About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

December 10, 2016

On Optimism and Despair

Zadie Smith spoke in Germany on November 10 on receiving the 2016 Welt literature Prize. Reading the transcript in The New York Review of Books (December 22, 2016) cheered me up. For a few minutes. Here's how it ends:

If novelists know anything it's that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world--and most recently in America--the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. Here in Germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory. But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.

October 30, 2016

There are Few Places like Mt. Gretna

Far from just a simple village Mt. Gretna is a quilt of fragments of several municipalities that gives new meaning to the word "balkan." Our Balkan Mountains are a few square miles of gentle forested Appalachian foothills and their highest peak "Governor Dick" hill, elevation, 666 ft. Water runs down it's slopes into all parts of Mt. Gretna, eventually ending in the majestic 10-acre Lake Conewago.

The only residents who can legally claim to live in "Mt. Gretna" are the approximately 200 households in the "Borough of Mt Gretna" that also calls itself the "Pennsylvania Chautauqua," and thus has two governing bodies and budgets. Others live in sections called Campmeeting, Mt. Gretna Heights, Conewago Hill, Timber Hills and Stoberdale, actually residing in the corners of townships: South Annville, South Londonderry, West Cornwall, all meeting the Borough near the post office. 

The only remotely common features of the community are the Fire Company, the Sewer Authority and the Post Office. Most walks to the post office (or flow through the drains) cut through several school districts and gerrymandered electoral districts. Even the county court house can be confused about the latter. My district  extends all the way to the Philadelphia 'Main Line,' its shape often likened to an pouncing dragon with part of Gretna in its teeth. Among the main unifying Gretna ideas is the prevailing conviction that attempts to consolidate services among these quilt patches are actually schemes to increase taxes, though most Gretnans, like Californians, live unaware of the fault lines they cross every day.  

As a results of these peculiarities, the actual population of Mt. Gretna is indeterminate. Typical guesses range from 1,600 to 2,200 people, the higher figure for summer. Many residents join one or more organizations like The Outdoor Art Show, Gretna Theater, Gretna Music, Cicada, Heritage and Bible Festivals, Historical Society, Chautauqua Summer Programs and Foundation, Organ Concerts, Arts Council, Socrates Cafe, book and film clubs, and others. Some members of each view 'the others' with suspicion or jealousy as competitors. They actually do compete -- for contributions, audiences and venues. A list of Gretna 501c organizations would fill a page! And, I should add: there are five restaurants, several small businesses and, get this, a Roller Rink and Psychiatric Hospital! 

Alas, our narrow gauge railway, three hotels and an amusement park vanished during the last century.

And though our forested hills are now surrounded by a sea of recently-harvested cornfields where Trump signs sprout like weeds, political inclinations of Metropolitan Gretna remain largely unpolled and uncertain, though it is fair to guess that, owing to a concentration of artists, writers, gay couples, professors and professionals, the place is an oasis of liberalism in our conservative "Alabama" middle of Pennsylvania. 

My post-office walk takes me through two townships into a borough, two electoral districts and three ecclesiastical domains. Yesterday while crossing the Campmeeting, founded in 1892 and home of the Annual Bible Festival, I came upon two golden-agers engaged in a violent shouting match -- I dare not repeat most of it -- and on the verge of a fistfight. My approach enabled one to scamper away to safety, shouting back over his shoulder. 

"I only asked why he had a Hillary sign in his front yard," said the remaining octogenarian. "Why should he take offense? I only asked him to tell me what Hillary has ever done to qualify herself for President. Why can't we have a reasonable discussion? I read everything, learn from the internet and TV and stay well-informed. I'm a good citizen and welcome other opinions. I just wanted to know." 

"You certainly must be a good and well-informed citizen," I affirmed, trying to avoid replacing the escapee as a target. "I too enjoy rational discussions as opposed to trading insults."

But he continued, "I just learned why the Ambassador was killed in Benghazi!" "Why," I cautiously asked. "He had discovered that Hillary and Obama were running a drug cartel and so they didn't rescue him when the terrorists attacked." It seems Trumpism has even infected us here.

Finally, I should mention the most important unifying feature of Mt. Gretna: people choose to live and come here because they love it, albeit for varied reasons, and want to participate. Perhaps that also explains a strong resistance to change. We are a community to which almost everyone volunteers time and effort, and thus each of us has an identification beyond just 'resident.' We know most of our neighbors and take care of one another, meet often, serve common though diverse, goals. We don't always agree and discussions sometimes become heated, but when you need help, there is always someone to call.

So now you know why there is chamber music here.

October 18, 2016

Shakespeare 'removed' from Yale?

At a chance meeting the Development Director of a local orchestra gave me two tickets to their evening concert. In the lobby afterwards, sipping sweet cranberry juice, we encountered an impeccably-dressed young couple, clearly well-bred, well-heeled and probably professional, with their equally pretty daughter who looked to be about 13 years old. 

Emi is likely to approach teenagers and children in such situations: “It’s so good to see young people at concerts,” she says to strike up a conversation with strangers. 

