Letter from the Provinces

Ethelbert Nevin

[June 2005.]

Well, it’s that time of year again. Brahmins exchange bulky down jackets for last year’s Paris fashions. The swan boats return and the natives start bracing for a disappointing Red Sox season. (Yes, despite last year’s spectacular finish, the New England psyche changes only reluctantly.) The climate has been conspiring against us this nonexistent spring. Some parts here had but six sunny days all May.

The changing seasons also expel freshly minted graduates from the local learning centers. To accompany one revered institution’s finals period, the student-staffed radio station broadcasts massive swatches of single-subject programming — a band’s entire recorded output, or, as concerns us here, many consecutive hours devoted to a single composer or performer. I’ve written about these seasonal events before. You can catch WHRB’s Orgies live at http://www.whrb.org/.

Why bother discussing college radio programs? Regional airwaves are ancient history; anyone can listen online. These Orgies are special because they replace the customary pointillist, random music sequences with multi-hour blocks dedicated to one subject, organized chronologically. Normally, we think nothing of bouncing between Respighi, Shostakovich, Boyce, Mozart, Vivaldi, Elgar and Tchaikovsky during a single afternoon. While Haydn may have taken pains to structure the key relationships within a symphony, no courtesy is shown when he’s sandwiched between the Warsaw Concerto and Valse Triste.

Compared with previous seasons, the programmers’ choices struck resonant chords. You may find it hard to believe that I completely missed the Scelsi, Varèse, Amy Beach and Hartmann marathons, as well as the five hours introducing Rued Langgaard and Vagn Holmboe. The Varèse orgy was naturally brief. However, I think there are more available Scelsi recordings than were aired.

I caught hunks of the multi-day Mighty Five stretch which labored through each member in isolation (excepting Rimsky-Korsakov’s touch-ups). Every Borodin piece glittered. It was even nice to hear the warhorse Polovtsian Dances. Can’t say the same for Cui or Balakirev’s notey efforts. Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov were tough going, especially when it came time for the operas. Similarly chewy — but diligently prepared — were the days devoted to composer / violinist Enescu. The Isang Yun hours demonstrated his fecund synthesis of different cultures. Yun’s Second Symphony is a knockout.

Barber’s output spread over several days impressed because of its staggering uniformity. The operas were dense, but that may have been due to the performances. Several announcers audibly stumbled over ways to express his relationship with partner / composer / librettist Menotti.

Among Orgies devoted to a particular performer, Charlie Parker’s was a revelation. The best part of the Yo-Yo Ma and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau Orgies were sampling the covered repertoire. As it is college radio, there were several pronunciation gaffes. The biggest howler I heard was the cellist’s name as yo-YO-muh (rhyming with Sonoma). For what it’s worth, here’s an extensive pronouncing dictionary, though Mr. Ma doesn’t appear: http://iowapublicradio.org/pronouncing-dictionary-music-and-musicians.

What surprised most about the Vaughan Williams days — here they must have had strict pronouncing instructions: I never heard the ell in Ralph — was that his wartime symphonies are earnest and aggressive considering the huge quantity of soft choral music he dished out. It was nice to hear things like Flos campi (no, not an Italian shrimp recipe). I couldn’t help noticing the wonderful coincidence that the last Star Wars flick arrived during the Vaughan Williams Orgy. I’ve always thought John Williams owed a considerable bit to Ralph.