Sunday, January 27, 2019

Fireworks in the Dead of Winter


by Linda Holt 

January 25, 2019--I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this weekend’s Philadelphia Orchestra concert, with its theme of Death. But the program’s two seldom-performed works belied the gloomy prospect with fiery performances and visceral passion.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestra began the program with Leonard Bernstein’s colossal Symphony No. 3, the “Kaddish,” so named for the Jewish prayer for the dead. Bernstein’s centennial may be past, but the renewed awareness of his musical genius lingers on (two biopics about Bernstein, Hollywood’s signal that someone matters, are in early stages of production).

As a composer, Bernstein was not only a master technician and stylist, but he also captured the unrest, consternation, and malaise of the second half of the 20th century in America as no other. It was fitting that his Third Symphony, hard on the heels of the Second subtitled “The Age of Anxiety,” should question the very existence of God and shout out humanity’s frustration when confronted by the pain and cruelty of existence.

The Kaddish employed about 100 musicians, as many choir members, a boy choir, soprano soloist (Nadine Sierra) and speaker (Charlotte Blake Alston). From her first powerful words, “I want to say Kaddish,” Alston had the audience in thrall, declaiming Bernstein’s own challenging text throughout a performance of non-stop brilliance by all participants. A celebrated storyteller, Alston can make the hairs on your neck stand on end simply by aspirating the final syllables of “magnified” and “sanctified.”


Philadelphia Orchestra before The Kaddish
Conducting without a baton, Nézet-Séguin seemed to mold and sculpt the musical content of three stirring movements. Bernstein manipulates 12-tone technique to musically describe through discord our experience of heartbreak and anger. He kneads atonal chord progressions into a kind of halo surrounding a return to tonality at the end of the work. It’s an approach that could be too obvious in the hands of a lesser master, but is convincing and moving under Bernstein’s touch.

Wearing a backless red sheath gown, Sierra rose like a flame in her solo passages, which included a lullaby to God delivered with tenderness, lyricism, and deep feeling. Even nearly 60 years after its composition, Bernstein’s own text is unsettling in its taunting cynicism, almost making fun of the Deity by suggesting that humanity can nurse a dying Godhead back to health. While this may seem odd to us today, it reflects the growing Angst, introspection, and egocentrism of the era (early 1960s) in which it was written.

And yet, words won’t change anything. But music can “The dawn is chilly,” states the Speaker near the conclusion of the final movement, “but has come. If I die, You come with me,” she says quietly as the soundscape rises from minor to major and the entire orchestra and choirs together soar into a finale of almost unbearable exultation. Humanity’s questioning and cajoling have served their purpose. In spite of everything, we are left with a notion of splendor and hope.

Gioachino Rossini is best known for his popular light operas (The Barber of Seville, Cinderella, et al.). He took early retirement in his 30s, and while his opera-writing days were over, he did turn his hand to the occasional musical composition, such as the final work on this concert, the Stabat Mater. Sometimes referred to as a hymn, a Stabat Mater is actually a form of its own, a Roman Catholic text set to music and performed as a religious or concert selection. Dating to the 13th century, the Stabat Mater text honors the Virgin Mary as she stands at the foot of the Cross. Although not as popular as some other religious narratives, the Stabat Mater has been set by a number of notable composers, including Pergolesi, Vivaldi, and Dvořák.

Rossini’s version, in 10 movements, calls for orchestra, four singers, and choir. Not surprisingly, the work begins with low, melancholy passages in the orchestra and choir, painting in sound a portrait of Mary the mother of Christ, Mary Magdalene, and the disciple John at the site of the Crucifixion. In his original version of 1833, Rossini had composed only movements 1 and 5 through 9, adding additional movements a number of years later after one of those complicated legal squabbles that riddle the history of classical music.

It may be the break in time that accounts for the peculiar difference in tone between the first movement and much of what follows. Not only are the second and third movements much lighter, but they have a jaunty lilt that seems to foreshadow some of Verdi’s biggest hits. In a way, encountering these tunes, which could easily have been married to racy lyrics, was as unsettling as hearing Bernstein’s Speaker hurl insults at God. 

The hour-long work is a bit tedious for the first 45 minutes, although musicians and singers performed impeccably. Individually and together, the four soloists crafted a series of beautifully sung solos, duets, and a quartet from the meager material presented to them. But all that changed after the Inflammatus/Day of Judgment (Movement 8). Here, Nézet-Séguin shifted into a higher warp factor at the helm of his own version of the USS Enterprise. Suddenly, we were off, and it was an unforgettable flight. 

Rossini, too, had a few surprises up his sleeve. Who thought he could write such a magnificent fugue as in the final movement, with a cascade of “Amen”s tumbling from the awakened Philadelphia Symphonic Choir under the direction of Joe Miller? Who indeed thought it was possible that Death would have his comeuppance on that dreary winter day?

