Archive for the ‘Classical’ Category

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.

Another Mentor Gone

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

The post below is one I wrote in 2011 about Dick Skewes. Mr. Skewes was the orchestra conductor at St. Cloud Tech High School when I was in junior high and during my first two years of high school. I played cornet for him during several summer programs and as a sophomore and junior, and he was easily one of the best and most influential teachers I ever had, helping me learn not just about music but about, among other things, preparation for performance and life both.

Dick Skewes passed on over the weekend at the age of 78, and many comments and posts on his Facebook page made it clear that he was, as I expected, similarly influential on the lives – in music and out – of many, many other students over the years.

When I noted last autumn the passing of my college mentor, E. Scott Bryce, I wrote, “It’s not an exaggeration to say that everything I’ve ever written since the autumn of 1975 has on it the fingerprints of E. Scott Bryce.”

Well, I can also say that every piece of music I’ve written or performed since the summer of 1967 has on it the fingerprints of Dick Skewes.

My love of classical orchestral music comes from a number of sources: My parents took me and my sister to numerous performances of the orchestra – and concert band and concert choir – at St. Cloud State when we were young. My mother and sister and I rarely missed a concert offered during my elementary and junior high years by the organization called Civic Music, which brought classical music to the St. Cloud Tech High gym/auditorium in many styles: piano soloists or duets, woodwind or brass ensembles, chamber orchestras, full orchestras and – for a few years – annual visits by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

But the most formative influence on my classical listening had to be Dick Skewes, who was the director of the St. Cloud Tech High orchestra from sometime during my junior high years until the end of my junior year in high school. I began playing cornet during the summer between fifth and sixth grade. It was three years later, as eighth grade ended, that Mr. Skewes entered my life.

My sister – three years older than I – played violin in Tech’s orchestra and she would do so in the summer orchestra program. I don’t know if the summer program was new that year or if I’d simply not noticed it before, but for about eight weeks during the summer, the St Cloud Tech orchestra would rehearse once a week – Monday evenings – and perform in a concert on the front lawn of the high school on Tuesday evenings.

And, as the summer of 1967 began, Mr. Skewes saw that the orchestra was short of trumpet/cornet players, and through my sister, extended me an invitation, which I accepted. For that summer and the next, and then for my sophomore and junior years in high school, I played trumpet parts on my cornet in Dick Skewes’ orchestra. (I do not recall an orchestra program during the summer between my sophomore and junior years, but if there was one, I played in it.)

And the music we played! Oddly, the titles of most of the works we played during the summers of 1967 and 1968 have faded, but the bulk of our programs was pulled from the work of Eastern European and Russian composers. These were pieces filled with heroic and tragic melodies, music that to this day for me personifies the Slavic soul. Among the pieces I recall from those first two summers in orchestra are an adaptation of Mussorgsky’s work for piano, “The Great Gate of Kiev” and one of the Slavonic dances by Antonín Dvořák.

In 1968, I moved the eight or so blocks from South Junior High to Tech High School and joined the Tech orchestra as a permanent member. And Mr. Skewes continued to challenge us with the music he selected for us, much of it again by Eastern European and Russian composers. Here’s a performance by the Leningrad Philharmonic of the overture to Mikhail Glinka’s opera Russlan and Ludmilla, a piece we in Tech’s orchestra struggled with during the first half of my sophomore year.

As I had been during my two summer stints, I was thrilled. This was so far removed from the classical music I’d expected to play. Don’t get me wrong: I love a wide variety of classical music. But it seemed to me the use of the horn section – where I lived – was far different in the works by the Slavic composers than it was among the works of many of the other great composers. As an example, one of the other pieces we played during my sophomore year was the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, a piece that has been over the years one of my favorite bits of classical listening. But when one listens closely, the horns are not at all busy. And one of the most frustrating things for me as a cornet player in the orchestra was patiently counting in my head forty measures of rest and then playing eight notes before sitting back to count another forty measures. I didn’t have to do that very often with the Slavic composers.

