WDAV Blog

The father of the tone poem

By Lawrence Toppman

We take tone poems in classical music for granted today. Think of lovers swooning and dying during Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” overture. Liszt composed 13 symphonic poems, including works that aurally describe Orpheus, Hamlet and Prometheus. Berlioz wrote the longest popular piece of program music when he depicted a witches’ sabbath, march to the scaffold and other settings in Symphonie Fantastique.

Mussorgsky summoned an art gallery full of paintings in “Pictures at an Exhibition.” The modern equivalents are film soundtracks, where John Williams can reinforce the flying chaos of a quidditch match or the horrors of an encounter with Voldemort in “Harry Potter” scores.

So where did this trend start? I’d say it began in 1808 with Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. (Guest conductor JoAnn Falletta was supposed to lead the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in performances April 3-5, with Wieniawski’s Second Violin Concerto and Kodaly’s “Dances of Galánta.” She may yet, as the CSO hopes to reschedule cancelled concerts.)

Baroque and Classical era composers portrayed nonmusical things before that, of course. Telemann recreated animal sounds in his “Cricket” symphony and “The Frogs” overture. Handel offered visions of biblical plagues – the buzzing flies work especially well – in the oratorio “Israel in Egypt.” Composers often used martial instruments and rhythms to convey military actions; Beethoven himself did that in “Wellington’s Victory,” his 1813 “battle symphony” for a concert benefiting Austrian and Bavarian soldiers wounded at the Battle of Hanau.

Yet all 45 minutes of his Pastoral Symphony reveal Beethoven’s impressions of nature. He loved to walk in the country, believing it helped alleviate his deafness. He titled the movements to carry the listener through an afternoon he’d have enjoyed, interrupted by tense moments but ending in joy: “Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside,” “Scene by the brook,” “Merry gathering of country folk,” “Thunder; Storm,” “Shepherd’s song; Cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm.” If you’ve seen “Fantasia,” with its centaurs and cupids and tipsy Bacchus, you know Disney’s abbreviated, cheesy interpretation.

Nobody before Beethoven had written so long a programmatic piece, one that depicted places and events in every note. The idea took a while to catch fire, but Mendelssohn produced his overture to Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1826. (He finished an hour-long score in 1842.) Berlioz wrote Symphonie Fantastique in 1830 in five movements, as Beethoven had done in his Pastoral. The floodgates opened, and we’ve seen “pictures in music” ever since.

Symphonies from Your Sofa: Classical Concerts and Operas to Stream from Home

Updated March 26, 2020.

Because listeners rely on WDAV as a source of peace and comfort, we’re making extraordinary changes to ensure our 24 hour classical music service can operate as expected during the current public health situation. However, we understand that many of our listeners are missing the thrill of live performance as they adopt protective measures against COVID-19. 

As countless live events are canceled or postponed, many arts organizations worldwide have chosen to offer streamable performances online in place of their typical fare. In support of the arts community’s perseverance, we’ve compiled a list of classical streaming resources viewers can enjoy while practicing safe social distancing. 

LOCAL

Charlotte New Music: New Music Open Mic (This event has passed.)
The Charlotte New Music Open Mic scheduled for Tuesday, March 24 will now be live streamed. This series welcomes “professional, amateur, and student musicians and composers… (to share) music that they typically don’t get to perform or hear.”


NATIONAL

Detroit Symphony Orchestra: DSO Replay
The Detroit Symphony Orchestra announced that DSO Replay, its on-demand video streaming archive of past performances, is now open to the public free of charge. The service includes dozens of taped live performances, interviews with visiting artists, and music education resources for budding musicians at home.

Metropolitan Opera: Nightly Opera Streams
For the duration of the Met’s closure, selections from the Live in HD cinema series will stream nightly for free on the Metropolitan Opera website

Seattle Symphony: Live Broadcasts
The Seattle Symphony will share live streamed performances and resources via YouTube and Facebook in response to the pandemic. More details will be announced here

Lincoln Center: Lincoln Center at Home
Lincoln Center is offering a huge variety of live streamed and archived events via its newly announced Lincoln Center at Home initiative, including concerts, workshops and lectures for all ages, and educational resources.


