Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Pete Seeger Recollection

I had a chance encounter with Pete Seeger while a college student in Boston back in the late '70's. An acquaintance of mine was in charge of assembling the usher staff for one of his concerts. She was a little short-handed so a call went out for additional volunteers. That's how I ended up at Sanders Theater in the same room with Mr Seeger. We were worlds apart in our musical pursuits. I was in the prim and proper world of Classical music. I played violin. Teachers of composition were pushing things like 12-tone serialism or John Cage's aleatoric techniques. Pete Seeger on the other hand was some kind of hippie with a guitar, able to light a fire under a crowd with a simple song! I had no proper regard for it. And yet, I felt no prejudice from him, he was interested in my pursuits and offered encouragement like a dad to a son. I would now see that Mr Seeger had a rare human touch, he could sense the hunger of the human heart. The hunger for home and a sense of community. That ability is described perfectly in the proverb, "As in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man." That's why he was so good with an audience. That's why people loved him. All the best to you too, Mr Seeger.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Nativity Scenes, Suite for String Orchestra Performance at Colyton Grammer School

School CrestI am pleased to report that my "Nativity Scenes, Suite for String Orchestra," is being performed at Colyton Grammar School. Colyton Grammar is a highly ranked and highly regarded private high school near Exeter, UK. The school was founded in 1546! The performance tomorrow night, December 11th, 2013, is being conducted by Joseph Gooddy - a 16-year-old student attending the institution! Today, prior to rehearsal, a Skype video call was arranged between me, Maestro Gooddy, and the student musicians. I recorded the conversation and offer the following rough transcript:

