Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Such a tease.

I know, I've done it again...disappeared with no trace. Since my recital, I've been catching up on all the work that I didn't do before my recital, and finishing up the semester. I promise a post or two after Friday, at which point my last paper of my undergrad career will be turned in, with the fairly interesting things that have been going on.

This is just a quick post to say that I found out today that I got accepted to CCM! (And just in the nick of time, as my deadline for GMU was May 1st.) I'm pretty stunned, and wildly happy. So thanks to everyone for their well wishes. :-D Now I just have to, oh, find a place to live, and work out how I'm going to pay.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


It's a very strange feeling, finishing the last piece of your recital. You bow, walk off,'s over. What? People come up and ask "How do you think it went? Are you glad it's over? Bet you're going to relax next week," and my head is still going "Wait, it's done? Really? What just happened?" It's sort of an extension of the performing mindset- the pieces have never gone by so fast as they did today.

I was intensely nervous this morning, but I ate a banana (Bananas contain some chemical that apparently makes you feel calmer. I heard this from a reputable source, though I recognize the effect may be all mental. Still, I actually find it very effective, so I don't really care.), and got to the hall quite early, and had time to do some sound check/warming up which made me feel a lot better. Being able to hear your reeds and your fingers working really helps. And speaking of reeds, I had such good reed luck, better than I ever do. I had options, and the reed I ended up playing on really did everything. High, low, reedy, sweet, soft, loud, multiphonics. Which, needless to say, made my recital a lot less nerve wracking. (...Reed gods, please do not now curse me because of my boasting. Please.)

But as to my playing. With the exception of a few spots, I was actually really happy with how I played. I was a little nervous in the first movement of the Poulenc, so I had quite a few squeaks from lazy jumps, but after that I got more into the swing of things. I honestly am not sure I've played the second and third movements better than I did today. I didn't have any tonguing issues in the third movement, and I think that all of my dynamics and registers were musical in the third. (I hit all of the notes in both the ff and pp low Bb-Eb sections!)
The Pasculli went well too, especially the death aria (slow, melodramatic, minor) section. The only problem I had with the piece was that the end, an extended and difficult triplet run, which I had worked very hard on this past week and finally been able to play, ended up far too fast, and so I flubbed a lot of the notes anyways. Luckily, that was the (only) part of the recital where I was covered up by the piano. (Cooper, I used one of your reeds; I really like them. Very covered and warm, just the sound I aim for!)
The Rathbun duet was great, and everybody really liked it (possibly cause it's only 7 minutes long :-P), though my teacher had a counting Moment (tsk tsk). But we really hit on the bouncy, vibrant mood of the piece today. (Options for a description as told to me by audience members afterwards: two robots having a conversation, or two ducks having an altercation.)
The Bax quintet, because of the acoustics, was really hard to hear from onstage. But I have been assured that it sounded together and balanced from the audience.
I thought that my cadenza-solos turned out well, especially the one which opens the piece. There were a couple scary moments, and I wasn't holding together in the second movement - which is slow, lyrical, and high and has forty measures with only a single quarter rest, the hardest part of my program to get through - as well as I would have liked, but all in all I was happy, and the ending was great.

I'm a little surprised with how pleased I am with how I played, but I'm really not going to complain too much about that.

Next? Finding out if I've gotten in to Cincinnati.

14 hours to go...

I've had a lot of exciting oboe adventures lately, from my final orchestra concerts (at which I was actually cheered for the EH solo in the Berlioz) to a side-by-side rehearsal of The Planets with the youth orchestra, to, as of tomorrow, my recital. I have lots of things to say here, but right now I'm going to go to bed and try not to stress too much.

Wish me luck! I'll let you know how it goes.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Arnold Bax, Oboe Quintet: Program Notes

Quintet – Arnold Bax (1922)

Arnold Bax (8 Nov 1883 – 3 Oct 1953) is best known for his tone poems, which take their subject matter from Celtic myth and scenery. However, his compositions in many genres reflect Bax’s obsession with Ireland and Britain. The Quintet, dedicated to the British oboist Leon Goossens, is no exception to this, featuring folk-like melodies which invoke England, Scotland, and Ireland.

