Bring on the Melody!

Here’s a tip: the next time you fly Delta, sit back and enjoy a viewing of Japan’s stunningly bizarre answer to Glee, Bring on the Melody:

When Chika discovers that the high school’s wind and brass band is set to be disbanded, she joins forces with her friend to recruit new members.

…but that doesn’t even start to cover it.

Chika is a belligerent high school freshman whose innermost dream is to play flute in a concert band, and over the course of the movie, she bullies eight of her fellow misfits into re-forming the school’s wind ensemble, which disbanded under mysterious circumstances at the end of last year. Her primary recruitment tools are handmade flyers and physical violence, but she also spends a lot of time running up to people and screaming in their faces.

She needs to find one player for each of the other band instruments: oboe, clarinet, saxophone, horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, and percussion. Her one guide is a group photo of last year’s band class which she uses she stalk each member one by one. (In point of fact, she snatched this photo from a fire with her bare hands, like, for real.) What makes her quest even more difficult is that she’s only got three weeks to round them up, because the school’s sadistic old principal has vowed to cancel the band class once and for all if she personally can not recruit nine members.

And so she sets about finding her Eight Samurai:

1. Her first recruit is an old childhood friend, a cute boy who plays the horn (and very well he does indeed. One of the interesting things about this movie is that it’s obvious the actors are all playing their own instruments, which is refreshing and welcome.) Now I don’t read Japanese (for shame, I know) but every time this boy’s picture appeared on the screen with some writing beside it, the words “Sexy Zone” appeared in quotes, and it turns out that in real life, he’s part of a Japanese boy band – wait for it – Sexy Zone.

2. Next come the trumpeter and oboist as a pair. They are a boy-girl couple, and they are the last functional remnant of last year’s band, tasked with burning all their school’s old sheet music (this is how Chika gets the group photo.)

3. Next comes the saxophonist, whom Chika seems to recognize as a kindred spirit when she first sees him beating the crap out of some random other kid. It turns out that he’s had to quit the baseball team and he’s taking it out on everyone else. Chika reveals that she had to quit the volleyball team and we get a surreal flashback that shows how she was uplifted in her time of trial by the dulcet tones of a high school concert band.

4. The tubist is a talented young girl who gave up her instrument because every time she practiced, it left her lips swollen to the point that she was slut-shamed by all her classmates. Her solution was to wear a surgical mask to school every day (not so uncommon in Japan!) In a show of solidarity, the other band kids also don surgical masks, under which they have smeared the most disturbing sanguinary lipstick since Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.

5. Chika attempts to recruit the school’s star clarinetist, a virtuosa who has won several competitions, but it turns out she has lost hearing in one ear, so she’s defensive and hostile to Chika’s requests:

(Which I’m going to have temporary tattooed across my forehead the next time I attend a cocktail party.) Anyway, she doesn’t join and I can’t remember who they actually end up getting.

6. The last major addition to the group is the percussionist, and his backstory is one of the wildest bits of storytelling I’ve ever come across. It turns out that he dropped out of school last year because his grandfather died, and since quitting school, he has been running an unlicensed nursing home from which he broadcasts a late night radio advice show along with a panel of his elderly residents who answer listeners’ write-in questions.

The other kids share a firm consensus that their percussionist was the spiritual leader of the band and that without him, they will never be able to achieve musical cohesion. Luckily, the old fogies convince him to return to school and to the drums (which necessitates nary a bit of paperwork, administration, or even explanation; meanwhile, the fate of the nursing home’s residents is left a total mystery.)

OK, so that, plus some other unimportant characters, is our band. But the one character I’ve neglected to mention up until now is in many ways the film’s most perplexing: the conductor. (Isn’t it always?)

The conductor – who is also the official teacher of this class – has been absent during this entire recruitment process. All we know about him is that he won second place (!?) in an international conducting competition.

But that raises so many more questions than it answers, like, why is he doing nothing to help the recruitment efforts? If there is no band, does he still have a job? Would he just have to go and teach like driver’s ed or biology or something? Why would he instruct the kids to burn all their old music? What is he even doing all day if he doesn’t have a single member in his music classes??

I suppose none of that really matters since Chika was more than happy to do all the heavy lifting. But here’s the twist: after going to all that trouble to recruit a class of nine members, it turns out that CHIKA DOES NOT EVEN KNOW HOW TO PLAY THE GODDAMNED FLUTE!!

Just let that sink in for a second.