I know I frustrated Dick Skewes. I was not a hard worker. I had a good ear, and my lip was in good enough shape for performances. But I did not practice hard at the music we played. Most of it came easily, so when I was playing at home, I spent most of my time making my way through popular music songbooks. (Not rock and pop; the tunes in the songbooks I paged through were classic pop, things that Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and, yes, Al Hirt had or would have recorded.)

So I slid by on the gifts I had, not expanding them. Until Mr. Skewes selected for our orchestra’s competition season and winter concert season during my sophomore year the First and Fouth Movements of Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, “From The New World.” Written by the Czech composer during a visit to the United States in the 1890s, the work pulls Native American and African American motifs into the classical form.

As our orchestra struggled through the pieces during the early portion of my sophomore years, I was stunned at what I was hearing. There was so much for the horns to do! But I had a major challenge: The trumpet part was written for a trumpet keyed in A. In other words, the note called a C on such a horn would be the same as an A on a string instrument or a piano. Most trumpets and cornets – mine included – were keyed in B-flat, which meant that the notes I was supposed to be playing were a half-note different than the notes that I was instinctively reading and instinctively hearing in my head.

Mr. Skewes’ solution was perfect for me. After school one day, he sat me down with my trumpet part and his score and he put on the orchestra room stereo an LP of the Dvořák symphony. I used my ear to find the appropriate pitches, leaving the notation to provide only the rhythm. I’ve been grateful ever since for his willingness to find another way to help me to learn. And learn I did. Even now, more than forty years later, I know the trumpet parts to the two movements we performed that years of Dvořák’s stunning work. I couldn’t play them, as my lip is horribly out of shape, but I know the parts. Here’s the Dublin Philharmonic with Dvořák’s Fourth Movement:

Mr. Skewes left St. Cloud Tech for graduate school after my junior year, a year when I was second chair in the orchestra instead of first chair, as I had been a year earlier. That frustrated me, and I think it frustrated him, too, because I hadn’t worked as hard as I could on my audition piece. But even the second trumpet parts to the things Dick Skewes had us play were far more interesting than the music I played in the orchestra during my senior year. Our new conductor had us performing lots of Haydn and Handel, lots of pieces that had me counting forty measures and then playing eight notes. It wasn’t nearly as much fun.

My classical library, on LP and CD and in mp3 form, covers a wide variety (especially since my LP library was augmented by the records from the Musical Heritage Society that Dad collected). But when I look at the things I listen to most often, most of them trace their musical lineage to at least one of two places (and sometimes both): The Slavic lands of Eastern Europe and the director’s stand where Dick Skewes stood for those years when I was his horn player.

Thank you, Mr. Skewes.

A Mentor Gone

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

If you were to ask me who my most important teachers were, E. Scott Bryce would have been on the short list, perhaps at the top. During one of the most important seasons of my life – the autumn of 1975 – he guided me through maybe the most important class I’ve ever taken. I wrote about it a few years ago:

Among my classes that fall quarter was one in the history of the documentary film. We spent hours watching documentary films – from Robert Flaherty’s 1922 masterpiece, Nanook of the North – considered by most historians as the first true documentary – through 1971’s The Selling of the Pentagon, a television effort by CBS News. Some of the films were art; I think of Rain, a 1920s film by Joris Ivens (and the fact that these titles and names come back to me unbidden makes me realize again how important that class was to me) that detailed an everyday rainstorm in his hometown of Amsterdam, Holland. Some of them were something darker: The Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl chronicled the 1934 Congress of the German Nazi Party at Nuremberg and was – viewed with knowledge of the tragedy and horror that ensued – a chilling, powerful and dark piece of work.

Not only did we watch films, but we wrote about them. Each student was required during the quarter to submit a certain number – eight, maybe? – of brief critiques of the films we were seeing and one longer critique. The short papers were required to be two to three typed pages, double-spaced, and the longer paper, about ten pages. Not yet being skilled at composing my work at the typewriter, I wrote – actually printed – my critiques on notebook paper. And as I pondered and assessed the films we were seeing, I realized that, although writing was work, it was work I enjoyed, because it gave me the opportunity to move words around into forms and orders that were mine alone.

