Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ideas for concerti

My friend David Barron, who is also the baritone who sang the Ives Vocal Marathon with me, lives in Brooklyn. I have made two trips recently to his spacious apartment where he lives with his wife Susan Barron, the visual artist. We are rehearsing the Ives songs that David sang on the IVM, in preparation for recording sessions, scheduled to begin on Friday 10 June. We also take advantage of the time to eat excellent Chinese or Thai food, catch up on the news, and occasionally take in a special event.

Yesterday was one of these. One of David and Susan’s young friends plays clarinet in a very good concert band, made up of Brooklyn teenagers. They played a concert in Green-Wood Cemetery, a very special Memorial Day event, featuring the music of Green-Wood’s “permanent residents.” On this occasion there were pieces by Fred Ebb, Leonard Bernstein and Louis Moreau Gottschalk.

But these works are not what I wish to mention in today’s blog. Rather, I’d like to mention a famous concerto by a famous Brooklynite, the Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin. The performance was perfectly good, better than that from time to time, and David and I were both struck (for the umpteenth time) by what a masterpiece R in B is. But two things made the occasion really memorable.

First of all, the concert took place behind the great gate to the cemetery, where the famous Brooklyn parrots have what is surely their finest nesting place. For a wonderful photo essay on the Green-Wood Cemetery parrots, see:

http://www.brooklynparrots.com/2006/03/greenwood-cemetery-parrots.html

These parrots, like most birds, like music, and enjoy singing along. But yesterday they were not interested in the band music, or even the piano solo (a performance of the Gottschalk “Pasquinade”). They were interested in R in B, particularly the piano solo sections where the right hand is high and tinkley. After a somewhat tentative start, the parrots chimed in most effectively every time a high, tinkley piano solo passage occurred. Sometimes they sang with delicatesse, sometimes with great gusto, but always as if they belonged in the music (which they most assuredly did) and as if they owned the place (which they do, for all intents and purposes).

All of this reminded me rather forcibly of a compositional problem that has been occupying my mind (or part of it, off and on) for about twenty years. That is, how to write a concerto, or series of concerti, that speaks to the concerns of today and uses today’s musical vocabulary, but is not virtuosic. Needed: concerti of moderate difficulty, for an orchestra of moderate size, not overpowering but with some interesting interplay between the soloist and the ensemble. I had long been thinking of how to make such a piece, using the Mozart concerti as a model, and even discussed the problem with composer-conductor John Kennedy (who assures me that his horn concert is just such a piece—I’ve got to check it out.)

But I realized yesterday afternoon that the perfect model for such a composition already exists, and it really works. Rhapsody in Blue! Through-composed, of moderate length, the soloist and the orchestra don’t get in each other’s way, the proportions are exquisite, etc. So I’m all set. As soon as I finish my other compositional projects (!!) I can turn my attention to a series of Rhapsodies for piano and chamber orchestra. More on this project as it develops. The basic idea is to analyze the R and B and use its structure as a model for new works—with parrots, of course. I have to make room for the parrots, where the piano part is high and tinkley.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Ricciotti Ensemble, PART TWO

On Sunday 15 May the combined Ricciotti Ensemble(s) from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, with the current Ricciotti interspersed, played in the Openbare Verlichting in the Westergasterrein. I have described the space in an earlier blog. In addition to Gijs Kramers and myself, there were four other conductors: Wim Witteman, Leonard Van Goudoever, Leon Berendse, and Bas Wiegers. The program was announced as follows:

Jurriaan Andriessen: De gepikte vogel (quadraphonic version)

Wim Van Binsbergen: Cordon bleu (Ricciotti ’70)

Willem Van Manen: Divertimento (R ’80)

Leonard Van Goudoever: Vers (R ’90, with Marga Grooff, soloist)

Konrad Koselleck: Daddy’s nightmare and the birthday of his son (R ’00)

Neely Bruce: Grand Polka de bataille (version for four orchestras)

PAUSE: all Ricciottis combine to make a gigantic 180-piece group

Willem Breuker: Onleesbaar III

Ricciotti/Van Wassenaer: Concertino II (the tune)

