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Monthly Archives: July 2012

John Mackey (b. 1973) once famously compared the band and the orchestra to the kind of girl a composer might meet at a party. The orchestra seems like she ought to be your ideal woman, but she clearly feels superior to you and talks a lot about her exes (like Dvorak and Beethoven). The band, meanwhile, is loud and brash, but loves everything you do and can’t wait to play your stuff, the newer, the better! (I’ve rather poorly paraphrased Mackey – it’s best understood in his original blog post on the subject).

With this attitude and his prodigious talent, John Mackey has become a superstar composer among band directors. He has even eclipsed his former teacher, John Corigliano, by putting out more than a dozen new band works, including a handful of commissions, in the last 7 years. All are challenging, and all are innovative. Mackey’s works for wind ensemble and orchestra have been performed around the world, and have won numerous composition prizes. His Redline Tango, originally for orchestra and then transcribed by the composer for band, won him the American Bandmasters Assocation/Ostwald Award in 2005, making him, then 32, the youngest composer ever to recieve that prize.  He won again in 2009 with Aurora Awakes.  His compositional style is fresh and original. I once heard him state that he counted the band Tool among his musical influences.

John Mackey publishes his own music through Osti Music.  The website for this company doubles as his personal website and his blog, which is very informative for anyone looking for a composer’s perspective on new music. He is featured on wikipedia and the Wind Repertory Project.  He is also on Twitter 20 or so times a day.  And he has a Facebook composer page.

Mackey wrote Hymn to a Blue Hour in 2010 on a commission Mesa State College.  As you can read in his very candid blog, most of his music up to this point was of the loud and fast variety.  Several conductors started asking him for a slow piece around the same time.  This was the result.  He wrote it while living in New York City in the summer of 2010, surrounded by the immense noise of the city but liberated from his car and the music he usually listened to while driving everywhere.  Choice quote from the blog:

It was pretty funny, really, with me sitting outside on a beautiful summer morning in New York City, Moleskine music notebook in one hand, and my iPhone Pianist app in the other (so I could find pitches), writing this piece.  As I said on Facebook, I felt like I was in an ad for something.

The “Blue Hour” of the title is supposed to be “the period of twilight where there’s neither full daylight nor complete darkness”.  As is often the case with many a composer’s music, the title came after the music was finished, and in this case was suggested by Mackey’s wife.

Jake Wallace provides even more program notes on this piece on Mackey’s website. I won’t copy it all out here, but this is required reading!  Look especially at the bit about composing at the piano.  You can also look at the score and hear a recording of the piece there.

Those too lazy to click a link can hear Hymn to a Blue Hour via YouTube here:

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Born in 1913 into a long line of Italian musicians, Norman Dello Joio followed quickly in his family’s footsteps.  His father was an opera coach and organist; by age 12, young Norman was substituting for his father on organ jobs.  He went to Juilliard on scholarship, where he shifted his focus from the organ to composition, studying with Paul Hindemith.  He wrote for a wide range of ensembles and won accolades from all corners of the music world, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1957 and an Emmy in 1965 for his score to the television documentary A Golden Prison: The Louvre.  His contributions to the wind band repertoire are significant, and include Scenes from The Louvre, the Variants on a Mediaeval Tune, a set of Satiric Dances, and several other beloved works.  Dello Joio died in 2008 at age 95 having never retired from composition.

Scenes from the Louvre comes from a 1964 television documentary produced by NBC News called A Golden Prison: The Louvre, for which Dello Joio provided the soundtrack.  The documentary tells the history of the Louvre and its world-class collection of art, which is in many ways inseparable from the history of France.  Dello Joio chose to use the music of Renaissance-era composers in his soundtrack in order to match the historical depth of the film.  He collected the highlights of this Emmy-winning score into a five-movement suite for band in 1965, on a commission from Baldwin-Wallace College.  The first movement, “Portals”, is the title music from the documentary, and it consists entirely of Dello Joio’s original material, complete with strident rhythms and bold 20th-century harmony.  The second movement, “Children’s Gallery”, never actually appears in the film.  It is a light-hearted theme and variations of Tielman Susato‘s Ronde et Saltarelle.  The stately third movement is based on themes by Louis XIV’s court composer, Jean Baptiste Lully, and is aptly titled “The Kings of France”.  Movement four, “The Nativity Paintings”, uses the mediaeval theme “In dulci jubilo“, which Dello Joio also used in his Variants on a Mediaeval Tune.  The “Finale” uses the Cestiliche Sonate of Vincenzo Albrici as its source material, to which Dello Joio adds his own harmonic flavor, particularly in the final passages of the piece.

Here’s the Concord Band of Massachusetts playing Scenes from the Louvre in full:

Now take a look at part of the TV documentary.  It is truly a fascinating history and a very well-done film that you all should watch.  While the whole thing was once on YouTube, now only part 4 remains.  The entire film is also available as a DVD on Netflix.

Now for some source material!  The first movement is Dello Joio’s own.  Here’s the basis of the second, Susato’s Ronde et Salterelle, played on the organ:

I couldn’t find the exact Lully theme from “The Kings of France”.  So you’ll have to settle for this extremely French movie clip, featuring the one and only Gerard Depardieu conducting what looks to be a reasonably authentic period orchestra.  It certainly captures the royal spirit of Lully’s court compositions:

“In dulci jubilo” is all over the place.  Here’s one version which takes me back to my Anglican choirboy youth:

Again, I couldn’t find the exact Albrici piece that Dello Joio used in the “Finale”.  But this one captures his spirit quite well:

Dello Joio on Wikipedia.