While Poulenc’s Oboe Sonata gives a rather intimate portrayal of personal grief, the overarching narrative of Bax’s Quintet is more nationalistic. The main theme of the first movement is a long, sinuous melody introduced by unaccompanied oboe. Heavy with accidentals and augmented seconds, the exoticised theme seems foreign to Bax’s musical tendencies, but it in fact references a side of the pastoral frequently investigated in Bax’s works, that of Pan and fairies, “dangerous, unpredictable, sensual, and libidinous creatures,”[1] even as it calls up images of Milton’s “gorgeous East”[2]. While this theme forms the majority of the movement, the movement ends with a sunny G major molto tranquillo coda, foreshadowing the banishment of all exoticism through the cheery folk-tunes of the third movement.

The second movement of the quintet serves as an intermediary between the orientalism of the first movement and the nationalism of the third; the strings open with a lush pastoral melody before the oboe interjects with an ad lib “melancholy” solo featuring augmented seconds and sinuous lines. The very slow tempo, low tessitura, soft dynamics and uneven meter invoke a sense of quiet and pervasive sorrow. Despite an increase in ornamentation, intensity, and chromatic tones in the middle of the movement, which create the sense of a B section, the movement is deeply unified. As in the first movement, the return of the A section is followed by a molto tranquillo tonal coda.

Bax contrasts the feminized, exoticized melody dominating movement one with the final movement’s masculine British folk songs. The themes of movement three are three rollicking folk-song-based melodies. The first is a newly-composed jig which uses Scotch snaps and uneven phrase lengths, against a duple counter-melody, to slightly unbalance the listener. The second theme, similar in feel to the first, again sets compound meter against duple accompaniment. However, it lacks the first theme’s snaps and irregular phrases, and has the feel of a rather square march instead of a lively jig. The final theme, slower and more restrained, is a variant on the folk song “The Lament of the Sons of Usna,”[3] and is perhaps more famous from its appearance in Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. The B section of the piece consists of an extended, cantabile version of the third theme for the cello under oboe embellishments recalling the orientalism of the first movement. At the return of A, references to Bax’s earlier exoticism are replaced by aggressive repetitions of the first and third themes. The piece ends with a vivace statement of the first theme by the oboe which leads to a strong, full G major chord.

In one sense, Bax plays the stereotypical roles of the oboe, the “pastoral, melancholia, and orientalism,”[4] to the hilt in his Quintet, but the piece also provides a clear example of Bax’s tendency to emphasize the “musical evocation of nature”[5] over personal expression. Here the “chillier violence”[6] of his pastoral landscapes has unsettling overtones. Movement one, in which the opening modal/minor melody is subverted in the major tonality of the final two measures, and movement three, in which the B section references the first movement’s exoticism before falling back into folk songs, serve as small-scale pictures of the piece as a whole, which moves from the melody of movement one to those of movement three. Written in the years following the First World War, perhaps as a statement of nationalistic support, Bax creates a narrative in which feminized music designed to evoke Eastern cultures is conquered by masculine music which represents the West, and specifically the history of Britain.

[2] Milton, Paradise Lost, 2.3
[3] Foreman, Lewis. Bax: A Composer and His Times, Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2007. p. 212.
[4] Burgess and Haynes, The Oboe, p. 240
[5] New Grove Encyclopedia of Music, "Bax", Works

For expanded analysis or citation info, please contact me by leaving a comment on this post, or emailing of [dot] polyhymnia [at] gmail [dot] com. Please credit Rachel Becker if using quotes/specific information from these notes.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Jeffrey Rathbun, 3 Diversions for 2 Oboes: Program Notes

3 Diversions for 2 Oboes – Jeffrey Rathbun (1987)

The second piece on my recital composed by an oboist, 3 Diversions for 2 Oboes was written by Jeffrey Rathbun, Assistant Principal Oboe of the Cleveland Orchestra. An active composer as well as performer, Rathbun has written orchestral and chamber pieces, many featuring the oboe, and teaches at schools including the Cleveland Institute of Music and Baldwin Wallace Conservatory. 3 Diversions for 2 Oboes was written at the request of fellow Cleveland Orchestra oboist John Mack and premiered in July, 1987 by the composer and Mack.

