Music is available to us, in our part of the country, in both quality and quantity which rival what is available in the world's largest cities.
Today, we want to call your attention to a performance of a magnificent work of music which is approaching its 300th birthday, and then do a complete turn-around and discuss a coming performance in Buffalo of the world premiere of a new work of music, created and dedicated to the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.
It's been a bit of an adventure talking with all the people necessary to share this information with you, especially since the week during which I was putting it together was the week when Hurricane Sandy stranded Americans in airports all over the world, and disrupted phone lines often beyond hope of making connections before deadlines.
Still, greatness is the reward of patience. Let's start with the long-respected work to be performed in Jamestown, then move on to the new and exciting creation for the BPO.
On Friday, at 8 p.m., the St. Luke's Festival Choir will perform for your delight, "Magnificat," created in 1723 by Johann Sebastian Bach, in the key of D Major, and intended to be performed by a choir in five parts, accompanied by an eight-piece chamber orchestra. Andrew Schmidt, the director of music for St. Luke's Episcopal Church, will conduct the performance.
The choir is called "a festival choir," because in addition to its regular members, a number of additional singers have been invited from all throughout the community, bringing their membership to more than 30. The five parts in which it will sing are first soprano, second soprano, alto, tenor and bass.
Soloists will be James Beal, Peter Bumsted, Gail Grundstrom, Leslie Hallock, Victoria McIlvain, Catherine Way and Ruth Yancey-Walton.
Christians have traditionally believed that the Christmas story begins when the angel Gabriel was sent to visit a young woman named Mary. He told her that she would conceive a child by the Holy Spirit, although she was a virgin, and that she was to name the child Jesus. In reply, Mary said or sang what has come to be called "The Canticle of Mary," in which she praises God and accepts the coming child. The Gospel According to Luke gives her words beginning "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my savior."
In Latin, which was the only language used in the church for many centuries, those words are said, "Magnificat, anima mea, Dominum."
Many composers, throughout the centuries, have set these words to music. Some assign a soloist to portray Mary, and a second to portray Gabriel, and the like, but Bach has both choir and soloists all telling the story, without anyone portraying specific roles.
We sat down with Schmidt to discuss his big project, recently. Here is what he told us:
"This is a really challenging piece, and we are all excited to share it with the parish and the community," he said. "We have decided that we want to make the opportunity available to anyone who wants to hear it, so there will be no tickets and no admission price. We will take a freewill offering, to help pay for the purchase of the music and the expenses of the instrumentalists, but the church will be open to anyone who wishes to attend."
"Magnificat" was created by Bach to last only about 30 minutes. I wondered if there would be anything else in the concert. Schmidt said that the evening would begin with an organ solo, performed by himself. The work will be "Trumpet Tune," by Frederick Swann.
Swann famously succeeded Virgil Fox as the organist at New York City's giant Riverside Church. He may be even better known for having been the organist for many years at the Crystal Cathedral, who accompanied the services of the Rev. Robert Schuller, as broadcast throughout the nation on television.
After the solo, a pair of duets will be performed by violinist Margaret Williams and cellist Bryan Eckenrode. He is the conductor of the three versions of the Chautauqua Region Youth Orchestra, and is well known in our area as both soloist and orchestra member. His contributions extend to a gift for the bagpipes, as well.
Williams is the daughter of the Rev. Eric Williams who is rector of St. Luke's, and the Rev. Susan Anslow Williams who has recently departed Jamestown to take over as rector of an Episcopal Church in Michigan, where her husband will be joining her shortly after the concert.
Williams has won much attention as a violin prodigy, as well as a singer and an oboist, and is returning to our community to perform these duets with her former teacher, as well as to serve as concert mistress of the accompanying orchestra.
"Following the duets, we're going to do something which seems to reverse a normal church service," Schmidt told us. "During church, we usually deal largely with words, and we play some music during necessary activities, such as taking a collection. At our concert, we'll be performing music, and while we take up the freewill offering, we're going to have a speaker explain the structure of 'Magnificat' and the history of the piece of music."
