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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera
Your "Lyric Theatre" program with Keith Brown
Programming Selections for the Months of Nov. / Dec. 2006

  This will be the first time I have ever broadcast the music of not one but two composers from the Basque region, which straddles the border between Spain and France. Francisco Escudero (1913 - 2002) was one of the single most important cultural figures among the Basque people in the twentieth century. His oratorio Illeta ("The Funera," 1953) is a setting of a poem in the Basque language by Xabier Lizardi (1896 - 1933). Escudero's musical style employs traditional Basque melodies. Baritone Riccardo Salaberria sings Lizardi's verse in the first person, his voice juxtaposed to the voices of the Coral Andra Mari representing the townspeople who take part in the wake, funeral, and burial of a loved one. Juan José Mena conducts the Mari chorale and the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra. Illeta was recorded in Bilbao, Spain in the year of the composer's death. Of the Naxos CD release, Fanfare magazine's reviewer John Story says, "…the music is extremely attractive and very well performed." (Fanfare, July/August 2005). Juan Garcia de Salazar (1639 - 1710) was born in the Basque province of Alava. He was Spain's foremost Baroque composers of church music. For most of his career he was the master of music at Zamora cathedral, where his manuscripts are preserved to this day. Salazar was so influential his compositions were still being performed in Spanish churches well into the nineteenth century. Salazar's name headlines a 2004 Naxos CD release Complete Vespers of Our Lady. Salazar never composed music for any complete vespers service. He did write a sufficient number of settings of the proper psalms and the Magnificat for the evening holy offices around which one could reconstruct a Spanish Baroque Lady Vespers in its entirety. Certain instrumental numbers here are transcriptions of vocal motets by Salazar, plus some organ passages penned by composers working the same general region in Spain during his lifetime, and plainchant derived from a choir book dated 1692. Josep Cabré leads the singers of the Capilla Penaflorida and the period instrumentalists known as Ministriles de Marsias.

This is one of those occasions when I delve into the musty, dusty, vaults of the WWUH classic music record library in order to present once again an impressive "moldie-oldie" I last broadcast on January 22, 1984. "War and Peace" (1941-43) is an opera in thirteen tableaus based closely on Leo Tolstoy's long historical novel. Sergei Prokoffiev set it to music during the darkest period of World War Two. In his opera he attempted to capture as much as he could of the vast national spectacle of Russian history. The Soviet authorities allowed the work to be performed in hopes of boosting morale while the Red Army struggled to expel the German invaders. The obvious parallel lies in the successful expulsion of Napoleonic troops on Russian soil. Columbia Records picked up tapes of "War and Peace" from the Soviet state record label Melodiya in 1974. Alexander Melik-Pashayev conducts the Chorus and Orchestra of the Bodshoi Theatre, Moscow.

The age-old conflict between Muslims and Christians has often been portrayed up the operatic stage. The crusader called El Cid, "The Conqueror," is the single most dramatic figure in Spanish history. At least twenty six operas have been based on the El Cid legend. One of the greatest of them has got to be Jules Massenet's Le Cid (1885). This opera, rather then Mignon, is really Massenet's finest lyric theater work, and was probably the most popular one for a certain period. The enthusiasm with which Le Cid was greeted at the Paris Opera was phenomenal. It reached the Met in New York City in 1887 and was mounted in Chicago in 1902. Shortly thereafter, it disappeared from the international operatic repertoire. It continued to be well thought of, but known only by reputation. In 1976 it was at long last revived, albeit in concert performance at Carnegie Hall. It was recorded live for Columbia Masterworks, featuring the voices of tenor Placido Domingo as Rodrigo "The Cid" and soprano Grace Bumbry as Chimene the Moorish princess. Eve Queler conducted the entire ensemble. I last broadcast this opera long ago on October 11, 1987. You hear again today the same 1976 Columbia Masterworks release, the first complete recording of this opera on three LP's.

