Music of Romantic Obsession

From Vincent Van Gogh to Charlotte Brontë, artists, writers, and composers have occasionally entered the strange, darkly irrational world of romantic obsession. With Halloween approaching, let’s take a walk on the creepy side and explore three pieces which grew out of (what some would call) unhealthy romantic obsessions: Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique Written partially under the influence of opium, Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique takes us into strange, hallucinogenic territory. It summons new sounds from the orchestra, which must …

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The Road Not Taken

The past and the present collide in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. The 1971 Broadway musical centers around the final reunion of former chorus dancers of “Weismann’s Follies,” a fictitious revue suggesting the real-life Ziegfeld’s Follies. The two aging couples, Buddy and Sally and Benjamin and Phyllis, have returned to reminisce before the crumbling, old theater in which the Follies once played is demolished. Amid disappointment and unhappy marriages, a sense of lament pervades the …

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The Ladies Who Lunch

Legendary Broadway performer Elaine Stritch passed away last week at the age of 89. She may be best remembered for her performance of the song, The Ladies Who Lunch in the original 1970 Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical comedy, Company.  Company offers a psychological look at the nature of relationships and marriage. It eviscerates the musical theater’s traditional escapism, replacing it with a healthy dose of realism. The song Sorry-Grateful contains the searing line, “You’ll always be …

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I Remember Sky

Musical theater and art song occasionally meet in the works of Stephen Sondheim. One example is I Remember, a little-known gem from Evening Primrose, a 1966 television musical which appeared on ABC’s Stage 67 series. The psychological plot, inspired by a John Collier short story and adapted by James Goldman, inhabits the world of dreams, imagination and symbolism: Charles, a poet, takes refuge from the world by hiding out in a department store after closing …

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Appalachian Spring at UMD

A recent University of Maryland School of Music student performance of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring is gaining well deserved attention. The performance was unique because it defied almost all of the conventions of the typical concert experience. There were no chairs or music stands onstage and there was no conductor. Instead, the 25-minute-long work was performed by memory and the musicians not only played, but incorporated elements of dance and motion created by …

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Send in the Clowns

Recently, I ran across Rob Kapilow’s fascinating What Makes it Great analysis of Stephen Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns. Kapilow shows how elements of the song’s melody and harmony evoke a complex mix of emotions.  Written for the second act of A Little Night Music , which opened on Broadway in 1973, Send in the Clowns may be the ultimate anti-romantic ballad. It’s a song about the bitterness, disappointment and the regret of missed opportunity. In an interview, Sondheim offered this …

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Anyone Can Whistle

There’s an interesting irony at the heart of musical performance. As musicians, we spend countless hours in the practice room in order to achieve the highest level of technical control. Technical assurance gives us the freedom to let go, enter “the zone” and allow the music to come to life. We cherish the rare, exhilarating performances which rise above “good” or “technically solid” and tap into a higher energy. At these moments …

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