I remember the first time I realized that: I was writing a critique of Rain, the brief film shot in 1920s Amsterdam, and I was assessing the pacing of the film. I wrote that the film moved through the streets “with a calm urgency, like the rain.” I paused and looked at my words on paper, especially that “calm urgency.” Something about the way those words looked, sounded and read together gripped me tightly. . . . I’m sure other writers before – many others – had found that combination of those two words and gone ahead from there. But for the moment, that set of two words was mine.

That was the moment that I began to think of myself as a writer.

And that moment would not have happened without the guidance of Mr. Bryce. His penciled comments on my papers throughout that quarter helped me sharpen my skills. He pointed out logical fallacies, unclear pronouns, singular/plural disagreements, and wandering and fuzzy thought. He also complimented me for things I did right, some of which I had no idea I was doing. (He wrote once something like, “I love your use of thesis and antithesis where it’s least expected.” I never told him it was a happy accident.)

Along with the course on documentary film and courses in filmmaking, Mr. Bryce taught broadcast newswriting, announcing and radio production. I took them all, and although I never worked professionally in broadcasting, I gained from all of those classes an appreciation for attention to detail. And I gained from the newswriting and announcing courses an appreciation for the sounds of words, a sense that served me well when I added a print journalism minor and headed toward the world of newspaper reporting and editing.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that everything I’ve ever written since the autumn of 1975 has on it the fingerprints of E. Scott Bryce.

I last saw Mr. Bryce about ten years ago, when the Texas Gal and I met him and his wife for dinner in downtown St. Cloud. We thought about getting together again with the two of them, especially after Mr. Bryce and his wife moved into an assisted living center not far from us. But that never got any further than thought, and now it won’t happen: E. Scott Bryce passed on yesterday. He was 87.

Mr. Bryce was one of the moving forces in getting KVSC, the St. Cloud State radio station, on the air in 1967. The station’s primary programming for its first five years was classical music, which he loved, and it was a painful day for him when, in the spring of 1972, we on the radio staff voted to play rock instead. In my later college years, as I got to know Mr. Bryce, I always wondered if I should apologize for my small part in that decision. And in the late 1980s, when he and I were teaching colleagues for a time, I thought frequently about thanking him for his guidance and encouragement – in other words, for being a teacher.

I never did either, and, of course, I can’t now. All I can do is offer a farewell. And I’ll do so with the Largo movement of Symphony No. 9 “From The New World,” written in 1893 by Antonín Dvorák, a movement often called “Goin’ Home.”

Hard Chairs & A Clip-On Tie

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

In the early 1960s in St. Cloud, there was an organization known as the Civic Music Association. I have no idea when it started – there are references to it in online archives as early as 1932 – and I would guess it closed up shop sometime during the late 1960s. During the years the association was active, it sponsored about five concerts of generally classical or light classical music during each academic year.

That meant for about five years in the early and mid-1960s, I’d regularly have to dress up to go to a concert. I didn’t mind going; I just didn’t see the point of putting on good slacks and shoes, a blazer and a necktie – yes, a clip-on – on a weekday evening. But my sister and I would dress up a bit and then ride with Mom over to St. Cloud Tech High School and take our seats halfway up the grandstand in the auditorium/gym.

During the five or so years that we attended Civic Music-sponsored concerts, we saw and heard performances by some familiar names. I noted a couple months ago that Mom and I had once seen Mantovani and hs orchestra in concert; that was through Civic Music. I also remember concerts by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (now the Minnesota Orchestra), the piano duo of Stecher & Horowitz, the Robert Shaw Chorale, the Vienna Boys Choir and for at least two years, season-ending performances by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

And I remember hearing Van Cliburn play. Cliburn, who passed on yesterday at the age of seventy-eight, was likely the biggest classical music star we saw and heard during our years of attending Civic Music events. I was about ten, so call it 1964, just six years after Cliburn had astonished the world of classical music by winning the 1958 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.