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 3 (The Kaddish) and Gioachino Rossini's Stabat Mater. Artists: Charlotte Blake Alston, speaker; Nadine Sierra, soprano; Elizabeth DeShong, mezzo-soprano; John Osborn, tenor; Krzysztof Baczyk, bass; Philadelphia Symphonic Choir under Joe Miller; Philadelphia Boys Choir under Jeffrey R. Smith. Jan. 24 and 25, 2019; Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, Pa., USA. www.philorch.org , 215-893-1999 .

Linda Holt is the author of The Black Spaniard (2016) and Invictus (May 2019) and writes for the Broad Street Review.










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Thursday, December 6, 2018

Press Release - Invictus by L.L. Holt - Pre-Order at amazon.com



How a young musician overcame prejudice
to become an international sensation

HOLLYWOOD, CA, February 2019 - Invictus is now available to pre-order at amazon.com:

The year was 1770, the place was Bonn, Germany. His drunken father took one look at the baby with the dark complexion and lost his temper. His mother insisted the child was his. This was the beginning of a childhood filled with anxiety, prejudice, and uncertainty for young Luis. We know him as Beethoven.

Was Beethoven black? Probably not, in terms of DNA. But there is little doubt that the child who grew up under the thumb of a domineering, alcoholic father did not look like other members of his family, or even his community. We may never know why. Descriptions of him by neighbors and friends often begin, “He was black,” meaning darker than others, and therefore subject to discrimination in the German north.

Invictus, a new novel by L.L. Holt published by Harvard Square Editions, takes Beethoven’s otherness as a point of departure as it explores the child’s journey from birth to a series of setbacks in his 16th year. But the obstacles and catastrophes that the resilient child navigates are not the final word: we know how this story will end.
Invictus is woven through with several other themes rooted in the revolutionary age in which the boy lived. 

This was an age in which European scientists were exploring the notion of race and reason. While young Beethoven (known as “Luis” in this story) was growing up, a scientific experiment was taking place in Kassel, less than 200 miles away, in which Africans were kept without their permission and subjected to tests. Most eventually died in the cold northern climate.[i] Yet, at the same time, there were other scientists who asserted that race as we think of it did not exist, and that truly, as Beethoven was to declare through Schiller’s Ode to Joy late in his life, “all men are brothers.”

Another theme is the rise and fall of the Illuminati, which originated in Germany and spread north. Beethoven’s childhood teacher, Christian Neefe (NAY fuh), was the head of the local Illuminati chapter, soon to be outlawed, with death a penalty for membership. Many believe the great composer was a Mason and Illuminati member, a position this book upholds and explores in scenes filled with intrigue and adventure.

Luis falls in love, gains a champion, and is sent to Vienna to expand his gifts in this fictionalized view of his early life seldom previously explored, but must return to parochial Bonn when his mother, the only person who truly loved him, is on the brink of death. She dies, his sister dies, his father sinks further into alcoholism. Yet, something stirs within his heart. And from the other side of history, we know his dreams have not been in vain.

Invictus can be ordered online at amazon.com , bn.com , and other booksellers, as well as in bookstores. L.L. Holt is also author of another novel about Beethoven, The Black Spaniard, and is available for interviews and social media conversations.


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[i] https://tinyurl.com/ydb7tgpm

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Harvard Square Editions to release "Invictus" by L.L. Holt in May 2019

Invictus by L.L. Holt will be released May 2019, it has been announced by Harvard Square Editions. Review copies are being sent out in January 2019. This novel follows the stormy childhood of a dark-skinned boy growing up in a dysfunctional white German household in the late 1700s. The child has many adventures, escapes the horror of domestic violence, and learns to overcome discrimination and intolerance through his music.

At the end, it looks like the odds against him have won. But we know differently: his name is Beethoven. (Book cover art by J. Caleb Clark, copyright protected)


Monday, July 9, 2018

Final proofing of galleys for "Invictus," novel about a child's indomitable spirit

Final proofing of the galleys to Invictus, a novel about a dark-skinned child's struggles against discrimination, bullying, and domestic violence in late 18th century Germany, is taking place during June 2018.

The novel will be published by Harvard Square Editions during the 2018-19 publishing cycle, and already has received praise by individuals in the academic and music communities.

