Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The program for September 29th

The Complete Piano Music of Neely Bruce: THIS IS IT!
The first of twelve recitals will take place on Sunday 29 September, 2013 at 3:00 p.m. in Crowell Concert Hall, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut
* * * * * 

Here is the program for September 29th. You will note that the music is either very recent or written when I was a teenager (there is one exception). In addition, you will see a set of songs, which I offer as a change-of-pace number and also because Christopher sings them so well. The next step in this blog will be to talk about individual pieces, which I will start doing in the next few days.

Tuckaway in Early Summer (2008)
Forty Times Forty (1995)
A Fugue for Sophia (2013)
A Fugue for Maeny (2013)
A Partita for Wilhelm Gertz (2007/2012)
Five Songs on Poems of John Finlay (1964)
     with baritone Christopher Grundy
Seven Variations on “Suzy, Little Suzy” (1962)
Fantasy in C major (1963)

Monday, July 29, 2013

NB at the piano: I get started

The Complete Piano Music of Neely Bruce: THIS IS IT 
The first of twelve recitals will take place on Sunday 29 September, 2013 at 3:00 p.m. in Crowell Concert Hall, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut
* * * * *

My mother’s name before she married was was Mary Beulah Neely. Her mother was Lela May Hemphill. There are a number of references to my grandmother as a music teacher in various small towns in Mississippi. She married rather late in life (as did my mother). Once a year my father, Woodrow Wilson Bruce Sr, would pack his wife and three small children in the car and we would go visit Mrs. Neely in Mendenhall.

Visits to Granny were a highlight of my childhood. I have vivid memories of her, and of her plain but memorable house by the railroad tracks (across from the tower where the steam engines took on water) and two blocks from the famous Mendenhall Hotel which had (and still has) a fine restaurant, once written up in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Granny had no central heating, and boiled water to get rid of the ants on the kitchen floor. We all went outside to use the privy.

The visits of which I speak took place took place in the late 1940s and into the 1950s. About 1958 my father became concerned that she could no longer live alone. He drove to Mendenhall, packed her things and moved her to Homerville, Georgia, where the family lived at that time. Granny and her only daughter (my mother) didn’t get along all that well, for reasons I never knew. But she adored my father, because he saved her from ending her life in squalor and he would slip her a bit of whiskey from time to time. She died in her sleep in December of 1964 at the age of 84. She is buried in Jackson, Mississippi next to her husband, John Todd Neely, who died two years before I was born.

Although my grandmother didn’t have a lot of things, she did have a piano. Her ambition as a girl was to be a concert pianist. As a young woman she travelled to Louisiana to hear Paderewski play. She told this story the rest of her life. The Polish virtuoso, whom she always called “Pader-ROO-skee” (like most Americans of the time), made an indelible impression on her. In her last years in Homerville her greatest pleasure was watching the Liberace show. She was fond of his playing  and she wholeheartedly approved of the doting attention he bestowed on his mother.

My first memories of music are singing in church, listening to the Grand Old Opry on Friday nights (a family ritual second only to church attendance) and climbing up on the piano bench at Granny’s house in Mendenhall to bang on the keys. Many years later I told this anecdote to Herbert Brun, who wryly observed “You’re still doing it.” (This was a reference to my performance of the cluster-laden assault on the piano that is the finale of the Lejaren Hiller Suite for Two Pianos — but I digress.)

Granny had severe arthritis and knew that she would eventually have to quit playing the piano at the Mendenhall Baptist Church. By the time I remember her, she had already stopped teaching piano pupils. Mama made a deal with her. When the time came that her mother could no longer play, she would send the piano to us in Birmingham so that I could have the piano lessons I repeatedly requested. When that time finally came, shipping the piano to Birmingham was prohibitively expensive. Granny sold the piano for $300 and send the money to Mama. She bought a sturdy upright, upon which all three of us learned to play the piano. (The instrument is still in the family, by the way. It’s in the home one of my inlaws on the Driggers side, in a comfortable farmhouse near Waycross, Georgia.)

My sister Linda inherited the contents of Granny’s piano bench, but she eventually gave them to me. I still have this music. It is completely typical of bourgeois taste in music in the early twentieth century: the Beethoven “Moonlight” sonata, a piano arrangement of the overture to William Tell, “In a Persian Market” by Albert W. Ketèlbey, the Chopin waltzes, and several songs by Carrie Jacobs Bond. Just typing this list of pieces gives me a bit of a shiver. So many of the issues in my musical life come straight out of Granny’s piano bench. My life-long love of Beethoven, my intense involvement with opera, my fascination with parlor music, the seminar I teach on Chopin, and those haunting, delicious tunes of CJB that Phyllis sang so beautifully — not a bad encapsulation of my entire musical career. Ives isn’t there, of course. I was to learn about Ives much later. But perhaps the music of Ives is just the Danbury equivalent of the contents of that piano bench in Mendenhall, long ago, all jumbled up together.