Now I’ll give this conductor one thing: he’s nothing if not consistent. Because once it’s revealed that Chika hasn’t mastered even the basics of her instrument, instead of, you know, teaching her, he just makes snide comments to her in the middle of class:

And it’s more outrageous than that, because it turns out that he is a frustrated composer and they are playing one of his pieces. And he specifically refuses to simplify her part for her. What an asshole. He’s written a big flute solo and foisted it upon this poor girl – without whom he would be unemployed – and he won’t just relent and give it to the clarinet.

Anyway, you can kind of game out the rest of the movie from here, but the specifics are amazing, especially some of the subtitle translations, like when the kids get in a big fight (filmed in one wide shot over the course of 5 minutes):

In sum, this movie is amazing and you’ve got to watch it, though I have no idea how you can do that outside of Japan or a Delta flight, but here’s the trailer. I’ve done my best to describe the plot, which is weird enough, but that’s only scratching the surface, because some of the sequences are as surreal as anything you’ll see in Eraserhead.

With that, all I have left to say is: BRING 👏 ON 👏 THE 👏 MELODY!!

Enter maestro

Picture it: Daniele Gatti’s first concert as music director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the beginning of the second half, the maestro descends the famous Concertgebouw staircase, when suddenly a a renegade member of the public stands to accept the audience’s applause…

…leaving us with so very many questions:

Like, is he accepting the applause on the maestro’s behalf? Or does he feel that he has done something personally to merit this ovation? He looks authoritative as he stands facing the crowd, like he was expecting this moment and he is glad to rise to the occasion. Is there a chance he thinks Gatti is a latecomer for whom he needs to make room?

I suspect we shall never know.

As much as I am amused by this moment, it’s worth pointing out a couple other things in this vid:

1. As far as conductors are concerned, right now, it’s Gatti and everyone else. He has is the reigning master. He has total control of his body, hands, and face, and every motion is nuanced and specific.

And yet, it’s never too much, never more than the musicians need. He both “looks like the music” and is there to give the musicians the support they need. He’s that rare and magical combination of what players truly want from a conductor: he gives them feeling of playing with total freedom, while in reality he is leading them with command and control.

2. The RCO sits with the clarinets and bassoons reversed (i.e. clarinets to the conductor’s right, bassoons to the conductor’s left.)

I haven’t spent much time watching the RCO, so this immediately jumped out. I looked it up in the place one goes to look up such things and it turns out it’s a remnant of the split-violin seating (firsts on the left, seconds on the right), in which the cellos and basses sit to the conductor’s left. (I imagine it might also have something to do with the Concertgebouw’s huge staircase on the right.)

I really like this, because it then allows you to seat the horns to the bassoons’ left, with the 3rd and 4th horns sitting in the back row next to the trumpets. This solves a big problem, namely that you’re always looking for a way to get the horns seated so they are part of the woodwinds as well as the brass. It’s also nice to have them seated in two rows rather than having all four lined up together – it better reflects the historical conception of the horn section, in which composers wrote for two pairs of horns in 2 different keys.

3. For the inaugural program of a new music directorship, this is… just ok. I mean Orpheus is sort of a decent enough piece I guess, but wouldn’t you put a contemporary (Dutch) composer or a thrilling soloist on the concert?

Also: is Liszt having like, a moment right now? I feel like I’m Liszt tone poems on programs all over the place. Liszt is such a messy composer – he has some really brilliant pieces, some utterly fascinating failures, and then just a whole bunch of crap (have you listened to Hunnenschlacht lately?)

4. This is a strange interpretation of the Symphonie FantastiqueI’m not totally on board, but it’s interesting, and I give Gatti full points for doing something unique and fully communicating his vision for this piece to the orchestra.

Speaking of which, nota bene: the strings are playing the symphony from photocopied, comb-bound parts. I presume these are Gatti’s parts which he has had copied for the orchestra. That’s very unusual for a professional orchestra, that the players would accept bowings/markings that are “baked in” to the page (and thus not erasable.) This doubtless made the library staff’s lives much easier though, so kudos to Gatti!

A bit of the old Ludwig van

I just finished reading Jan Swafford’s Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph and boy are my arms tired! And I actually mean that literally, that thing is like 1,000 pages and probably weighs over ten pounds.

This book was a joy to read from start to finish (which I wholeheartedly recommend you do!) and I came away with a veritable bevy of new insight and discoveries into the life, work, and personality of this man who seems by now so familiar.

Most enjoyable with a book like this is the chance to explore the unknown nooks and crannies of Beethoven’s musical output, both the justly and unjustly neglected. (It’s no secret that Beethoven had his share of clunkers, but when you’re the best composer who ever lived a lot is forgiven.)

But I love nothing more than exploring the pieces that barely even saw the light of day, the scraps, the odds & ends, the Werke ohne Opus, if you will. What follows is a curio cabinet of some of the musical curiosities that Mr. Swafford was so good to bring to light.