INTERNATIONAL

Berlin Philharmonic: Digital Concert Hall
Normally a paid service, the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall is free until March 31 with the code BERLINPHIL. Users gain access to more than 40 HD broadcasts each season and hundreds of archived concerts to watch in the meantime. 

Wiener Staatsoper: live@home
The Wiener Staatsoper will broadcast one archived opera performance free of charge each night through its live@home feature. Upcoming performances can be viewed many others

London Symphony Orchestra: Full-Length Concerts
While their regular venue remains closed, the London Symphony Orchestra will begin streaming full-length concerts for free twice a week at a yet-to-be-determined date. More details will be announced here

Decca Classics: Live Performances from Decca Artists
Decca Artists Ray Chen (violin), Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello), and Voces8 (choral) are offering live streamed performances from various platforms. If you can’t watch live, check the platform where each performance was streamed for an archived video.

Ray Chen: YouTube Live
Thursday, March 26
4:00 PM EST

The Kanneh-Mason Family:
Live on Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s Facebook page
Friday, March 27
12:30 PM EST

Voces8: Facebook Live
Saturday, March 28
10:00 AM EST

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

A List Of Live Virtual Concerts To Watch During The Coronavirus Shutdown (NPR): A comprehensive, regularly updated, day-by-day listing of live virtual concerts divided by genre. 

Check before you go: These Charlotte events and destinations are closed due to COVID-19 (Charlotte Observer): Live updates on Charlotte cancellations and closures. 

OperaVision: This platform live streams and hosts recordings of carefully curated opera productions throughout Europe, all free to access. 

StageIt Livestream Service: A live streaming platform that serves performing artists of all disciplines. 

Music Everywhere CLT announces Music Anywhere: Charlotte-area musicians, bands, and venues can easily add their live streamed events to this virtual concert series.

Get the latest COVID-19 information from the CDC 

Please note: This is not an exhaustive list. If you have additional resources or live stream opportunities to add, please contact Mary Lathem at malathem@wdav.org.

“Wendy:” A Peter Pan for modern America

By Lawrence Toppman

However cheerful the musical and animated versions may be, “Peter Pan” has a core of sorrow.

The title character can never form a lasting relationship; he jaunts from pleasure to pleasure, with a past he can barely remember and a future he cannot contemplate. The children who visit his Island of Lost Boys realize that responsibilities encroach on everyone else, hair turns gray, childhood thrills become half-forgotten memories that cannot be recaptured. “Real” life has compensatory beauties but also drawbacks, and you can’t escape those.

Benh Zeitlin (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) has directed his second feature in eight years in “Wendy,” working successfully again with untried young actors. He updates the story to an unnamed Southern location – he shot much of the film in Louisiana, some in the Caribbean – and Peter (steely-eyed Yashua Mack) no longer flies into the lives of the Darling children. He arrives atop a steam-belching train, a stowaway encouraging them to run off from their dead-end town to a place where no one needs to grow up.

Wendy (intense Devin France) and her genial twin brothers (Gage and Gavin Naquin) take that ride and land in a place where kids play eternally. Inhabitants have limited magical powers, expressed mostly in partial dominion over their environment. (So did the young heroine in “Beasts.” Both movies insist happiness requires harmony between humans and Nature.)

The presence of an immense, glowing aquatic creature they call “Mother” keeps them young. Thoughts that bring discontent, doubt and fear make them old: Fail to delight in Peter’s process, and you become one of the aged wrecks rambling around the dusty edges of his green isle. Wendy decides to help both kids and crusty elders find happiness in the real world, but salvation depends on cooperation.

Zeitlin co-wrote the music with Dan Romer and the script with Eliza Zeitlin, his wife; she also handled production design. “Wendy” benefits from a low-key personal vision that’s long on concept and short on details, though we don’t really require them. Why Peter came to his tiny fiefdom and how he ascended to authority don’t matter; we need only to understand that no one can become a full human being without leaving it.