With our new (used) piano in place at 2867 Norwood Boulevard, Birmingham, Alabama, I was about to begin lessons. At the age of eight I started working my way through the John Thompson books with Mrs. Marguerite Groover. Her house was a twenty minute walk from ours. My life-long involvement with the piano had begun.

At the age of nine, while we still lived on Norwood Boulevard, I wrote down my first composition. It is a waltz, sort-of like Brahms, sort-of like Chopin. It takes about two and a half minutes to play. Eventually I will play it for the Wesleyan audience, but not now. My next blog will begin to discuss specific pieces that I will perform on 29 September. That recital will feature very recent work, along with a few things I wrote as a teenager.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

One Opera, Two Reviews

First thing tomorrow I’m going to start writing about my current, and most exciting long-range project — I’m preparing to play and record my complete works for solo piano. This will be the focus of this blog for the next four years. Not my exclusive topic, to be sure. There are too many interesting things to write about. But I want to get my thoughts about the piano, and my contribution to its literature, down on paper, at least in cyberspace!

But first a comment on a subject Mary Jane Leach raised on Facebook. I find Facebook a remarkably stimulating arena of ideas about all sorts of things — politics, the state of American culture, how our friends overseas regard our fair country, how my relatives are getting on, who’s getting married, who’s had a baby, etc. But above all I enjoy posts about music.

On July 11th I visited Tanglewood and saw a semistaged concert version of The Great Gatsby by John Harbison. I had seen the premiere of the piece at the Met years ago, and had the privilege of hearing the composer speak on this opera, and his intentions to revise it, at Yale, shortly after the first production. Mary Jane reviewed the Tanglewood performance by Emmanuel Music in the Times Union, the newspaper serving the greater Albany (NY) area. Here’s the link:

Her Facebook post was an invitation to compare what she had written about John’s opera with what Zachary Woolfe had written in The New York Times:

If you ever wondered about what actually happened somewhere, and who’s telling the truth about what, there is no more perplexing field of enquiry than music reviews. Here’s what was said, back and forth, on Facebook. I’ll identify Mary Jane as MJL; I’m NB; another relevant comment shall remain anonymous. Call this writer SE (Somebody Else). Since the exchange can be viewed by any of our thousand-plus friends, I don’t see any problem with repeating it here, slightly edited and abbreviated.

MJL: After reading the review of Gatsby in the Times, I began to wonder if Zachary Woolfe and I had seen the same thing.
NB: Hi Mary Jane. I was at Tanglewood. I saw the opera you saw, not the one Zachary saw. Enjoyed it very much.
MJL:  The Times makes it sound as if it was a disaster — pretty mean spirited. Granted there were flaws, but there still was a lot to enjoy.
NB:  The good far outweighs the not-so-good in The Great Gatsby and none of it is bad. I would go see it again, for sure.
SE: I saw it at the Met. Not perfect, needed to be cut by about 45 minutes, which I heard he subsequently did. The music, when you focused on it qua music, was amazing.
MJL:  Agreed — Woolfe seemed needlessly hostile in his review, since there were many wonderful moments.
NB:  The NYT reviewer didn't get it. MJL got it. JH's opera is a subtle piece. It brings you in stage by stage, and then proceeds to a very satisfying conclusion, after you're totally on board. Not to everyone's taste, I know, but I enjoyed it immensely. As far as being "moved" by the piece, it's a contemplative take on the subject matter. A great deal to ponder, a great deal to admire, very little emotional manipulation.

I’d like to add a word of praise for the orchestration, which is uniformly good and sometimes thrilling. There is one special effect that is dazzling and not mentioned in either of the two reviews. When Harbison makes a transition into the party scenes, he does it by means of a clever and quite well-calculated spatial move. The stage band (that is, the jazz instruments playing at the parties) is at the back of the orchestra. The chorus, who sing flapperesque pop music and gossip about Gatsby, are against the upstage wall in a line. The jazzers are immediately in front of them. The orchestral music, which is never pop, never jazz, fades out by degrees, basically moving the sound from downstage to center stage to stage rear. As the symphonic music fades out (by stopping) the jazz fades in (beginning by degrees). As far as I could hear, the cessation of symphony sound spatially was quite strict — first the violins were out, then the cellos, then the other strings, then the winds and brass by degrees, as one became aware of the banjo and piano and the other members of the band. It worked like a charm!

The Great Gatsby is not going to replace Don Giovanni on the stages of the world, but I for one couldn’t care less. We need to think less about what pieces are not and far more about what they are.  What this opera is, as I said first on Facebook, is a contemplative take on the subject matter. We are invited to ponder the story of Gatsby and its implications. We are invited to listen to conversations and consider their nuances. The orchestra takes us on a couple of wild rides. This is a drama that takes place in the music, and inside the mind of the characters, far more than it takes place through the action. Indeed, the most dramatic events take place offstage, and are only referred to in passing.