Beethoven wrote for the mandolin.

Early in his career he was trying wooing a young Lady Mandolinist and left much to show for it.

Beethoven wrote these SICK piano quartets at the age of FOURTEEN.

We all know that Beethoven’s dad wanted him to be a child virtuoso in the image of Mozart, but that the trajectory of young Ludwig’s career never tilted quite so steeply. But man for someone who was considered a lesser prodigy, these quartets are pretty solid!

(Interesting tidbit: due to Johannes van B’s habit of advertising Ludwig as younger than he really was, Ludwig remained confused about his actual age his entire life.)

Beethoven tried to write several operas; Leonore/Fidelio is the only one that made it to the stage.

What’s more, he wrote lots of random little arias and scenes and even a significant portion of a whole act. Mostly he just complained that the librettos he was being offered sucked.

Many of these smaller experiments were journeyman pieces that he wrote while studying Italian opera with Antonio Salieri. Some of them sound surprisingly Rossinian. Like seriously, would you guess that this was Beethoven?

What’s even weirder about this little trio (a standalone work) is that it was used as the concert opener at the second ever performance of the NINTH SYMPHONY. No “Survivor from Warsaw” for old Ludwig van B!

I think it’s a refreshing approach to a problem considered intractable by many conductors – the ninth seems to need a little something to fill out a full concert, but what in the world do you put in front of it? If you’re Beethoven, the answer is “Tremate, empi, tremate”.


Beethoven spent a surprisingly large amount of time arranging Irish, Welsh, and Scottish folk songs at the request of a random British music publisher named George Thomson. Calling it hackwork, I suppose, is not quite accurate, because Beethoven’s renderings of these little songs are quite sophisticated, much to the consternation of poor Mr. Thomson, who begged Beethoven to simplify the piano writing so that young highland lasses (Mr. Thomson’s target audience) would be able to accompany themselves at the piano from Beethoven’s music.

This project was drawn out over nearly a decade; Beethoven refused to simplify his music and the project nearly led Mr. Thomson’s into financial ruin.

Beethoven could be a real dick.

But you probably knew that already.

And he was forward thinking when it came to raising money for commissions.

But my favorite anecdote contained within the pages of this book took place at the end of Beethoven’s life. What you need to know is that Beethoven never learned to multiply, and scattered among the pages of manuscript paper he used to craft the most glorious works of art known to man are scribbled columns of sums in which he painstakingly added one number to itself x number of times.

The overwhelming impression left by Beethoven’s music is one of victory over struggle. You can hear it in every single bar. Emotional struggle, personal struggle, romantic struggle, heroic struggle, it’s all there, and it’s what each and every one of us experiences inside our innermost souls every single day.

So it’s a testament to the indomitability of Beethoven’s spirit that at the age of 56, lying upon his death bed, stricken with pneumonia, liver disease, alcohol withdrawal, and Heaven knows what else, he finally decided it was time to learn his multiplication tables.

Oh. And one more thing: he was deaf. [mic. drop.]

Program Elisabetta Brusa

My friend Chuck just turned me on to the Italian composer Elisabetta Brusa, born in 1954, a product of (and now producer for) the Milan Conservatory. Let’s just call her my latest obsession.

Her orchestral works are a) enjoyable, b) playable, and c) extremely programmable. For example, the above work is a response to Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream music. So here’s an idea for a late June program:

BRUSA Messidor – 12′
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 21 (“Elvira Madigan”) – 30′

MENDELSSOHN Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream – 12′
SCHNITTKE (k)ein Sommernachtstraum – 12′
ALFVÉN Midsommarvaka – 14′

Or take her symphonic poem, Florestan, an ode to the pseudonym Schumann bestowed upon the fiery, voluble side of his personality:

BRUSA Florestan – 16′
SCHUMANN, CLARA Piano Concerto in A Minor – 24′

SCHUMANN, ROBERT Symphony No. 3 (“Rhenish”) – 32′

Or perhaps her molto misterioso symphonic poem Merlin:

which would work great on a Halloween program with l’Aprenti sorcier and the Harry Potter suite.

I could imagine her Firelights on a piece with Stravinsky and Respighi:

BRUSA Firelights – 8′
CASELLA Violin Concerto – 32′

STRAVINSKY Fireworks – 5′
RESPIGHI Pini di Roma – 22′

She’s also got two kickass symphonies, the second of which is titled Nittemero, combining the Ancient Greek words for ‘night’ and ‘day’:

BOULANGER D’un matin de printemps – 5′
BARTÓK Piano Concerto No. 1 – 24′

BRUSA Nittemero Symphony – 29′

And there’s plenty more in her repertoire. A suite of short character pieces based on Italian fairy tales (Favole) that would pair nicely with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite; a gorgeous overture-length “Wedding Song” with a great solo cello part which I could imagine on a program with Debussy’s Ibéria or, ooooh yeah, Torke’s “An Italian Straw Hat“; and a variety of other single movement works that could fit just about anywhere you’d like to put them.