Joseph Gooddy (JG): What made you want to write this one?
Brett Allen (BA): I wanted to capture something from my childhood, the joy and wonder I felt as a child taking part in the living Nativity scene put on by the small church I attended. A great deal of sincere effort went into it on the part of church members. Sheep and a donkey were brought in from local farms, one year we even had a newborn baby as Jesus. That would explain the first three movements. The last two movements take on more of an adult perspective on the Christmas story. That it didn't come without cost. And in the last movement I try to capture some of the unusual energy of the first Century Christian church as described in the Book of Acts. The birth of Christianity as it were.
JG: It's certainly a challenge to rehearse, we're having good fun I think, yeah, it's been hard.
BA: It's sophisticated music.
JG: Have you got any advice, there's a section of about twenty bars in Silent Night that we've cut.*
BA: The middle section?
JG: Yes, where the violins are doing all sorts of funny arpeggiation things.
BA: That section makes high demands especially on the violas and cellos. Colyton is described as a Grammar School. What is the range of ages?
JG: Year 7 starts at 11 I think it is, and by grade 13 they're all 18 and they leave…  
BA: Oh, I see, because a grammar school in the United States would be grades 1 thru 6, or ages 5 thru 10.
JG: The players we've got, it's mostly students, and we've got five adult professionals helping.
BA: Good.
JG: It's sounding quite good at the moment.
BA: Good, excellent. Can you show me the orchestra? Can you turn the camera?
JG: It's actually going to be an orchestra of 15, but five of them couldn't make rehearsal this evening. I'll try and show you. That's them. We've got one viola at the moment. We've got another violist coming.
BA: That's good.
JG: We haven't played all together yet, but our dress rehearsal is tomorrow, that will be the first time we have all played together.
BA: I see, okay.
JG: Well, thank for your loaning us of the scores. As I said, we'll be recording it and I'll send a recording to you when it's done. As soon as I can after tomorrow.
BA. Okay, very good. What is your background? Where did you study music?
JG: I'm only 16 at the moment…
BA: Oh!
JG: I'm at the penultimate year of being at the school.
BA: Oh!
JG: I'm only a student.
BA: Oh, I see, I see, okay, well that's great, and when did the students there begin playing? When they were…
JG: Just generally on this piece…
BA: No, I meant when did they begin playing their instruments?
JG: Quite early, I'm a violinist, I've been playing for 11 years.
BA: Yeah, and I started playing when I was eight years old. That's what they say, you have to start instruments early, before you realize it can't be done...
JG: Especially with string instruments that…
BA: Right, right…
JG: You're a violist yourself…
BA: I am, that's how I make my living, not as a composer but as a violist. I play with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra in the state of Ohio, and also with Pro Musica, the Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra. That's how I make a living.
JG: I see a lot of your compositions are arranged for two violas and piano or something.
BA: Yes, yes, I have a number of them.
JG: Do you have any advice or anything, I mean, it's the day before the performance. Any advice for us? It's quite a challenge. Hard work.
BA: Well, there's one typo in the the cello part. In the fourth movement, measure 55. Maybe that's the part that was cut.
JG: Yes, measure 55…
BA: The 16th rest is a typo.
JG: Sorry…
BA: The 16th rest in the solo cello - that's a mistake.
JG: Okay (laughter)
BA: The first movement seems to be a bit of a challenge, I like to say measure 58 in the first movement is the high point…
JG: Yes, we're going to tackle that…
BA: I could have written tremolo in the violins there, but I wrote 16ths. I think it works best if the violins kind of play in the lower part of the bow so it's kind of spiky and ugly, rather than in the upper half of the bow where it's all refined and easy, you know. Make kind of a rough sound there.
JG: So, the bit at 58, we'll play it a bit slower I think. If that's alright.
BA: Well, you know, actually, It can move ahead - prior to that it can move ahead - so at 58 it can actually be at a faster tempo, temporarily. Just to kind of build to that point. And the cellos, the cellos, divided in three, they should dominate the world, or try to dominate the world.
JG: Yeah, okay. The only bit we're not playing is that section in Silent Night where the arpeggiated bits in the violins...*
BA: I understand, okay…
JG: The rest of it is not too difficult I don't think (orchestra members giggling). At the agitato in the final movement, where the first violins are playing a half beat apart from each other...
BA: Right…
JG: I don't know, we haven't really worked at that bit yet. I don't know what to say about it. Have you got any [advice] practicing that bit, or…
BA: Well, it's a complex cannon. So, each pizz in the 2nd violins is answered by the same pitch bowed in the first violins. But it should be just like a big cloud of misquitos, really (giggles). Because the melody is in the bass obviously, the melody is in the lower instruments. So, violins should just be like a big cloud of sound.
JG: Sounds like a ____. Measure number 108 in the final one, do you think it is not particularly important for them to be following my beat. It says, "As if falling away," so is that...
BA: Yeah, it's not real important that they be together, they can kind of go out of phase with each other and just kind of fade out. And that's true of the cellos also. It should just kind of come unglued, just go out of phase.
JG: Okay. It should be okay when we all come back in at the presto?
BA: Yes, then it's all together again, right.
JG: That's fine. Okay. We're just going to finish practicing, Good Christian Men, Rejoice, the last one, we're just going to finish that one this evening.
BA: Okay, alright.
JG: That should be interesting. It's been good fun actually. When I first saw the score I was quite scared by it, I think.
BA: (laughter).
JG: Lot's of very dense black notes on the page. It actually sounds really good with the set-up you've got. It's very nice.
BA: Yeah, I would say 15 instruments is about the right number to have an effective performance.
JG: Yeah, and we're slightly bass heavy, but I don't think that…we've got strong firsts and seconds, so that shouldn't be a problem.
BA: Good.
JG: Have you got anything else to say?
BA: No. Thank you for finding the work and thank you for doing it.
JG: I'm very happy to be performing it. It's quite exciting that it is not being performed anywhere else in the world. 
BA: (laughter).
JG: And you say you'll mention it on your blog?
BA: Yes, yes I will. So that's a plug for Colyton.
JG: How lovely. Thank you very much. Thank you for your time.
BA: You are most welcome.
JG: We look forward to finishing rehearsing it and performing it tomorrow evening.
BA: Very good.
JG: I'll be in touch to let you know how it goes.
BA: Alright. Thanks. Thanks so much.
JG: Thanks very much. (Byes from orchestra members).

* In a subsequent email it the issue with the middle section of Silent Night is finally resolved:
"PS It occurs to me too late that the difficulty with Silent Night - the part being cut - may be understanding that the 1st Violins are to park in third position and rock the bow back and forth over all four strings, aka "quattro corde." It's not difficult at all once that is established. Sorry I didn't catch that this morning when you brought it up."