Scottish author J.M. Barrie wrote his play “Peter Pan” in 1904, three years after Queen Victoria died. The movement for Scottish home rule had stirred two decades earlier, so perhaps he was metaphorically urging Britain to grow up and abandon the idea of stomping around the world, doing whatever it pleased in its self-declared empire.

Zeitlin’s subtle interpretation arrives in a United States disunited by immaturity and selfishness. Could he be encouraging us to behave more like adults and less like spoiled brats for whom no day of reckoning will ever come?

Video: WENDY official trailer

Pictured: (Top, From L-R): Devin France, Gavin Naquin, Gage Naquin, Romyri Ross and Yashua Mack in the film WENDY. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

The grim Beethoven? Partly a myth.

By Lawrence Toppman

I have studied 46 images online of Beethoven, ranging from his teenage years to his death mask. Every painting, sculpture and drawing has one thing in common: He’s never smiling.

It’s as if showing him with a cheerful expression would be a sacrilege against music. That recalls the furor around Fred Berger’s illustration of a laughing Jesus, which accompanied a commentary by theologian Harvey Cox in 1969: The Messiah hadn’t come to Earth to have a good time! (The fuss arose partly because the piece ran at Christmas in Playboy, which of course I bought for the articles.)

Beethoven seems to be treated the same way: We must furrow our brows alongside his to pay homage to his somber genius. We’ll grant him a celestial benevolence in the finale of the Ninth Symphony, where he contemplates the brotherhood of humanity. But no laughing!

Yet nobody can be completely human without a sense of humor, and Beethoven had one. He’s merry over and over, from the finale of the “Pastoral” Symphony (where peasants rejoice at surviving a thunderstorm) to the sprightly third movements of the “Emperor” Concerto and Violin Concerto. In the last movement of his Symphony No. 1, after a moment of misleading gravity, the violins burst forth with a grin.

He’s clearly smiling in the earliest third of “Fidelio.” A suitor pines comically for a jailer’s daughter; she yearns for her father’s new employee, who’s a married woman in drag. The opera quickly turns serious, but we’ve had a chuckle first.

He didn’t always choose texts for the English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish songs he composed by the dozens. But when they’re silly, mildly bawdy or flirtatious, his tunes faithfully establish those moods without irony or dark shadings.

Even his orchestral music contains moments of rude wit and swagger. I had a music professor who considered the opening of the fourth movement of Symphony No. 2, a cheeky flutter of wind and strings, the equivalent of a raspberry — Beethoven blowing a rude noise at his prosperous audience.

Beethoven often enjoyed Mozart’s comic operas and told Rossini in 1822 he had read “Il Barbieri di Siviglia” with much pleasure. (By then, he could no longer hear it.) He may not have laughed or made us laugh very often, but the spirit definitely moved him from time to time.

Review: Pixar moves “Onward” with a comic tale of magic

By Lawrence Toppman

In the two years since John Lasseter left Pixar after sexual harassment claims, the animation studio has produced two features for Disney without its founder.

“Toy Story 4,” an excuse to revisit characters from a beloved franchise, won a nostalgia-driven Oscar without breaking any ground. “Onward” represents an attempt to go in a different direction. It’s a little more daring, more inclined to skirt the expected happy ending for a realistic one, if that word can be used about a story containing dragons and trolls. If it doesn’t rank with “Up” or “Frozen,” it’s refreshing in a dry Hollywood season.

Executive producer Pete Docter has assumed Lasseter’s role here. He directed the great “Inside Out” and knows that virtually every Pixar movie is about family: trying to find one, preserve one, rebuild or reunite one, create one from improbable connections. The definition of “family” has broadened over the years to include a lesbian Cyclops and a centaur in love with an elf, but we all pursue love where we find it.