I don’t remember much about the concert itself, just a glimmering image of Cliburn’s hands on the keyboard and the concentration on his face, that and a fleeting memory of wondering – spurred, no doubt, by my required daily half-hour of piano practice – how much time Van Cliburn spent practicing. What I do remember is his genuine smile and willingness to shake my small hand backstage after the concert and then to autograph a photo of himself that his publicist had handed me. (That photo and the program from that evening’s performance are no doubt in one of the boxes in the basement, boxes that I hope to sort through soon in search of Van Cliburn’s autograph and other mementoes.)

As I write, I have vague memories of Mom telling me – maybe sometime around 1968 – that the Civic Music Association had folded. That wasn’t uncommon. Last evening, I clicked a few links after I recalled that the piano duo of Melvin Stecher and Norman Horowitz came to St. Cloud at least twice and perhaps more frequently. In a 2012 Wall Street Journal piece about the duo and their foundation, I read this:

“When we toured in the 1950s, we played anything between 50 and a 100 concerts a year and a great deal of recitals,” says Mr. Stecher. “These community concert series have disappeared. Out of 3,000 that existed in America, there are maybe 200 or 300 left.”

St. Cloud’s concert series was one of those three thousand, and I’m probably not alone in thinking that whatever fondness I have for classical music – and it is there, eclipsed though it often might be by my affections for blues, soul, rock, pop and all the rest – comes at least in part from those evenings spent in hard, wooden auditorium chairs, wishing I could take off my clip-on tie and trying at the same time to absorb what I could from the gifted musicians up on the stage.

It’s quite likely that Van Cliburn was the most gifted of the musicians who visited St. Cloud for Civic Music during my years of attendance. Here’s his recording – I do not know the date; I’d guess sometime in the 1960s – of the third and best known movement of Claude Debussy’s Suite bergamasque. It was written about 1890 and, Wikipedia says, was almost certainly revised significantly just prior to publication in 1905. During that revision, the movement’s title was changed to “Claire de lune.”

Worthy of note
I frequently refer and link to the blog The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ offered by my friend jb. Earlier this week, he told his readers that come March 11, he’ll be a full-time radio guy again. That’s the day he starts his new gig as the permanent afternoon-drive guy on Madison’s Magic 98, on the air from 3 to 7. Congratulations, my friend!

And there’s a new listing in the blogroll: A note from my friend Marie, late of Catch That Train & Testify, told me that she is now offering her take on vintage music at It’s All in the Grooves. It’s well worth your time to look at and listen to her mix of, as she calls it, “Hit parade flashbacks and obscure gems.”

Amended slightly since first posting.

Another Long Overdue ‘Thank You’

Friday, June 10th, 2011

My love of classical orchestral music comes from a number of sources: My parents took me and my sister to numerous performances of the orchestra – and concert band and concert choir – at St. Cloud State when we were young. My mother and sister and I rarely missed a concert offered during my elementary and junior high years by the organization called Civic Music, which brought classical music to the St. Cloud Tech High gym/auditorium in many styles: piano soloists or duets, woodwind or brass ensembles, chamber orchestras, full orchestras and – for a few years – annual visits by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

But the most formative influence on my classical listening had to be Dick Skewes, who was the director of the St. Cloud Tech High orchestra from sometime during my junior high years until the end of my junior year in high school. I began playing cornet during the summer between fifth and sixth grade. It was three years later, as eighth grade ended, that Mr. Skewes entered my life.

My sister – three years older than I – played violin in Tech’s orchestra and she would do so in the summer orchestra program. I don’t know if the summer program was new that year or if I’d simply not noticed it before, but for about eight weeks during the summer, the St Cloud Tech orchestra would rehearse once a week – Monday evenings – and perform in a concert on the front lawn of the high school on Tuesday evenings.

And, as the summer of 1967 began, Mr. Skewes saw that the orchestra was short of trumpet/cornet players, and through my sister, extended me an invitation, which I accepted. For that summer and the next, and then for my sophomore and junior years in high school, I played trumpet parts on my cornet in Dick Skewes’ orchestra. (I do not recall an orchestra program during the summer between my sophomore and junior years, but if there was one, I played in it.)

