Posts Tagged: Dennis Russell Davies

My Week with Philip

It’s not so often that Cincinnati, OH feels like the center of the musical world, and it’s even rarer that I get to work with several of my musical idols on a single project.  But every once in a while, the stars align, and this past week was one of those rare occasions.

March 30 & 31 saw the world premiere of Philip Glass’s new cello concerto (no. 2) by our CSO.  I’ve never thought of myself as a big Philip Glass fan, but in preparing for the concert this past week I had occasion to go back through my CD collection, and there’s no denying that I’ve had my Glassy phases.  When I was a freshman in college, I used to listen to the last movement of his second symphony over and over again on repeat (and yes, I realize that many of my readers will find that concept delightfully ironic.)  The coda is SO MUCH FUN and it features my favorite repeat in all of Glass’s work, because just when you think the movement is about to finish, he goes back in for another round (1:03):

I’ve also harbored attachments to the first violin concerto and “Glassworks” among others, which, when I added it all up, made me realize that I really am a Philip Glass fan.  Which I think is one of those things that serious musicians aren’t supposed to say, but all the more reason for saying it.

And all the more reason why this week gave me such a buzz.  The experience was only amplified by the fact that Philip is a gregarious and charming human being.  A big part of my job this week was to interview him publicly, and let me tell you, that guy’s a talker.  If Charlie ever had him on the broadcast, he wouldn’t be able to get in a word edgewise (which, perhaps, is why Mr. Glass has never appeared.)

I’ll admit that I was a little put off when I first received the score to the concerto about a month ago, and I found out that the music for his new piece was not actually new — it turns out that the concerto is a condensation of his score for Naqoyqatsi, the third installation of Glass and Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi Trilogy.  But the thing is, everyone involved treated it like it was a brand new piece of music, and because of that, it became a new piece of music.

Much of that had to do with the collaborators involved, Matt Haimovitz and Dennis Russell Davies.  Now, when I said at the top of this post that I got to work with ‘several of my musical idols,’ DRD was definitely included in that mix.  My obsession with him also dates back to my first year of college, when my eyes were opened to the greater world of new music, and I eagerly began buying up recordings of Schnittke, Pärt, and Glass among others.  So many of the albums featured Dennis Russell Davies as conductor that his became a household name in the house of my brain.

First off, I’m happy to report that he’s another class act, all the way.  Secondly, he fucking recorded Alfred Schnittke’s 9th Symphony, which, on a spiritual level, places him ad dexteram Patris as far as I’m concerned.  And this is in addition to the most baddass recording of the Viola Concerto and one of the single greatest albums of all time, Marianne Faithfull’s rendition of The Seven Deadly Sins.  Not to mention the complete Haydn Symphonies, which, correct me if I’m wrong, is only the third such survey ever recorded??

Ahh, just thinking about these people gets me all in a tizzy, but I want to emphasize that the best part is that they were all really dedicated to this project (especially Matt Haimovitz who became one of my musical idols after working with him), they all contributed ideas that made it work, and, what made it so fulfilling on a personal level, they actually listened to and incorporated my ideas — little old me, the assistant conductor.  That’s a rarity for artists who don’t even approach these guys’ stature, and it was an honor to contribute what little I did.

But wait, there’s more!

Because when I said that earlier that Cincinnati felt like the center of the music world this past week, it wasn’t just because I got to hang out with famous people.  The seventh annual MusicNOW Festival took place, organized by Cincinnati native Bryce Dessner.  He collected, among others, the following musical entities: eighth blackbird, Nico Muhly, James McVinnie, Sam Amidon, and no less a deity than Sufjan Stevens.

Sufjan was premiering a new song cycle co-composed with Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner himself.  The one bummer of my week is that I couldn’t get over to hear this collaboration (since I had to be next door attending to the recording of the Glass concerto).

Thank god for YouTube bootlegs!

Schnittke Symphony No. 9


Despite continuing poor health, the composer forges ahead with ambitious plans: an opera based on the life of Gesualdo for the Vienna State Opera, and an Eighth Symphony for the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who led the dangerous premiere of the First in 1974. He is close upon the mystical symphonic number nine, and might deserve whatever greatness it mythically confers.

Those are the words of Alex Ross from an interview on February 10, 1994 in the New York Times.  The premiere recording of Schnittke’s 9th symphony has just been released by ECM and my pre-ordered copy arrived in yesterday’s mail.  The story of Schnittke’s 9th symphony is as fraught with drama as any of the other great Nines.  He composed it after his third stroke (also in 1994) which left the entire right side of his body paralyzed.  With great agony, he scrawled the three completed movements using his left hand (see above).

Even the old Bruckner trick of disowning an early Symphony (Schnittke’s “No. 0”) didn’t allow the composer to escape the curse of the ninth: he died on August 3, 1998 from his fourth and final stroke at the age of 63.  I don’t think there is a more poetic version of the ninth symphony story from any of the other composers who lived through it (Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler).

