflint with paper, he also was hard up for ink and put repeat signs all over the place instead of writing out the music. As in the JB Bach example you can see the fermata in the middle of the music (this time over the entire measure) to indicate the end of the movement. What is particulary noteworthy about this example, however, is that Sarti lived until 1802, when Beethoven was already 32 years old. Beethoven started composing the 5th Symphony only two years later, in 1804. 

My startling conclusion: There is reasonable historical evidence that Beethoven did not intend for those notes below the fermatas to be held out at all! That they should be held only for their proper metric duration, and not an iota longer. This answers the question of why he added a half note of length to the second and fourth fermatas: Those notes should be exactly twice as long as the first and third.

So what then should be done with the fermatas? I believe the dramatic effect would be far greater if we take the meaning of fermata literally and historically. Stop the music! Stop those fermata notes in time and abruptly, creating a deafening silence, and then make the ensuing silence–which follows every one of those fermatas–of suspenseful, indeterminate length. That would give the audience that titillating sense of “What is coming next?” that is so missing from contemporary performances and so integral to Beethoven’s esthetic of surprising the listener. The next time I conduct Beethoven’s 5th that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

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Beethoven’s manuscript of the 5th Symphony

Beethoven and a Quirk of Fate

One of the greatest and most monumental sonatas in the violin repertoire was composed by Beethoven and is usually referred to as the “Kreutzer” Sonata. The reason for that is an intriguing story in itself and has great bearing upon my novel, Danse Macabre.

Beethoven actually composed the piece in great haste for a black violinist who was the European sensation of the day and whose name was George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower. Bridgetower was on a concert tour that took him to Vienna and Beethoven wanted to impress him and the public with a new, grand sonata. It was so hot off the press that at the premiere he and Polgreen sight-read some the piece off the piano score.

George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower
George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower

Nevertheless it was a huge success, and after the performance the new buddies, Ludwig and George, went off to the beirstube to celebrate. Unfortunately, they both probably drank too many lagers, because they got into an argument–some say it was something that Bridgetower said about one of Beethoven’s lady friends. Regardless of the exact reason, Beethoven tore up his dedication. But always the pragmatist, decided that Rodolphe Kreutzer, the great Parisian violinist, would make his new sonata famous (and profitable), and so rededicated it to him.

Ludwig
Ludwig

The irony is that Kreutzer, when he finally saw the piece, didn’t like it and never played it! Yet, it is one of the main things that has made his name famous, and at the same time, Bridgetower’s name has faded into the annals of dusty music history.

Rodolphe Kreutzer
Rodolphe Kreutzer

How does this relate to Danse Macabre? Well, we have a young, somewhat brash African American violinist who has rebranded himself by the name of BTower. He’s a super talented violinist, but has made his fame as a crossover artist, much to the dismay of the  concert world establishment. At a critical point in the story, after being challenged by our hero, Daniel Jacobus, BTower becomes fixated on the opening note of the “Kreutzer” Sonata. His rivalry with the beloved virtuoso, Rene Allard, is the source of public gossip, so when Allard is brutally murdered…

You’ll be able to hear excerpts of my performance of the “Kreutzer” Sonata and much more on the Danse Macabre audiobook, but for now enjoy the entire first movement: http://www.geraldelias.com/music_DM_beethoven.html

Thank you so much if you’ve supported my Kickstarter campaign to make DANSE MACABRE into a unique audio experience. If you haven’t yet made a pledge, we have only two weeks and $3,000 to raise! https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/717644612/music-and-mystery-spring-break-a-unique-audio-book?ref=user_menu

A Devilish Endeavor

Recording the music in Devil’s Trill. A story within a story.

We wanted to do something different.

Something creative. Something artistic. Something that had never been done before. With Devil’s Trill, we wanted to make an audio book that integrated music and narrative.

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And there was so much music to go with the mystery! Hours of it. Should the music be performed in full? Should the compositions come at the end of the chapters in which they had been part of the story? At the end of the book in the form of a recital or master class, perhaps? My producer, Alison Larkin, and I discussed countless possibilities.

