The Power of Six Notes: Exploring the “Dresden Amen”

On Friday, we listened to a few excerpts from Wagner’s epic final opera, Parsifal. Today, let’s return to one of Parsifal‘s most powerful and persistently recurring leitmotifs: the majestic, ascending six-note motive known as the “Dresden Amen.” This liturgical chord sequence was written by Johann Gottlieb Naumann (1741-1801) for use in Dresden’s court chapel some time in the late 18th century. It spread quickly to both Catholic and Lutheran churches throughout the German state of Saxony …

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Bach’s “Erbarme dich, mein Gott”

This week we’ll explore music inspired by Good Friday and Easter, both sacred and secular. We’ll start in one of the most sublime and powerful corners of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: the alto aria, Erbarme dich, mein Gott (“Have mercy Lord, My God, for the sake of my tears”). In the drama, this aria reflects Peter’s solitary heartache in the garden after he denies knowing Jesus three times. It’s set in a lilting 12/8 …

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New Release: Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, John Eliot Gardiner

Each time we explore Bach’s music we feel as if we have traveled great distances to, and through, a remote but entrancing soundscape. -Sir John Eliot Gardiner An exciting new recording of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion was released last Friday. Sir John Eliot Gardiner leads the Monteverdi Choir (an ensemble he founded in 1964), the Trinity Boys Choir, the English Baroque Soloists, and a cast which includes James Gilchrist as the Evangelist and Stephan Loges as Jesus. The …

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The 2017 Classical Grammys

Here is an overview of last weekend’s 2017 Grammy Awards in the classical categories. From opera to chamber music, the list features a heavy dose of American contemporary music: Best Orchestral Performance This is the second installment in a series of live-concert Shostakovich recordings by Music Director Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony on the Deutsche Grammophon label. The first recording of the five-part series was honored in the same category at …

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New Release: Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé’s “For the Fallen” Features Elgar, Bax

I can still remember, vividly, Mark Elder’s concerts with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra back in the 90s. I was a teenager at the time, and Elder was a young, up-and-coming British conductor who had risen to prominence as music director of the English National Opera. With a reputation as an “orchestra builder,” Elder succeeded David Zinman in Rochester. His programming was innovative (including concert performances of operas) and well constructed. He spoke eloquently …

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Remembering Estonian Choral Composer Veljo Tormis

The prolific Estonian composer Veljo Tormis passed away last Saturday. He was 86. Tormis’ music, deeply rooted in the ancient Estonian folk tradition, includes more than 500, mostly a cappella, choral compositions. His music played a role in the revolutionary movement for Estonian independence from the Soviet Union. (The documentary, The Singing Revolution, chronicles the spontaneous, overnight, mass singing demonstrations which unfolded at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds in June, 1988). Veljo Tormis described the …

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“Winter”: VOCES8’s Newest Album

For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, today is the first day of winter. It’s a great time to grab a cup of hot chocolate and listen to the newest album of the UK-based a cappella group VOCES8, simply titled, Winter. The album, which came out in October, is a collection of glistening, snow-covered choral soundscapes. Plainscapes I, II, and III by Peteris Vasks (b. 1946) takes us to the frigid desolation of the forests of Latvia. The opening …

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