The father said proudly, “Heather plays in the Youth Orchestra.” Emi replied that was wonderful, especially in view of the fact that music education has been phased out of so many schools, and brought me into the conversation to tell me that. Then the father remarked that it’s tragic that even Harvard and Yale are "removing Shakespeare."

Taken aback, I replied with something like, "That can’t be true. You must be mistaken.” The man, suddenly cold and defensive, replied, “I am correct. And you are talking to a member of the choir” meaning, I assume, that he strongly disagrees with that terrible decision. He turned away, not interested in any more conversation and led the family to safer territory.

When I got home, puzzled by the angry response and pondering the sorry fate of Stephen Greenblatt, Harold Bloom, and others, I -- of course --  'Googled.' The first result at the top of the page was from Breitbart.com

Yale Students Demand Removal of White Authors from Curriculum

Under this (deliberately?) misleading headline Breitbart reported that a "group of Yale students” had circulated a petition to remove a course on English poets from the list of courses required for graduation with an English major — because the poets are all white men. The article implies such behavior should be expected from a school ironically not so diverse as it likes to flaunt because (quoting an earlier Yale Daily News), "97 percent of political contributions from Yale employees go to Democrats." 

Further down the list I found that last May the Yale Daily News had more accurately reported on the petition signed by 160 undergraduates (among 5430). English majors take 14 courses in their major field.

Student petition urges English department to diversify curriculum

"It urges English department faculty to reevaluate the undergraduate curriculum, as well as reconsider the current core requirements and introductory courses. It particularly criticizes the Major English Poets sequence, a longtime prerequisite for the major and “perhaps the most distinctive element of English at Yale,” according to the department’s website. The petition calls for the abolishment of this prerequisite and for the pre-1800/1900 requirements to refocus and include literature relating to gender, race and sexuality. [more]

Eventually I learned that a report published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has revealed that only four of 52 highest-ranked schools still have a Shakespeare requirement 
The Unkindest Cut: Shakespeare in Exile 2015 
Researchers determined that Harvard University, the University of California-Berkeley, Wellesley College and the U.S. Naval Academy are the only four schools in the U.S. News & World Report’s 52 highest-ranked universities and colleges which require English majors to take a course on Shakespeare to obtain their degree.
The key word is "required" not "removed."

Obviously some Yale students don't just swallow meekly what they are served (something I learned in college), as, it seems, do readers of Breitbart. And it's sad that two sides of important issues no longer discuss them rationally (they do at Yale) before permanently locking up their views behind the lines on either side of a battlefront. We can hope that Heather will learn in the youth orchestra to play well with and listen to others.

September 23, 2016

End of Summer of Love, 2016

Our summer season ended on the 15th anniversary of September 11 with a "Tribute to Enrique Granados" by violinist Nancy Bean, cellist, Lloyd Smith, guitarist Allen Krantz, and mezzo-soprano, Elizabeth Shammash. That last program was diverse and exquisite. Our small offering of Granados' tonadillas should tempt you to listen to more, especially his wonderful piano music, and remember the sublime pianist Alicia de Larrocha. Granados can be neglected, perhaps partly because he perished prematurely aboard a torpedoed ship on an itinerary changed at the last minute so that he could play for President Wilson before returning to Spain from the premiere of his opera Goyescas at the Met.

Music of love v. terrorists and torpedos.

The weather was cool and breezy, and the Gretna community, devoid of the usual strollers and visitors after Labor Day, was unusually empty, calm, and quiet. It occurs to us that the early weeks of September would be a good time for future special events in the Playhouse, say a conference on Music and the Brain, or an in-depth exploration of the life and works of Brahms, or of Spanish composers. A true "Festival." 

Ombra mai fù
At our September breakfast board meeting, we toasted one of our most successful seasons with mimosas and shared favorite memories of the summer, the fourth in a row that ended "in the black." We pondered why our fortunes have been so bright during a time when classical music audiences are not growing and other similar organizations, especially orchestras, are suffering. 

It may not be an oversimplification to answer that our success -- like our 41-year sustainability -- results from the fact that for a growing number of people, our music has value far above the price of the tickets. We don't speak often of the "audience," nor think of ourselves as "providers." Music at Gretna is all of "us" whether on the stage, in the seats, on the staff, on the board, on a committee, on the volunteer staff or on the mailing list. Everyone talks of "we," all truly the owners of an organization who value and promote our mission to keep on making good music. Our concerts send us home with warm feelings of pride and ownership. And that inspires amazing generosity.

That's not to minimize the efforts and talents of our President, Gil Feinberg, our staff, Suzanne Stewart and Carl Kane, and all the fine musicians who graced our stage, porches and living rooms this summer. 

If maximizing "butts in the seats" were our mission, there would be no "we."