Here is an excerpt.  In this scene, the child, Luis, meets his great teacher, Neefe, for the first time. After years of having musical training forced upon him, often accompanied by beatings, the boy has a different kind of experience in store:


Two teachers gone, now Luis had begun studying with a person of true merit: the fairly new court musical director, Chris Neefe (pronounced NAY-fuh), from the eastern states. Seems like a solid musician, strong background in theater, too. Knows his Bach, for sure. Not surprising, since he’s a Protestant, wonder how that will work out with the court over time, John mused erratically as his quill flew over the pages. So, less with the monks, more with the court, where the money is. This tour will help, no doubt.
Luis at this very moment was entering the music room where Chris Neefe, in his early 30s, sat at his piano, his back to the door. The tall, thin musician had a deformity to his spine which gave him a crooked appearance overall. His long arms tapered down into thin fingers, some which were twisted like claws, that flew over the keyboard, releasing the fragrance of the Well-Tempered Clavier into the stuffy atmosphere. Luis sneezed, and Neefe stopped, quickly looking over his lower shoulder. It took a few seconds for his spirit to cool, but soon, his expression turned to one of kind concern and tenderness. “Come here, boy,” he motioned the child towards him. “Ah, what did you think of that?”
Luis walked confidently to the piano, not paying Neefe the slightest attention. “What was that music, sir?” he asked, placing his hand boldly on the keyboard and replicating a few of the sounds just made, perfectly recalling a complex syncopation; then his eyes drinking in the sheet music before him. Neefe’s lips turned up in a half smile; he was at once surprised by the child’s audacity, but more so by his keen ear and musical memory. Neefe surveyed the boy, from head to toe, noting the shabby clothes, unwashed and unruly head of hair, and of course, noting the dark tint of his skin, the broad facial features, the burning eyes.
“You come highly recommended, Luis,” he said at last, sitting back a bit, beginning to relax.
“As do you, sir,” said the boy, looking up into the teacher’s pale blue eyes. “I have had quite a few teachers,” he chuckled to himself, looking down with a smile, then returning the pianist’s kindly gaze. “What is this music?”
Neefe patted the seat beside him, and Luis sat down with a jolt. “The great master, Johann Sebastian Bach, dead some 30 years. Not so well known anymore.”
“But why?” the boy demanded.
“His style of music is not in fashion. But it is fierce, and will endure,” said Neefe, touching the score warmly. “So tell me, Luis, before we begin today, tell me who you are, what you hope to learn.”
This was a new approach for Luis, and it caught him off guard. He had hoped to launch into a bravura showcase of his own talent and then begin the regimen of exercises and drills.
“Who am I?” he repeated, puzzled. He looked down for some moments, studying his hands. Then he looked up at Neefe. “I am this,” his hand touched the keyboard, “and this,” patting the score.
“And what of this?” asked Neefe, resting his hand on the boy’s head. “And this?” touching his own heart.
“To think, to know, and to love,” said Neefe. “That is what makes a musician great. And practice, of course, there is no way around that.”
“I know, I know!” said Luis, rubbing hands that Neefe now noticed bore the scars of the switch. “But I never heard that what I think or what I love matters. And yet I feel that love so strongly when I play!”
“Love is the seed from which music springs, whether performed or composed originally,” the teacher said.
“Love…of what?” the boy asked.
“All forms,” Neefe said. “Do you love your parents?”
Luis looked away. “My mother,” he said. “I love my mother more than anyone!”
Neefe nodded, starting to get the picture, remembering his own uneasy childhood with a stern, unrelenting father. “And what about your teachers and friends?”
The boy reflected. “I love my cousin Frank!” he said brightly, with a smile. “He is like a big brother to me. And, of course, my own kid brothers, though they can be very annoying”
Neefe smiled. “Yes, I suppose children can get on one’s nerves,” he said with gentle irony, still assessing the 10-year-old before him.
“And what,” asked Neefe, “of God, of your religion?” Luis looked over his shoulder. “God is fine, I do love Him, but…”
“Yes?”
“…I think He is really outside in the woods, not inside the church!”
Neefe stifled a smile. “That is quite fair, Luis, quite fair. Genesis says God created the world, not the church. Yes, you are using your head, good work, boy!” Luis smiled slightly, surprised that he had had the nerve to tell this adult his deepest thoughts on the subject, and amazed that he was encouraged rather than criticized.
“Well,” said Neefe, fingering the keys absently as he reflected, “those are the foundations of music. If you love even one person, if you love the spirit that is God, regardless of what you think about religion, you have the soul to play, the soul even to invent the most glorious music. But lacking love, you might as well be a windup music box programmed to create the same dull plodding noise over and over, for all eternity. Here, let me hear you play this from sight…” he spread two pages of a Bach prelude on the music rest…”and then you may play for me what you would typically perform for a new teacher.”
Neefe slid off the bench, favoring his left arm, and stood to the side as the child sidled over to the center and leaned forward to scan the music closely. Then he raised his hands and launched into a nearly perfect sight reading, filled with fervor, feeling and power. Neefe nodded slightly to himself, and tried to temper the upward turn at each edge of his lips. He felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck, and his eyes stung, as though he had gotten too close to a roaring fire. He knew in that moment, in the stuffy room with no windows, with the scruffy child drawing unheard of music out of the piano, that before him lay his life’s work and mission, and vowed in that moment to let nothing stand in the way of the child’s development as a pianist and as a human being.