Diversions is a set of three miniature movements, neo-Classical in feel, arranged in the traditional order of a sonata (fast-slow-fast). Here Rathbun isn’t writing an elegy or telling a love story; the piece is called an “interesting, listenable, and challenging oboe duet,”[1] and it’s an apt description. Pasculli wrote in order to remedy a lack of virtuosic oboe pieces, and Rathbun, a similar lack of clever, playful, accessible new music for the oboe. The two oboe parts share melodic and accompanimental material fairly equally, the lines dove-tailing, overlapping, and swerving around each other, and both explore the high and low reaches of the oboe as well as multiphonic effects. As a whole, the piece plays with the range of effects available to the oboe, and also explores the unity of sound which the two instruments can achieve.

Characteristics of the first movement, marked Allegretto, include wide leaps, syncopation, grace notes, and snappy 16th-note interjections. Neither conventionally tonal nor decidedly atonal, the movement and piece as a whole move not through chord progressions but instead through a series of pitch centers.

The second movement, Lento, pairs a slow melody, lyrical despite plentiful leaps and a series of tremolos, and the two parts are extremely unified here As the movement progresses, after a brief increase in energy it becomes ever more restrained. The range of the melodic theme is lowered and condensed, and the movement ends on a multiphonic approximation of a major triad.

The third movement, marked Vigoroso, is the most energetic of the three. With a syncopated and jazzy (theme 1), perpetual motion (theme 2) feel punctuated by rapid arpeggios (theme 3), and multiphonics, the movement looks back to the second movement of Poulenc’s Sonata. The themes, rather than being developed, are fragmented and reduced; for example, the first and third themes combine into a three-against-four pattern of scale fragments, and the second becomes almost purely rhythmic. Despite the multitude of motives, there is a steady and dramatic drive to the piece’s finish, where aspects of all three movements combine and whirl into the piece’s final note, a unison middle C.

[1] Jeanne Belfy, review of Color Factory,

For expanded analysis or citation info, please contact me by leaving a comment on this post, or emailing of [dot] polyhymnia [at] gmail [dot] com. Please credit Rachel Becker if using quotes/specific information from these notes.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Antonio Pasculli, Fantasia due sopra motivi dell ‘opera “Un ballo in maschera” di Verdi: Program Notes

Fantasia due sopra motivi dell ‘opera “Un ballo in maschera” di Verdi – Antonio Pasculli (c.1900)
Antonio Pasculli (13 October 1842-23 February 1924) began his musical career as a performer, and it seems likely that most of his impetus for composing was the lack of sufficiently virtuosic music for the oboe and English horn. Pasculli declared himself the “Paganini of the oboe,”[1] and the title seems to have been well deserved. His extant compositions, which include ten fantasias, nine of these on operatic themes, are mostly for oboe and piano, but Pasculli also composed many arrangements, now lost, for the wind orchestra of Palermo, which he conducted.[2] In addition to his solo career, which began in 1856 and lasted until 1884 when he was forced to retire because of sight problems, Pasculli was professor of oboe and English horn at the Regio Conservatorio di Palermo from 1860 until 1913.[3]

The opera paraphrase or fantasia for solo instrument and piano was a popular form at the end of the 19th century, and the virtuosity of Pasculli’s compositions is characteristic. While the choice of English horn rather than oboe for both this piece and Pasculli’s first Fantasia on “Un ballo” is rather unusual – of Pasculli’s nineteen surviving pieces only three include English horn – Verdi was the composer most frequently used in Pasculli’s fantasias. Fantasia due uses six themes from “Un ballo,” focusing on the love triangle between Ricardo, the hero; Renato, the villain; and Amelia, the heroine and Renato’s wife. However, Pasculli changes the order in which the themes appear in order to manipulate the narrative of the opera.

The piece opens with the opera prelude’s opening theme, but the English horn melody and piano accompaniment give way quickly to an English horn cadenza which leads into a prolonged statement of Ricardo’s first aria, “La rivedrà,” in which Ricardo sings of his love for Amelia, his “star”. Here the piano plays a florid accompaniment as well as a low, ominous statement of the music from Ricardo and Renato’s duet. The English horn remains unconcerned with this hint of tragedy, launching into a second cadenza and restatement of Ricardo’s aria, here accompanied by jaunty music from Amelia and Ricardo’s love scene in the second act. However, this reprieve is short-lived. While the English horn continues to elaborate on Ricardo’s aria, the piano plays both Renato’s music and the melody of Ricardo’s aria, drawing the English horn into the ominous duet. This slowly fades out, and after a pause, Amelia enters the scene.

