Last night I went to the Basilica of St. Josaphat (could they not have picked a more dignified-sounding Saint?) to hear the Milwaukee Symphony. Two of my school chums play in the group—Margot, a violinist, and Aaron, a bassoonist. It’s a great-sounding orchestra, though it was hard to hear very much detail in the Basilica, which acoustic makes our old stomping ground of Woolsey Hall look bone-dry by comparison. The strings started off with an unfamiliar Pärt piece, Trisagion, gloriously well-suited to such a space; same for the next piece, a stolid if uninspiring hunk of ponderous Russian Orthodoxy by one Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev (or as he is better known, 1 Chain).
The second half of the show was utterly confounding: Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye suite, and then TOD UND VERKLÄRUNG. What was even going on here? The program allegedly had some sort of theme—“transformation”, perhaps?—but I’ll be damned if I could’ve figured that one out on my own. I am actually having a hard time thinking of two pieces more ill-suited to being a) bedfellows on the same program-half or b) played inside a giant, echoey Basilica. It’s the kind of thoughtless juxtaposition which, instead of illuminating the similarities or contrasts of both pieces, serves only to make each one sound ridiculous—cartoonish, even, and Strauss’s tone-poems border on caricature already. If the mood isn’t right, the only thing you can think about is: indeed, yes, we are hearing a piece written by a 25-year-old egomaniac entitled DEATH AND TRANSFIGURATION. My god, if I ever try anything like that, please somebody send me to Siberia.
St. Josaphat’s Basilica is an entertaining space: vast & ornate with some of the most convincing trompe‑l’oeil marble I’ve seen. The pews were encouragingly packed, with children and young couples well-represented. Nice to see you, Milwaukee!
My hotel contains (possibly a convincing replica of) an old-fashioned diner counter, where breakfast is served; the waitresses are attentive and one’s coffee remains miraculously full. I’ve reached the point in life where I would much rather do without the standard-issue complimentary hotel breakfast—in fact I can think of little more stomach-turning than the little polystyrene muffins in their glass mausoleum. It is thrilling to be able to pay actual money for smoked salmon & scrambled eggs & hash browns.
Speaking of which: this afternoon is the première of my new choral piece, Comfort Food, on Present Music’s annual Thanksgiving concert. Again we find ourselves in a cathedral, though it is one of a slightly more manageable size. Rehearsal yesterday was quite encouraging, and I’m as un-nervous as it is possible to be for these occasions. Again, some detail is unavoidably lost to the acoustic, but it’s not a piece where I miss it much, even though I put in all those details myself. The text may be beyond comprehension, but when is a text sung by a chorus ever comprehensible?
Present Music is doing something kind of great thing on the concert, which they are calling an “Ives Mashup”— cutting up his song The Things Our Fathers Loved into small chunks and splicing into it a panoply of folk songs, popular tunes, marches, etc. and in true Ivesian manner, having roving battalions of instrumentalists and singers and children’s choirs play and sing in multilayered antiphonal parades. I wouldn’t have thought this would be a good idea, mostly because it’s hard to imagine splitting apart one of my favorite songs, but The Things Our Fathers Loved is by nature fragmentary, and this further interpolation doesn’t bother me at all—in fact, it comes across as a triumphant homage. I’m not quite sure what to expect from the rest of the program, which will feature Native American Drumming as well as me playing The Alcotts. What is clear is that somebody thought about this concert.
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