Ultimately, we decided that for the sake of the story we’d adhere to the philosophy, “Less is more.” The story was king, and the music must serve the story. We would use excerpts of the music to augment, to highlight, and to provide clues to the listener regarding the theft of the infamous Piccolino Stradivarius and the murder of Victoria Jablonski.

So the first task was to decide: What music to record? During the course of the book there were performances or discussions of countless repertoire, including the Mendelssohn Concerto, the Beethoven Concerto, the Paganini Concerto in D, Sicilienne by Paradis, the Sarabanda from the Bach Partita in D Minor, Zigeunerweisen by Sarate, and of course, the most important composition relative to the story, the Devil’s Trill Sonata by Giuseppe Tartini.

Oh, and I’m leaving out an unknown composition by the legendary (and mythical) diminutive 17th century violin virtuoso, Matteo Cherubino (aka Il Piccolino). I would have to compose three minutes of a wistful Sarabanda which he improvised for his lover, the Duchess of Padua, as he stood naked in a cold bedchamber.

With these tasks in hands I started practicing months in advance of our goal of finishing the project by the end of 2016.  As I practiced all this music I had to not only hone my technique, but also distill the hours of music to the essential excerpt for the purpose of the story. They had to fit within the story.

When I was finally ready for that I went to a recording studio in Utah which provided incredible state of the art equipment and a first rate recording engineer who created the sound of a European chamber music hall as the context of my recording. He gave me the cue to start and let me go. Most of the music was for violin alone, but there were a few things that required piano. A local pianist, Jayne Galloway, whose able playing I’d known for many years, arrived at the studio. We started to record without even rehearsing, but within a half hour we felt we had accomplished what we needed to for the Paradis Sicilienne and Paganini Concerto. Then, for the next few hours I just played and played and played each excerpt–each of which was anywhere from 20 seconds to three minutes–until I had a sufficient number of takes for each composition from which I could select one that was good enough. At least that was my hope.

The engineer sent me a single audio file, several hours long, to my computer. I put on the headphones. I  had to listen to each take endless times to make sure there were no flaws, either technical or musical. For example, for Piccolino’s Sarabanda, I used a different violin tuned down a half step to reflect the intonation of 17th century Italian Baroque music, and played with selective vibrato that was the performance practice at that time.

Once the excerpts were selected was the next crucial step: where exactly to insert them into the reading of the story. (The reading, by award-winning audio book reader Jim Frangione, had already been completed at a studio in Massachusetts.) So again, with my headphones on, I stopped and started the playback of Jim’s reading to decide upon the exact split second, noting where each excerpt should start, how long it should go on before the reading recommenced, and whether at that point the music should end or simply taper under the voice.

Having made all those decisions, I shared my ideas with Alison and Jim for their input and we further refined the process. I then got on a plane and went to Massachusetts to huddle with them in a tiny studio in the basement of recording engineer, Jason Brown. I had my fingers crossed that Jason could accomplish a couple of special special effects I requested. For Piccolino’s Sarabanda he was able to create the echoey sound of the violin resonating in a stonewalled room with a high ceiling, and for the Paradis Sicilienne he was able to add the distinctive scratchy sound of an old 78 recording. We spent hours haggling over timings, volumes, and fades. Everyone had their own opinion, voiced from the perspective of their own expertise. It was a fascinating process and though we were exhausted by the end of it, we emerged still friends and with a unique and amazing Devil’s Trill audio book. You can listen to a sample HERE. And between now and August 21, for every download purchased on this link $5.00 will be donated to the Stockbridge Sinfonia, a wonderful amateur chamber orchestra, for its student scholarship fund.

Having gone through the process, we’re ready to move on to the next book in the Daniel Jacobus mystery series, Danse Macabre. Some of the great music in Danse Macabre is the spectacular Kreutzer Sonata by Beethoven, the elegant Sonata in D Major by LeClair, and of course, the diabolical Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saens in which the devil raises the souls of the dead from the grave with his beguiling violin. I hope you will enjoy my performance by clicking on the link HERE.

To raise money for the production costs of Danse Macabre, I’ve established a KICKSTARTER CAMPAIGN, which in its first weekend raise more than 25% of our goal! I invite you to become one of the backers of a unique musical literary experience and be a part of mystery!

Danse

DANSE MACABRE

 

“A musical feast for mystery and music lovers.” Library Journal