Here Pasculli breaks from chronological order, introducing the music from Amelia’s Act Three aria, “Morrò, ma prima in grazia,” in which Amelia, threatened with death by Renato, asks that she be allowed to see her son before she dies. This theme is the emotional heart of the fantasia, opening up the English horn’s dynamic and expressive range. “Mournful English horn obbligato…is a traditional pointer of the isolated heroine,”[4] but here Pasculli merges the two, giving the English horn a note for note statement of Amelia’s lament, complete with phrasing, articulation, and many of the aria’s dynamics. The col canto piano alternates between simple chordal accompaniment and short echoes and harmonizations of the English horn melody. The section ends with a reworked, though vocalistic cadenza, before an abrupt change of mood occurs.

The tragedy of the opera seems imminent, with Ricardo and Amelia dead as a result of Renato’s jealousy, as music of Ricardo and Renato’s duet returns in the piano under a virtuosic sixteenth-passage for the English horn. However, despite the flashiness of this section, which implies a drive to the piece’s close, Pasculli is unwilling to submit to the opera’s story. The music of Ricardo and Amelia’s love scene returns in the English horn, and though the ominous music of Renato’s duet briefly surfaces in the piano it is quickly surpassed by additional themes from Ricardo and Amelia’s scene. Over these, the English horn’s second virtuosic passage expands on a sunny F-Major arpeggio. A final statement of Renato’s duet music, rhythmically augmented and sapped of energy, is overcome by four measures of repeated tonic chords. In the world of Pasculli’s fantasia, love at last triumphs over tragedy.

[1] Days of Bliss are in Store, Anna Pennington, Dissertation, The Florida State University College of Music, p 1.
[2] Days of Bliss, pp 58-9.
[3] Preface to Hofmeister edition of Fantasia due, Christian Schneider.
[4] "Un ballo in Maschera," The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition.

For citation info, please contact me by leaving a comment on this post, or emailing of [dot] polyhymnia [at] gmail [dot] com. Please credit Rachel Becker if using quotes/specific information from these notes.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Francis Poulenc, Oboe Sonata: Program Notes

Oboe Sonata – Francis Poulenc (1962)

Francis Poulenc (7 Jan 1899 – 30 Jan 1963) was a prolific composer of secular and religious music, including operas, ballets, orchestral and chamber music, and music for choirs and solo or chamber voices.

Many of the compositions of Poulenc’s later years are religious vocal works, including Dialogues des Carmelites, Gloria, and Sept Repons. These pieces were representative of Poulenc’s mental state, one of religious intensity coupled with a fear of death, decay, and illness, and have been described as “Poulenc’s own death music.”[1] His explorations of the multiple aspects of religion are evident in the “sweetness and transfiguration” of Sept Repons, the “sedative” and “consciously escapist” qualities of Gloria, and Dialogues’ “fear of death.” [2] Yet as he aged, it was this last aspect, as well as the portions of Sept Repons which deal with rage instead of joy, which prevailed, and these ideas appear in his instrumental works as well.

Following in the tradition of fellow French composers Debussy and Saint-Saens, whose last works were wind sonatas, the Oboe Sonata was Poulenc’s last composition, premiered in 1963 after his death. Written in memory of Sergei Prokofiev, the piece follows in the footsteps of Sept Repons, angry, urgent, and “very interior.” Despite his religiousness, in his later pieces Poulenc creates “a religious atmosphere [that is] no consolation, faced by the proximity of death,” and this is evident in the Oboe Sonata.

In the Sonata, the traditional sequence of movements is inverted, resulting in a slow-fast-slow pattern which allows for a somber conclusion. As with Sept Repons, here the music is very personal, creating the feeling that “we overhear as much as hear.” The movements move from Elégie to Scherzo to Déploration, from the melancholic to the frantic to pensive grieving, creating the feeling of a memento mori.

Following a short, unaccompanied fragment, Elégie, written in a modified ABA form, opens with a lyrical, nostalgic oboe melody which recalls the frequent use of the oboe in pastoral writing. Following this the mood abruptly shifts, moving into minor and introducing a ff theme in double-dotted rhythm which rages against the reality of death. This B section alternates between ff and pp before returning to a p statement of the A theme. However, this is not long lasting, and the B theme returns in a short coda before the movement dies away, ending on a pp long tone in the oboe.

