Remembering Krzysztof Penderecki

The Polish composer and conductor Krzysztof Penderecki passed away Sunday following what his wife, Elzbieta, described as “a long and serious illness.” He was 86. Penderecki’s early compositions grew out of the modernist tradition associated with composers such as Anton Webern, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pierre Boulez. Later, his style broadened. Commenting on this evolution, Penderecki said, “I was saved from the avant-garde snare of formalism by a return to tradition.” One of his most …

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John Adams’ “Shaker Loops”: Riding Ferocious Sonic Waves

John Adams’ 1978 string septet, Shaker Loops, takes us on a ferocious and exhilarating sonic ride. It’s powerful music that is made up of elemental forces—pulse, gradually shifting patterns, and harmonic tension and release. At times, it unfolds with the frightening inevitability of an enormous, infernal, rumbling conveyor belt. At other times, we experience something similar to those mysterious, icy Sibelius tremolo passages which stand on the edge of silence. The title, Shaker Loops is …

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Purcell’s “Fantasia in Three Parts Upon a Ground,” Tafelmusik

Back in January, we listened to Henry Purcell’s Fantasia Upon One Note for 5 viols in F major, Z. 745, music in which a single pitch is sustained in the tenor voice while the other voices float and weave in seamless polyphony. Purcell’s Fantasia in Three Parts Upon a Ground offers a similar contrast between stability and unbridled adventure. Here, a series of thrilling variations develop over a recurring ostinato bass line. This was a common …

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Sondheim’s “The Miller’s Son”: A Celebration of What Passes By

Stephen Sondheim turned 90 last Sunday. This year, as Broadway is scheduled to remain dark through April 12, it seems especially important to honor Sondheim’s vast and enduring contribution to American musical theater. Sondheim’s songs take us deep into the psychology of the character. Gradually, they reveal layers of meaning in a way similar to the puzzles that have been a source of lifelong fasciation for the composer and lyricist. One such song …

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Louis Kaufman and the Sound of Hollywood’s Golden Age

While you may not recognize his name, chances are good that you have heard American violinist Louis Kaufman (1905-1994). Kaufman has been called “possibly the most recorded musical artist of the twentieth century.” In addition to making around 125 classical recordings, his rich, chocolatey sound is etched into as many as 500 film soundtracks. His singing tone, with its generous use of portamento and fast, shimmering vibrato, is the distinct sound we …

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Mozart’s Oboe Concerto: François Leleux and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony

Mozart wrote the Oboe Concerto in C Major for Giuseppe Ferlendis, an Italian oboist who was appointed to the Salzburg Court Orchestra in April, 1777. A few months after the work’s completion, the 21-year-old composer was pressed for time to fulfill a commission in Mannheim from the Dutch flutist, Ferdinand De Jean. He adapted the Oboe Concerto for flute, and the recycled piece became his Flute Concerto No. 2 in D Major. After …

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Mahler’s Seventh Symphony: A Journey Through the Night

The Seventh may be the most strange and enigmatic of Gustav Mahler’s nine completed symphonies. Its five symmetrically arranged movements take us on a mysterious and haunting journey into the night. This is music that attracted the young Arnold Schoenberg, who heard the crumbling of romanticism in the Seventh Symphony’s daring and sometimes disquieting modernism. Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, completed in 1906—a year after Mahler completed the Seventh Symphony—contains many themes built …

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