Monday, October 15, 2018

Dies irae in Music


In light of Halloween coming up later this month, let’s talk about deathly sounds found within the classical music world. Coming up the week of Halloween, check back for  my “Horrifying Music of Halloween” playlist.

Have you heard of the Dies irae? This theme comes from the Mass of the Dead and has been used by composers for hundreds of years as an underlying message or symbol in their own work. Today, I want to share three famous examples of where this Dies irae can be heard in the music of Berlioz, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff. First, why not familiarize yourself with this theme with a clip taken from a film that chose to foreshadow death through its soundtrack, The Shining.

During the 19th century, composers were fascinated with anything macabre and sought to incorporate deathly sentiments in their music. One such example is the fifth movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique known as “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.” Berlioz uses what is known as the idee fixe or “fixed idea” throughout his composition. This fixed idea is a musical theme that comes back in each movement, changing each time it appears in order to match the story the composer seeks to convey through his music. 

During this finale movement, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” Berlioz distorts the idee fixe and combines it with the Dies irae theme in order to depict a dream of his beloved appearing at his own funeral as a witch. As you listen to the excerpt, listen for the distorted sounds of the idee fixe in the E-flat clarinet and the Dies irae theme that Berlioz weaves throughout.
  
Another example of the Dies irae can be found in Liszt’s Totentanz, a work for piano and orchestra. Many musicologists believe this work was inspired by a fresco Liszt saw while visiting Pisa. Created by Orcagna, the fresco was entitled The Triumph of Death.

Liszt begins this work with the Dies irae theme in the trombones. This theme, along with sudden shifts in dynamics and the use of low registers creates a creepy atmosphere for the listener. Listen here.

Lastly today, let’s listen to Rachmaninoff’s haunting Isle of the Dead. This piece is based off of the painting by Arnold Bocklin that Rachmaninoff first saw a reproduction of in Paris in 1907. The composer felt uneasy as he gazed at the boat holding a coffin as it approached the eerie island.

Reflecting on this as he composed, Rachmaninoff begins his piece with the sounds of oars in water using the dark sounds of low strings accompanied by timpani and harp. The music evokes a lack of direction and a sense of urgency as it progresses, the Dies irae appearing once the boat arrives at the island. This theme seems to win out over any sounds of joy in the piece. Can you hear the Dies irae? Listen here.

In the mood for Halloween yet? Be sure to tune to 90.9 on October 31 at 6pm for our annual Tunes from the Crypt



Monday, October 8, 2018

New Album from Kirill Gerstein

Allow me to introduce you to a new album that’s found its way onto the WGUC music library shelf. It’s the latest release from piano virtuoso Kirill Gerstein featuring some of the most-loved music by George Gershwin – his Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F. Most music lovers are familiar with these hits by the iconic American composer. Do not let the fear of it being “just another Gershwin album” tempt you to disregard this release. Gerstein takes this all-too-familiar music to the next level with his jazz and classical-fused flair, adding embellishments and even his own cadenza in the concerto. Also on the album – a few selections from piano legend Earl Wild. Kirill Gerstein talked to WGUC about his new album, including Wild’s “Virtuoso Etudes after Gershwin.”

 

Gerstein collaborates with vibraphonist Gary Burton on a piece by Oscar Levant. He told us about his longtime friendship with Burton.

 
Gerstein joins David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra for this live recording. Interested in hearing more from Gerstein? Make you way down to Cincinnati’s Music Hall January 4 and 5 when he will be performing alongside the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

Monday, October 1, 2018

History of the May Festival


This month, 90.9 WGUC presents the 2018 May Festival season Sunday evenings at 8pm. 2018 marked the May Festival’s return to Cincinnati’s historic Music Hall following an extensive renovation. It also celebrated the beginning of a new era for the May Festival, under the baton of newly-appointed Principal Conductor Juanjo Mena.

The Cincinnati May Festival was founded in 1873 and is one of the oldest and most prestigious choral festivals in the Western Hemisphere. Their annual festival consists of two weekends of outstanding concerts backed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and internationally-acclaimed guest artists. Highlights from this season include Eun Sun Kim’s May Festival debut leading Verdi’s powerful Requiem, a celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s centennial year with performances of Mass and Chichester Psalms, and a collaboration with a Cincinnati community choir in Handel’s iconic Messiah. See below for a complete broadcast schedule.

Did you know that in the mid-1800s, German immigrants who resided in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine community had a deep appreciation for the arts? They ended up forming singing groups and invited similar choirs in nearby towns to join them in a song festival. This eventually grew to be an annual gathering that took place in various Midwest cities. In 1870 when it was Cincinnati’s turn to host, it was decided that Saenger Hall would be built as a temporary structure to house the festival. This building was constructed where Music Hall now stands but was not an ideal setting for the festival since it was built with a tin roof!

In 1873, renowned conductor Theodore Thomas happened to be traveling through Cincinnati on tour with his New York-based orchestra and noticed that the city’s residents had great musical potential. He decided to work with local arts-advocates Maria Longworth Nichols and George Ward Nichols to create a large music festival that wasn’t tied ethnically to the current “Saengerfest” held at Saenger Hall. This was the beginning of the May Festival. It started as a 108-piece orchestra and 800-person choir that came together biannually, and eventually sparked the building of Music Hall in place of Saenger Hall, in order to provide a better facility for the festival. The third May Festival was the first to take place inside the new Music Hall in 1878. At the time, it was the largest concert hall in America.

Since the May Festival’s conception, it has remained one of the nation’s most eminent choral festivals, attracting internationally-acclaimed artists to join them in their annual performances. Be sure to tune to 90.9 Sunday evenings at 8pm all month long to hear Cincinnati’s very own May Festival Chorus.
May Festival 2018 Broadcast Schedule


Sunday, October 7, 8:00 PM (Performance Date: May 18)
Eun Sun Kim, conductor; Michelle Bradley, soprano; Ekaterina Semenchuk, mezzo-soprano; Bryan Hymel, tenor; May Festival Chorus, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

VERDI: Requiem Mass

Sunday, October 14, 8:00 PM (Performance Date: May 19)
Robert Porco, conductor; Kevin Vortmann, celebrant; May Festival Chorus; Cincinnati Children’s Choir; Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

BERNSTEIN: Mass

Sunday, October 21, 8:00 PM (Performance Date: May 25)
Juanjo Mena, conductor; John Holiday, countertenor; May Festival Chorus; Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

GABRIELI: Magnificat
BERNSTEIN: Chichester Psalms
RAVEL: Daphnis et ChloƩ [complete ballet]