Guilty Pleasure: Royal Fireworks Music

Royal Fireworks


Music has lots of gaudy spectacles, and they started long before Lady Gaga or Jay-Z.  There are dozens of works of classical music that are bombastic, overwrought, kitschy, melodramatic, or all of the above.  The 1812 Overture might be the most famous example (although when compared to Wellington’s Victory six cannon shots isn’t THAT many), but it is by no means the pinnacle of music’s good bad taste.

With apologies to Stockhausen’s Licht, the honor goes to Handel’s Royal Fireworks Music, in its original instrumentation.  For the uninitiated, the original scoring is: 26 oboes, 14 bassoons, 4 contrabassoons, 2 serpents, 9 trumpets, 9 horns, 3 sets of kettledrums, and 6 side drums.  Just read that again and contemplate its sheer awesomeness.

For years, I only knew of the relatively famous Mackerras recording.  It was supposedly recorded in the wee hours of the night, as that was the only time they could get 26 (26!) oboes and the rest of the gang in one place.  Turns out there’s more.  Several more.

I’ve managed to track down five different recordings, all on wondrous LP.  The list:

Charles Mackerras/A shitload of people from London
Jean-Claude Malgoire/La Grande Ecurie & La Chambre du Roy
Jean-Francois Paillard/Paillard Chamber Orchestra
Richard Schulze/Telemann Society Orchestra and Band
Johannes Somary/Augmented (I’ll say) Wind Ensemble of the English Chamber Orchestra

I really only posted this because I want some feedback.  Does anyone know of any more?  If so, leave a comment, because I’ve come this far……..

Do yourself a favor and track down a copy of one of these recordings.  And fucking crank it.  It’s a hell of a show. Burning down your house with fireworks is of course optional, but recommended.

The Chicago Symphony: Blazing a trail backward since 1953

Riccardo Muti

New CSO Music Director Riccardo Muti, seen here in costume for his role as Vincent Price's Italian half-brother

The Riccardo Muti era got underway in Chicago with a free outdoor concert featuring some good war-horse material, including The Pines of Rome, a Muti staple.  The Sun-Times review is pretty glowing.  By any accounts I’ve read, the town is excited, the orchestra is excited, and Muti is excited about the prospects for the partnership.  There is no reason not to be.  Muti is widely respected and has had an extensive and successful career.

But it’s hard not to feel a little underwhelmed by Chicago’s choice.  Going back to the days of Fritz Reiner, the CSO has remained committed to working with some of the finest maestros in the world…provided they’ve been vetted for 25 years by European audiences.  This is not to suggest that the board of the CSO is anti-American or biased or anything else.  But it is to suggest that they are frightened and weak-willed when it comes to their selections. Continue reading

Something to listen to: Shostakovich Symphony no. 5

Dmitri Shostakovich

Is there a Russian Scatman Crothers for our remake of "The Shining?"

Shostakovich wrote his Fifth Symphony in 1937, and it was no less than a resounding success, not only to the listening public, but to the even closer listening Communist regime (seriously, everyone check for Stalin-era listening devices!).  Since that time, it has gone on to achieve enormous popularity worldwide, become a staple of every orchestra’s repertoire, and, in a turn of affairs that can only be described the way you would describe a train explosion, it has even been arranged for marching band (watch this video from about the 8-minute mark, but grab a pillow to punch repeatedly then bury your head in first).

With such overwhelming presence, there has been no shortage of recorded performances of the symphony to choose from.  In fact, I uploaded one to this very blog moons ago while exploring the value of using recordings in preparing to conduct a piece, even though I generally disparaged the recording I uploaded.  I would generally say that most performances tend to leave me feeling rather “meh” about them, and I’ve basically stuck by the trusty Kondrashin and Rostropovich recordings of ancient times when I purchased something called a “compact disc” from a place that housed many of them which they called a “record store.” Continue reading

Program notes: Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony no. 3 ‘Eroica’


Ludwig van Beethoven (ca. 1804)

By 1804 Napoleon Bonaparte, thanks to his military exploits and delicious layers of puff pastry and jam, had achieved enough popularity in France to declare himself Emperor.  700 miles away in Vienna, Ludwig van Beethoven had achieved enough bitterness from Napoleon’s power move that he grabbed the title page to a new symphony dedicated to Bonaparte, scratched out the Emperor’s name with a knife vigorously enough to tear a hole clean through the paper, ripped it in half and threw it on the floor in disgust.  When a new title page was published in 1806, it was inscribed “Heroic Symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man,” presumably pre-Emperor Napoleon.

Such is the legendary story behind the music, now ubiquitous enough to be called simply “Eroica” as if it were on the Brazilian soccer team.  But what of the music itself?  Far, far more than simple “program” music, it is virtually the foundation upon which orchestral music continues to build itself to this day.  If any hero emerges from the pages of Beethoven’s 3rd symphony, it is the composer himself.  In 50 or so minutes, Beethoven almost singlehandedly ushered in the Romantic period and stretched the symphony so far it needed to apply cocoa butter. Continue reading

Religion in the Sky Pesher



Last week we were in Minneapolis visiting friends, one of whom is in the men’s vocal ensemble pictured above.  Cantus was performing a short concert at the Walker Art Center’s Open Field, a public space near downtown Minneapolis.  The first set was a short 15-minute or so performance outside the Art Center, and it was cool.

But the real coolness came when they performed some atmospheric and improvisational music in James Turrell’s Sky Pesher, an open-air art installation.  The acoustics in the art piece were amazing…the resulting tones from the improvisational number were like something from a science fiction movie, but a good one, like 2001 or Star Trek IV (“don’t tell me they don’t have money in the 23rd century!”)

The improvisation was based on Indian modes, and the dynamic swell was breathtaking in the confined space.  I closed my eyes the entire time, just sort of seeing what I would see and feeling what I would feel, and this proved a solid strategy.  It was like tripping acid (which I’ve never done) without having to trip acid (which, again, I’ve never done).  I saw colors, I saw shapes, I saw stars, I saw darkness, I saw light.  It was as religious an experience as I’ve had.  I’m not sure if Jesus or Muhammad or anyone else had any place there that night, but it was a reminder that, if nothing else, music is beautiful and true, and that’s at least enough to get you through this world.

Now I just need to coerce Cantus to come do that at my house for like 3 hours so I can meditate and get myself into a deep trance.  Thanks, Cantus!