George Frideric Handel's Alexander's Feast is just the thing to listen to at Thanksgiving time since the oratorio describes a famous feast in classical antiquity. I have programmed recordings of it frequently on the Sunday next to Thanksgiving in years past. There're plenty of good recorded interpretations of Handel's musical setting of Dryden's poem in circulation. As originally given in 1736, Handel's music about the conqueror Alexander's exploits did not quite make a full evening's entertainment, so Handel augmented his score with an entire concerto grosso by way of an overture, and inserted two solo concertos, for organ and harp respectively, acting as interludes between the two long parts of the sung music, and after all that he offered up an Italian language cantata. All of this was performed in praise of St. Cecelia, the patron saint of music, who in Dryden's ode pushes aside the excesses of Alexander's pagan festivities. (In the traditional Christian calendar the Feast of St. Cecilia falls on November 21.) In the 1991 Collins Classics issue of Alexander's Feast conductor Harry Christophers has remained true to the first version of the score. We get to hear the solo instrumental works in their proper place, with the traditional closing chorus to the words of Newburgh Hamilton, but the Italian cantata has been omitted. Christophers leads his own choral group The Sixteen, with an ensemble of period instrumentalists, not to mention vocal soloists; soprano Nancy Argenta, tenor Ian Partridge and bass Michael George. These two Collins Classics CD's were last broadcast on this program on Sunday, November 30, 1997.

You could call my presentation today a mini-festival of the music of Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848 - 1918) for chorus and orchestra. In 2006 Chandos Records came out with a two CD compilation of Parry's works culled from previous releases of 1988, '91 and '92. Through all the recording sessions Richard Hickox conducted either the London Philharmonic Orchestra or London Symphony Orchestra and their respective choral organizations, plus the best British vocal soloists of the day. (Matthias Bamert led theses same musical forces on certain additional tracks.) Through most of the Twentieth Century Sir Edward Elgar has overshadowed Parry. Only now thanks to Chandos is parry's genius revealed in the large-scale compositions presented here. In the Soul's Ransom (1906) Parry broke free of conventional English oratorio style. He wrote his own text for it, combined with verses from Hly Scripture. The Lotus Eaters is his equally innovative musical setting of a poem by Tennyson. For the two hundredth anniversary of the death of England's greatest composer Henry Pucell he composed a celebratory ode Invocation to Music (1895). Chandos supplements all this with his setting of Milton's ode Blest pair of Sirens and an anthem I Was Glad. These are surely gems of the repertoire.

December 6th is the date in the traditional Church calendar called the Feast of St. Nicholas of Myra, one of Christendom's most popular saints. In Holland St. Nicholas' day is celebrated as if it were Christmas. The Dutch Saint Nick dresses in bishop's attire like his medieval namesake, who was bishop of Myra. For a third time on the airwaves this Sunday we will be observing that pre-Christmas holy day with a unique Music Masters recording: The Play of St. Nicholas, a twelfth century liturgical drama. There are actually four one-act playlets in Latin verse depicting dramatic incidents in the saint's life. The plays were probably meant to be staged on the porch of a church to encourage the common folk to come inside and hear the festival mass. All four dramas have been strung together and are performed musically employing reconstructed medieval plainsong. Interpolated into the performance are vocal motets and instrumental numbers. Frederick Renz directs the New York Ensemble for Early Music. One of the instrumentalists is Hartt School graduate and virtuoso bassoonist Dennis Godburn. I first broadcast the St. Nicholas plays using the old Musicmasters LP's on Sunday, December 6, 1987. The Musical Heritage Society's CD re-release followed on Sunday, December 8, 1996. Today, fully a decade later, I present for a third time this remarkable music reconstruction in its MHS reissue.

