Archive for the ‘Orchestral Piece’ Category

First Wednesday: December 1968

Wednesday, December 5th, 2018

In this space ten years ago, I put up a series of monthly posts looking at the year of 1968, then forty years gone. I thought it would be interesting to rerun those posts this year as we mark the fiftieth anniversary of that remarkable and often horrifying year. We’ll correct errors or update information as necessary, but the historic portion of the posts will otherwise be unchanged. As to music, we’ll also update our examination of charts from fifty years ago if necessary and then, when possible, share the same full albums from 1968 as we did ten years ago, but this time – as is our habit now – as YouTube videos. The posts will appear on the first Wednesday of each month 

It’s not like nothing happened in December of 1968.

Harsh new governing measures were adopted December 13 by the military government in Brazil, measures that were in place for ten years. California’s Zodiac Killer is said to have shot his first two of at least seven confirmed victims – David Arthur Faraday, 17, and Betty Lou Jensen, 16 – on December 20 in the city of Benicia, California. In an event that still echoes for us every time we sit at our desks, inventor Douglas Engelbart publicly demonstrated on December 9 his pioneering computer hyperlink system. And most certainly, other events of the month damaged or influenced people’s lives around the world in ways that still reverberate today.

But December 1968, at least from where a current events-savvy Midwestern boy of fifteen watched, was a fairly uneventful month. Coming at the end of a year that saw an escalating war, two assassinations, riots and a bitter national election, the quiet month made it feel like the nation, having drawn so many anxious breaths in the eleven months just past, could finally release its breath in a sigh of relief. Not that there hadn’t been damage; there had been, much of it grievous. But all the madness seemed to be ending.

And maybe that’s why the most historically significant event of the month seemed to be almost like a benediction:

On December 24, Christmas Eve, the U.S. spacecraft Apollo 8 became the first vehicle to enter orbit around the moon. The three-man crew – Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders – became the first humans to see the far side of the moon. The crew also became the first humans to see the Earth rise above the moon and captured the moment in a remarkable photo. And in a memorable live broadcast from lunar orbit that evening, Borman read to the world the account of creation from the book of Genesis, the first book of the Christian Bible. Borman closed the broadcast – at the time, the most-watched television broadcast in history – with: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, and a Merry Christmas to all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

As appropriate as that Christmas Eve message was (if a good deal less than multi-cultural), and as historic as that first orbit of the moon was, I think the most important thing that Apollo 8 did was show us the Earth rising over the moon’s horizon.

apollo08_earthrise

Later Apollo flights gave us pictures of the Earth alone. I included in my December 1968 post something I’d written more than a year earlier about those later photos: 

“Such images have become so commonplace – in advertising and elsewhere – in the thirty-nine years since that it’s hard for those who did not experience it to understand just how electrifying and humbling it was to see for the first time all of the earth at one moment. That image – of the blue earth hanging alone in the black of space – underlined to me, and, I think, to many, how alone we are and how this small earth is all we have, a lesson that I think we need to relearn.”

Of course, it’s been forty fifty years now, but the lesson, I think, remains.

Even in a month that provided us a new perspective on our dwelling place and, one hopes, ourselves, there were Earth-bound pursuits and pleasures. On December 3, Elvis Presley starred in Elvis, a special NBC television broadcast now frequently referred to as Elvis’ “Comeback Special.” The broadcast featured the performer sometimes with a large orchestra and sometimes in a more intimate setting with a small group, performing in a way that music fans hadn’t really seen in nearly ten years. In a music world that had changed immeasurably from the time Presley went into the U.S. Army in the late 1950s and emerged to – mostly – star in mediocre movies, Presley was, after his special, relevant again. As Wikipedia notes: “The live segments of the ’68 Comeback Special in particular gave the audience more than a glimpse of Presley’s charismatic and emotionally charged performing style that won him his first fans in the 1950s.”

So what was it we were listening to at the end of the week that Elvis took to the stage again? Here’s the top fifteen from the Billboard Hot 100 of December 7, 1968:

“Love Child” by Diana Ross & the Supremes
“Hey Jude” by the Beatles
“For Once In My Life” by Stevie Wonder
“I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye
“Who’s Making Love” by Johnnie Taylor
“Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf
“Abraham, Martin & John” by Dion
“Wichita Lineman” by Glen Campbell
“Stormy” by the Classics IV featuring Dennis Yost
“Those Were The Days” by Mary Hopkin
“I Love How You Love Me” by Bobby Vinton
“Hold Me Tight” by Johnny Nash
“Both Sides Now” by Judy Collins
“White Room” by Cream
“Cloud Nine” by the Temptations

That’s an almost-perfect Top Fifteen: I could get along without the Bobby Vinton, and I still have never heard – that I know of – the Johnny Nash single. [I have since heard it, and it’s all right.] The Mary Hopkin single is a little frothy, but it works, and that’s probably a good description of Judy Collins’ take on “Both Sides Now.” But boy, with those caveats, that’s an hour of radio bliss.