Elf brothers Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) discover a spell that can bring their long-dead father back to life for one day, giving them a sense of closure with him. It goes half-right, leaving them with a pair of legs that provide most of the sight gags.

To complete his resurrection within the 24-hour deadline, they have to find a hidden gem. They’re assisted by their plucky mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), her cop boyfriend (Mel Rodriguez) and a manticore, a creature with a human face, lion’s body and scorpion’s tail (Octavia Spencer, happily and aptly chewing the animated scenery).

“Onward” has magic aplenty to satisfy viewers weaned on video games and superhero movies. Ian and Barley suggest Frodo and Sam in “The Lord of the Rings,” one growing into adulthood as he reluctantly embarks on a mission and the other a burly, bullheaded sidekick full of good cheer. The goal, unknown to them, turns out not to be a reunion with their dead father but a union between the quarrelsome, oddly matched siblings. Spells protect and aid them, but love matters more than wizardry.

Director Dan Scanlon, who wrote the screenplay with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin, creates a world where pixies have forgotten how to fly (and become shaven-headed bikers!), unicorns eat from garbage cans, and the manticore’s flaming breath broils meat in her family restaurant.

Magic exists, yet no one but Barley believes in it. (We don’t really learn why.) The metaphoric message – look for magic in your own everyday life – comes across clunkily at times: Finding wonder in a back-yard flower hardly compares to creating an invisible bridge across a bottomless chasm. But the filmmakers’ hearts remain in the right place, a place worth visiting.

Pictured: OH BROTHERS – In Disney and Pixar’s “Onward,” two teenage elf brothers embark on an extraordinary quest to discover if there is still a little magic left in the world. Featuring Tom Holland as the voice of Ian Lightfoot, and Chris Pratt as the voice of Ian’s older brother, Barley, “Onward” opens in U.S. theaters on March 6, 2020. ©2019 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

How Self-Acceptance Became the Secret to Beethoven’s Success

By Heidi North

As we continue our celebration of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary, I’ve been focused on the remarkable ways Beethoven’s music flourished despite what should have been a career-ending disability. In 1798, just as he was entering the height of his popularity, Beethoven began to lose his hearing, losing it entirely by 1816.

Though he lived during the era of Enlightenment, a period that saw a positive shift in how people viewed the disabled in society, Beethoven suffered from rampant ableism. The affliction cost him marriage proposals, most notably the Countess Guilietta Guicciardi, whose father refused Beethoven because he believed the composer’s deafness would prevent him from composing. Beethoven lost many friendships due to his depression and self-isolation from society as deafness set in. He would snap piano strings from violent playing to hear the music, ending his ability to perform live.

In 1802, during a visit to Heiligenstadt, Vienna, Beethoven wrote a letter to his brothers Carl and Johan, known as the Heiligenstadt Testament. In this account, Beethoven lamented his afflictions, his mental anguish, and that he had contemplated suicide. He had decided in the end to go on living for his art.

To compose, he lowered pianos to the ground and played with a pencil in his mouth, both in order to hear the vibrations of the notes. He pressed his ears on the piano keys to try to hear the music. Sometimes, he would compose for days on end, sticking his head in buckets of ice water to stay awake, and to sharpen his other functioning senses. He wrote pieces in lower scales because he could no longer hear high notes. He used ear trumpets, with one strapped to his head at times, and carried a notebook so that he could converse in writing with others.

If you listen closely to Beethoven’s music, you can hear these struggles, especially in the opening dissonance of the 3rd symphony, the tragic melody of the 7th symphony’s second movement, and the infamous “fate knocking at the door” theme of the 5th symphony. You can hear his triumphs in the comedic last movement of the 8th symphony, the overcoming of hardship in Fidelio, and the sound of freedom in the fearless Ninth Symphony. Most importantly, you can hear the heroic fruits of Beethoven’s never-ending persistence in working with, not against his disability.

Arts Feature: Hosts Share Musical Works Inspired by the Sculptures of Auguste Rodin

The Van Every-Smith Galleries at Davidson College have a significant exhibit that runs January 23rd through April 5th. Auguste Rodin: Truth Form Life features 22 works by the French sculptor who, at his peak, many regarded as the greatest since Michelangelo.