This is the pre-Christmas Sunday that I usually devote to a "children's opera" or some form of lyric theater that has an appeal to the young. Shortly after Leonard Bernstein created his incidental music and songs for Peter Pan (1950), his take on J.M. Barrie's famous play encountered some very big competition: the Jule Styne musical starring Mary Martin, seen by millions on television, and the enormously popular Disney movie - both of these media marvels possessing excellent pop tunes. They succeeded in obliterating the memory of what had been a small-scale Bernstein Broadway hit, with West Side Story soon to follow. Believe it or not, Bernstein wrote some of his Peter Pan music while commuting by train around New York City. These melodies were just sparks flying off a brain that was at the same time concentrating on composing classical works and conducting the New York Philharmonic. An LP cast recording of the 1950 show exists, but it doesn't' reflect Bernstein's intentions about his score. It leaves out several fine numbers he wrote and substitutes others by Alec Wilder. Most of what you'll hear today on this 2005 Koch International Classics CD has never previously been recorded and some of it never performed on stage. For example, Bernstein had already written a song for a production of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, and planned to put it into Peter Pan. In preparing his own restored and edited score of Peter Pan, conductor Alexander Frey includes this number. Augmented by the orchestral arrangements of Bernstein's friend and collaborator Sid Ramin, all this music has the vintage sound of the Golden Age of the American musical. Keep listening after Peter Pan for choral favorite of the Christmas season.

  J.S. Bach's Weihnachtsoratorium (1734) is the obvious choice for a Christmas Eve broadcast. Over the years I've aired many fine recordings of Bach's six-cantata cycle, but I discover that I've never drawn upon the Christmas Oratorio that's in my own collection. This one remains my personal favorite. It has become the norm to hear Bach's oratorio in historically-informed interpretation. The period instrument sound was still a novelty in 1973 when German Harmonia Mundi recorded BXV248 with the Collegium Aureum and Tolz Cathedral Boy's Choir. The old instruments heard here were pitched a semitone below modern concert pitch, as they would have been in Bach's time. The arias for soprano voice were sung by a talented boy treble: also typical of musical practice in the churches of eighteenth century Leipzig. Choral specialist Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden directed the singers and players. The Schmidt-Gaden interpretation was re-released on three Deutsche HM silver discs in 1989.

This old year 2006 finally comes to an end, and we contemplate how the years roll along, their seasons passing one into another. The last time I broadcast Haydyn's oratorio Die Jahreszeiten ("The Seasons," 1801) I presented the much praised Harmonia Mundi recording with Rene Jacobs conducting the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and RIAS Chamber Choir. That was on Sunday, January 2, 2004. The budget classical label Naxos now offers us a historically-informed essay of Die Jahreszeiten in its original German language libretto. Danish conductor Morten Schuldt-Jensen leads the Leipzig Chamber Orchestra and Gewandhaus Chamber Choir. In his detailed notes for this release the conductor assures us that although modern instruments are employed, the orchestra's performance practice is musicologically correct, and the singers were carefully coached in eighteenth century vocal technique as well. Rene Jacobs and his crew set a nobly elevated period instrumental standard that would be hard to beat. As I've said before, this is what the norm is nowadays. The forces Schuldt Jensen leads merely imitate that antique sound. I'm sure you'll enjoy hearing the new Naxos recording anyway. However, why not listen closely and decide for yourself if it totally convinces and enthralls your ear. As the year ends, I think back with gratitude to several people who continue to help me in the preparation of every two-month period of programming. Foremost, among them is Rob Meehan, who used to broadcast classical music on WWUH in the late 1970's. He's a specialist in the alternative musics of the twentieth century, and our new century too. For years I've borrowed for broadcast recordings from his huge private record collection. This time around I've borrowed Bernstein's Peter Pan. The Play of St. Nicholas and Bach's "Christmas Oratorio" come from my own collection. Everything else on CD or LP that's featured over these nine weeks comes out of our station's ever growing library of classical music on disc. I also remember with thanks my colleagues Bob Walsh, Larry Bilansky, and Will Mackie who have substituted for me on several Sundays in 2006. Lastly, I must thank Vickie Hadge of Virtually Done by Vickie for the technical preparation of these notes for publication.

WWUH Program Guide 2006 ©

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