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Unanswered Question | Music and the National Mood

Music and the National Mood

February 6, 2017 by Joseph Horowitz

PostClassical Ensemble – the DC chamber orchestra I co-founded a dozen years ago – produced a concert at the Washington National Cathedral last Saturday night that seemed to address the national mood. These are fractious times – times in which the arts can acquire a special pertinence. Times in which music can be a provocation or a balm.

We titled our program “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” It intermingled spirituals with religious arias by Bach, Handel, and Mendelssohn. Our inspiration was the example of Harry Burleigh – who more than anyone else was responsible for transforming spirituals into art songs.

Burleigh – once Dvorak’s assistant at New York’s National Conservatory (1892-1895) — is a forgotten hero of American music. His seminal “Deep River” arrangement of 1915 electrified American audiences; it was instantly appropriated by preeminent white recitalists. It was later sung by Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson. It is still sung today.

Burleigh’s own recital repertoire also included songs by Beethoven, Faure, Grieg, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, and Tchaikovsky. Mendelssohn’s Elijah was a Burleigh specialty. Doubtless for Burleigh all this music spoke a common language of uplift.

Our soloist at the Washington Cathedral was the African-American bass-baritone Kevin Deas. I would say that he is today’s supreme exponent of spirituals in concert. He made his early career singing Bach and Handel. He came relatively late to Burleigh’s spiritual arrangements. For him the distance from Messiah to “Go Down, Moses” is inconsequential.

It has been my privilege to accompany Kevin Deas in concert for the past decade – but never before in such a vast and inspirational space. Burleigh himself advised that “success in singing these Folk Songs is primarily dependent upon deep spiritual feeling.” Kevin possesses a divinely mellifluous instrument (an audience member at one of our concerts confided, weeping, that she felt she had heard “the voice of God”). But his performances  begin not with notes; they begin with with feeling. I know from experience with other singers that an iota of ego is fatal in this repertoire. At the National Cathedral, the gravitas of the space informed all we did. My sense, on stage, was that the evening’s eighth number, Burleigh’s voice-and-piano arrangement of “Steal Away,” hypnotized the big room for good (the nave held nearly 1,000 listeners). It sounded like this:

After that, seamlessly (we proceeded without applause), came Nathaniel Dett’s galvanizing “Listen to the Lambs” with the Cathedral Choir, then Kevin Deas singing “For the Mountain Shall Depart” from Elijah, with PostClassical Ensemble led by Angel Gil-Ordonez. The evening built to Burleigh’s classic “Deep River” for mixed a cappella chorus, followed by two Messiah selections: “The Trumpet Shall Sound” and the Hallelujah Chorus.

But if there was a signature number, it may have been William Dawson’s arrangement of “There is a Balm in Gilead” – a piece Leontyne Price used to sing. Many with whom I spoke afterward had found the evening a necessary balm.

During the Cold War, the Kennedy White House famously hosted culture. JFK would talk about how the arts can only thrive in a harmonious “free society.” That was either naïve nonsense or cynical propaganda. The arts thrive in exigent times. In the twentieth century, the thirties and the sixties – the Depression, the Vietnam years — were decades remarkable for American artistic expression, decades in which music memorably voiced protest and compassion.

We may well be embarking on another such trying period in our nation’s history. In what ways will our musical institutions rise to the occasion? We shall see.

Mind of A Musician: Chris Gekker

PostClassical Ensemble’s principal trumpeter Chris Gekker sits down with Dimension Media’s Behrouz Jamali in conversation about his career on the stage and in the studio.

Chris next appears with PostClassical Ensemble in The Trumpet Shall Sound on February 4, 2017 at Washington National Cathedral.

PostClassical Ensemble’s Kevin Deas on WETA | Classical Conversation

PostClassical Ensemble’s Resident Artists and Soloist in the upcoming program The Trumpet Shall Sound on February 4 at the National Cathedral, Kevin Deas joined WETA’s Marilyn Cooley for a Classical Conversation.

Kevin Deas on WETA's Classical Conversations with Marilyn Cooley

The PostClassical Ensemble and Washington National Cathedral join forces on Saturday February 4 at the Cathedral for a concert titled The Trumpet Shall Sound — A Program of Spirituals and Religious Arias.  Bass-baritone Kevin Deas is a featured artist, and he joined Marilyn Cooley at Classical WETA‘s studios to talk about the upcoming program.