Our current financial solidity will allow us to reset the delicate balance between risk --necessary for excellence of any art -- and fiscal responsibility, necessary for the survival of any artistic organization. Since we nearly fell off the fiscal cliff five years ago, we have been operating closer to the responsibility end of the spectrum. Now, after careful stewardship of growing resources and a mountain of good will of a growing "us," we can reach farther in the same and different directions toward artistic creativity and excellence. Although that won't necessarily be toward more 'celebrated' performers, we are pleased that one direction will be to the Ware Center in Lancaster, in March 2017, where, in continuing collaboration with Millersville University, we will present violinist Hillary Hahn. Next Summer we will return to our longstanding tradition of chamber music on Sunday evenings: eight Sunday evenings in July through Labor Day, and perhaps more after that.

We hope we added some love to your life this summer. You have certainly added it to ours. We resume our schedule at Elizabethtown College on Saturday October 22, with pianist, Robert McDonald, Curtis and Juilliard faculty member, in loving memory of Nancy Hatz who cherished her role in his career.

* Ombra mai fú
 Never was the shade
  of a tree
  more delightful
  and cherished.

August 29, 2016


Notes for our concert on September 4

Of tonight’s composers, four French and two Italian, the oldest (Lully) was born in 1632 and the youngest (Leclair) died in 1764, about fourteen years after Bach and Handel. Those 132 years fit into the period labeled by later generations as the “Baroque.” 

The word “baroque” is rooted in the Portuguese word, barroco (“misshapen pearl”) but was transformed into an adjective meaning of “over the top” in degree of florid embellishment when first applied to art. The critic who probably used the word in music for the first time, attached it to Rameau’s first opera, Hyppolite et Arcie. He didn't intend to compliment, but rather to accuse the composer of hubris in daring to try to surpass a predecessor (Lully) in advanced harmony and orchestration, exuberance and dramatic emotional expression (a response similar perhaps to my first reaction to “Chicago the Musical”) and inadvertently named an entire period in music history. 

Another way to think of tonight’s music is that it comes from the “period of the basso continuo.” That concept, according to Richard Taruskin, “focuses on harmony, . . . culminating in the full elaboration of major-minor tonality as a governor—and generator — of musical form.”  That culmination led to the rise of instrumental music in the second half of the seventeenth century. By the eighteenth century instrumental and vocal music “vied for dominance" going into the following “Classical” period (Haydn and Mozart and Vienna). Basso continuo music tended more to instruct (in religion, for example), impress, and express feelings; music in the Classical period aimed more to please and entertain. Music from the Romantic period in the 19th century, “often seems to want to share—even impose—feelings.” (Kerman)

Basso continuo composers often wrote only two lines, the bass line and the treble, leaving to the performers to fill in the harmony (chords) and also to embellish the melody line that on paper could be starkly simple, thus improvising and ornamenting as jazz players do. The bass line could be played on any low instrument, often a viola d gamba, bass lute or theorbo, later on a cello or even a bassoon. A keyboard instrument, usually a harpsichord, provided the chords. 

Tonight’s composers generally wrote the music they played -- and played the music they wrote, in contrast to the Romantic period that elevated composers to godlike or genius status, their music to be played by “mere practitioners of music” (a term I first heard from a Dean of Music at Yale [referring to other schools] in his welcoming speech to an entering class of music grad students). 

The same 132 years we we are talking about saw the origin of the public concert, demanded in part by larger ensembles required for symphonies and concertos. These years also overlapped a movement called The Enlightenment. Thinkers (or ‘philosophes' whom we might call today public intellectuals), like Voltaire and Rousseau, veered away from the great scientific discoveries of Galileo, Newton, and Leibniz toward the social sphere. They were less intent on controlling natural forces by science than on turning these forces to human problems, like public morality, education, and politics. If that sounds familiar, it’s because two ‘products’ of the Enlightenment were our Declaration of Independence and Federalist Papers, and especially the idea of “the pursuit of happiness,” through the efforts of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Both of them probably heard, and in Jefferson’s case, may have even played, some of the music we will hear tonight.

The term “authentic” to describe performance of music like tonight’s has been largely abandoned partly because using replicas of ‘olde’ instruments alone does not necessarily ensure an effective performance. Now we speak of “historically-informed performance” (HIP) that attempts — based on scholarship but obviously not recordings —  to closely reproduce what the composers and their audiences expected to hear. Nevertheless, though we certainly would play the music of Lully and Leclair differently from that of Liszt or Ligeti, our contemporary listeners, conditioned by the “canon” that now includes several more centuries of music, bring different musical experiences and expectations that performers in our time must also take into account. Music is after all, the language to communicate what these composers still have to ‘say’ to us in the 21st century.