What did the album chart look like? Here’s the Billboard Top Ten from December 7, 1968:

Cheap Thrills by Big Brother & the Holding Company
Feliciano! by José Feliciano
Electric Ladyland by the Jimi Hendrix Experience
The Second by Steppenwolf
Time Peace/The Rascals’ Greatest Hits by the Rascals
Wheels of Fire by Cream
In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida by Iron Butterfly
The Time Has Come by the Chambers Brothers
Are You Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience
Gentle On My Mind by Glen Campbell

That’s not a lot different than the chart had been a month earlier: albums by Jefferson Airplane and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown had dropped out of the top ten, replaced by the Steppenwolf album and Electric Ladyland. It’s once more a pretty good chart with a lot of different styles. As I may have said before, I don’t think the Iron Butterfly album has aged well (a fact that I think extends to the group’s entire catalog). All-Music Guide regards Steppenwolf’s The Second as a great album, but I’m a little skeptical. Other than those quibbles, this is a great chart.

The album I’m sharing today managed to climb almost halfway into the Billboard Top 40, peaking at No. 24 during an eleven-week period that began in October of 1968. Not bad for a soundtrack album made up of classical music, some of it very adventurous.

The album was the soundtrack to the MGM film 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that still sits atop my personal list of the greatest films I’ve seen. It was not well regarded by critics at the time. (Nor did it have the respect of my contemporaries: During a bus trip to the Twin Cities by the St. Cloud Tech concert band in early 1969, we band members were asked to vote on which movie we wanted to see as the final portion of our excursion to the big city. I cast the only vote for 2001: A Space Odyssey. We went and saw Oliver! instead.) Most critics acknowledged the technical achievements demonstrated in the Stanley Kubrick-directed film, but the film’s content – or perceived lack thereof – was dismissed by many writers

Now, of course, Stanley Kubrick’s film is regarded by many critics and viewers as an eloquent allegory about the human race and its tentative steps toward greater accomplishments throughout history. And its technical achievements, amazing in 1968, remain just that.

One of Kubrick’s innovations was the use of classical music for the film’s soundtrack. A conventional soundtrack had been commissioned for the film, and I believe it was well-regarded composer Alex North who wrote that score. There are CD copies of it floating around the ’Net; I’ve heard bits of it, and it’s not bad, but it’s predictable.

Kubrick’s decision to use classical music for his film provided us with two unforgettable moments when music and image were blended into an icon: The pairing of Richard Strauss’ anthemic “Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra)” – propelled by its solo trumpet, swelling orchestra and solo tympani – with the image of the enigmatic monolith was the first iconic pairing, and the linking of the silent and subtle movements of space flight with Johann Strauss’ waltz, “The Blue Danube” was the other.

The soundtrack has its share of selections that were avant-garde in 1968 and remain less than easy to access forty years later. But it’s a fascinating collection, and if not all of the tracks remind one of the film, I think that’s the passing years. Having listened to the soundtrack a couple of times since I found it online [and many more times since I got my own copy], I plan to take a look at the film very soon, for the first time in years.

Music from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey Overture: “Atmospheres” (excerpt) by György Ligeti
Main Title: “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss
“Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo Soprano, Two Mixed Choirs & Orchestra” by György Ligeti
“The Blue Danube” (excerpt) by Johann Strauss
“Lux Aeterna” (excerpt) by György Ligeti
“Gayane Ballet Suite (Adagio) by Aram Khachaturian
“Jupiter and Beyond” (“Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo Soprano, Two Mixed Choirs & Orchestra,” “Atmospheres,” and “Adventures [altered for film]”) by György Ligeti
“Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss
“The Blue Danube” (reprise) by Johann Strauss

Supplemental tracks: “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss (This version was included on the original MGM soundtrack album in 1968 but was not used in the film.)
“Lux Aeterna” by György Ligeti (This full-length version was included on the original MGM soundtrack album in 1968 in place of the excerpt used in the film.)
“Adventures” (unaltered, full-length version) by György Ligeti
HAL 9000 (A dialogue montage featuring the HAL 9000 computer, one of the film’s central characters.)

