Yearly Archives: 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.

Introducing: Cinderella

Well, I finally did it, I finally made a recording of my children’s piece-cum-viola concerto “Cinderella Goes to Music School”, the proper title of which is really “The Viola Concerto OR Cinderella Goes to Music School” (ala G&S).  I’m super proud of this project, and I hope you’ll all enjoy it greatly:

This piece was SO MUCH FUN and SO MUCH WORK at every stage of its development. It started with an idea – that I would write an original piece for my annual children’s concert at the Pierre Monteux School in Hancock, ME.  But what would the piece/story be about?  My inspiration came from Pedro Almodóvar: so many of this master’s films are about filmmakers making films, so why not write a piece of music about musicians making music?

The idea of transforming Cinderella into a story about a young girl violist came to me in the shower one morning in a fit of inspiration.  I leapt out of the tub, threw on some clothes and scribbled down the basic plot and character outline in about 20 minutes.

Since then, this piece has undergone many, many phases of development: after the initial composition of the script and the music, I took it to Maine, where I workshopped it with friends and colleagues last summer, and we gave the premiere.  This past spring, I revised it for a different conductor/violist combo who were both involved in the original production for a performance in Cleveland.  And just this past month I hired a bunch of random (and, dare I say, randomly excellent!) musicians to lay it down on the recording.  Voiceover work followed (my favorite part – these are all the roles I was born to play!) and, finally, assembling the finished package with my trusted engineer Rick Andress.  The final stage is heading back to the score itself – re-tooling the printed score and parts to match the many collaborative changes made over a year and a half of working.

I think the recording turned out great, and I hope that violists play it, musicians enjoy it, and most importantly, kids hear it.  I dedicate it to the many “Cinderellas” both male and female I’ve known over the years – hard working violists who just don’t get the credit they deserve.  The initial conception for this piece really goes back to the very hot summer of 2007, when I did little else but sit around my Chicago apartment and write beginnings to about 30 different versions of a viola concerto, all in the tief ernst, Ligeterian mode that I was into then.  I’m so glad that the piece came out fun instead.  Sharp-eared listeners might even hear a taste or two of Ligeti in this score.

On Minor Works

I’ve been thinking about two majorly large works over the past few weeks, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and 9th Symphony, gargantutrons which naturally lend themselves to wide-ranging analyses of their composer’s thoughts and philosophy.  But at the same time, I myself was composing what is undeniably a minor work, a short anthem for four-part choir with piano, written for a church choir of about a dozen volunteer singers. I’m as prone to dreams of grandiosity as any other composer, but composing a little thing like this is undeniably fun, and it’s got me thinking that we too often overlook the little gems from composers far greater than myself.

Composing anything, be it a piece of music, a work of fiction, a painting on canvass, is really all about setting up a set of rules and then playing by them (or not).  Every piece is a game.  For example, in this little anthem I just finished the guidelines were: the text (chosen by the church), the number of voice parts (4), the ranges of the singers (amateur-level), the rehearsal time (not much), and the pianist’s capability (virtuosic).  So right off the bat, there’s a balancing between a relatively simple choral part against a freewheeling piano part.  With only four voice parts in the choir, every chord has to be voiced just so, or the ear will immediately catch the problem.  The architecture of the piece has to be planned very carefully, since melodic highs can’t really be all that high.  Not to mention, the text has to be understandable, and, ideally, expressively musicalized.

But now back to Beethoven, and these two enormous pieces which took him a combined 6 years to compose (or, really, a lifetime if you consider that in the ninth, he used melodies sketched as early as the 1790’s.)  The 9th symphony is probably the single most effective piece ever written for a large concert hall with a huge audience.  Listening to the “Ode to Joy”, that great paen to human brotherhood, it’s impossible not to to feel like everyone listening in the hall with you is your sibling.

But here’s a little something for you: did you know that Schiller’s poem “An die Freude” had already been set to music numerous times before Beethoven got around to it, including by one Franz Schubert?

(DFD/Gerry Moore)

Schiller’s poem was an example of the geselliges Lied (social song), a poem the author expected to be set to music and sung by groups of friends with glasses in hand.  And you’ve got to admit, Schubert’s setting captures that blustery spirit in a way that Beethoven’s lofty, grandiose music doesn’t quite.  Beethoven left out some lines such as

Freude trinken alle Wesen
An den Brüsten der Natur,
Alle Guten, all Bösen,
Folgen ihrer Rosenspur

(Joy all creatures drink at the breast of Nature, All that’s good, all that’s dumb, follow her rose-petaled path) – lines that look a lot better through rosy-petaled beer goggles at the pub.

Composers often use a smaller works the breeding grounds for larger ones, but it’s a mistake to view them as just so many little experiments.  Just as often, a composer may have been working on something big, and found that a certain piece of material, though charming of its own accord, just didn’t fit right in context.  Sometimes these musical cuttings can find their rightful home replanted in a little ditty somewhere down the line.  Just because a melody is used in a song instead of a symphony doesn’t make it any less beautiful.