Jean-Baptiste Lully: “…a Florentine boy who had been brought over (to France) in 1646, aged thirteen, to serve as garçon de chambre to Mme. de Montpensier, a Parisian lady who wanted to practice her Italian.” He eventually “found work as a servant to Louis XIV’s cousin, Anne-Marie-Louise d’Orleans (known as the “Grande Mademoiselle”), and as a dancer and mime at the royal court, where he danced alongside, and made friends with, the teenaged king. Upon the death of his violin teacher the next year, Lully assumed the man’s position as court composer of ballroom music.  His rise to supreme power was steady and unstoppable, for Lully was an Italian-born French political manipulator of genius. Shortly after the founding in 1669 of the Académie Royale de Musique, Louis XIV’s opera establishment, Lully managed to finagle the rights to manage it.  From then on he was a musical Sun King, the absolute autocrat of French music, which he re-created in his own image. His works would dominate the repertory for half a century after his death [from gangrene after stabbing his foot with his conducting staff].  His style did not merely define an art form, it defined a national identity. La musique, he might well have said, c’est moi.” (Taruskin)

Attilio Ariosti: Born into the Italian middle class, he became a monk in 1688 at age 22 but soon left the order and become a composer in the court of the Duke of Mantua and Monferrato. He became a deacon in 1692, the same year he achieved the post of organist at Santa Maria dei Servi in Bologna. In 1697, he went to Berlin at the request of Sophia Charlotte of Hanover, the first Queen of Prussia, an enlightened patroness of the arts with a keen interest in music, like King Frederick ‘The Great’ a half century later. After enjoying the favor of the Queen, Ariosti wrote and collaborated in the writing of a number of stage works performed for the court in Berlin. He resided in Berlin as the court composer until 1703.

François Couperin: Called le Grande to distinguish him from his brother, François Couperin has also been called “Bach’s greatest keyboard contemporary.”  At age 18 he officially inherited his father’s position as organist at St. Gervais in Paris. Later he became harpsichordist at Versailles. He amassed a large quantity of harpsichord pieces in elegantly engraved editions, published books about the ways he would have his works performed, and also established a reputation as a writer of single character pieces of which each of these short pieces is an example. Couperin was the “poet musician par excellence,” who “believed in Music to express itself in sa prose et sed versa (prose and poetry). He believed that if we enter into the poetry of music, we discover that it is belle due la beauté (more beautiful than beauty itself).” (Jordi Savall) Couperin’s music directly influenced not only Bach but also Brahms (who edited some of his works), Ravel (Le Tombeau de Couperin) and Richard Strauss (Dance Suite and Don Quixote).

Jean-Philippe Rameau replaced Jean-Baptiste Lully as the dominant composer of French opera and is also considered the leading French composer for the harpsichord of his time, alongside François Couperin. Little is known about Rameau's early years, and it was not until the 1720s that he won fame as a major theorist of music with his Treatise on Harmony (1722) and also in the following years as a composer of masterpieces for the harpsichord, which circulated throughout Europe. He was almost 50 before he embarked on the operatic career upon which his reputation chiefly rests today.  “The Rameau style was the Lully style advanced—in no way challenged, but intensified: richer in harmony, more sumptuous in sonority more laden in texture, more heroic in rhythm and rhetoric, more impressively masterminded than ever” (Taruskin), err, more baroque?

Jean-Marie Leclair is the only composer on tonight’s program who was murdered, stabbed perhaps by an ex-wife thus making problematic the ending of tonight’s theme of love music. He was born in Lyon, but left to study dance and the violin in Turin. In 1716, he married Marie-Rose Casthanie, a dancer, who died about 1728. Leclair returned to Paris in 1723, where he played at the Concert Spirituel, the main semi-public music series. In 1730, he married for the second time. His new wife was the engraver Louise Roussel, who prepared for printing all his works from Opus 2 onward. Named ordinaire de la musique by Louis XV in 1733, Leclair resigned in 1737 after a clash over control of the musique du Roy. Leclair was then engaged by the Princess of Orange – a harpsichordist and former student of Handel – and from 1738 until 1743, served three months annually at her court in Leeuwarden, working in The Hague as a private maestro di cappella for the remainder of the year. He returned to Paris in 1743 and lived there for 21 years before his tragic death. The Sonata in G Major is one of about 60 he wrote for one violin—among many others for two violins.

July 25, 2016

More Music of Our Summer of Love

Notes for July 31 concert by the Wister Quartet and Cynthia Raim, pianist
Antonín Dvořák, Romance in f minor, B. 39 
Dvořák was a musician of wide and eclectic background. As a teenager he played in the Prague conservatory orchestra when it needed augmentation for big works like Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, and then began his career as a fervent Wagnerian. In 1863 he played under Wagner in a concert that, among other things, introduced the preludes to Tristan and Die Meistersinger to Prague.
The term “romance” (Spanish: romance/romanza) has a centuries-long history. Applied to narrative ballads in Spain, it came to be used in the 18th century for simple lyrical pieces not only for voice, but also for instruments alone. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Music, “romance” implies a “specially personal or tender quality,” hence we found it most suitable for our “Summer of Love.”

Dvořák wrote this Romance for Violin and Orchestra  for Josef Markus, leader of the Provisional Theatre Orchestra in Prague to play at the annual concert of the orchestra at Žofín Palace He derived the work from the slow movement, Andante con moto quasi allegretto, of his String Quartet No. 5 in f minor, composed in 1873 before he was widely known. Adolf Čech conducted the first performance of the Romance in December 1877. The quartet was neither performed nor published in his lifetime. 

The version of the Romance in F minor for violin and piano, dedicated to the violinist František Ondříček, was also not published in Dvořák’s lifetime. It is in sonata form: a graceful melody leads to a theme of similar character in a contrasting key, followed by a more restless theme and eventually to an episode of strident chords. The original calm mood prevails and the themes return before the work ends in F major.