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Unanswered Question | Trifonov Plays Shostakovich

Trifonov Plays Shostakovich

by Joseph Horowitz


No other music so instantly evokes a sense of place as that of Dmitri Shostakovich. When Daniil Trifonov launched Shostakovich’s E minor Prelude at Carnegie Hall last week, the bleakness and exigency of Stalin’s Russia at once chilled the huge space. The Shostakovich affect can seem exotic or native, according to circumstance. I would say it today complements that part of the national mood concentrated in the Northeastern United States and 3,000 miles away on the West Coast.

Trifonov offered a substantial Shostakovich set: five of the 24 Preludes and Fugues composed in homage to Bach in 1950-51. This experience proved doubly revelatory. Comprising the Preludes and Fugues in E minor, A major, A minor, D major, and D minor, the sequence registered as a compositional achievement unsurpassed by other post-World War II composers for solo piano. And Trifonov’s readings were boldly individual. Shostakovich – a considerable pianist – favored a plain style. Trifonov’s style, with its emphasis on color and refined tonal liquidity, is remote from the composer’s.

The D major Fugue, in particular, was barely recognizable. Shostakovich composed a sharp, acerbic Allegretto. Trifonov here produced a Prestissimo blur, an arresting, elusive impressionistic cameo.

The D minor Prelude and Fugue is the titanic capstone to Shostakovich’s 24. Shostakovich’s recording is dry and imperious. Trifonov’s reading is Lisztian: Romantically plastic, generously pedaled. It was the charged high point of the evening.

The remainder of the program was standard: a Schumann first half; Stravinky’s Petrushka to close. I know Carnegie has to sell tickets – but this young pianist may have acquired a following ready for anything. It has been years since I encountered a New York  audience – the hall was packed – as absorbed in a purely musical experience. There is nothing exceptional about Trifonov’s hair or attire. He is neither glamorous nor notorious. At the age of 25 he is already embodies a species become rare: a major concert pianist. He also composes.

What comes next for this young man? Aside from my son, I noticed no listeners approximately the pianist’s own age. A decade hence, will Daniil Trifonov fill Carnegie Hall? And what will be be playing? The marginalization of classical music accelerates apace.

PS: PostClassical Ensemble’s Shostakovich-Weinberg festival this March includes another boldly individual pianist: Alexander Toradze, in  Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto. Edward Gero of the Washington Shakespeare Theatre will play Shostakovich. We will have occasion to compare Shostakovich’s official pronouncements of the 1930s and ‘40s with what he later had to say about his Fifth and Seventh Symphonies. To see Ed Gero as the younger Shostakovich, and find further information on the concerts, click here.

Bernard Herrmann Festival on WETA



PCE is taking over 90.9 WETA this Halloween

To celebrate Halloween, WETA’s Front Row Washington presents:

The Music of Bernard Herrmann

Monday, October 31 at 9:00pm 
Tune in Monday evening to hear PCE’s performance at the National Gallery of Art, April 17, 2016. Conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez and recorded by John Conway.

This concert was part of our Bernard Herrmann Festival during the 2015-16 season:

From WETA radio:

Post Classical Ensemble–Halloween Special. The music of Bernard Herrmann

Presented by the National Gallery of Art
Monday, October 31, 2016 – 9:00pm

Post-Classical Ensemble, Angel Gil-Ordóñez, conductor, presents a Halloween Special featuring the music of Bernard Herrmann.  We’ll hear different aspects of Herrmann’s music, including John Mauceri’s arrangement of the iconic 1960 soundtrack to Psycho, plus the 1967 Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, and the 1935 Sinfonietta for Strings.

This concert was recorded at the National Gallery of Art, April 17, 2016 by John Conway.

Featured performances:

Antonio Muñoz Molina on PCE’s Redes

“Revueltas is one of those composers who for various accidental reasons — his disorderly life and premature death, the fact of his being Mexican – does not occupy the place that he should in a present-day musical culture that clings so tenaciously to the sclerotic. . . . His music, so powerful in itself, highlights the rich artistic crossroads of the thirties, the tensions between modernity and mass culture, between formal innovation and political activism.