About Joseph Gooddy
Joseph Gooddy is a student at Colyton Grammer School. He is the equivalent of a Junior in high school, as it would be defined in the US. This was much to my surprise as I had assumed from our email exchanges that was a professor of music at the school. He is a violinist, having played the instrument from the age of five. He organized this concert of his own initiative, bringing together friends and other student musicians plus five adult professionals who he says, "didn't mind playing for me!" He goes on to say:

"Last year I wanted to try to arrange a charity concert but I started the organising far too late and so that idea dissolved. Earlier this year, I took up the idea again and started arranging things much sooner. I have so far arranged everything myself, but directing the music has been the most fun! My training only really consists of advice from my music teacher (when I did things wrong), and because I am in several orchestras, observations of those conductors. It hasn’t been too hard, actually, because I’ve spent so much time in rehearsals and concerts but the technicalities of my conducting have been corrected as rehearsals have progressed, by my music teacher, Mrs Lester.

As for a career in music, I’m not sure, but I want to keep it up even if as a hobby. I’ve had too much fun with this to stop!"

Many thanks to the young maestro Gooddy!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Le Grand Tango Reviewed in ASTA Magazine

Thanks Blair!

The following review appeared in the February, 2013 issue of the American String Teacher Magazine. Many thanks to Blair Williams for a thoroughly positive assessment! Blair is a Ph.D. student at Ohio State University, a brief bio is down below.

The only further detail worth mentioning - my arrangement comes in a fully orchestrated version as well as the Viola/Piano version mentioned.

More on Brett Allen's arrangement of Le Grand Tango

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Southern Theater, Social by Design

My favorite performance space in Columbus, Ohio, is the Southern Theater. The Southern opened in 1896 and is housed in the Southern Hotel. Southern refers to the Southern Railroad, now part of Norfolk and Southern. South of Broad St, Columbus, where North begins to give way to South, that's pronounced "suthun."

There are a couple things I like about this theater. It's a medium size space, seating a little over 900 souls. And it was built prior to the age of electronic amplification. The acoustics are superb. Great care was taken to enhance natural sound in terms of design and choice of materials. But there is something else about the place that's very curious. It is designed in such a way as to foster social interaction.

This is true both back stage and front stage. For performers the back stage dressing rooms, water fountains, coffee pots, restrooms, etc, are all on the lower level. To get there everyone must use the same staircase. There is only one. I have noticed in the course of a production that I will rub elbows with every other performer while using this staircase. By design it encourages social interaction. It's amazing to witness all the business that gets settled as the performers go up and down this staircase.

It's a similar situation for the audience. There is one main public entrance. Ticket holders for the main floor or any of the balconies must funnel through this one entrance. It is not completely airtight however, there is a side-entrance from the hotel lobby, but the social friction is largely the same as that of the backstage staircase. Many thanks to the architectural firm Dauben, Krumm, and Riebel for giving us the incomparable Southern Theater. And many thanks to CAPA for their 1998 restoration of the place, giving it a new lease on life.

The Ohio Theater in Columbus is not nearly so social. There are two staircases down, dressing rooms are on both upper and lower levels, and there are multiple exits both stage-left and stage-right. It's much more diffuse.You can slip out of there without rubbing elbows with anyone.

There is one distinctly anti-social footnote to add about the Southern. Under Jim Crow law there was segregated, not-so-equal seating in the top balcony. Blacks and poor whites bought tickets at a separate box office on the ally side of the building, and then took a staircase straight to the top balcony. There they sat on hard benches. All of these aspects were erased in the 1998 renovation.

The virtues of social design have come to the Statehouse Underground Parking Garage as well. It used to be that there were live parking attendants at Columbus' many parking garages. Then automation came into play. Inevitably, tempers would flare among waiting drivers when an individual at the exit gate didn't have correct change, or their credit card failed, or they simply didn't understand the process. With the new system, you get your ticket as you drive in. Then, when it's time to leave, you pay at a walk-up kiosk before getting into your car. This is brilliant. When people are sealed up in their automobiles they're in a bubble. No one talks to anyone else and no one knows what's going on. That's why tempers flare. But you get those same individuals to gather at one of those kiosks, and, voila, instant socialization. People greet each other, crack jokes, and help each other out. I can't count the number of times I've seen one individual explaining how it works to another. I've done it myself. The effect of this social contact does wonders to calm people down.

