Audio: Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 7

I won’t categorize this as a “neglected symphony,” but it doesn’t turn up on concert programs that often, especially when you consider how good it is. The piece is in a single movement; it’s the last symphony Sibelius wrote (in 1924), though he lived until 1957. Colin Davis conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in this live recording.

Review: Louisville Orchestra, Teddy Abrams: ‘All In’


Teddy Abrams is the 30-year-old music director of the venerable Louisville Orchestra and he’s at least a quadruple threat: Conductor, composer, clarinetist and pianist. The young man, a protege of Michael Tilson Thomas, is stirring things up with the orchestra and their first album together, dubbed “All In” and released on Decca Gold on Sept. 22, reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Traditional Classical Chart in its first week. (Obiter dictum: These days, that doesn’t necessarily mean huge sales.) “All In” is the orchestra’s first album in nearly 30 years. Abrams appears as conductor, composer and clarinetist on it.

At one time, some will remember, the Louisville Orchestra was one of the most recorded in the world. In the late 1940s the ensemble launched the Louisville Orchestra Commissioning Project, funded by both local arts money and Rockefeller Foundation grants. The Project eventually yielded hundreds of new works for orchestra as well some 150 recordings of them (on the orchestra’s own label, First Edition Records). Abrams and the orchestra hope “to pick up and expand this legacy,” the liner notes say. Good luck to them.

The disc opens with Abrams’ own “Unified Field,” a shortish four movement work in an accessible, popular and diverse style. In the liner notes, Abrams offers this: “My own music reflects my favorite musical experiences and memories, ranging from an obsession with ‘classical’ contrapuntal technique to the unmatched energy of playing a rock show and the joy of jamming with great Bluegrass artists. Usually these worlds do not find much common ground, but ‘Unified Field’ is an attempt to join everything I love into a single expression across multiple genres.”

The result is pleasant enough, light, too, but bordering on hackneyed. The first movement is pretty, oceanic movie music; its main theme returns in the other movements. The second movement romps in a percussive groove, complete with electric bass and electric guitar. A drum set and Hammond-style organ are added to the processional third movement (a kissing cousin to the “Pilgrims’ March” in Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy”), and the finale is a comedic jamboree on a country fiddling tune.

Surprisingly perhaps, the piece is played none too well here, rather sloppily most of the way, the strings sounding overtaxed and the musicians just not moving as one.

Perhaps it won’t matter to many listeners that the next three numbers aren’t remotely classical, but they do seem out of place here. The vocalist Storm Large, of Pink Martini fame, joins the orchestra for three songs in jazzy style, a pair of ballads, “A Woman’s Heart” by Large and “The Long Goodbye” by Abrams, and an uptempo “It’s Alright with Me” by Cole Porter. A gifted stylist, Large rather overdoes it in this case, pressing and preening. The arrangement of the Porter tune, credited partly to Large, is poor — it never quite gels. (Compare Ella Fitzgerald’s version.)

Which leaves the finale, Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, with Abrams as soloist. (Someone named Jason Seber conducts it, but we are never told who he is.) Written in 1948 for Benny Goodman, the concerto mixes the composer’s familiar American style with Stravinskian neoclassicism and jazz. Abrams negotiates the high-flying solo part sensitively and athletically but the intonation is not always perfectly centered. Seber and the orchestra give him nimble enough support. But it’s too little, too late.

Great moments in film music: ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ (The Duel)

Music by Ennio Morricone. Notice the play of major and minor harmonies, worthy of Schubert. Also notice that Morricone knows when to be silent. The harmonica music is a leitmotif, brimming with meaning, as the sequence makes clear. The clip ends, appropriately, in pure dissonance.

Audio: Prokofiev ‘Scythian Suite’


When I was in college, a brass player majoring in music, the Chicago Symphony set the gold standard for brass playing, and my fellow music students and I always listened to their records with mouths agape. I was reminded of this again the other day, when I slapped this recording (yes, vinyl) on my record player at home and turned up the volume. It’s the second movement, “The Enemy God and the Dance of the Spirits of Darkness,”  from Prokofiev’s “Scythian Suite.” The brass playing is superb and, what’s more, exciting. The percussion section keeps pace, the timpani getting the whole thing off to a nice rumbling start.

Audio: Beethoven: Symphony No. 5, first movement

Here’s one of the earliest recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, with Arthur Nikisch conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in 1913. Don’t let the primitive sound put you off; it’s a fascinating interpretation, notable for its extremely flexible approach to tempo.

Carl St.Clair and Pacific Symphony open the season with the work this week.

Listen to this: Minuet

We sometimes make listening to classical music seem like a more complicated thing than it really needs to be. True, you can always know more about such a rich subject as classical music; but some simple listening tips can go a long way in aiding the novice. For instance, just knowing the names and sounds of the various instruments in a symphony orchestra can help a listener make better sense of what he’s hearing.

So, too, with the form, or structure, of a piece. This is just the way a piece of music is laid out, it’s overall architecture. This, too, can get very complicated fast, but often it isn’t. As with the basic structure of a Minuet, or its descendent, the Scherzo.

The basic structure of a Minuet is A, B, C, A, B, with the letters corresponding to the various sections of the piece. Sections A and B, both repeated the first time around, contain related musical material. Section C, also known as the Trio, has contrasting material and instrumentation, and usually two sections that are repeated as well. Then, it’s back to the top for another run-through of A and B.

It’s all easy to hear, especially once you have some signposts. So here are the timings for the various sections in the minuet above, from Haydn’s Symphony No. 104, “London.”

Section A starts at the top and the repeat starts at 11”.

Section B starts at 20”. The repeat of same starts at 59”.

Section C starts at 1’38”. This section has two parts, both of which are repeated, as you can hear. Section C ends at 3’12”, at which time there is a short transitional section to take us back to the beginning …

The return of Section A begins at 3’27”. It is repeated.

Section B returns at 3’45”. It is not repeated.

(Different conductors make different decisions about repeats when Sections A and B return.)

There you have it. This structure holds true for almost all minuets and scherzos even into the 20th century, though A and B sections are often longer and sometimes there are two Trios.