PostClassical Ensemble enters into this realm with an effort not only to recover works now merely names, but to put that music and those names in the context of their own time, to illuminate connections with politics, with social and historical facts, with everything that surrounds and feeds the music. With his bow ties and jumping locks of hair, Angel Gil-Ordonez possesses a double worldliness as an orchestral conductor and a professor at a prestigious American university. On New York City’s Upper West Side, Joseph Horowitz is a classical-music anchorite of scholarship and demanding passion, but his knowledge extends with equal rigor to literature and cinema, to the history of culture through the great crises of the twentieth century. His book Artists in Exile, on the great European diaspora caused by Nazism and Communism, combines the aspirations of an historical chronicle and a tidal novel. . . .


Their latest great effort of rediscovery is the premiere recording of the complete score composed by Silvestre Revueltas for a legendary 1935 Mexican film, Redes, in collaboration with the photographer Paul Strand and exiled Austrian filmmaker Fred Zinnemann. It is hard to imagine a more complete conjunction of talent. . . .


In 1935 the best films still preserved the purity and expressive visual sophistication of silent cinema. In Redes, imagery and music combine so powerfully that the few spoken words are rather irrelevant. Revueltas’s love of Stravinsky and of the folk music of Mexico inspire a fiercely corporeal rhythmic sensibility applied to the collective choreography of fishermen. Almost twenty years later, in Hollywood, Fred Zinnemann would direct High Noon, in which we find a bedazzled white clarity of inflexible sunlight identical Redes. Now, with a restored print of Redes and Revueltas’ soundtrack newly recorded by PostClassical Ensemble, the beauty of image and of sound register as never before. As Joseph Horowitz says, it is like experiencing a masterpiece of painting cleaned of centuries of grime. The exhausted and disillusioned Silvestre Revueltas of his final years would never have imagined such posterity.”


— Antonio Munoz Molina, in El Pais (Madrid), May 28, 2016

Unanswered Question: Musical Films

Musical Films

STORM WARNINGS: The Future of Orchestras


League of American Orchestras logo

I recently spent the three consecutive weekends speaking at conferences pertinent to the fate of America’s orchestras.

More than Hitchcock’s Handmaiden

More Than Hitchcock’s Handmaiden

There’s more to Bernard Herrmann’s career than his celebrated scores for Hitchcock films.

Bernard Herrmann rehearsing a radio drama in 1941.
Bernard Herrmann rehearsing a radio drama in 1941. PHOTO: CBS VIA GETTY IMAGES


In many ways, it’s remarkable that the composer Bernard Herrmann, who died at age 64 in 1975, is as well known as he is. His scores to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958) and “Psycho” (1960) remain inseparable from those seminal pictures. Yet a significant number of Herrmann aficionados feel such recognition is insufficient, that much of this composer’s music is not just neglected but sorely underappreciated. And a good many of them gathered here recently, at Georgetown University and the National Gallery of Art, to make their case in a series of programs that examined not just Herrmann’s well-established achievements (like his nine-film collaboration with Hitchcock), but also the radio dramas he scored during his 16-year association with the CBS Symphony Orchestra and the still largely ignored music he wrote for the concert hall.

Joseph Horowitz—an author, music educator and impresario—was the moving force behind this gathering, which convened from April 15 through 17 under the banner “Bernard Herrmann: Screen, Stage, and Radio.” The conference began at Georgetown with a live re-creation of the last of 22 radio programs Herrmann scored for Norman Corwin, who became a lifelong friend of the prickly composer. Corwin is little remembered today (despite an Oscar-winning documentary short about him released in 2005), but in the 1930s and ’40s he was a probing and respected writer and producer of programs for the then-dominant medium of radio. The drama, “Untitled” (1944), used student actors and musicians to impressive effect, amplifying the earnestness of the material, in which an unnamed solider is recalled by those who knew him, from his small-town birth to his battlefield death. Herrmann’s music—spare, ardent, edgy and elegiac—complemented Corwin’s plain-spoken but stirring prose. Portions of the score without text were repeated on the evening’s program, which also included lectures by Herrmann scholars on his film work and relationship with the forward-looking CBS Symphony.