Dello Joio’s obituary in the New York Times

Dello Joio’s website.  It’s unfortunately very out of date and looks very much like the early-internet relic that it is.  But it is still an informative look into Dello Joio’s life and work.

More on Scenes from the Louvre from Alex Armstead, to whom this page owes a great debt: I never would have identified the source composers of each movement without his information.  Here’s his lesson plan and awesome presentation.

Even more on Scenes from the Louvre from the Wind Repertory Project, Rob Rayfield (largely quoting the Teaching Music through Performance in Band series), and the Concord Band.

I first came  across Piazzolla’s music in 2001, while working for the Little Orchestra Society of New York.  The conductor, Dino Anagnost, had heard Gidon Kremer‘s version of Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas) for string orchestra and violin solo, and wanted to perform it.  There was no published version of it, just the arranger’s manuscript.  So, as the “music assistant” I got to sit at the Maestro’s computer for several weeks, creating the set of parts in Sibelius.  What could have been endless tedium was instead a revelation: I got inside every note of the piece and came away with an intimate knowledge of Piazzolla’s musical language.  He was romantic.  He was lyrical.  He would hover on astonishing dissonances, preserving them like the surface of smoothly rippling water.  He had a gift for counterpoint far beyond what I was expecting of a tango master.  This initial contact led me to study up on the man and his music.  Finally, in 2005, I arranged two of his tangos, Milonga del Angel and La Muerte del Angel, into a two-movement concerto for flute and band.  It premiered in 2006, with Leonardo Hiertz as the soloist.  And now, in 2012, we get to do it again!

Some background: Astor Pantaleón Piazzolla is widely regarded as the most influential tango artist of the 20th century.  His work borrows elements from tango, jazz, and classical music to form a new genre called  nuevo tango.  He was a virtuoso performer and a respected composer whose work is widely performed around the world.  He was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina on March 11, 1921, to Italian immigrant parents.  When he was 4 years old, they moved to Greenwich Village in New York City.  He picked up the bandoneón, the accordion-like instrument that would dominate his musical career, at age 8.  He heard a wealth of different kinds of music from an early age: his father brought Argentine tango records to New York; he heard jazz on the streets of the city; and by age 12, he was learning to play Bach on his bandoneón.  He returned to Argentina at 16, and moved to Buenos Aires the following year to try his luck on the tango scene there.  He found some success, but realized that his interests leaned more towards contemporary classical composers like Bartok and Stravinsky.  To that end, he studied composition with Alberto Ginastera and nearly dropped all tango activities.  Finally, in 1954 he left for Paris to study with the legendary composition teacher Nadia Boulanger.  She encouraged him to embrace his tango heritage.  He returned to Argentina inspired to elevate the tango to an artistic level.  He wrote original compositions for traditional ensembles, as well as for his own groups which ranged in size from quintets to nonets.  He toured the world with his music, and changed the tango forever.

Regarding the tangos in the arrangement, they both originated as incidental music for a play in 1962.  They eventually became part of a five-part series of “Angel” tangos, completed in 1965.  James Reel of allmusic.com neatly describes Milonga del Angel:

For Alberto Rodriguez Muñoz’s 1962 stage play Tango del Angel, in which an angel heals the spirits of the residents of a shabby Buenos Aires neighborhood, Piazzolla added two new pieces to an earlier tango that gave the play its name. This music reappeared in at least two different concert forms, but one of the unifying elements is the piece Milonga del ángel. A milonga is a sort of proto-tango, lighter and gentler than the more familiar form. This milonga is openly sentimental and begins with a lounge music feel with strummed bass chords; a simple, keening violin line; and a few tinkles from the piano. The bandoneón creeps in almost unnoticed, but takes control of the piece with a sad, nostalgic melody (at this point, one could easily imagine the piece being played in a jazz club). Just as the treatment of the melody becomes more complex and emotional, a secondary section arrives to allow some air around the music. It initially seems like a transition, but opens into a highly romantic and sensual violin solo. The bandoneón reclaims its place, offering its own variation on this melody, which is actually closely tied to the main theme, and musing on it with the violin and electric bass. A more intense passage leads to the coda, which strips the music down to a series of chords, much as the piece began.

Le Muerte del Angel comes from the same play.  It is notable for its opening fugue and its brisk tempo.

Here is the master himself performing Milonga del Angel on the BBC:

He and his quintet (similar to the group above) do La Muerte del Angel.  Wind players, watch the way he breathes with the bandoneón.

Now the copious links begin.  Piazzolla remains very popular as a composer, so there is much written about him on the internet.

Piazzolla info at wikipedia, his YouTube page (HIGHLY recommended!), todotango, IMDb, NPR, and allmusic.  Sadly, his foundation’s website, piazzolla.org, is about 10 years out of date.

Find out more about Milonga del Angel at allmusic (quoted above), jazz.com, the Fugata Quintet, and Albert Combrink’s Blog.  Also, go to this blog to see a video of a sword-swallowing routine done to this piece!

See more about La Muerte del Angel at Albert Combrink’s Blog, answers.com, and Piazzolla on Video (as a tribute to Piazzolla’s longtime pianist, Pablo Ziegler).