Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Boar’s Head

Have you all heard of this thing called “The Boar’s Head Festival”, not to be confused with the deli meats?  ‘Twas begun in Oxford in 1340, and apparently it’s so very English that I hadn’t come across it, but lo and behold it’s a big deal at Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati, and I was unwittingly roped into participating this year.

Now look.  There are Christmas Pageants, and then there’s This thing.  We’re talking a cast of thousands.  This is Cecil DeMille meets Franco Zeffirelli meets the Renaissance Fair meets the Anglican liturgy.  Here’s a description of some of the costumes directly from the program book:

and this (!)

A longtime participant in the festival told me that to get a role as a Beefeater (solder, not gin) someone literally has to die.  That is how hardcore the Boar’s Head people are.

The first big number in the show is called “The Boar’s Head Carol“, sung by a saucy master-of-ceremonies type, and akin to “In Dulci Jubilo” in its mashing-up of old English and Latin texts:

Worthy of note is that this tune is basically a variation on that most lascivious ditty, Watkins Ale:

Now let’s pause and look at the first three lines of the BHC, because now we’re getting into pet peeve territory:

The boar’s head in hand bear I,
Bedecked with bays and rosemary.
And I pray you, my masters, be merrie.

I think it’s such a shame when we perform this Old- or Middle-Englishy stuff with modern pronunciation, because guys, here’s a little secret, in that last stanza, I, rosemary, and merrie are all supposed to rhyme, and in the 16th century, they did.  I just finished reading The Oxford History of English, and I’ve watched this YouTube clip like 5 times, so I’m kind of an expert (see esp. 4:53):

The last comment I’ll make about the Cincinnati Boar’s Head Festival is the carols are scored for a medium-sized orchestra of strings, oboe, brass, percussion, and organ.  I wish I’d had the wherewithal to record some of the orchestrations during our performances, because they are certainly interesting.  All the tunes were orchestrated, for some reason, in 1962 by one Frank Levy, a cellist in the Radio City Music Hall orchestra, and all I can say is that if a cellist in the Radio City Music Hall orchestra were to have orchestrated a number of Christmas Carols in 1962, this is what they would sound like.  The most interesting bits were a verse of “Kings to thy Rising” which got a bongoized 007 treatment and a particularly dark verse of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” which was accompanied by a hazy, Menottian cluster of strings.

Oh, and the very last thing: from this experience I learned what Waits are, and you should to.


Of the three or four best Old Music groups in the world – and here I’m thinking of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir, the Freiburger Barockorchester, the Monteverdi Choir – I think the Bach Collegium Japan consistently creates the most personal, intimate musical experiences.  Of course, this I glean only from recordings and videos, but frankly, it’s even harder to make that quality come across on recorded media.

Norman Ludwin: Scape-grace

In a few days’ time I will conduct a concert featuring the first movement of Giovanni Bottesini’s second concerto for double bass and orchestra, which truth be told is not much of a piece, but it’s better not to mention it since bass players have so little anyway.

This piece, I’ve come to find out, does not exist in an orchestral form handed down by the composer – if there ever was an original orchestration, it has been lost.  All that remains to posterity is a piano transcription (which may or may not actually be from the composer’s pen).

It would seem there are as many arrangements of this piece as there are recordings, however, the only arrangement I was able to come by was written by a bassist/orchestrator named Norman Ludwin.

Mr. Ludwin’s biography indicates that he is currently employed as an orchestration teacher.  If this piece were a freshman orchestration assignment, I would give it an F.  Not one chord is voiced correctly, nor is there any attempt made at logical voice leading.  Bars have been copied and pasted willy-nilly between parts with no regard to register or playability.  Enharmonic spellings are but a sick joke.

One such page of this drivel with my extensive corrections

How many ways can I dis-repudiate this mingle-mangle of an orchestration?  It is a hack-job by a scape-grace.  It is the work of an author who could not tell a perfect fifth from a pig squeal, nor an E-flat from an earring.  It is slap-dashery of the highest order.

A glance at his biography tells us that Mr. Ludwin, after a long career as a professional bassist, decided to return to school to better his skills as a composer/orchestrator in 2003, finally earning a doctorate in the field in 2007.  His imdb profile profile even indicates that he worked as an orchestrator on two superb film scores (John Carter and Super 8, both by the brilliant Michael Giacchino) (though, on films with Music Departments dozens-strong, who knows exactly what that means.)

Here I am even willing to give Mr. Ludwin the benefit of the doubt: perhaps this arrangement represents an effort made prior to his advanced education.  But if this be the case, the only honorable thing is for Mr. Ludwin to remove such an offensive work from his catalogue until he brings it up to his current standards.  I would not want to be judged professionally on work that I found sub-par, and have gone to strenuous lengths to improve my earlier works.  It is up to Mr. Ludwin to do the same.

Until that day may come, I offer two challenges:

1) I hereby offer my services as an arranger free of charge to anyone who would like an original orchestration of the Bottesini bass concerto, if only in the hopes of siphoning away funds from this street mountebank.

2) Should Mr. Ludwin choose to defend his work, he will have to do so on the field of honor, for I hereby challenge him to a duel, with pistols, at dawn on a day of his choosing.  I do so in defense of the dignity of the musical arts.