Dorothy Herrmann, one of the composer’s daughters, spoke in between, injecting robust humor into her unvarnished reminiscences of life with father. She mentioned that he initially loathed “Psycho,” “until it became a cult classic. Then, he couldn’t say enough good things about it.” She also discussed his one opera, “Wuthering Heights,” a passion project that went unstaged in his lifetime and was recorded only at his own expense. (Its belated premiere came in 1982, in Portland, Ore.; its most recent U.S. revival was in 2011, in Minneapolis.)

The following day brought what turned out to be the gathering’s highlight, another live re-creation of a Corwin-Herrmann radio drama, this one titled “Whitman” (1944), reconstructed by Christopher Husted. The live music was provided by PostClassical Ensemble, a local group conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez and run by Mr. Horowitz. The original broadcast, in which Corwin repurposed portions of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” as anti-Axis propaganda, featured Charles Laughton as the poet, but a winning young actor, Sean Craig, brought fresh ardor to the words, backed by a score for strings, piano, harp and percussion that effectively combined nostalgic American tropes with lilting Impressionist motifs and tumescent motoric cells.

PostClassical Ensemble’s Sunday-afternoon performances of Herrmann’s “Souvenirs de Voyage,” “Sinfonietta for Strings” and “Psycho: A Narrative for String Orchestra” in the National Gallery’s sumptuous West Garden Court concluded the festivities on a purely musical note. The first piece, a clarinet quintet, is a charming work in the manner of Debussy and Ravel, albeit with more than a hint of Herrmann’s moody “Vertigo” score, but its 1967 composition date markedly distances it from contemporary works. Conversely, the 1935 “Sinfonietta” is very much in step with, if not somewhat ahead of, that era’s cutting-edge. And for all the attempts to distance Herrmann’s “Psycho” music from its inspiration, it’s next to impossible for anyone who knows the movie to suppress its images on hearing the violins’ stabbing attacks.

Some Herrmann partisans blanch at the thought that his fame rests on the film music alone—a sentiment that the notoriously restless composer himself shared. But why? His efforts were essential to these pictures’ success. What may be needed is a reminder that Herrmann produced great scores not just for Hitchcock, but also for other gifted directors. The movies—whether William Dieterle’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1941), Joseph Mankiewicz’s “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947), Nicholas Ray’s “On Dangerous Ground” (1951) or Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976)—are out there. People just need to see and hear them.

Mr. Mermelstein writes for the Journal on classical music and film.

A fresh take on the rarely heard music of Charles Ives

November 23, 2015

Charles Ives — that brilliant, visionary, utterly original and perfectly down-to-earth composer — may have written some of the most astonishing American music of the 20th century, but with a reputation for being “difficult,” he still shows up far too rarely on concert programs.

Fortunately, Ives has the formidable Angel Gil-Ordóñez and Joseph Horowitz of the PostClassical Ensemble as his champions, and on Sunday evening, they teamed up with the Georgetown University Orchestra to present two of the composer’s most iconic works: the Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Massachusetts 1840-1860” and the Symphony No. 2.

The PostClassical Ensemble is known for its contextual performances — enhancing music with contemporary writings and art — and for Sunday’s concert, baritone William Sharp joined pianist Steven Mayer for a performance of the “Concord” sonata that alternated writings from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Ives himself with the four movements of the work.

It is an interesting approach, but Mayer’s playing was so riveting that you found yourself wishing that Sharp would maybe just stay quiet for a bit and let the music speak for itself. Steeped in the transcendental philosophy of 19th-century Concord, it is a work of immense scale and a kind of roaring, ecstatic spirituality — qualities Mayer brought out in a searching and extraordinarily powerful performance.

You have to hand it to Georgetown University; despite a minuscule music department, the school can field a presentable orchestra (made up entirely of students who are not music majors) and bring off works as ambitious as Ives’s Symphony No. 2 from 1909.

Under Gil-Ordóñez’s baton, the orchestra turned in a colorful and often spirited performance, with a luminous “Adagio cantabile” movement and an explosive close — a performance that, in its direct and unvarnished sincerity, Ives would surely have enjoyed.

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