[OK, Mahler comes close… and as for Bruckner’s supposedly incomplete 9th, I think he should really be content with the 3 movements that already total 60 minutes of music.]

Schnittke never heard a performance of his 9th symphony.  In fact, the rest of the story of his 9th lends even more poignancy to the tale.  Before Schnittke died, the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky prepared a so-called “performing edition” of the 9th, in which he interpolated quotes from historical works by other composers.  Where he found his authority to do so is a mystery.  The composer Matthias Kriesberg continues:

Schnittke was too ill to attend the performance; those close to him report that when he heard a tape, he was livid at the corruption. Some 10 days later, he suffered a stroke from which he never recovered. The Ninth Symphony was originally scheduled for the same Concertgebouw concerts as the Eighth, but performances of this version are now forbidden by the estate.

That was in a 1999 article.  The next step was for Irina Schnittke, the composer’s widow, to find a composer who could decipher the manuscript and come up with a real performing version.  She first turned to one of Schnittke’s close associates, Nikolai Korndorf.  Within months after setting to work on the project, Mr. Korndorf contracted a brain tumor and died.  Spooky.

Finally, Irina turned to to Alexander Raskatov, a Russian composer born in 1952.  Mr. Raskatov apparently purchased a “special magnifying glass” and set to work.  I do not envy his task — how could one possibly be sure of the composer’s intentions given the state of the manuscripts?  Unlike the completion of Mozart’s Requiem though, which was basically a collaborative composition, Schnittke’s work was “clearly conceived and committed to paper with admirable completeness” (Helmut Peters’ liner notes).  Mr. Raskatov’s role was to decipher the text as written.

So, does it sound like Schnittke?  Yes and no.  But Raskatov himself said:

I know that Alfred Schnittke considered his Ninth Symphony to be a work apart and completely dissimilar to his preceding symphonies.  As Irina Schnittke expressed it, he wrote this symphony as it were ‘for his departure’.

Well, I can say that I know of no other symphony that starts with this kind of a gesture:

In fact, I can’t even imagine starting a symphony like this.  I think it is nearly impossible to interpret this piece without reference to mortality, but whereas Dennis Russell Davies comments that this is “a testament by someone who knows he’s dying,” I have a different view: I think this is music of someone who is already dead — as Schnittke had been, having been pronounced clinically dead on several occasions during his strokes.  Much of the music sounds like the exploratory wanderings of a ghost during his first encounter with a new, otherworldly universe:

Towards the end of the large (20 minute) first movement, during a rather more violent episode, the horns section has an extremely high soli that to me is very reminiscent of some of Ligeti’s pieces from the ’90’s:

The timbre reminds me very much of the ocarinas that Ligeti uses in the Violin Concerto and other pieces.  No offense to the members of the horn section of the Dresdner Philharmonie.

The second movement proves that, at the very least, Raskatov deciphered Schnittke’s instrumentation correctly:

It just wouldn’t be the Schnitt without that harpsichord in there.

One question I keep coming up against is the total number of movements Schnittke intended for this symphony.  In all of the articles and liner notes, reference is always made to the “three completed movements,” but there is no mention of the composer’s intentions on how he might have finished the piece.  Here’s how the third movement ends:

To me, this sounds awfully final.  But with Schnittke, there is no use in trying to predict what he would or would not do: he was a law unto himself.

The more I listen to this symphony, the more I am intrigued by it.  It is a delicate work, to be sure, and I think there is a lot of richness to keep exploring in its nuances.  However, I sincerely doubt that it will in any way replace the special position that the 8th symphony holds in my heart.  I think Schnittke’s 8th may be the pinnacle of musical art.  In that piece, Schnittke sustains the most mystical of moods from start to finish, terrifying us in the first movement, torturing us in the second, ravishing us in the third, unnerving us in the fourth, and leaving us to contemplate all of eternity in the fifth, a movement that must stand completely alone in the history of music as the only symphonic movement dedicated solely to the slow amassing of a single chord:

Now go back and listen to the beginning of the 9th and see if it doesn’t sound like the view from the other side.

Easy Come, Easy Go


Before I get to talking about Marianne Faithfull’s new album, a brief homage:

I LOVE Marianne Faithfull.  She was the first (and basically, only) famous person that I ever met.  I was but a wee lad and my father took me to her book signing at a Border’s in Rockville, MD (come to think of it, what was she doing at that store?)  OK, Wikipedia confirms that her memoir was published in ’94, which would mean I was 10 or 11 years old at the time I got to meet her.  I remember being totally shocked when she opened her mouth to speak and thinking that she must have been near death.  I also remember her smelling very strongly of cigarettes.