Herbert Murrill (1909 - 1952)String Quartet 

Herbert Henry John Murrill, an English composer with a distinctive and versatile voice, had wide-ranging musical sympathies and a far greater output than the tiny amount so far performed or recorded might suggest. His untimely death from cancer led to neglect during the latter half of the 20th century, as was true for several other British composers who, through war or ill-health, died young: Browne, Butterworth, Coles, Farrar, Hurlstone, Kelly and Whitlock, to name a few. Recent research and publications by Michael Barlow and Relf Clark may help to rehabilitate Murrill’s reputation.

Son of a “cork merchant’s clerk,” Murrill was born in London and attended Haberdasher’s Aske’s School in Hatcham before his musical talents won him a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music. He gained a similar award to the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied for three years with York Bowen (for piano), Alan Bush (for harmony) and Stanley Marchant (for organ and choir-training). In 1928 Murrill ‘went up’ to Worcester College, Oxford as organ scholar. Several early songs survive from his Oxford period. He took a full part in the musical life of the University becoming President of the University Musical Club. On leaving Oxford he served as organist of Christ Church, Lancaster Gate and St Thomas’s Church, Regent Street, London.

The immediate pre-war period seems to have been a time of personal turmoil for Murrill, judging by the emotional outpouring of this four-movement String Quartet (1939). As Robert Schumann dedicated his string quintet (see below) to his wife Clara, Murrill dedicated his to the Leighton Quartet and its cellist, Vera Canning, whom he married in 1941. The opening Allegramente is cast in a minor. The heart of the work is the sinewy slow movement, Andante molto moderato, marked at its climax con intensiti, that Murrill requested to be played at his funeral.

Robert Schumann, Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44 

In January 1842 Schumann went into one of his recurrent depressions. “I’m very bad with Clara… Much drinking…. Always sick and melancholy… Still sick [14 February].” These symptoms may have been associated with Clara’s preparations for a long concert tour. Schumann had agreed to go with her, but he really wanted to stay home and compose. After returning alone from the trip in March—their first separation since getting married—he worked on counterpoint exercises and fugues, something he often did as therapy when he was depressed and thinking his life was “miserable.” He also studied quartets of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn, but by April still depressed and “drinking too much” he couldn’t compose. Fugue exercises with Clara near the end of May seemed to help. 

Just before his 32nd birthday in June ideas suddenly began to flow. He composed daily for two weeks and finished three(!) string quartets on June 22. To Clara he announced, proudly, “three children, barely born, and already completed and beautiful.” That was a stunning achievement.

Though exhilarating, the achievement left Schumann feeling exhausted and drained, in “gloomy melancholy.” He had moved into a “quiet little nook” of his apartment in order to work undisturbed. In August he recuperated during a brief vacation with Clara in Bohemia where they visited Austrian Chancellor Metternich in his castle. Schumann was in such awe of the “great man . . . his big, wise eyes, his firm robust stride, and above all that clear, distinct voice,” that when Metternich offered his hand, he was “too embarrassed to take it.”

After this holiday Clara reported herself pregnant again (“hopefully”). Schumann responded with “a bad hangover” on her birthday. Psychiatrist Peter Ostwald continues: “Whether these announcements were directly related is unclear, but his feeling of simultaneous elation and depression seems to have generated a composition that has become one of the pivotal chamber music works of the 19th century, the Quintet for Piano and Strings in E-flat major, Op.44.”

Written for Clara and dedicated to her when eventually published in 1843, the quintet is like a small piano concerto. Clara could perform it at home in the typical chamber music drawing-room or in a medium-sized hall like ours for the public, without need for a symphony orchestra. The combination of piano and strings was not new, but earlier similar works by Boccherini or Schubert had included a double bass. Schumann’s combining the piano with a string quartet served as a model for later works by Brahms, Dvořák, Elgar, Goldmark, Spohr, Thuille, Reinecke, Taneyev, d’Indy, Franck, and other composers.

While finishing the piano quintet, Schumann began to feel ”melancholic” again. He may have had “seasonal depressive disorder” (SAD), and after a few “dreadful sleepless nights” he rapidly gave birth to another giant in the chamber music canon, the Quartet for Piano and Strings, op. 47, also in E-flat major. No wonder we call 1842 Schumann’s “chamber music year.” And you can see why the connection between madness and creativity can be so intriguing.

July 22, 2016

Gretna Music 森林公園-yoku

The distinctive location of our concert hall deep in the forest has helped attract audience to our concerts. The same music in a high-school auditorium or a community center probably would not have lasted for 40 years. And the Mount Gretna Playhouse, rebuilt in 1995 to replicate an 1892 structure, is well-sized for our music (like the Schumann Piano Quintet on July 31) and has pretty good acoustics for an outdoor (and even indoor) venue. Of course the surrounding Gretna community is quaint and distinctive. And there is the Jigger Shop. . . .
A neighbor, Fred Opalinski, just called my attention to another reason for the attraction. Twenty five years ago Japanese scientists reported on a small study that suggested walking in a forest could provide a lift in mood and relieve stress. They wondered whether doing most anything -- just being -- in a forest might be more beneficial to health than in an urban setting. Apart from the calming visual images and forest sounds, they wondered whether "phytoncides," natural substances released by plants into the environment, might cause salutary effects. 