Wim Witteman: Just for you

Richard Wagner: Meistersinger overture

Chiel Meijering: No night no day

Chiel Meijering: Budhead (world premiere)

Van Dyke Parks: The Four Mills Brothers (with eight interpolated soloists)

In forty-one years certain traditions have established themselves in the Ricciotti, and this concert brought several of these to the fore. With this orchestra the first rule of programming is spontaneity, and the corollary to that is “Never trust the printed program.” The first half opened with their trademark composition, almost their theme song, De gepikte vogel of Jurriaan Andriessen (Louis’s less-famous older brother, alas deceased). “Gepikte” can be seen on YouTube in at least three versions by the Ricciotti. (I wonder if any other orchestra has played the piece.) There is a certain amount of flexibility in this composition, and it can be stretched in various ways. Sunday night it came to a resting point and Orchestra One (Ricciotti ’70) began to play Cordon bleu. Of course anyone who knew “Gepikte” (and many in the audience did, being die-hard Ricciotti fans) expected it to be completed, but when? Each of the orchestras did its thing, and I conducted the Grand Polka, which went off without a hitch (almost—there still was that strange silent measure that was not supposed to be there).

I should mention the singing of Marga Groff. Marga was the manager of the Ricciotti when I was most involved with them, in the late 1980s and through the American tour of 1991. She is a remarkable performer, over the top in some ways, but always captivating. The solo part in Vers was written for her. Leonard Van Goudoever is better known as a conductor than a composer I think, but the pieces of his I have heard are uniformly excellent. A violinist himself, he writes very well for strings, which are featured in this piece. The text ends with “In my heart a bizarre tango is playing,” which Dutch syntax allows to end with “a bizarre tango.” Marga has a remarkable dynamic range, and the piece ends with the orchestra singing to accompany her. A fragment of a violin solo and the piece is over. There are several pieces in the Ricciotti repertory that require the orchestra, or part of it, to sing. This is one of the best. I heard it many times twenty years ago, and I’m happy to report that it holds up very well.

So far this was a concert that followed standard expectations, more or less. Of course there are four orchestras in four different locations in the hall, and six conductors, and the first piece on the program wasn’t finished yet, but perhaps these are details. The pieces were performed in the order listed, and even if Orchestra Three, from the ‘90s, was singing a good deal of the time, they mostly played their instruments. (By the way, I attended a good chunk of the rehearsal of Vers, and a lot of attention was paid to the singing part of it. That paid off in spades. No hesitation, no bad intonation, just a Ricciotti singing a bizarre tango…)

The second half was a different matter. This is a blog, not a book, so I will just summarize the irregularities. First of all, as the evening progressed, more and more instrumentalists arrived, opened their cases, took out their instruments, went to the appropriate section and began to play. (This would have probably happened in the first half too, if the four orchestras had not been arranged quadraphonically.) Second, there was an extra piece by Ricciotti/Van Wassenaer (see my blog of 17 May for the lowdown on this composer and his music) performed by a handful of string players who were in the very first concert. This item does not appear on the program. Also, a video of rare, fuzzy footage of the Ricciotti in Moscow and lots of other places showed up unexpectedly. The overture to Meistersinger with over a hundred strings, at least a half-dozen saxophones, a tuba player (he only appeared in this one piece), extra drums but no timpani, and God knows what other irregularities, had to be heard to be believed. It was wonderful, but certainly not for purists.

Sidebar comment: I asked Gijs if this was the only Wagner the Ricciotti had played. He said it was not. He had arranged for them an eight-and-a-half minute Readers Digest version of The Ring, based on his earlier Ring reduction for the Amstel Quartet.

Continuing with the list of irregularities: the two Chiel Meijering pieces were not played back-to-back. Eight different soloists (singers, speaking actors, a hammered dulcimer player) strutted their stuff briefly, in between the characteristic opening of “The Four Mills Brothers” by Van Dyke Parks (another Ricciotti staple, for decades), used as a ritornello. Just when you ask yourself how many soloists there are, and if the piece will ever end, a quick and dirty transition gets us into the inevitable, but only dimly remembered, missing conclusion of De gipkte vogel.

