Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Sibelius' Kullervo

Clef Notes would like to welcome its newest contributor! Xavier University music student and WGUC intern Connor Annable shares his thoughts on Kullervo by Jean Sibelius this week:

The “choral symphony” Kullervo, completed in 1892, was the first major orchestral work Jean Sibelius composed following the end of his formal music studies in his native Finland and with Albert Becker in Vienna. Scored for solo baritone and mezzo-soprano, male chorus and an orchestra of Romantic-era proportions (including a percussion section that is not unduly large, with cymbals and triangle complementing timpani), it is based on the character Kullervo from the Kalevala, widely recognized as the national epic of Finland. 

Although typically described as a symphony, Kullervo is actually a series of five interconnected tone poems which serve as musical guides to the story of the title character, the only one considered tragic in all of Finnish mythology. Interestingly enough, the work was very positively received when it was premiered on April 28, 1892 in Helsinki. After this personal triumph, however, Sibelius essentially disowned what he had written, rescinding its planned publication and instead forming a plan to revise the score which never came to fruition. As a result, Kullervo was not performed again in its complete form until 1958, only 1 year after Sibelius’s death in 1957. A performance edition of the complete work, consequently, was not published until 1961. The entire work will typically take around 70-80 minutes to perform, making Kullervo on the same level as a Mahler symphony, although not quite as sweeping and Romantic-sounding.

The first movement introduces the brooding and dark landscape in which Kullervo will eventually find himself. Kullervo’s Youth is considered by some scholars as an extension of the first movement, or perhaps a lullaby of some sort. But I would take this as an exploration of how Kullervo’s personality developed even before he was born. The clan or tribe in which he had been raised, excluding his mother, has all been murdered by his uncle Untamo. Kullervo’s desire for revenge initially leads to him being sold as a slave, then as a herdsman to the smith Ilmarinen. After he is implicated in the death of Ilmarinen’s wife, Kullervo flees and reunites with his mother.

The third movement, Kullervo and His Sister, introduces the chorus and vocal soloists for the first time in the piece. The male chorus serves a similar function to a Greek chorus, mainly commenting on the metaphysical actions which are unfolding on stage. They also sing primarily in unison, only rarely splitting into four-part harmony (this applies to the 5th movement as well). This is also the symphony’s longest movement, clocking in at about 25 minutes long. At this point in the story, Kullervo is delivering taxes and comes across two women who swiftly reject his advances. The third young girl he comes across and supposedly engages with on a physical level is later discovered to be his long-lost sister. Upon discovering this, the sister proceeds to kill herself by drowning in a nearby stream. Kullervo is represented by a solo baritone, while the sister is represented by a solo mezzo-soprano (some recordings use a solo soprano in place of a mezzo). In the fourth movement, Kullervo Goes to War, a constant march-like tempo represents Kullervo fighting against his uncle with a new sword given him by Ukko, the chief of the gods. With it, he kills Untamo’s entire tribe. Sibelius seems to augment this sense of triumph and heroism musically through the repeated use of percussion and trumpet fanfares against full chords in the rest of the orchestra, while also appearing to suggest the wind-swept Nordic landscape Kullervo finds himself fighting in. In the final movement, Kullervo’s Death, the chorus returns to describe how Kullervo returned to the place where he seduced his sister in the forest, and how feelings of guilt compel him to die by falling on his own sword. In short, Jean Sibelius’s Kullervo is the finest example of how his stylistic trappings came to be set in stone through the ensuing decades of composing. It is also a tragically underrated masterpiece of choral-orchestral music that deserves to be played and recorded more often than it has.

Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänska, conductor; Lili Passikivvi, mezzo-soprano; Raimo Laukka, baritone; YL Male Voice Choir; BIS  BIS-1215
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam, conductor; Soile Isokoski, soprano; Tommi Hakala, baritone; YL Male Voice Choir; Ondine    ODE1122-5
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Paavo Järvi, conductor; Peter Mattei, baritone; Randi Stene, mezzo-soprano; Estonian National Male Choir; Virgin Classics (reissued on Erato through Warner Classics); VC 5  45292 2 

Like what Connor has to share? Stay tuned for more from Connor in coming weeks!

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Bernstein's Mass

Deutsche Grammophon recently released their first-ever recording of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass - an appropriate choice marking the composer’s centennial year. While many music lovers may be quick to recognize Bernstein hits such as themes from West Side Story or the overture to Candide, not everyone is acquainted with Mass. I myself have never seen the piece performed, and am thrilled that Cincinnati’s May Festival Chorus will perform it as part of their 2018 Festival on May 19. WGUC will also broadcast this performance on October 14 at 8pm.

Bernstein’s Mass was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the inauguration of the Kennedy Center in 1971. In it, the composer fuses together religious and secular elements. Don’t be fooled by its title – Mass is certainly not traditional. Bernstein uses a rock band, marching band, several choirs, and more making it quite the spectacle. This album features a performance from Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra and is an essential addition to the library of any true Bernstein devotee.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Leonard Bernstein: The Beginning

August 25th of this year marks the centennial of a great American. Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) is remembered for his work as a composer, conductor, pianist, educator, and so much more. To celebrate his legacy, WGUC is embarking on a 100 Days of Bernstein during which at least one piece he either composed, conducted, or performed will be aired each day for the 100 days leading up to his birth. The celebration will culminate in August with Bernstein being featured as the Classics for Kids composer of the month, two special encore broadcasts from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra featuring Bernstein’s music, a special radio program from WGUC, and even a birthday party we are throwing (learn more about how you can attend our party coming up during our spring fund drive!) Clef Notes is also taking part in the festivities by including a Bernstein-related post once a month now thru August.

Leonard Bernstein was quite talented and the number of topics we could address related to his life seems endless so I’ve chosen just a few areas to highlight in the coming months. First, let’s look at his life as a conductor and the famous story about how he got his start.

On November 14, 1943, Leonard Bernstein became a sensation overnight when he was called upon last minute to step in for Bruno Walter and conduct the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. At the time, twenty-five-year-old Bernstein was Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic. This particular concert was broadcast nationally on the radio and resulted in immediate fame for Bernstein, who began receiving requests to guest conduct other major orchestras. In 1945, he became Music Director of the New York City Symphony Orchestra, and then later worked in the conducting arena at Tanglewood. Below is a picture of Bernstein during his time at Tanglewood. He’s pictured jamming with Dick Waller, former principal clarinet with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

Bernstein was appointed Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958 and later received the lifetime title of Laureate Conductor. He frequently recorded with the New York Philharmonic, and also is remembered for leading them in his famous Young People’s Concerts (more about that next month!)

Leonard Bernstein was not only respected in America, but across the globe. He frequently collaborated with the world’s best ensembles, including the Vienna Philharmonic. He championed the work of American composers, but also was praised for his interpretations of Gustav Mahler.

Bernstein wasn’t just an accomplished conductor, but also a pianist, composer, and educator. Next time, we’ll learn more about his role as an educator.

Friday, May 4, 2018

May the Fourth Be With You

For all the Star Wars fans of the world, May 4th is an unofficial holiday. To honor Star Wars composer John Williams, I’ve put together a playlist with some of my top picks from his film scores.

Most people’s minds automatically go to John Williams when asked to name a film-music composer. Williams’ output of cinematic scores is outstanding with major blockbuster hits including Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, and Saving Private Ryan.

What is your favorite film that uses a John Williams score? If it’s not on my playlist, let me know in the comments below and I’ll add it to our list.

May the fourth be with you!