New Release: Ian Bostridge Joins the Seattle Symphony for Berlioz, Ravel, Debussy

Song cycles by three French composers- Berlioz, Ravel, and Debussy- come to life spectacularly on a newly-released album featuring the English tenor Ian Bostridge with Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony. The recording appears on Seattle Symphony Media, the orchestra’s innovative, Grammy-winning, in-house record label. Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été was recorded at a live concert at Benaroya Hall in November 2017. Ravel’s Shéhérazade and Debussy’s Le livre de Baudelaire, orchestrated by John Adams in 1994, are studio recordings. Here are a few excerpts: …

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Eight Pieces Based on the Dies Irae

Last week, we explored two pieces which bookend the musical output of Sergei Rachmaninov- the First Symphony, which Rachmaninov wrote at the age of 22, and the Symphonic Dances, his “last spark,” completed in 1940. The Dies irae, the ancient chant of the dead, emerges as a prominent presence in both works. It’s a motive that returns throughout Rachmaninov’s music with haunting regularity. We hear it in The Isle of the Dead, The Bells, and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, where it …

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New Release: Berlioz’ “Les Troyens” in Strasbourg

Sixteen vocal soloists, three choirs, and perhaps the largest orchestra ever conceived for opera… These are the requirements for Les Troyens (“The Trojans”), Hector Berlioz’ massive 1858 French grand opera in five acts. Berlioz himself adapted the libretto from Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid. He didn’t live to see the opera performed in its entirety. But he considered it to be his crowning achievement, writing in 1861, I am sure that I have written a great …

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Five Musical Fireworks

It’s ironic that Independence Day in America isn’t complete without Tchaikovsky’s most famous ode to Russian nationalism: the bombastic 1812 Overture, which was written to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon’s invading army. As we head into the July Fourth holiday weekend, here are five more pieces that bring fireworks to mind: Handel: Music for the Royal Fireworks In 1749, England’s King George II employed Handel to write music for a large, outdoor public celebration in …

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An Electrifying Oberon in Berlin

In the clip below, conductor Mariss Jansons leads the Berlin Philharmonic in a spectacular and rousing performance of the overture to the opera Oberon by Carl Maria von Weber. Weber’s music contains some of the earliest seeds of Romanticism. His orchestration was new and innovative. It mixed tonal colors in exciting ways and expanded the size and power of the orchestra. (Notice the trombones, which were a relatively new addition at the …

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Music and the Heartbeat

Repetition is based on body rhythms, so we identify with the heartbeat, or with walking, or with breathing. -Karlheinz Stockhausen In 2008, researchers at the University of Illinois medical school discovered that the 103 beat-per-minute pulse of the Bee Gees’ 1977 disco hit Stayin’ Alive provided the perfect tempo for resuscitating the heart through CPR. From the satisfying groove of a disco or techno beat to a Bach Brandenburg Concerto, musical rhythm has long been …

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Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has inspired composers from Berlioz to Prokofiev to David Diamond. One of this timeless tragedy’s most popular musical depictions was composed by the 28-year-old Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). Tchaikovsky called the work an Overture-Fantasy, but it can also be considered a tone poem. Let’s listen to a live performance with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. Consider how Tchaikovsky’s music captures the deep emotions at the heart of the …

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