There are theatrical aspects of this piece that have become ritualized. I don’t know if Jurriaan Andriessen put these elements in the score, but every performance of the piece I have witnessed contains them. At one point the violins and violas begin to move out of place and into the audience, playing by memory. At another point all available clarinets (in this performance six or seven, I couldn’t tell for sure) move to an unexpected place and begin to play a particularly aggressive solo line, in unison. (This was really effective in this performance, with all of the clarinets suddenly blaring forth from the gallery, spread out from one end to the other.) The piece doesn’t really end. It just dies. The members of the orchestra collapse on the floor. They jump up almost immediately, of course, to tumultuous applause, resounding bravos, cheers, etc.

Suffice it to say that this concert undermined virtually every convention of the symphonic concert. (I have not even mentioned the way they dress. Go to YouTube and see for yourself.) The 1960s were a time when composers devoted a great deal of attention to music as theatre. The Ricciotti Ensemble, child of the early 1970s, has taken this particular aesthetic concern and made it a way of life.

I must reluctantly close this series of ruminations about the world’s greatest orchestra, at least for the time being. Just one final note. The concert was brilliant, entertaining and altogether wonderful from beginning to end (even if the second half was a tad too long). But I have to say that the single most beautiful performance of the evening was the Concertino II by Ricciotti/Van Wassenauer, conducted by Leonard. It was expressive, in tune, and altogether satisfying. On top of all the theatre, all the dazzling imagination, the wonderful new and unusual pieces—these guys can really play.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A note about formatting

Readers of this blog may notice inconsistencies in the formatting, especially the indentation of paragraphs, but also matters of typography. I hope to resolve these issues (especially the indentation glitches, which drive me nuts) but so far I have not been able to do this on my own. Eventually all of this will be straightened out, I’m sure. In the meantime, I will continue to write and publish. (It's a blog, after all.)

News flash about FLORA

The series of blogs about my latest piece for the Ricciotti Ensemble is interrupted to bring you some important news about my new eighteenth-century opera, Flora. Yesterday (Friday 20 May) the piece was featured on NPR's "World of Opera." Tyler Duncan (a.k.a. Tom Friendly) alerted me to the broadcast, which has caused a bit of a stir on Facebook and also in my Email inbox. Check it out:

http://www.npr.org/2011/05/20/136469565/flora-an-18th-century-british-invasion

There is a nice written piece about the work, and a link to the "hit single" (Tom Friendly's ballad at the country fair, which Tyler sings very, very well, with the able assistance of Zachary Stains, Philip Cokorinos and the Westminster chorus). There is also a link to a virtually complete performance, audio only. I have a DVD of one of the dress rehearsals, but the posted NPR link is something much better. No visuals, alas, but all of the dialogue is crystal-clear and the balance between singers and instruments is excellent, over all (though occasionally I would prefer more orchestra sound). The editors did not include the final dance music (too much floor noise, I'm sure), and there is a bit of trimming here and there to eliminate an awkward spot, tighten laughter or applause, etc. But this just makes the piece flow better, in the absence of any visual stimulus.

One great thing about this version is that all of the naughty dialogue comes through. A real plus.

Let me know what you think. Can you follow the story? Do you understand the double entendre? Is the Somerset dialect comprehensible? (Make that “Zomerzet.”)

If you wonder what “new eighteenth century opera” might mean, watch for future blogs about this, my most recent work for the musical stage. Flora, by the way, is really a ballad opera turned into an opera (more or less), and its full title is Flora: An Opera. The title of the 1728 original is Flora, or, Hob in the Well. These are all matters for further discussion at another time.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ricciotti Review DELAY

The discussion of the Ricciotti concert on 15 May is turning into a feature review. I should be able to finish it tomorrow. Check back then. Sorry for the inconvenience!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Ricciotti Ensemble, PART ONE


I first became acquainted with the Ricciotti Ensemble in 1987. Henry Brant introduced us. They are a Dutch youth orchestra who play in the street. Literally. The bus drives up, the forty-something members of the Ricciotti get out, they take music stands from large wooden cases, set them up, take three-ring binders of parts from other cases, the cellists sit on the cases, they tune as quickly as possible (more or less), the conductor gives a downbeat and they are off and running.