And the music we played! Oddly, the titles of most of the works we played during the summers of 1967 and 1968 have faded, but the bulk of our programs was pulled from the work of Eastern European and Russian composers. These were pieces filled with heroic and tragic melodies, music that to this day for me personifies the Slavic soul. Among the pieces I recall from those first two summers in orchestra are an adaptation of Mussorgsky’s work for piano, “The Great Gate of Kiev” and one of the Slavonic dances by Antonín Dvořák.

In 1968, I moved the eight or so blocks from South Junior High to Tech High School and joined the Tech orchestra as a permanent member. And Mr. Skewes continued to challenge us with the music he selected for us, much of it again by Eastern European and Russian composers. Here’s a performance by the Leningrad Philharmonic of the overture to Mikhail Glinka’s opera Russlan and Ludmilla, a piece we in Tech’s orchestra struggled with during the first half of my sophomore year.

As I had been during my two summer stints, I was thrilled. This was so far removed from the classical music I’d expected to play. Don’t get me wrong: I love a wide variety of classical music. But it seemed to me the use of the horn section – where I lived – was far different in the works by the Slavic composers than it was among the works of many of the other great composers. As an example, one of the other pieces we played during my sophomore year was the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, a piece that has been over the years one of my favorite bits of classical listening. But when one listens closely, the horns are not at all busy. And one of the most frustrating things for me as a cornet player in the orchestra was patiently counting in my head forty measures of rest and then playing eight notes before sitting back to count another forty measures. I didn’t have to do that very often with the Slavic composers.

I know I frustrated Dick Skewes. I was not a hard worker. I had a good ear, and my lip was in good enough shape for performances. But I did not practice hard at the music we played. Most of it came easily, so when I was playing at home, I spent most of my time making my way through popular music songbooks. (Not rock and pop; the tunes in the songbooks I paged through were classic pop, things that Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and, yes, Al Hirt had or would have recorded.)

So I slid by on the gifts I had, not expanding them. Until Mr. Skewes selected for our orchestra’s competition season and winter concert season during my sophomore year the First and Fouth Movements of Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, “From The New World.” Written by the Czech composer during a visit to the United States in the 1890s, the work pulls Native American and African American motifs into the classical form.

As our orchestra struggled through the pieces during the early portion of my sophomore years, I was stunned at what I was hearing. There was so much for the horns to do! But I had a major challenge: The trumpet part was written for a trumpet keyed in A. In other words, the note called a C on such a horn would be the same as an A on a string instrument or a piano. Most trumpets and cornets – mine included – were keyed in B-flat, which meant that the notes I was supposed to be playing were a half-note different than the notes that I was instinctively reading and instinctively hearing in my head.

Mr. Skewes’ solution was perfect for me. After school one day, he sat me down with my trumpet part and his score and he put on the orchestra room stereo an LP of the Dvořák symphony. I used my ear to find the appropriate pitches, leaving the notation to provide only the rhythm. I’ve been grateful ever since for his willingness to find another way to help me to learn. And learn I did. Even now, more than forty years later, I know the trumpet parts to the two movements we performed that years of Dvořák’s stunning work. I couldn’t play them, as my lip is horribly out of shape, but I know the parts. Here’s the Dublin Philharmonic with Dvořák’s Fourth Movement:

Mr. Skewes left St. Cloud Tech for graduate school after my junior year, a year when I was second chair in the orchestra instead of first chair, as I had been a year earlier. That frustrated me, and I think it frustrated him, too, because I hadn’t worked as hard as I could on my audition piece. But even the second trumpet parts to the things Dick Skewes had us play were far more interesting than the music I played in the orchestra during my senior year. Our new conductor had us performing lots of Haydn and Handel, lots of pieces that had me counting forty measures and then playing eight notes. It wasn’t nearly as much fun.

My classical library, on LP and CD and in mp3 form, covers a wide variety (especially since my LP library was augmented by the records from the Musical Heritage Society that Dad collected). But when I look at the things I listen to most often, most of them trace their musical lineage to at least one of two places (and sometimes both): The Slavic lands of Eastern Europe and the director’s stand where Dick Skewes stood for those years when I was his horn player.

Thank you, Mr. Skewes.