Rodin’s career covered a period that saw extraordinary change not only in the visual arts but also in music. The hosts were inspired by works featured in the collection and share what music came to mind.


   
Myelita Melton

Myelita Melton, Afternoon Host, shares her thoughts on:

   
RODIN: Large Hand of a Pianist

Large Hand of a Pianist
modeled 1885; Musée Rodin cast 9 in 1969 bronze;
Georges Rudier Foundry lent by Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation

AUGUSTE RODIN
French, 1840 – 1917

   

August Rodin’s sculptures are always bold. They exhibit strong, graceful lines, andare “larger-than-life” interpretations of the human form.

Rodin often sculpted a single body part so he could concentrate on it before moving on to a larger work encompassing more of the human body. His Large Hand of a Pianist falls into this category.

When I look at this sculpture, I immediately notice the gracefully curved wrist and the fingers which are poised to strike the piano’s keys. There is strength in this hand, yet there is also a delicate, almost playful way the hand is poised to caress the keyboard. Rodin’s Large Hand of a Pianist brings to mind the many (more than you’d imagine) compositions for piano left hand. Because Rodin’s hand displays strength and agility, it makes me think of Camille Saint-Saens Études for Piano Left Hand.

Only through continued practice with the left hand, could an artist gain the strength and flexibility needed to be on the concert stage. Rodin’s Left Hand of a Pianist demonstrates all the physical attributes a great pianist would need.


   
Frank Dominguez

Frank Dominguez, General Manager and Content Director, shares his thoughts on:

   
Rodin: Monumental Torso of the Walking Man

Monumental Torso of the Walking Man
modeled about 1905;
Musée Rodin cast 1/8 in 1985
bronze; Godard Foundry
lent by Iris Cantor

AUGUSTE RODIN
French, 1840 – 1917

   

The Monumental Torso of the Walking Man by Auguste Rodin evokes in my imagination Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. The composer was just a child when Rodin created this work in 1905. Nevertheless, its bold modeling, bronze casting, and the figure’s majestic proportions are all complemented elegantly by this music.

   
   
Mike McKay

Mike McKay, Morning Host, shares his thoughts on:

   
RODIN: Monumental Head of Jean D’Aire

Monumental Head of Jean D’Aire
modeled about 1908-09, enlarged 1909-10; Musée Rodin cast 5 in 1978?
bronze; Georges Rudier Foundry
lent by Iris Cantor

AUGUSTE RODIN
French, 1840 – 1917

   

The sculpture of Jean D’Aire is one of six done by Rodin to commemorate six citizens of Calais who offered themselves as hostages to the English in hopes the Brits would end a siege of Calais.  The music that comes to mind is Tchaikovsky’s Meditation from Memories of a Dear Place. I choose it because there could never be more generous proof of how “dear” Calais is to Jean D’Aire than his offering his freedom (and probably his life) so that the city would be delivered from its attackers.

   
   
Rachel Stewart

Rachel Stewart, Host of Biscuits and Bach, shares her thoughts on:

   
RODIN: Metamorphoses of Ovid

Metamorphoses of Ovid
modeled about 1885-89; cast 10, perhaps 1897
bronze; Perzinka Foundry
lent by Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation

AUGUSTE RODIN
French, 1840 – 1917

   

Rodin’s Ovid’s Metamorphoses (ca. 1886) was originally created as part of his monumental Gates of Hell. It depicts a passionate embrace between Hermaphroditus and the nymph Salmacis as described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The overtly erotic nature of the work which, beyond the embrace, also shows the male and female bodies uniting into one and suggests gender fluidity, was a direct challenge to the Victorian mores of the day.