The second movement, Scherzo, though also in ABA form provides an abrupt change of mood, introducing a “perpetual motion” feeling that is perhaps a nod to Prokofiev. The perpetual motion machine here is a bit off, interspersing 9/8 measures into the 6/8 theme, and clipping or adding to the ends of phrases; the effect is one of slight mania. The second theme of the A section reintroduces the first movement’s arpeggio motif, here uneven yet cyclical. A rude outburst closes the A section, and the movement abruptly changes mood. The B section presents a gentle, tonal contrast, featuring an expansive melody in which the angry arpeggios of the opening are transformed into an airy, peaceful theme. However, this reprieve is short-lived, and the frantic perpetual motion machine returns, leading to a closing outburst.

In another dramatic change, Déploration takes the airy B theme of the second movement and condenses it. The melody has a high tessitura and falls completely within an octave. The music in this movement varies widely in dynamics, moving rapidly from pp to ff, as well as from major to minor, but the effect is neither show nor mania. Instead, the movement is a lament, and the effect is of intense, intensely personal grief. Again in ABA form, the B section quotes the first movement, themes condensed in range and stretched in time, creating a mounting plea. Here the emotions of the movement reach their peak. Following this, the A section returns in an exact though transposed quote of the movement’s opening material. After this the melody is further condensed in range, and the final statement of the piece is contained within a diminished fourth. The dynamics are similarly reduced, ranging from pp to ppp, and the music dies away on a long tone in the oboe, harmonically unresolved.

[1] All quotes from Francis Poulenc, Benjamin Ivry
[2] Final quote from “Dialogues des Carmelites,” Claude Gendre, Francis Poulenc: Music, Art, and Literature, ed. Buckland and Chimènes.

For expanded analysis or citation info, please contact me by leaving a comment on this post, or emailing of [dot] polyhymnia [at] gmail [dot] com. Please credit Rachel Becker if using quotes/specific information from these notes.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

11 days

There are 11 days until my recital, so I'm alternating between feeling very prepared and panicking. Last Thursday I started doing full run-throughs, which are making me feel much better: I can feel myself making progress as I end up less and less utterly exhausted by the end each time. I don't have much to say right now about audition preparations, but I don't hate my music and I usually don't despair of my musical abilities, so I think I'm doing pretty well.

I've submitted my programs, and sent my poster off to the copy shop, I have a stage manager (though no ushers yet), my strings have finally got what they're wearing straightened out. All I have to do now is organize the reception, and keep practicing, which is good because my week is about to get quite a bit busier.

It's concert week for the Berlioz concert, and my last of my undergraduate career. I'm not sure yet if I'll get sniffly after the concert or if I'll move straight on to "6 days until my recital!"

I hardly want to say anything about reeds, because at this point I'm worried about jinxing myself, but I'm certainly having good luck with the school's gouging machine. I was actually quite worried that, as the results are quite different from the cane I'd been purchasing from Jeanne and liking, I would suddenly be unable to make any successful reeds. But I think that my reeds have actually been better for the change. At the very least they've been better suited for the highly dramatic (and frequently a little wild-edged) music on my recital program; the tips are longer, I think, and the reeds are coming out brighter but somehow more controlled.

Last week and weekend I played a gig with the school chorus, which was great fun. I played second oboe on Beethoven's Choral Fantasy. I had never heard the piece, which takes the emotional tricks which frequent the symphonies and removes everything else, but I really loved it. It was a little insubstantial, and Beethoven blatantly stole from it to create his Ninth Symphony, but it was certainly effective. And the moment when the full chorus, 6 soloists, piano, and full orchestra played a fortissimo chord which shifted from c minor to C major? Utterly wonderful. It was a really good gig, actually. The orchestra was very small (strings in 3s), and, with the exception of three students, all professionals. Plus, it was pretty amazing to be able to play accurate dynamics in a piece with a choir.

I'm still waiting to hear back from CCM - though Dr. Ostoich did return my email and let me know that he's still waiting to hear final decisions, but that I'm among the top students on the waitlist - and still vacillating about what I'll do next year assuming that I don't get off of the waitlist.

Over the next few days I'm going to post the program notes for my recital up here. It may seem a little presumptuous to think that anyone wants them, but when I was doing my research I was really struck by how little information there was online about the pieces (For example, a few times when searching this blog came up fairly high just from me mentioning the pieces), and program notes are a very convenient format.