Worlds Not So Far Apart

October 01, 2015
 

Björk meets Arvo Pärt.  No, that’s not intended to be an outrageous or silly metaphor for a type of music or a musician inspired by both the Icelandic singer-songwriter and the Estonian composer. Björk interviewed Arvo Pärt several years ago. I came upon the interview by chance.

It’s clear that she’s a big fan of his music, though often at a loss for words to describe it.  While chatting with him, she came up with what seemed like a silly metaphor: She asked if there were 2 simultaneous voices in his music: one like Pinocchio, so human and so naughty, and the other like the cricket that wants to guide Pinocchio. Pärt’s quiet and reserved demeanor suddenly gives way to a nearly chuckling smile. He compliments her on the observation.

Arvo Pärt celebrated his 80th birthday on September 11th. He’s probably one of the best known composers of our time. Pärt was born in Tallinn, Estonia in 1935. Earlier in his career, some of his music was rather experimental and - some would say - shocking. Eventually he was inspired by the music of Bach, by Gregorian chant and other sources of early music. He’s been described as a “Holy Minimalist.” If that doesn’t relate to some listeners, try: Vaughan Williams meets Philip Glass.

Pärt has described his technique as “tintinabulation”. That’s his own metaphor of sorts that connects the effects of his music with that of the sounding of bells. He has written for vocal ensembles, instrumental ensembles and both combined. On the Classic Morning Prelude that morning, I played an excerpt from a piece for string orchestra from 1991 titled Silouans Song, named for a late 19th/early 20th century monk who inspired the work. I also played a string orchestra arrangement of a sacred work originally written for singing voices titled Summa. Later, on Classic Mornings, I played a somewhat well-known work by Pärt titled Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in the Mirror). I noted online that it’s been used in some 18 films and in a trailer for another.

That’s nothing. I have seen estimates of 25,000 to 30,000 covers of the song Summertime from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess! It’s a one-of-a-kind song, and a part of the stage work which was completed 80 years ago in early September,1935 (though Summertime, I understand, was completed the year before). Porgy and Bess was first performed at the end of September that year.

I suggested on a mid-September morning with autumn approaching that summertime was yesterday and yesterday was summertime. That wasn’t an attempt at being poetic. Actually, it was a little seasonal wordplay prompted by my noticing that the songs Summertime and Yesterday come together for major anniversaries. Written just some 30 years apart, September marked the 50th anniversary of the American release of Yesterday, days before the end of summer in 1965.

It’s considered a Beatles hit, though actually written and performed by just one of the Beatles: Paul McCartney. He was accompanied by classical music’s fabulous four: 2 violins, a viola and a cello -  better known as a string quartet. Yesterday’s classical foursome: Sidney, Tony, Ken and Francisco were studio musicians. Sidney Sax was the first violinist.  He co-founded the National Philharmonic Orchestra -  a recording orchestra in London -  and was a member of the Ariel Quartet along with violist Ken Essex and cellist Francisco Gabarro. Tony Gilbert was the other violinist on the recording.  With Paul playing a guitar as well as singing, you could say he was backed by a guitar quintet. But the story is told that the string quartet was added in post-production.

The story is also told that while he was writing the song, he was haunted by the prospect that what he had written musically was something he had heard somewhere – something that already had been written. He pestered people to death for reassurances. That was 1965, some 18,250 yesterdays ago.  I asked listeners to think back to 1665 or so for a moment, more than 125,000 yesterdays. Can you imagine all the music that has been written since then? Isn’t it a wonder that the thought of being original hasn’t held up composition over the centuries?

I played an instrumental version featuring cellist Ofra Harnoy filling in for Paul McCartney and his guitar.  She was accompanied by the Orford String Quartet, some of whom pluck their strings at times to remind you of the guitar. No, they don’t play the legendary accoustic riffs, but it’s a nice tribute (RCA 68376). I then played from among the 25 to 30 thousand renderings of Summertime a song without words arrangement recorded by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble – a sort of string counterpart to the performance of Yesterday.

Julius Baker was an American counterpart to legendary flutists like Jean-Pierre Rampal and James Galway, though never attaining the superstar status of those performers. On September 23rd, we celebrated the centennial of the birth of Baker, who died in 2003. As it turns out, Baker not only was admired by Galway, but instrumental in introducing the Irish flutist to his future wife.

Julius Baker was born in Cleveland. After studying with his father and at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, he returned to Cleveland to play in the Cleveland Orchestra in the late 1930s. He became the principal flute of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in the early 1940s, then played in the Columbia Symphony Orchestra – a recording orchestra in New York. In the early 1950s, he was principal flute of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  In 1965, he became the principal flute of the New York Philharmonic, a post he held for 18 years. Julius Baker taught at the Juilliard School. Among his pupils are Eugenia Zukerman and Hubert Laws.

A couple of years ago, Sir James Galway paid tribute to Julius Baker at his website. He tells the story of their friendship and music making over the years. He remembers having known of Baker in his younger days. Galway recalls that Baker was considered the best American flutist at the time. So he was surprised to hear that Baker wanted to meet him.  Galway, in his 20s, was playing in an opera orchestra in London. Baker was visiting in London at the time.  To quote Sir James: “An icon of the flute world was summoning me and I was so excited….”  He said that after the opera he went with Baker and his wife to an Italian restaurant, but he doesn’t remember what they talked about since he was so starstruck. That was the beginning of a long friendship. It was at one of Baker’s classes in New York that Galway met his wife-to-be: Jeanne. He recalls that at their wedding in 1984, Baker took credit for having been the matchmaker. 

I won’t take credit for introducing listeners to all of their favorite pieces of music, but there’s always the chance that they might have their first encounter with some of them on Classic Mornings. Join me Monday through Friday from 9-noon, with the Classic Morning Prelude just before at 8:50 on FM 90.9 and online at will.illinois.edu. And please consider making a contribution in support of Classic Mornings and all the classical music you enjoy on WILL-FM. Our 5-day Fall Fund Drive is coming up October 6-10.  It’s not too soon to make an online pledge at willpledge.org, nor is it too soon for me to thank you for your support!,


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