Three cheers for social design!

Monday, January 7, 2013

On Universality in Music: Mozart and The Beatles

Recently I played two vastly different concert programs all in one weekend. One was a Columbus Symphony pops concert, and the other was a classical program by the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra. The CSO featured "The Fab Four," a Beatles tribute band. ProMusica programmed two Mozart Concertos, plus Martinu and Bartok. What struck me most about the two programs was the quality of universality in the music of Mozart and The Beatles.

Music with Universal Appeal, Ten Characteristics:
In no particular order...not true in every case...

1) It is inter-generational in its appeal.
2) It has appeal from day one.
3) It displays genius in a covert way.
4) It is memorable (easily memorized or singable).
5) It is impersonal.
6) It is not too committed in terms of its political or social message. 
7) It belongs to the world.
8) It goes together easily, does not require exceptional effort to produce.
9) It is idiot-proof.
10) It is easily adapted for other instrumental or vocal combinations.

Inter-generational appeal. I was surprised to see the Ohio Theater nearly sold out for the Beatles show. And it was not just the generation that screamed and fainted for the Beatles in 1964 that filled the place. Every generation was present, from the white-hair set down to their great grandchildren. I witnessed the staying power of the Beatles as my own kids were growing up. This was not the music of their generation. Yet, they found the Beatles, listened to the Beatles and loved the Beatles in their turn, all of their own initiative. Likewise, my father was more a Dean Martin/Frank Sinatra kind of guy, yet it didn't prevent him from whistling Penny Lane and other Beatles tunes as they came along. That's true universality. Similarly, Mozart produced warhorses of the repertoire which have appealed anew to each passing generation. 

Instant appeal. The Lennon/McCartney hits were hits from day one. Likewise, their British predecessor, George Frederick Handel wrote day-one hits we all know. Handel's Oratorio, Messiah, and his Water Music and Royal Fireworks Suites were popular and successful right from the start. The Messiah has been performed every year since it was first written in 1742. And I would venture a guess not a day goes by when his Water Music Suite doesn't play on the radio. 

Covert genius. Some composers try to impress you with how brilliant they are - and it sounds that way. Mozart was a genius of higher order. To most listeners Mozart is just pretty music flowing by. But, under the hood, amazing things are going on. Few composers of any era equal him. He accomplishes all his with the greatest aplomb. No one suspects. Likewise, people are generally unaware of the musical ingenuity that makes a Beatles tune fly. All they know is that they like it.

Memorable, singable. It is no small thing when a listener hears music and comes away humming the tune. What constitutes a successful and memorable melody is an elusive thing and the topic of endless debate. A great tune develops a life of its own, sticks fast to our memory, and has a capacity to become an annoying ear bug. It's not something a composer just decides to do one day, it comes of inspiration. Mozart was equally capable of writing unmemorable music as well as the riveting, exciting stuff, depending on the occasion. Some of his long divertimenti were purposed as background music for use at royal banquets. Though having his usual degree of technical perfection, it is evident he did not wish it to draw too much attention.

Impersonal. This is a little hard to explain. In one sense, music of an impersonal quality is music that goes down easily, because the listener is comfortable with it. It is about somebody or something other than themselves. At least on the surface. This would be John Lennon telling you about "all the lonely people." It's not about "you," but, it may well be about you all the same! In another sense, it is music expressive of spiritual aspirations. It is removed from issues of time and place and personality and earth. I think the music of J.S. Bach fits the definition in this case.