We wondered why this particular piece of music. He answered, "When I was hired at St. Luke's, the choir was in the process of learning the Vivaldi 'Gloria.' The music director at the time had received a job opportunity which better suited his interests and talents, but both he and the church were reluctant to abandon the Vivaldi project.
Schmidt had a degree in performance from the Eastman School of Music, in the University of Rochester, but he had never conducted a major choral work, until then.
"I decided I would do it, and the performance went very well. Many people who participated began asking what we would do next," Schmidt said. "Among the members of the regular St. Luke's choir is James Beal, who had a major career as a professional opera singer, who has retired to his home town to teach his gifts to others. He suggested that I consider 'Magnificat,' so I got hold of several recordings and a copy of the score and studied it very carefully, eventually deciding that it would be a challenge, but we could do it."
The director believes the music to the work is more difficult than the Vivaldi work, or even Handel's famed "Messiah," but he invited the community to participate and was delighted to find 35 singers attending rehearsals. "We rehearse the Bach for an hour, and then non-members of the St. Luke's choir depart and we practice our regular anthems and liturgical music for another hour," he said.
The musicians have been practicing since last spring, and they sang the first movement of "Magnificat" during a regular service at the end of the summer. "People were nervous, but they sang very well, and the congregation was full of praise," he said.
The director admitted that he had deliberately chosen a version of the printed score which only showed the words in Latin.
"When singers feel unsure, they often try to give in and just sing in English, but that isn't what Bach wrote, and the music best suits the original language," he said.
Accompanying the singers and the instrumentalists on Bach's own instrument, the pipe organ, will be St. Luke's previous music director, Ron McEntire.
It's famous, it's free and it involves many of the best in our community. See and hear it on Friday at St. Luke's, at the corner of Fourth and Main streets in downtown Jamestown.
A TROMBONE CONCERTO
Also on Friday, although at 10:30 in the morning, so you won't need to miss "Magnificat," with additional concerts on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra will be performing a world premiere of "Triple Concerto for Three Trombones and Orchestra," by American composer Eric Ewazen.
Sharing the program with the trombone concerto will be Prokofiev's "Classical Symphony" and Beethoven's "Symphony No. 7."
While we're telling basic facts, let me share that if you attend the Friday morning performance, the orchestra will reward you for getting up so very early by serving coffee and some of the most delicious pasteries I have ever enjoyed before the concert at no extra charge. They serve the food in the Mary Seaton Room, which is directly across the lobby from the concert hall itself.
Tickets to the concerts, all of which are held at Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo, range in price from $27 to $74, depending on where you sit and which performance you choose to attend. You can purchase tickets through the orchestra's website at www.bpo.org or by telephone at 885-5000.
Kleinhans is an architectural treasure which has acoustics which are praised around the world. To find it, drive away from downtown Buffalo on Delaware Avenue, until you find the intersection of Allen Street. Turn left on Allen and follow it even as it makes a sharp right turn. Shortly after the turn, you will see Kleinhans on your left.
Eager to learn about the new work, we contacted Ewazen in New York City and one of the trombonists for whom the work was written. Jeff Dee teaches his instrument to eager students at the State University of New York at Fredonia every Monday. "Monday is the only day of the week on which I can be fairly certain not to need to perform with the orchestra, so I've had to schedule myself a fairly long day and drive down to Chautauqua County," Dee told us.
Chautauqua County audiences may be familiar with Ewazen's music if they heard the first concert of the current season for the Jamestown Concert Assn. The Philadelphia Brass were the performing artists, and one of their offerings was "Colchester Fantasy," in which Ewazen evoked for listeners the atmosphere inside three of that old English city's unique pubs.
Ewazen was born in Cleveland in 1954. He studied at the Eastman School of Music and at the Juilliard School. He has been on the teaching faculty of Juilliard since 1980, and has been a lecturer for the New York Philharmonic's Musical Encounters Series. He has won a great many awards, commissions and fellowships, and was composer in residence for the Orchestra of St. Luke's.