Brusa also writes (in English!) coherently and interestingly about music and her own process. Here’s a great essay simply titled “Composing“.

OK conductors, I’ve just given you like five excellent ideas about how to incorporate this brilliant lady’s music into your programs, so please go develop, improve upon, and PROGRAM them, and thanks to Charles who is already doing so!

Stravinsky’s Funeral Song – UPDATES

I made the above video this past December, very shortly after the “re-premiere” of Stravinksy’s Chant funèbre (Funeral Song) Op. 5. Basically this piece is one of only a handful of works that young Igor completed prior to his astonishing success with The Firebird. It was re-discovered just in 2015 and re-premiered by Valery Gergiev and the Mariyinsky Orchestra in St. Petersburg.

This past weekend I was in Chicago giving pre-concert lectures for the Chicago Symphony at the U.S. premiere (actually, the North American premiere… actually the Americas premiere) of this work which was given by the CSO with Charles Dutoit. I did a whole new round of research and I just thought I’d update/clarify a few things from this video:

1. It’s really sunk in just how amazing the progress that Stravinsky made from his earliest completed compositions to The Firebird. His first real work (though, he didn’t give it an opus number) is a piano sonata in F# minor. Listen to this:

which basically sounds like Victorian salon music that could have been written by Chopin or Schumann (with, perhaps, tinges of Grieg) and compare it to Katscheï’s dance:

The sonata was written when Stravinsky was about 22 (he got a very late start as a composer, though he had soaked up tons of the Russian operatic repertoire through his father, a notable bass soloist); Firebird came just 5 years later. Show me another composer who made such progress in such a short time!

2. Speaking of King Kashchei (or however you want to spell it) it turns out that Stravinsky’s teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, had written an opera on that very same subject just a couple of years before Stravinsky began studying with him. There’s a definite commonality between the opening of Rimsky’s opera, the opening of the Chant funèbre, and the opening of The Firebird:

3. I talk a lot in the video above about chromatic music v. diatonic music, but since making it, I’ve delved more deeply into Rimsky-Korsakov’s own octatonicism and it turns out that probably has an even greater impact on the Chant funèbre.

4. There’s also a bit of history that I was able to suss out. Stravinsky’s memory of the Chant funèbre, it turns out, was pretty hazy; for one thing, he recollected having scored it for winds alone, rather than for full (Wagnerian) orchestra. Another thing that he either got mixed up about, or perhaps never knew, is the fate of the score.

Of course, the piece has been retrievable to us because the orchestral parts were preserved. Stravinsky himself assumed that the parts would be found somewhere in a vault in St. Petersburg (he was right) but he lamented that the score had been lost during the Russian Revolution.

It appears he was not quite right about that. Stravinsky had composed the piece at his summer getaway in Ustilug, on the present-day border between Ukraine and Poland. In those days, this whole region, Volhynia, was part of the Russian Empire (and who knows, it may again be before long.) During the “season”, the Stravinskys were living abroad in Switzerland, and during the spring of 1915, Ustilug was caught in the firestorm of a major Austro-German offensive into the Russian Empire.

Stravinsky’s house sustained considerable damage, but not before his brother-in-law, a neighboring landowner, could load his personal items onto on a train bound for Warsaw for safekeeping. Unfortunately the trunk containing Stravinsky’s documents was lost in transit. The best guess is that the score of op. 5 was in this trunk.

5. The big picture takeaway that I have settled on with further study and reflection, is that what this piece shows more than anything is that Stravinsky’s ability to reinvent himself and his music in every piece was already in evidence from the very start of his career. His piano sonata has, as mentioned above, bits of Schumann, Chopin, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky; his Symphony in E-flat, op. 1, is very much in the Glazunov vein. By opp. 3 and 4, he’s showing a pronounced influence of Rimsky-Korsakov and Chausson, and now in op. 5 it’s Wagner and Scriabin.

This anti-pattern of a pattern continued throughout his entire career. In many ways Stravinsky’s artistic output mirrors that of his contemporary Pablo Picasso, in that they both changed styles constantly and yet somehow stayed true to themselves. A tough trick indeed.

OK and the final final takeaway is the same as I reached in this video: I like this piece more every time I hear it. Hopefully sooner rather than later we’ll get a good, clean, professional recording rather than the myriad livestream bootlegs currently littering the YouTube landscape!