Ah how I have come to savor that death-rattled voice of hers!  My good friend El Bensòn likened it to a zombie (“Mick, get out of bed, I’m hungry for the brains of Keith Richards!!”)  I think it’s as expressive an instrument as you can get and it sounds so terribly lived-in.

In all honesty, I don’t know too much about Marianne’s early career.  I know she was an English light folk singer early in her career and then transitioned to rock/pop starting around the time of her liaison with Mick Jagger.  Then, she lived, and lived like no one else since.  She released a huge string of studio albums, got addicted to heroine and cocaine, and lived on the streets.

But, was she having fun?

Of course she was.  Also of note:

We find it interesting too, Marianne!

My real love and appreciation of Marianne comes from a little known crevice of her career: the music of Kurt Weill.  It seems that her mother was a ballerina and collaborated with Weill in Berlin during the ’30s and Marianne took up her late mother’s mantle.

This aspect of her career produced two of my ALL TIME FAVORITE ALBUMS: 20th Century Blues and The Seven Deadly Sins (both of which are inexplicably unavailable on the iTunes store).

Marianne’s rendition of Kurt Weill’s ballet chanté is, for me, one of the finest interpretations of any piece on record.  Dennis Russell Davies and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (an under-appreciated ensemble if ever there was one) support Marianne in every move, breathing full life and intensity into this symphonic score.  Just listen:

You like how precise those winds are?  How much energy in the strings?  And then how they can cool down to Marianne’s ironic delivery of “If you take offense at injustice…” ?  Fo sho.

The whole piece is just as good, and the bonus tracks on this album is where I stole my much celebrated rendition of “The Pirate Jenny” from (using Frank McGuiness’s incomparable translation of the Threepenny Opera).

Then, there’s 20th Century Blues, in which Marianne takes Weill as a point of departure and branches out into Noël Coward, Friedrich Holländer and others.  In so doing, she invites comparison with the great Dietrich, so let’s see what we’ve got:



I’m not sure if you could find two more interesting renditions of any song to compare — they’re both so genuine, so perfect and yet so different.  I love how Marlene sings “they had a touch” pushing just a little towards the high note on “touch”, delivering it with the perfect staccato and without interrupting the phrase.  But when you hear Marianne sing, “you are in love with paaain,” you can’t help but believe it.

Interesting too is how these ladies differ in their placement of “slightly used”/”second hand”.  Marianne’s placement of the notes after the downbeat of each new phrase works better for me — it makes them sound “slightly used” — thrown away and forgotten about.

(Side note: I am convinced that these kinds of decisions about rhythmic placement are, in actuality, what jazz and pop musicians are referring to when they speak of “phrasing” — a very different notion than in the classical world.)

I guess I should actually mention the album that I set out to discuss at the top of this post.  “Easy Come, Easy Go” is something of a rarity (if not a downright oddity): a new studio album of “pop” songs with new instrumental arrangements.  Maybe I’m just not usually in the market for such things, but I really thought stuff like that didn’t still happen.  And the arrangements – how utterly bizarre.  They are the work of three gentlemen: Steve Weisberg, Steve Bernstein and Greg Cohen.  I believe they also have an active Bar Mitzvah band.

The array of instruments includes such oddities as the sarrusophone and the alto horn:

Each and every song seems to inhabit a totally different world (or sometimes multiple universes simultaneously).  I certainly applaud these artists’ versatility.  Of course, certain worlds seem to work better than others.  My favorite tracks include: “Down From Dover” (D. Parton), “Solitude” (D. Ellington), “The Crane Wife 3” (C. Meloy), “Children of Stone” (Espers), and “Dear God Please Help Me” (Morrissey).

Although, I do have some questions:

1) Why use Rufus Wainright of all people as a back-up singer?  In fact, his voice is almost so produced that it just becomes an instrument:

Wouldn’t it be nice to hear him take a verse every now and then?  I mean, he’s quite an artist in his own right, even if the Met won’t take his opera…

2) What exactly is going on with the middle of “Ooh Baby Baby”?  The mood starts out just right:

with those digitized keyboard arpeggios, it half sounds like Nico Muhly-does a porn score.  Or a VicLowenthal warmonization.

Then, beautiful harmonies between Marianne and Antony in the release:

And then, what the hell is this??

It kind of comes out of nowhere.  The more I listen to it, the more I kind of like it, but it comes as a jarring, rather than a desired surprise every time.  And Antony, all I can say is, we hardly knew you had it in ya’!

The last thing I’ll say about this album is that it actually allowed me to enjoy a Randy Newman song for the very first time in my life (“In Germany Before the War”).  Kudos to Mr. Cohen on that one.

A very strange album overall, and particularly as a follow-up to 2003’s “Before the Poison”, a much more straight ahead rock/pop album, with plenty of nuance.

Final thought: who but AbFab could come up with more perfect casting than this?