Not too committed politically. Composers may have strong political opinions but the ones in search of broad appeal will hesitate to go too far out on a limb. A general consensus on the break-up of the Beatles is that John Lennon's subsequent solo albums were too edgy and made listeners uncomfortable, where Paul McCartney's solo albums had his trademark musical drive but lacked the former wit of Lennon's lyrics. The two talents together struck a right balance and produced hit after hit. Many consider Beethoven's 9th Symphony, the "Ode to Joy," the greatest musical masterpiece of all time. The poet, Freidrich Schiller, originally entitled it, "Ode to Freedom," but substituted the word "joy," because the word, "freedom," was too politically overt for its time. Leonard Bernstein famously changed the wording back to the original idea in performances celebrating the opening of the Berlin Wall.

Belongs to the world. Music that has universal appeal stands on its own without association to its regional origins. It almost never occurs to me that the Beatles are British. I'm listening to the words, the music, any number of things, but not the fact that their music represents, speaks for, or is the product of Great Britain. Nor does it occur to me much that Mozart is Austrian. You don't have to be Austrian to love and understand Mozart. (Austrians would disagree!) In both cases the music has qualities that are universally understood.    

Goes together easily. The proliferation of Mozart festivals across the world speak to his ability to accurately judge the limits of musicians and the demands of production. Limits on rehearsal time, the volume of music professional instrumentalists can handle, their technical limits - he gave all these factors due consideration, in addition issues of musical construction. His repertoire is easy to produce.

Idiot-proof. Professional ensembles will always do a fabulous job with Mozart. But semi-professional and amateur groups can also pull it off admirably well. The spirit of the music shines through even when subjected to less-than-perfect conditions. Many of the vocalizations and instrumental interludes on Beatles albums seem elementary by today's standards, but it does not diminish the effectiveness of the music. And makes it all the more attainable by others.

Easily adaptable. While not so true of Mozart, music with universal appeal tends to be easily adaptable for other instrumental and/or vocal combinations. This is true on both sides of the Classical-Popular divide. For instance, tuneful selections from Bizet's opera, Carmen, have been arranged for every conceivable combination of instruments. Likewise, George Gershwin tunes have been appropriated in an untold number of ways. This indicates that the original combination of instruments or vocals is not so specialized or exacting that the music cannot work equally well with other instrumental or vocal combinations.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Bach Double for Two Violas - New Arrangement!

I'm please to announce the release of Concerto for Two Violas in A Minor, a new arrangement of the Bach Double Violin Concerto (BWV 1043) transcribed for two violas. This is the first of four Bach viola concerto transcriptions I am currently working on.

Concerto for Two Violas is suitable for the concert stage, and makes an excellent stand-up concerto. The arrangement also fills an urgent need for Baroque concerto repertoire for the viola, for which there are scant choices: The Telemann Viola Concerto in G Major and the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 are about it. The Handel Concerto in B Minor is quite good -- but not by Handel. Vivaldi composed over 600 concertos -- but not one of them is for viola! The reasons for this are varied, but it is not because the viola was considered useless. It just had yet to come of age. Many artists of the time still embraced the viola d'amore, a holdover from the Renaissance period. Others debated the utility of the larger "tenore" versus the smaller "alto" viola. By the time of Mozart, the alto had won has since become enshrined in chamber and orchestral writing. The alto is what we call the viola today.

The new Bach Double Viola Concerto is available in two forms: a full Ensemble Version, and a version for Two Violas and Piano. The Ensemble version was written for the combination of instruments commonly used to perform Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6., that is: Solo Violas I & II, Tutti Violas I & II, Cello, Double Bass and Cembalo (typically harpsichord).

Here is a link to a  live recording of the ensemble version, recorded in 1999 at Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Columbus. The concerto was performed as part of the Sundays at Central chamber music series and this concert featured the viola section of the Columbus Symphony. The soloists are myself (Brett Allen) on Solo Viola I, and the late David Schmookler on Solo Viola II. David was Principal Viola of the Columbus Symphony from 1986-2010.

Part of this event was a pre-concert lecture, a brief history of the viola, given by CSO violist Ken Matsuda. He ended his talk with one of his notorious quips: "If you leave today with a deeper appreciation of the viola it will give us the greatest happiness. On the other hand, if it displeases you and you never wish to hear it again - please keep it to yourself!"

Sheet music samples are available here, including the full Solo Viola 1 part.

Sheet Music for Solo Viola 1:

For ordering information, visit the Brett Allen Music Store.