The first performance of the group was intended to be the last. The group was formed to play a single concert of the music the Dutch nobleman Unico Willem von Wassenaur, who composed six concerti in the early eighteenth century that were engraved by Carlo Ricciotti (an Italian violinst) and for many years misattributed to Giovanni Pergolesi. Igor Stravinsky, believing the Pergolesi attribution, used the Wassenaur concerti as a good chunk of the material for Pulcinella. This little musicological puzzle-knot began to unravel in the 1960s, and in 1970 a group of Dutch teenaged string players was asked to play a single concert of Wassenaur’s music, in a new edition based on the original eighteenth century publication. Instead of introducing “a group of teenaged string players” the announcer blurted out “Ladies and gentlemen, the RICCIOTTI ENSEMBLE.” The group enjoyed playing together, and the name stuck. Forty-one years later, and under their fifth director, they are still going strong. They don’t play Wassenaur much any more, and they rarely appear on a stage.

The Ricciotti have played on the street, in public squares, in old-folks homes, in prisons, schools, and even major venues in major cities. They have traveled to many countries, including Russia, Bosnia, Spain, the Dutch Caribbean, and the United States. (Phyllis and I organized the US tour in 1991—the only one to date. That needs to change.) The goal of the orchestra is to bring symphonic music to people who would not otherwise experience it. An excellent summary of their history and their aesthetic can be found on their extensive website. Begin at:

http://www.ricciotti.nl/index.php?id=77

I sometimes describe the Ricciotti as “the world’s greatest orchestra.” I got this phrase from one of the founding members, the Dutch violinist Jan Erik van Regteren Altena (Mondriaan Quartet, Schoenberg Ensemble, etc.). Other orchestras are bigger, and may play better in tune, but the Ricciotti has an aesthetic audacity that is unique. And if aesthetic audacity is your criterion, then it is absolutely the world’s greatest orchestra. It is artistic populism writ large, and it is an extraordinary success. It has been a training ground for many of the finest musicians in the Netherlands. It has spawned a remarkable repertory of new short pieces for orchestra (long orchestra pieces are SO yesterday) and unique arrangements. It insists on having two alto saxophones in the group, on a regular basis. And its repertory systematically breaks down the artificial categories that so debase and poison our musical discourse.

The Ricciotti repertory, in a nutshell, consists of short classical pieces that fit, or can be adapted for their instrumentation; arrangements of popular music; and avant garde works written especially for them. Over the years hundreds of new pieces and arrangements have been generated for them. My first piece for the Ricciotti was Atmo-Rag. (My idea of a rag by Brahms—which morphs into a rag by Ives—oh hell, it’s really a rag by Neely Bruce.) Not only did they ask me to write it—they asked me to guest-conduct. I went all over the Netherlands with them (another story for another time) and heard the piece something like twenty times. I would tweak it in the evening and hand out fresh edits and even an occasional change-of-note before the next performance. I learned more about how to write for orchestra from the Ricciotti Ensemble than from any text I had read, or from any of my teachers (and they were excellent). Truly, there is no substitute for experience. I learned about some really sneaky impossible trills on the oboe, I learned a lot about register, and I started my long, unsuccessful journey toward writing effectively for string instruments. (Though I have to say I’m getting better at it. How DID Corelli do that? And he made it sound so easy…)

Atmo-Rag was followed by the Santa Ynez Waltz (by the mid-1990s the Ricciotti had played it over 150 times), “One, two, ready, go!” and in 1997 the Grand Polka de bataille. The four-orchestra version of this piece is really a new work, I have to say. So that makes five pieces for the world’s greatest orchestra. I’ll write a sixth one whenever they want it—some ideas are already running around in my head.

So now I have introduced this unique and fabulous organization. Tomorrow a brief blog about what they actually did last Sunday night in the Westergasterrein.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Grand Polka de bataille: Four-orchestra version, PART THREE

During the day yesterday the four Ricciotti orchestras rehearsed their grand ensembles (the four historical Ricciottis plus the current one, intermingled) in the morning and played concerts all over Amsterdam in the afternoon. I decided to walk from the Hoogte Kadijk to the Westergasfabrik for the dinner and rehearsal of my piece in the evening. I expected it to take me 40 minutes, but it took almost an hour. No matter. It was a walk through some nice sights and I always need the exercise. I arrived at 6:15. Dinner was to be at 6:30, followed by rehearsal.