His decision to compose for the trombones of the BPO dates back to a work of his which was performed by the orchestra some time back, featuring Scottish-born, profoundly deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Fans of Glennie may remember her striking performance as part of the opening ceremonies of this summer's London Olympics.
Although he writes for instruments of all types, and in all combinations, Ewazen has especially enjoyed creating music for brass instruments.
In the midst of rehearsals for the Glennie piece, he chanced to have lunch with the three trombonists who regularly perform with the orchestra. Tenor trombonists Jonathan Lombardo and Timothy Smith, and bass trombonist Dee described their enthusiasm for the sounds of which the trombone is capable, and asked if he had ever composed for three instruments in a concerto form to be performed with a full orchestra.
"I found myself intrigued by what that would sound like," Ewazen told me recently. "I ran the idea past the orchestra's music director, JoAnn Falletta, and she was enthusiastic, although she couldn't promise that they could offer me a commission."
Interestingly, the Buffalo Philharmonic is one of the best-funded and most secure symphony orchestras in our nation, but no orchestra has cash lying around in the current economy.
"So," he continued, "I spent the next seven or eight months working on the piece and just offered it to the BPO. They accepted it and programmed it right away."
Ewazen said that he typically composes for quartets or for organization with eight to 10 instrumentalists, so the opportunity both to compose for three trombone soloists and for a full orchestra was too much to turn down.
Interestingly, in the midst of our conversation about the coming BPO concert, the composer asked if I am familiar with Beal. Thinking that was for the wrong half of this column, I responded that I certainly am familiar with the talented tenor. He said he composed a work of music called "Elizabethan Songbook" for Beal, who has performed it frequently.
I asked which instrument or instruments which Ewazen principally has studied, and he said cello and piano were his major concentration, although since he became interested in composition, he has written most often for brass.
"I studied with Milton Babbitt and Samuel Adler, among others, and I find that I enjoy tonal music and melody, although I'm grateful for the tools of serial and atonal music for specific purposes.
He described his concerto as using the three trombones as a very rich choir of sound which forms more a concerto grosso than a solo concerto.
"The work lasts about 23 minutes, and ends with a big fugue, following which each of the trombones is given what I think of as a curtain call to bring the piece to its end," he said.
The composer expressed the fact that he had excellent music instruction in the public schools of the Cleveland area, and regretted that so many schools recently have decided to save money by neglecting the music education of their students.
That is a regret to be shared by any thinking person.
AND THE TROMBONIST
"Bass trombone is a distinct role for a musician. It isn't just a tenor instrument which goes lower in tone."
So said Dee, the BPO's official bass trombonist. "I wouldn't be prepared to fill in if one of the tenor trombonists is unavailable, and they probably wouldn't be prepared to fill in for me."
He said that at Fredonia State, for example, the music department has 23 or 24 students who are focusing on the trombone, but only five of them have studied the bass instrument.
Dee said that the bass trombone is a relatively new instrument.
"The trombone has been around for a long while, but bass trombones have been rare until the most recent half century" he said. "It's still fairly rare for a composer to use a bass trombone in his music, because there are relatively few of us who can play them. I have to steal a lot of music which was written for cello or bassoon to make up a recital."
Dee first met Ewazen at Juilliard, where the composer served as piano accompanist for him. "I love to play Eric's music, because he understands the full abilities of my instrument," he told me. "So often, when a composer does write for bass trombone, he's just looking for low notes, but it's capable of so much more."
Born in Dallas, Dee studied in New York City, then in China. He performed with the orchestra of Jacksonville, Fla. for five years, but was happy - despite the weather - to make the change to Buffalo.
"I first came to Buffalo to perform in one particular work which required a bass trombone," he told us. ''That's not unusual. I've been hired in orchestras all over the country on that basis. But when I got here I found that the orchestra was well known by the general public. JoAnn Falletta is a celebrity in Buffalo. Sometimes you see orchestra members in pictures on the sides of buses.