The notion of introverted opera is not unique. Several come to mind. Pelléas et Mélisande (an extreme case), Eugene Onegin (which has the most beautiful sung conversations I know of in all of opera) and of course Tristan und Isolde. John Harbison is in very good company.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

New oratorio by SMK — Two and a half months later

It is time to begin to blog again. There is too much I need to say and too many things I need to write about.

One of these is Letter From Italy, 1944, an oratorio by Sarah Meneely Kyder. LFI received its premiere on April 28, 2013 in the fine auditorium of Middletown High School. The Greater Middletown Chorale, with assisting soloists and a crackerjack freelance orchestra, under the direction of Joseph D’Eugenio, demonstrated a remarkable level of commitment to this new work.

They also were very savvy about marketing. The oratorio relates the true story of Sarah’s father in World War Two (in the Pacific theatre as well as Italy) and after he returns home. Chorale officers and their supporters got vets (from all our wars) to buy tickets, got local people of Italian descent to buy tickets, promoted the oratorio as an alternate way to study history, had lots of pre-performance events in different venues. It worked.  The premiere was sold out two weeks in advance, all 700 seats, so the Chorale sold tickets to the dress rehearsal. Well over a thousand people heard the piece, and they loved it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that Sarah Meneely Kyder and I have been friends for decades. With the American Music/Theatre Group I performed another (smaller) choral work of hers many times, back in the day. I have heard a good number of her pieces over the years. However, being friends doesn’t mean that I can’t be objective about her work. So let me say, unequivocally, right off the bat, that this is one of the most emotionally engaging, well-crafted works I have heard in the last decade. It is also a work of powerful intellectual honesty, which can move both the general public and the hardboiled professional.

Sarah’s style is a subtle blend of modal counterpoint and small, unexpected touches. It is a beautiful way of writing music, but because it is so lovely on the surface one can miss the details if one is not careful. One hears an unexpected bassoon lick; a sustained chord that is just dissonant enough to be ominous but not so dissonant that it is out of place with the prevailing tone of loveliness; temporary eruptions of virtuosity in the flute; a most peculiar use of the high register of the English horn. Such details — and there are many more of them — are crucial to the effect of LFI. Without them the piece might be cloying, or even sentimental.

Of particular effectiveness is her judicious use of two trumpets and some drums. Suggestions of military music are few and far between, and only a couple of times are we really aware of the war. Nothing like crude battle music ever happens, and this makes the one quasi-jingoistic moment electrifying. The first part (act) of LFI comes to a rousing conclusion with somewhat free quasi-variations on “When Johnny comes marching home.” All I could think of when I heard the premiere was a much more sinister version of the words — “Johnny I hardly knew ye.”

You see, this oratorio, and the poems by Sarah’s sister Nancy Fitz-Hugh Meneely, upon which it is based, is not really about World War Two. It is about their father John Meneely, and his return to civilian life. He is not physically maimed, like the grotesquely wounded veteran in “Johnny I hardly knew you.” Rather, he is psychologically scarred beyond repair. After a brilliant medical career, after fathering three daughters, after suffering ever-deepening bouts of depression, he takes his life.

This story might seem to invite sensationalistic treatment, but all temptation to overstate is scrupulously avoided. So is all temptation to dramatize, to sentimentalize, in fact all temptation to do anything other than let the story speak for itself is avoided like the plague. What it was like for two sisters to tell this story at all is beyond my imagining. That they tell it with such honesty and discretion is almost miraculous.

Jack Pott, in the role of Dr. Meneely, was wonderful. The role is vocally strenuous and emotionally draining, and he rose to the occasion. The long-suffering women in his life, sung by Patricia Schuman, Patricia Barbana, Sheri Hammerstrom and Margaret Tyler, sang beautifully. The Middletown Chorale sang their hearts out. (It is so gratifying to see a chorus totally involved in a new work!) Joseph D’Eugenio was, as usual, a first-class conductor who lead his forces to ever-greater heights.

Since it seems de rigueur these days for reviewers to snipe at performances, especially new works, and especially in The New York Times, I guess I should say some negative things. (Not that I’m writing for the NYT, but hey, that’s the standard.) A little negativity might even get me some extra cred from folks who think what I’ve written above is nothing but hyperbole. So here goes.

The orchestra from time to time had a few intonation problems, and the trumpets didn’t always play their unexpected virtuoso moments with the required panache. The poetry can be quite dense, and sometimes the singers’ diction wasn’t up to delivering it. Fine conductor that he is, Joe didn’t always control the applause and the audience erupted after some breathtaking moments that should have lead into the next number without clapping. Sheila Garvey’s semi-staging was sometimes clunky, or even distracting — but the projections that she and Jijoun Chang produced were always effective and even provided necessary clarification of the action.

This is a bit long for a blog — it’s more of a combination review and remembrance. Whatever you want to call what I have written, I hope you enjoyed reading it. Even more, I hope that in some small way I can call attention to this excellent composition. Who knows, some conductor out there might read this and might decide that LFI should be done again. And he/she should conduct it! That would be great.