They introduced the term, shinrin-yoku, "forest bathing," to emphasize that we might actually breathe in "components emitted from the forest," not simply escape the toxicity of urban air. Forests, they theorized, may provide an opportunity to visualize, touch, listen to, and inhale nature. More broadly shinrin-yoko means bathing in biodiversity in an environment more like the one in which humans for millennia have evolved. We haven't had the additional hundreds of centuries necessary to evolve into a species well-adapted to urban life (and air). 

Research since then, reported in TIME (July 26) and also reviewed (for scientists) in The Journal of Physiological Anthropology (2015;35:1), begins to try to answer why and how spending time in forests may relieve various symptoms and possibly improve your health. 

As I pointed out in previous posts, humans have always made music, even when we were hunter-gatherers. No further evolution is required for that. I just returned from a magical week of music at Interlochen (see Jul 12). Talk about trees!

For our part we say that for the modest price of a concert ticket you can engage in healthy 'forest bathing,' shinrin-yoku, while you listen to good music. Better than pumping iron or jogging!

July 12, 2016

Changing of the Guard at Interlochen

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

More than once as I slowed my car to turn into the Interlochen gates during a visit last week, I noticed, just feet from my rear window, massive bumpers and headlights flashing by impatient drivers of pickups, most likely towing a brace of jet skis or dirt bikes. As I turned, they roared past jeering and displaying derisive hand gestures that date back to ancient Greece. Their drivers resented me, an effete 'artsy' person delaying their vacation at the state park that shares the isthmus between two lakes with the Interlochen Center for the Arts. 

But once through the new gates (required by Homeland Security, I was told) I felt comfortable and secure in a place I had called home for ten summers many decades ago. The blue lakes, towering pines, and cacophony of music from every direction is my concept of heaven. Where else could you hear one orchestra playing Mussorgsky with your left ear and another playing Brahms with your right, while directing your view between the dedicated kids on stage and sailboats skimming across the lake beyond?

The venerable 89-year-old Interlochen Center for the Arts will soon select a new President, the first in 14 years, to guide the institution in its mission,

"to inspire people worldwide through excellence in educational, artistic and cultural programs, enhancing the quality of life through the universal language of the arts."

and, as Founder, Joseph E. Maddy, wrote:

"to develop and enhance the mental, intellectual and creative capacities of our nation's young people, to bring forth their innate potentialities, to prepare them for the cultural, intellectual and moral leadership so necessary for this nation's survival."

My ten summers at Interlochen accomplished both versions of that mission for me -- at least the parts about enhancing capacities and bringing forth innate potentialities, not to mention the life-long friendships. The experience definitely shaped my life more than any other, excepting perhaps that at Yale Medical School. 

The mission has become even more critical in today's world, though the country (and beyond) must be a better place because of the presence of over 120,000 other Interlochen alumni. They populate not only 17% of the chairs in US orchestras (not fact-checked), possess hundreds of Tony and Grammy awards, but also inhabit all other occupations. Among them are the current Interlochen Board President, former Managing Director at Goldman Sachs, and Vice President, a Professor of Ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins. Early music and arts education prepare kids for almost anything.

Interlochen nurtures children as young as 3rd graders in a creative artistic environment, guided by capable and caring people, at a time in their lives when they are most receptive. (By college age it is too late to decide to become a musician.) It replaces opportunities withdrawn from many public schools and often not present in homes. Imagine how it feels when your childhood friends value making music, art, dance, drama and poetry as much as prowess in 'hitting' one another on the football field. The competition is just as keen but the qualities and skills developed last a lifetime. 

environment, both natural -- 1,200 wooded acres between two large glacial lakes -- and human, is crucial. Living with others who share similar values and aspirations, students play in an orchestra conducted by some of world's best conductors like JoAnn Falletta (or John Phillip Sousa in the past). A concertmaster of a major orchestra, like Martin Chalifour of the LA Phil, may join them in the violin section. They accompany soloists like Van Cliburn (in my day) or Yo Yo Ma, and study their instruments and chamber music with artists like flutist Paula Robison. They see and act in Shakespeare plays, attend dance concerts by the Martha Graham Company (or by cabin mates), meet authors, poets and composers (like Howard Hanson or Aaron Copland) and try to emulate them. A cabin counselor may be a band director or a jazz pianist. Role models are limitless and diverse, cabin mates may be aspiring writers, painters, film makers, or Broadway singers. The server in the cafeteria line or the lifeguard may be a clarinetist or an actor. All of these people are potential life-long friends. Students hear efforts of their teachers and colleagues and play for one another. Their parents or grandparents may have been 'campers' in years past; some may even be working on campus.