The concert began at 8:30. The four orchestras arrived in four different busses. Of course everyone had to eat. There were only two pieces to rehearse: mine and a quadraphonic version of De Gepikte Vogel of the late Jurriaan Andriessen (older brother of Louis). Since the Andriessen is perhaps the most-performed piece in the Riccotti repertory, and the majority of the players know it by memory, that part of the rehearsal was over in a flash.

Two of the orchestras were on the floor level, in the corners, to my left and my right. The other two were in the corners of a three-sided balcony directly above. Two layer cakes of orchestras, more or less side by side. The directionality of the composition would be vivid, I was certain. Since the first orchestra (Ricciotti players from the beginning, in the 1970s) had not played the piece, I rehearsed them very briefly. It’s just as well, because there were twice as many players in Orchestra One as there had been the day before, including Jan Erik van Regteren Altena, first violinist of the Mondriaan Quartet (his brother Edouard, the Mondriaan cellist, was playing in Orchestra Two) and many other excellent Dutch musicians. All of the percussion joined Orchestra One (as Gijs Kramers and I had agreed before); during the setup I ran through the non-percussion stuff. It was clear from the start that they could handle everything, and in five minutes that part of the work was done. I did a few spots with all of the orchestras, just to make sure the groups were comfortable and understood the basic idea of the piece, most notably that there are no rests. One measure of rest showed up shortly before the grand finale (when all four polka tunes are heard simultaneously).

We just had time to run the piece. The members of Orchestra Three began to count aloud, which was quite entertaining. The phantom measure of rest showed up again. When the time came for the actually performance, the phantom rest was still there. I think there is a mistake in the piece, although I don’t really know how that is possible. (Composers should always proofread their work…)

The Grand Polka de bataille is a wonderful musical joke, if I do say so myself. The audience loved hearing it, the players loved playing it. The conductor loved conducting it too, although after a while whoever conducts this piece has to forget about cueing and simply wave his/her arms.

There are some more things to be said about this piece, and this concert, but not today. My ride to Schiphol Airport is leaving in thirty minutes!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Grand Polka de bataille: Four-orchestra version, PART TWO

In the first orchestral versions of the Grand Polka de bataille, the original groups were mapped onto a more conventional group of instruments as follows. The string trio became the strings, except the double basses. The saxophone quartet morphed into brass, plus the two saxophones in the Ricciotti. The piano/organ parts turned into an avalanche of woodwind sounds, very difficult to play and not very gratifying. The percussion parts stayed with the percussion, plus the double basses to reinforce the timpani solo. (The Ricciotti Ensemble has no timpani, but they do have a set of roto-toms—a funky substitute for sure, but OK under the circumstances.)

Each of these groups has a distinctive sound. But four Ricciotti orchestras have the same instrumentation: woodwinds in pairs, two alto saxes, two horns, one trumpet, one trombone, one percussionist, a string section of moderate size. How to get each of them to sound unique? Fortunately for my purposes, one of the Ricciottis, composed of alumni from the 1970s, was not complete. Only one of each woodwind (no pairs), no trumpet, no trombone. I was allowed to move all the percussion to that orchestra. So that made for a distinctive sound by default. I decided to emphasize the strings in one orchestra, the brass in another (with a nice trumpet solo), and all the winds and saxophone in the final one. (Florid parts for the saxes and the high register of the bassoons makes for a special sound, that’s for sure.)

With a plan in mind, I could began to recompose in earnest. As I finished each orchestra, I sent the FINALE file to Rudi van Hest, who extracted the parts and printed them out. I promised the piece would be complete by May 3, and three of the four orchestral chunks were finished by that time. The fourth orchestra was dispatched to Amsterdam in cyberspace on the 5th.

Yesterday was the first rehearsal. I was able to guest-conduct two of the four orchestras, rehearsing them for ten or fifteen minutes. I was able to observe a third orchestra, and answered questions for the conductor and players as they came up. It was not possible to work with the fourth one, so we’ll hope for the best later today.