Meeting The Maestro

Friday, March 24th, 2017

A while back – four years ago – I wrote about the Civic Music concerts my sister and I attended with my mom for maybe five years during the mid-1960s: About five times during each school year, we’d put on our Sunday clothes – nice dresses for Mom and my sister and dress shirt and pants with a sport coat and (clip-on) tie for me – and head over to St. Cloud Tech High School for a classical performance.

Those performances were almost always concerts, though once or twice the Civic Music organization offered a performance by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet to end the season. Several times the last concert of the season was by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (now the Minnesota Orchestra). And as I wrote four years ago, I recall the piano duo of Stecher & Horowitz and the Robert Shaw Chorale, and there are a few other performers whose names do not come immediately to mind but whose programs are tucked into my old scrapbook.

(In that piece four years ago, however, I ascribed performances by pianist Van Cliburn and by the Vienna Boys Choir to Civic Music; after some thought and some digging, I’ve decided those two concerts likely took place at St. Cloud State.)

I’ve noted several times in various posts here that among the performers who came through St. Cloud was Mantovani, who brought his orchestra to Tech High sometime during the 1965-1966 season, when I was twelve. I don’t have the program from that concert, but I do have an autographed postcard, one that I found a while back as I dug through that scrapbook. As was customary after the concert, Mantovani spent some time onstage while a cluster of urchins and some older folks gathered to talk and to get autographs. Mantovani, ca. 1965 As you can see, the maestro was not at all concerned with legibility. That was okay, though. I have a very clear memory of the man – his full name was Annunzio Paolo Mantovani – standing in his tuxedo near the piano, sweat beading his face as he smiled, chatted and scrawled his name on card after card.

I doubt if Mantovani said anything to me as I got to the front of the cluster of folks at the piano. From what I remember, he was smiling as he chatted with others in that cluster. (Performers weren’t always genial during meet ’n’ greet sessions after Civic Music concerts; I recall a few who seemed downright surly as they dealt with after-concert duties.) But I do not remember that I got any particular attention from Mantovani other than a smile as he handed me the signed postcard.

Even though I’ve always been a fan of easy listening music from the 1960s and 1970s, Mantovani and his cascading strings have never been among my favorites. Ray Conniff and Paul Mauriat were my easy listening guys, more or less, when I was buying vinyl. (I’m not certain if Al Hirt and Herb Alpert fall into easy listening or not, but there was a lot of their stuff on the shelves, too.) Since the advent of digital music, I’ve added Percy Faith, Enoch Light, Larry Page, Franck Pourcel and a lot of others to the list of folks whose music I seek out and whose music I listen to when I need to remember how the Sixties often sounded on Kilian Boulevard.

I have collected a little bit of Mantovani’s stuff, too, but just a bit: fifty-five tracks out of the 91,000 that now clutter the RealPlayer. It’s not that hard to find, and I imagine I’ll get some CDs from the public library and see if I want to add any more. But as I noted above, the cascading strings – Mantovani’s signature sound – isn’t my favorite.

Every once in a while, thought, it’s a nice change of pace. One of the pieces I like most among the Mantovani tracks I have in the collection is one that we very likely might have heard that evening more than fifty years ago. The concert was, if I recall correctly, mostly classical pieces as filtered through Mantovani’s arrangements, and his take on Dvorak’s “Slavonic Dance No. 2” would have fit right in. It was first released, I think, on the 1963 album Classical Encores.

My Russian Fascination

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

At the top of my reading pile these days is The Zhivago Affair, the tale of how Russian author Boris Pasternak came to write the novel Dr. Zhivago, how he came to have the novel first published in 1957 in Italy (to the absolute dismay and anger of Soviet authorities who wanted it not to be published at all), and how the United States’ CIA used the novel as an anti-Soviet tool.

I’m about halfway through the book, written by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, and I find it fascinating, as I do many books, movies and pieces of music that have any connection with Russia. That fascination has endured for many years, built on a number of things, including (but likely not limited to) watching and reading the news of the Cold War centered on Moscow and Washington during my childhood; playing the many pieces of Russian and Eastern European music that my orchestra director at St. Cloud Tech High School selected for our repertoire; seeing the 1965 film version of Dr. Zhivago not long after it came out; spending six days in 1973 in Moscow and the city that was then called Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg, as it was at its founding in 1703); and learning (and watching as an adult) the arc of Russian history from ambitious empire to Soviet linchpin to chaotic democracy to today’s authoritarian state.