During the school year the Interlochen Arts Academy, a boarding high school, distills and intensifies all these activities for 500 high-school students in a similar, albeit cooler, environment. They have graduated 43 Presidential Scholars, almost one each year. Interlochen Public Radio broadcasts news and information from one station and classical music and jazz from another. The College of Creative Arts offers continuing education for adults and Interlochen Presents, a performing arts series, stages hundreds of student, faculty, and professional performances and exhibits each year.

With an annual operating budget over $40 million and an endowment valued at $120 million, Interlochen is a non-profit corporation but the culture is anything but "corporate." It does not exist to financially enrich stockholders or executives. Instead, all the 'stakeholders' of Interlochen aim to enrich the lives of younger generations, and thus the lives of all of us. Board members are not paid and some faculty and staff accept less than usual financial compensation in return for just being there and participating. 

Interlochen is a "chautauqua" in the generic sense of that Iroquois name of a lake in New York (as Native American Odawa people named the two Interlochen lakes: 
Wahbekaness and Wahbekanetta), an oasis where the best efforts of younger generations of humanity are nurtured and protected during critical developing years from the terrorized, polarized, 'open-carry' society around it. That environment is made and tended by hundreds of people, all with different backgrounds, talents and responsibilities, and history and memories. Not surprisingly, loyalty to Interlochen probably surpasses that to most other institutions of its kind. Alumni comprise a vast and generous resource for sustaining and promoting the environment. 

The new president will know that the Interlochen Environment is also fragile and easily perturbed. S/he should be assertive and powerful in maintaining and advancing Interlochen's place in a world increasingly harsh for the Interlochen mission, but at the same time set and protect the Interlochen Environment: facing both outwards as an effective, sometimes ruthless, corporate CEO and inward as a caring, listening, supportive leader of a large family, enabling all to achieve their greatest potential. S/he should carefully and sensitively replenish the institution with new people and ideas, increase diversity and opportunities for as many socioeconomic levels of younger generations as possible, including the most outstanding members among them, to share the Interlochen experience.

Read more at Interlochen.org.

June 10, 2016

Love Music from the End of the 19th Century; One love lost, two ‘happy’ endings

Notes for July 10 concert in memory of Nancy Hatz

by Carl Ellenberger, MD

Sibelius, Rakastava (Beloved)

“Born in 1865, Sibelius was not merely the most famous composer Finland ever produced but the country’s chief celebrity…. Asked to characterize their culture, Finns invariably mention, alongside such national treasures as the lakeside sauna, Fiskars scissors, and the Nokia cellular phone, ‘our Sibelius.’” The composer may account singlehandedly for the fact that, “The annual Finnish expenditure on the arts is roughly two hundred times per capita what the U.S. Government spends on the National Endowment for the Arts.” (Alex Ross)

Finland has one of the richest stores of folk poetry in the world. Poems were passed on by word of mouth over centuries until finally written down by scholars like the Finnish physician Elias Lönn-rot (1840) in the belief that national identity has its roots in folklore. The Kanteletar, a collection and companion to the better-known Kalevala, may have inspired Sibelius to write Rakastava in 1894, originally as a cycle of four songs for men’s a cappella chorus. In one song a girl misses her beloved (here translated from Goethe’s German translation of the original, the combined result, I assume, losing the traditional poetic meter of the spoken Baltic-Finnic language):

Should my treasure come  
my darling step by 
I’d know him by his coming 
recognize him by his step 
though he were still a mile off 
or two miles away. 
As mist I’d go out 
as smoke I would reach the yard 
as sparks I would speed 
as flame I would fly; 
I’d bowl along beside him 
pout before his face. 
I would touch his hand 
though a snake were in his palm 
I would kiss his mouth 
though doom stared him in the face 
I’d climb on his neck 
though death were on his neck bones 
I’d stretch beside him 
though his side were all bloody.

Sibelius used the song cycle as the basis for a three-movement orchestral suite, Rakastava, for string orchestra, percussion and triangle(!), to which he assigned the opus number 14. He completed it in 1912, the year of his Fourth Symphony, “music as forbidding as anything from the European continent at the time” (Ross) that mystified the audience at its premier. Sibelius often conducted the Rakastava suite together with his symphonies into the 1920s, because, he said, the piece "captivated audiences.”

  Rakastava, “The Beloved”
Rakastetun tie (The way of the lover)
Hyvää iltaa ... Jää hyvästi (Good night, farewell to the beloved),

The cumulative effect of the first movement is one of bittersweet happiness--the remembrance of an absent lover. In the choral version of the third movement a solo tenor sings of the two lovers' sorrowful parting, "Goodnight-Farewell," a Renaissance-inspired piece with modal (Dorian) shadings, and a constantly changing metrical scheme using measures of five and seven beats. By the dark Dorian ‘farewell’ ending we are not feeling happy.

Wagner, Siegfried Idyll

Wagner wrote about his second meeting with his future wife Cosima, the daughter of Franz Liszt and still married to composer/pianist Hans von Bülow: "She fell at my feet, covered my hands with tears and kisses ... I pondered the mystery, without being able to solve it.” 

