discerning – a musically-informed audience
appreciative – an audience that recognizes the artistic worth and merit of varying works
adventurous – an audience that is willing to be challenged and to try new things
These carefully chosen words of the Music Academy’s mission statement are at the core of how we approach our relationship with our audience. It is in that spirit of discernment, appreciation, and adventurousness that we offer these playlists for you to explore on your own. This is Playlist #6. Be sure to catch up on #1, #2, #3, #4, and #5!
Zadok the Priest – G.F. Handel
When King George I died in June of 1727, the German-born G.F. Handel (1685-1759) had a golden opportunity to yet again prove himself useful to his adopted country. Continuing his musical association with the English royal family – which actually predated their Englishness (Handel had worked for George I while the future British monarch was still Elector of Hanover in Germany) – Handel composed four new choral anthems for the October 11 coronation of George II. Zadok the Priest was one of them, and it has been sung at every English coronation since. The text is based on, although not an exact quotation of, the Biblical story of the anointing of King Solomon as told in 1 Kings:
Zadok the Priest, and Nathan the Prophet anointed Solomon King.
And all the people rejoiced, and said:
God save the King! Long live the King!
May the King live forever,
The first entrance of the choir – following a long instrumental introduction – is a spectacular moment, one which is made even more impactful by a particularly effective harmonic touch. Toward the end of the intro, Handel moves the harmony away from the underlying key of the work, only to return to the harmonic home base right as the singers enter. The result is, well – you’ll hear.
Portrait of Handel by Balthasar Denner from c. 1726-1728, around the time of the death of King George I and coronation of King George II
On a side note, Zadok the Priest features in what is, for my money, one of the best cinematic uses of music ever. In a critical scene in the 1994 film adaptation of The Madness of King George, the king’s new “doctor,” Francis Willis (Ian Holm), is attempting to subdue an unruly King George III (Nigel Hawthorne). Throughout the scene, the instrumental introduction to Zadok can be heard. Then, as the doctor’s team straps the king to a chair and Holm’s character asserts his dominance over the monarch, the chorus enters. The juxtaposition of this demeaning scene with music that was played at George’s coronation is just *chef’s kiss*.
Hilos – Gabriela Lena Frank
Gabriela Lena Frank
American composer Gabriela Lena Frank’s (b. 1972) 2010 piece Hilos is inspired by her Peruvian heritage (her mother is Peruvian-Chinese, her father an American with a Lithuanian-Jewish background). The title, Hilos, translates into English as “threads,” a reference to Peruvian textiles. In her program note for the work, Frank writes that it “[alludes] to the beauty of Peruvian textiles, both in their construction and in their pictorial content of everyday life,” and that “the short movements of Hilos are a kind of Peruvian ‘pictures at an exhibition,’” a reference to Modest Mussorgsky’s famous work. Frank uses a non-standard ensemble here: clarinet, violin, cello, and piano (the same instrumentation used by Olivier Messiaen in his Quartet for the End of Time). The full ensemble only plays together in two of the work’s eight movements (the first and the last); the middle six movements feature different combinations of the available instruments.
Frank writes that Hilos “[draws] on a myriad of sounds evocative of indigenous music.” The third movement, Charanguista Viejo (Old Charango Player), for example, utilizes the violin to represent both the charango (a traditional ukulele-like instrument) and the old man who sings while playing it. The plucking of the strings throughout the movement are reminiscent of the instrument itself, while Frank uses scratch tones (wherein the violinist presses down firmly with the bow in order to produce a loud scratching sound) to represent “the sounds of an old man’s voice as he accompanies himself singing.” At various times in other movements Frank uses the cello to represent the percussive cajon and the clarinet to represent “highland wind instruments,” while also making use of Peruvian rhythms and evoking traditional singing styles.
meltDown Upshot – Marcos Balter
Brazilian-born composer Marcos Balter’s (b. 1974) work meltdown Upshot combines the sounds of experimental chamber music group Ensemble Dal Niente with those of San Francisco-based rock band Deerhoof. The resulting work is by turns ethereal and jazzy, serene and energetic. Writing for “I Care If You Listen,” Jason Charney says the work is “obliquely styled as a mass in praise of the redemptive power of music itself,” beginning, of course, with a credo:
“It must be heard and seen. It must have beat. Must be tangible. Must have beautiful light.”
The theme of music about music continues throughout the work, but is particularly evident in the third movement, entitled “Ready.”
“Music! Music! Sing it sing it sing it sing it! Symmetrical, accessible, lovely lines. Easy, catchy, snappy, silly, ready!”
The irony here is palpable (and certainly purposeful); snappy this movement may be – perhaps, in its own way, even catchy. But it’s also frenetic, oddly accented (the list of words in the above line are emphasized as “Ea-SY, ca-TCHY, sna-PPY, etc.), and a bit odd. The work overall resists pigeonholing, influenced as it is by so many varying genres, but that hardly matters when giving it a listen. meltdown Upshot is, from beginning to end, a truly unique pleasure.
Photo: Kat Keers
The Turn of the Screw (excerpts) – Benjamin Britten
Henry James’s 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw has experienced a bit of renewed pop culture relevance of late with Netflix’s (loose-ish) adaptation, The Haunting of Bly Manor. In honor of that resurrected interest (and continuing this month’s spooooky theme), we’ll close out this week’s playlist with selections from English composer Benjamin Britten’s (1913-1976) operatic setting of James’s influential ghost story.
The opera tells the story of two young siblings, Miles and Flora, whose increasingly odd behavior raises the suspicions of their governess. It is eventually revealed that the children are falling victim to the ghosts of two former servants – Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, their previous governess – who are attempting to possess them. Britten’s operatic version, with text adapted from James’s novella by Myfanwy Piper, is a series of scenes punctuated by orchestral variations on what scholars call the “screw theme,” a twisting melody that uses all 12 notes of the chromatic scale.
The excerpts I’ve chosen are the opera’s opening, wherein a tenor known as Prologue sings the prologue to the story (a creative name, I know). After Prologue finishes his introduction, you’ll hear the first statement of the screw theme. Then we jump ahead to the beginning of the second act. The instrumental introduction is the eighth screw theme variation. After that, the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel argue about slights to one another while they were still living, then discuss their ongoing plans to possess and control the children. Together they sing:
Day by day the bars we break,
break the love that laps them round,
cheat the careful watching eyes,
of innocence is drowned”
The last bit is a quotation from W.B. Yeats’s The Second Coming, which serves to highlight the idea of the fragility of innocence, a major theme in this and other Britten operas. As the ghosts finish their scheming, the perspective shifts to the Governess, who frets about the evil she senses.
I know nothing of evil,
yet I feel it, I fear it,
worse – imagine it.
Lost in my labyrinth
which way shall I turn?
– Henry Michaels
Resonance editor, Audience Services and Community Access Manager, Music Academy of the West
Anthony Hicks, “Handel [Händel, Hendel], George Frideric [Georg Friederich],” in Grove Music Online.
Jason Charney, “Dal Niente and Deerhoof Present Balter/Saunier,” on I Care if You Listen.
Philip Brett, Heather Wiebe, Jennifer Doctor, Judith LeGrove, and Paul Banks, “Britten, (Edward) Benjamin,” in Grove Music Online.