When that fascination was developing, in the late 1960s, I tried to read Pasternak’s novel and found it confusing and not a little boring. For years, as an adult, I had a leather-bound copy of the novel on my shelf and never read it. That copy is gone now; I evidently sold it during the lean years of the late 1990s. And as I read The Zhivago Affair, I’m tempted to try Dr. Zhivago once again. I’ll also likely take another look at the David Lean film. I ordered it several years ago from Netflix but for some reason never finished watching it; what I did see confirmed my long-standing impression of it as sprawling but likely easier to digest than the novel itself.

With the movie, of course, comes the music: Maurice Jarre’s soundtrack, for which he won a deserved Academy Award. During recent late evenings, I’ve been using the expanded version of the soundtrack as background music for The Zhivago Affair just as I once used Tchaikovsky’s music – including, of course, the “1812 Overture” – for a long-abandoned reading of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. (Another book I need to try again, I guess.) Jarre’s themes and motifs echo Russian music; the real thing also comes out of the speakers here frequently, from Tchaikovsky to Borodin to Glinka to a scavenged collection of maybe 300 Russian folk songs and the two-CD set The Best of the Red Army Choir.

The listening is easy. Reading, of course, takes more time (and sometimes much more effort). There are Russian books beyond Tolstoy’s masterpiece that I need to read, including a copy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment that was signed and dated by my dad in 1948. And I need to accelerate my reading of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, at which I’ve been poking for years. (Fortunately, Solzhenitsyn’s account of the Soviet forced labor camps – and of the various government agencies that sent millions to those camps – is more anecdotal than narrative, so reading bits and pieces at a time is an approach that seems to work.)

So is this fascination of mine with things Russian – especially with the period from, oh, 1900 through 1950 – just a historical interest? I don’t think so. It feels deeper than that, like the grip that Stonehenge has had on me over the years. I think that the soul I carry through this life – or that carries me, more fittingly – knows Russia well. That’s all I can say. Would I like to be able to say more? Well, yes, but the best I can do is guess at this point. And beyond indulging in a little bit of supposition over a beer with friends, I’m better off finishing The Zhivago Affair and then turning my attention to other works that might enlighten me, helping me to know (once again, I think) the history and culture of a place that seems so alien and yet so familiar.

Here’s Maurice Jarre’s “Main Title” from the 1965 film Dr. Zhivago.

Cleaning House

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

No, I’m not changing staff here. Odd and Pop – the two tuneheads who inform my musical sensibilities – are safe (if sometimes unproductive). Rather, I’m truly cleaning house. We have company coming tomorrow evening for our annual hosting of what called a “Circle Dinner” as part of our membership in the St. Cloud Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Now, the house is not a mess, but we are casual in our day-to-day living, and some pick-up is required.

And that’s why any further thoughts on the Everly Brothers in the wake of Phil Everly’s death last week will have to wait until next week. I’ve spent a good portion of the last few days listening, reading, remembering and pondering the brothers and their influences. So there will be something more in this space than the post from earlier this week.

In the meantime, I offer you a “house” song. Here’s the Nirvana Sitar & Strings Group from 1968 with a twangy cover of “The House of the Rising Sun”

Nothing With Lyrics

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

Even after a little bit of digging, I’m not much closer to knowing anything about “Cabbage Head,” except that I’ve heard versions by bluegrass legend Doc Watson and New Orleans legend Professor Longhair (and a hilarious and fine live version by a Virginia group called the Whitetop Mountain Band). Nor am I much closer to feeling much better. So cabbage heads and Andrew Greeley and anything else will have to wait for a while. Perhaps Thursday.

It doesn’t help that it was ten years ago this week that my dad passed on. I miss him.

I noted once here, talking about music that brings me comfort, “If I’m really in sad shape, I head for my small classical library. I don’t want anything with lyrics on really bad days.” Among the classical pieces I mentioned was Czech composer Bedřich Smetana’s Vltava, an 1874 symphonic piece composed and titled in tribute to the great Bohemian river. The piece, one of six pieces Smetana gathered into a collection called Má vlast  (“My homeland”), might be more commonly known by its German name, Die Moldau.

So here, with a portrait of the composer and scenes of Prague (a city I’d dearly love to visit someday) is Bedřich Smetana’s 1874 Vltava.