Echoes of Rodin’s sensibility in Ovid can also be found in Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894), a work many consider the first modern composition. It’s based on a poem of the same name by Stéphane Mallarmé, and it also depicts mythical figures engaged in erotic pursuits. The faun — half man, half goat — is reminiscent of the dual gendered Hermaphroditus, and like Hermaphoditus, he finds himself seduced by a nymph.

In both of these artistic creations one can see the beginnings of a new modern era in western culture. Through daring originality of both form and content, Rodin and Debussy invite a re-evaluation of the status quo.

   
   
Ted Weiner

Ted Weiner, Music Director, shares his thoughts on:

   
RODIN: Heroic Bust of Victor Hugo

Heroic Bust of Victor Hugo
modeled 1890-97 or 1901-02;
Musée Rodin cast 7 in 1981
bronze; Coubertin Foundry
lent by Iris Cantor

AUGUSTE RODIN
French, 1840 – 1917

   

A number of composers have written music inspired by the literature of Victor Hugo. Hugo’s novels, plays and poems have been a great source of inspiration for musicians, stirring them to create not only opera and ballet but musical theatre such as Notre-Dame de Paris and the ever-popular Les Misérables.

We often forget that Amilcare Ponchielli’s most popular work, his 1876 opera, La Gioconda, was based on Hugo’s 1835 play in prose, Angelo, Tyrant of Padua. The opera contains the famous ballet sequence, Dance of the Hours, which was recreated in its entirety in Walt Disney’s 1940 classic film, Fantasia. The ballet is also the musical source for a famous satirical song by Spike Jones and His City Slickers and Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah by Allan Sherman.


To learn more about the Auguste Rodin: Truth Form Life, click here. And listen to 89.9 WDAV during middays each week to hear some of the musical works that premiered around the time of Rodin’s magnificent sculptures.

The Mass-terpiece We Seldom Hear

By Lawrence Toppman

Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, which premiered in 1824 after nearly five years of labor, breaks ground in more ways than you’d expect.

First, it’s longer than any significant mass up to that date except Bach’s Mass in B Minor, which was seldom heard in Beethoven’s lifetime. Second, it uses four soloists but doesn’t give anyone except the soprano a sustained, memorable melody.

Third, sacred music gets interrupted by secular elements. The Sanctus includes a long violin solo with orchestral accompaniment — almost a mini-concerto – that’s the most beautiful moment in the piece for me but raised the ire of purists. They were no happier about the war march in the Agnus Dei, where drums and trumpets interrupt the final prayer for peace. (This may have been inspired by Beethoven’s long fascination with Napoleon, who wasn’t subdued until 1815.)

Fourth, Beethoven didn’t care whether the Missa was done in a concert hall or a church; he sanctioned the performances of separate movements in concerts and repackaged the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei as “Three Grand Hymns with Solo and Chorus Voices.” We commonly encounter masses and requiems in theaters now, but that wasn’t the fashion 200 years ago.

You’ll get a rare chance to hear it when the Charlotte Symphony performs Missa Solemnis March 6 and 7 at Belk Theater. I know only one of the soloists – soprano Christina Pier, the best thing about Opera Carolina’s 2019 “Carmen” – but a lot of the emotional weight will come from Charlotte Master Chorale, the only chorus locally that could do justice to this monster.

Scholars question the nature of Beethoven’s faith, though not whether he had faith: He often spoke of a loving God who wanted the best for humanity.

Though he was raised a Roman Catholic, he didn’t attend mass regularly. He’d spent a year studying older forms of church music (notably Palestrina’s) when he undertook the Missa to honor Archduke Rudolf, his most famous pupil and patron. It was supposed to mark Rudolf’s installation as Archbishop of Olmütz in 1820, but Beethoven missed the deadline so far that it premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1824.

Perhaps Beethoven’s philosophy can best be summed up by his dedication to Rudolf: “Von Herzen—Möge es wieder—Zu Herzen gehn!” “From the heart – may it return to the heart!” That’s the wisest way to embrace any of Beethoven’s masterpieces.

Pictured: Charlotte Master Chorale image courtesy of John Cosmas/Charlotte Master Chorale.