Wagner composed Siegfried Idyll as a birthday present to Cosima after the birth of their son Siegfried in 1869. It was first performed on Christmas morning, 1870, by a small ensemble of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich on the stairs of their villa at Tribschen (today part of Lucerne, Switzerland). The late conductor Hans Richter played the 13-measure trumpet part in that private premiere performance.

On awakening Cosima responded: “As I awoke, my ear caught a sound, which swelled fuller and fuller; no longer could I imagine myself to be dreaming: music was sounding, and such music! When it died away, Richard came into my room with the children and offered me the score of the symphonic birthday poem. I was in tears, but so were all the rest of the household. Richard had arranged his orchestra on the staircase, and thus was our Tribschen consecrated forever.” (The couple obviously had a keen sense for publicity!)

The original title was Triebschen Idyll with Fidi's birdsong and the orange sunrise, as symphonic birthday greeting. Presented to his Cosima by her Richard. "Fidi" was the family's nickname for (son) Siegfried. The birdsong (that bird will be me!) and the sunrise probably refer to incidents of special significance to the couple.

The Idyll music also sounds toward the very end of Wagner’s opera Siegfried (of Der Ring des Nibelungen) after Siegfried awakens the exiled Brünnhilde on her rock and beholds a woman for the first time in his life. (He discovered that anatomic fact after cutting the shield from her breast with his sword before she awakened.) After a short period of confusion, his passion kicks in and he starts after Brünnhilde (“eye to eye, mouth to mouth”) who, to the Idyll, recognizes her vulnerability and briefly pleads for preservation of her virginity (“do not touch me, do not upset me!”). Her resistance is but short-lasting and they embrace in “radiant love, laughing death!” as the curtain falls. (I didn’t make that up!) A happy ending —  until the next opera.

Wagner originally intended Siegfried Idyll to remain a private piece, but financial pressures led to his selling the score to a publisher in 1878 after expanding the orchestration to 35 players to make the piece more marketable. Though the original is for a more cost-effective chamber orchestra of 13 players: flute, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, two violins, viola, cello and  double bass, we will augment the strings for our performance. 

Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht

Premiered in 1902 Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) was inspired by a poem by Richard Dehmel in which a ‘legitimately pregnant’ but unfaithful wife confesses her ‘guilt’ to her lover, a story that Schoenberg admitted in 1949 that “many a person today might call ‘repulsive.’” In 1997 Richard Taruskin wrote, “I suspect that today it would be the poem’s misogyny (a sinful modern Eve forgiven and redeemed by a godlike magnanimous man) that offends.” In our contemporary world I suspect that the poem wouldn’t even cause modern readers to blink.

Dehmel's poem describes a man and woman walking through a dark forest on a moonlit night. The woman shares her dark secret with her new lover: she bears the child of another man. The stages of Demel's poem are reflected throughout the music, beginning with the sadness of the woman's confession, a neutral interlude wherein the man reflects upon the confession, and a finale reflecting the man's bright acceptance (and forgiveness) of the woman: O sieh, wie klar das Weltall schimmert! Es ist ein Glanz um Alles her (See how brightly the universe gleams! There is a radiance on everything), so there is a happy ‘radiant’ ending similar to Brünnhilde and Siegfried’s.

Two people are walking through a bare, cold wood;
the moon keeps pace with them and draws their gaze.
The moon moves along above tall oak trees,
there is no wisp of cloud to obscure the radiance
to which the black, jagged tips reach up. 
A woman’s voice speaks:
“I am carrying a child, and not by you.
I am walking here with you in a state of sin.
I have offended grievously against myself.
I despaired of happiness,
and yet I still felt a grievous longing
for life’s fullness, for a mother’s joys
and duties; and so I sinned,
and so I yielded, shuddering, my sex
to the embrace of a stranger,
and even thought myself blessed.
Now life has taken its revenge,
and I have met you, met you."

She walks on, stumbling.
She looks up; the moon keeps pace.
Her dark gaze drowns in light.

A man’s voice speaks:
“Do not let the child you have conceived
be a burden on your soul.
Look, how brightly the universe shines!
Splendour falls on everything around,
you are voyaging with me on a cold sea,
but there is the glow of an inner warmth
from you in me, from me in you.
That warmth will transfigure the stranger’s child,
and you bear it me, begot by me.
You have transfused me with splendour,
you have made a child of me.”
He puts an arm about her strong hips.
Their breath embraces in the air.
Two people walk on through the high, bright night.

Mention of Arnold Schoenberg on a concert program can keep audiences away in droves, as many did when we programmed Pierrot Lunaire in 1989. Some view the composer as a 20th century revolutionary, inventor of a wretched atonal system called the twelve-tone technique. Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4, however, is a tonal work from the composer’s early 20’s when his “typical utterances sounded like Haydn sonatas” and he had not yet even ventured upon “adolescent Wagnerism.” As for other modernists, Charles Ives was already evolving his “incredible ultramodernism of the American ’90’s” but the youthful Stravinsky, years before Le Sacre, was still “playing marbles in Oranienbaum.” (Lawrence Gilman in the New York Herald Tribune in 1939.)