After the rehearsal I went with the four orchestras to a great dinner (four stews: vegan, beef, fish, shrimp; two salads: tomato, potato; couscous, potatoes, bread) for 150 people. At about 10:15 p.m. the current Ricciotti burst upon the scene, to play their thirteenth concert of the day. (Gasp!) Another entry in the Guinness Book of World Records—the largest number of concerts in one day, played by the same orchestra in separate venues.

Tonight at 6:30 we put the Grand Polka together. At 8:30 we play it for the public. I’ll report in full tomorrow.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Grand Polka de bataille: Four-orchestra version, PART ONE

Having announced that this blog will resume, it’s about time I actually resumed it! There being no time like the present, I decided I would write brief descriptions of the music I’ve been writing in the last six months. I’ll start with the most recent one.

I write this from Amsterdam, where I am visiting my friends Charles van Tassel and C├ęcile Roovers and getting ready for a performance of the latest version of my Grand Polka de bataille. This is a work that exists in three earlier versions. It was originally composed in 1996 for a concert that Keith Moore organized at Wesleyan. Keith was a masters student in composition at the time, and he had the inspiration for a concert that consisted entirely of polkas, featuring the Circus Polka of Stravinsky. He had at his disposal a unique combination of groups and instruments: a string trio (two violins and cello), a saxophone quartet, three grand pianos, a small but quite boisterous pipe organ, and three percussionists.

Imagine a battle of the bands, but they are all polka bands, with oddball constituents. The string trio starts with a tune of 32 bars in D major. Then the saxophone quartet plays another tune in another key. The three pianos and organ play a third tune, ostensibly in a third key but more like a total flurry of dissonant sixteenth notes. The fourth polka tune is for percussion alone, highlighted by a virtuoso timpani solo and a not-so-virtuoso one for snare drum. The initial statements of the tunes are followed by trading eights in the same order, then a scramble of four-bar phrases for 32 bars, a scramble of two-bar phrases, a scramble of one-bar fragments and a scramble of one-beat fragments. The scrambles were generated by a simple chance technique—using a shuffled deck of cards, the suit I turned up (clubs, diamonds, hearts, spades) determined which fragment from which tune was plugged into the appropriate slot in the 32-bar framework. The result—the structure of the polka tune (the macro-level) remains totally predictable, but after the mid-point of the piece what is going to happen next (the micro-level) is completely unpredictable, and becomes disorienting in the extreme.

Shortly after the premiere of this admittedly eccentric but extremely entertaining work I was asked to do an orchestral version. The Wesleyan Orchestra, under the direction of Mel Strauss, did the piece first. Then I modified it slightly for the Ricciotti Ensemble, a group with a somewhat different instrumentation (two alto saxophones, just one trumpet, just one trombone, fewer percussion instruments.) The Wesleyan Orchestra has only played the piece once, but the Ricciotti has played it often (including a performance for Dutch troops serving in Bosnia, another story for another time).

On 4 April, out of the blue, I received the following Email from Gijs Kramers, the current conductor of the Ricciotti Ensemble:

Hi Neely,

At present, I am the conductor and artistic director of the Ricciotti Ensemble, for which you wrote a few very nice pieces in the past!

In May we will be celebrating our jubilee (41 years, and we always celebrate a year late...) In the weekend of the 14/15th we will get together with a lot of people from the old days. On Sunday we will perform throughout Holland with 4 orchestras from 4 different decades and in the evening we will join forces and do a show with the whole lot.

I would very much like to play the Grand polka de bataille then, as this is one of the most fun pieces in our repertoire, but it would obviously be amazing if it were possible to make a version of this for 4 orchestras rather than 4 groups.

Do you have a version like that as well? Or is it something you could possibly make for us? Or would it otherwise be possible (if you have it digitally) to send us the score so we can do it ourselves?

Thanks a lot, hope to hear from you, with best wishes, Gijs Kramers,

It took me about a nanosecond to agree to make a version of the piece for four orchestras, but how to actually make this happen, five weeks before the performance? A very interesting compositional problem—more on this subject tomorrow.