Pushing Boundaries at the Symphony

The highlight of yesterday’s family outing was the Kansas City Symphony. It was an unorthodox program, explained by music director Michael Stern as having a commonality of pushing boundaries.

First we had Jean-Féry Rebel’s Suite Symphonique from Les éléments. At the outset, it was a surpisingly dissonant piece for the high baroque. Lots of energy, though. An enjoyable listen.

Wu Man (http://www.wumanpipa.org/) soloed on two nice pieces, a concerto for pipa and strings by Lou Harrison. Local composer Zhou Long’s King Chu Doffs His Armour concluded the pre-intermission music. I enjoyed the Harrison concerto a bit more than Zhou Long’s piece. I’m less familiar with Harrison, so his music was a pleasant surprise. As a composition, I thought it held together better and incorporated/integrated the pipa more smoothly.

The pipa itself is a fascinating instrument, very much like a lute in terms of technical skill as well as the range of sounds. More bending of notes than Western lutes, but a pleasing sound, definitely. Ms Wu graciously autographed my daughter’s ticket at intermission.

It’s been almost thirty years since I’ve heard a live performance of Holst’s The Planets. I listen to my cd once or twice a year. As is often the case, a live performance gives me new insights. Some of the subtleties of the Venus, Saturn, and Neptune movements, and particulary the solo instruments, the harps, celesta and organ: I caught them.

Michael Stern said that while The Planets is a popular piece, it has a depth that he, as a conductor, enjoys exploring each time he hears or leads the piece. As a listener, I concur.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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13 Responses to Pushing Boundaries at the Symphony

  1. Randolph Nichols says:

    One of the hymns we sang this morning at my parish is ‘O God Beyond All Praising’ which is paired with the tune THAXTED. As you may know, this quintessential British melody comes from Holst’s Jupiter movement from the Planets.

    To their credit, GIA has included this hymn in Worship III, though with only two of Michael Perry’s verses. (If memory serves me correctly, a different text is more commonly sung in England.) This is not a hymn for every parish, however. As with many of these stalwart English melodies, it helps to have a resonant building and the support of a pipe organ and experienced choral forces.

  2. Liam says:

    Randolph – yes, that text is becoming a favorite at the 11AM at St Paul’s – we had quite a crowd, didn’t we?

    The classic text is “I Vow To The My Country”, a poem written in 1918 by the then UK Ambassador to the US. The subtitle of the poem, IIRC, is “The Two Kingdoms” and the text is moving in a restrained way (but of course), comparing (and, impliedly, contrasting) love and service to (King and) Country with that to THE King and (eternal) Country (aka, the Body of Christ).

    The music merely requires a steady hand and a certain detachment in playing on the organ (it’s therefore actually *easier* on the piano but it loses a lot on the piano by the same token), but it should be accessible to any reasonably music-friendly parish congregation. I’ve seen a variety of congregations pull it off without a hitch, so I wouldn’t want to make it sound overly difficult. The main problem in my experience is with organists who are seem to have a problem with playing with sufficient detachment and lifts (while the pedal steadily descends as smooth as dark honey), something that is easily discovered in rehearsal if the choir can’t follow the organ well….

  3. Liam says:

    Of course, in Britain, where this hymn is the second national anthem (along with the contemporaneous “Jerusalem”), no such detachment is needed, because even most muscially inept will belt it without any prompting.

    FOr the full treatment:



  4. Anne says:

    “…we had quite a crowd, didn’t we?”

    Yes indeed. I was impressed with not only attendance (how did it compare with other Sundays?) but with music and participation of the assembly. Wonder liturgy. Loved the Preparation ” O God Beyond all Praising” to Thaxted.

  5. Liam says:

    Well, the 11AM is usually pretty full to begin with (after the postlude of the 930AM Mass, the adult choir usually beats a hasty retreat to make room for the hordes); of course today half the right aisle was taken up with those of us in the adult choir.

    The 930AM is more variable in attendance – first, it’s earlier (and therefore on the other hand *much* easier to get parking for), and second, it has a significant attendance of Harvard students, which fluctuates with various terms of Harvard’s many schools (Easter this year, for example, fell on the 1st Sunday of the College’s spring break – a first – so the church was only 90% full at the 9AM Easter Mass for the only time in memory – usually, it’s SRO, with a long crowd lining up for the two 11AM Masses that follow (upper church first, lower church for the spillover, usually both SRO, not quite this year).

    Jennifer Lester (whom we cherish dearly) was supposed to have sung a lovely duet with Mark Nemeskal, but he had a last-minute conflict that required the substitution solo by her you witnessed.

    People at St Paul’s sing. Msgr Hickey and Ted Marier started that ball rolling in the immediate wake of Mediator Dei in 1947. (The Men’s Schola is the oldest of the parish musical groups, dating to the 1940s, btw.) Ted became organist in 1934, then music director in 1947, retiring in 1986 (I remember his retirement liturgy well). John Dunn, who was organist at that time, had founded the mixed voice adult choir a couple of years earlier (one reason we were there today, in this our 25th year), and then succeeded Ted, and now retiring this year.

    Pace the program, no one I know is expecting our magnificent hymnal to be completely redone before the Missal texts are finalized in 2010 or so….

    The Sanctus (which I and some friends refer to as the “Be Afraid! Be Very Afraid! Sanctus”) that we sang today was from a setting by Langlais, who was a friend of Ted Marier – Ted asked Langlais to include some congregational bits, so that it was singing at least part of the Sanctus. Ahead of his time….

    Ted’s vernacular setting of the Magnificat that we sang after Communion is a favorite, too.

  6. Liam says:


    My apologies for the heavily localized St Paul’s Cambridge sidebar. Explanation: today, we had a liturgy that, in addition to celebrating the Third Sunday of Easter (which was duly the leading theme of the liturgy), we honored John Dunn’s 48 years of service and music ministry at our parish, before he retires at the end of June. By St Paul’s standards for these things – we’ve had several special liturgies this year – it was somewhat subdued (no brass choir).

  7. Anne says:

    My husband and i sat right next to the adult choir. I wondered about you. I was embarassed to ask for you by names used for commenting here and other places. Maybe another time.

  8. Liam says:

    I was the very corpulent tenor fellow sitting next to the aisle (you’d be hard pressed to tell I swim 18K/week, which does wonders for breath support….). You would have seen me. I am glad you were close, even if we didn’t exactly connect (the exigencies of the liturgy made connecting with anyone who was not singing, well, hard). I imagine you got to witness the confusion over communion processions….

  9. Tony Neria says:

    Where might I find an SATB version of “O God beyond all Praising”? It is in the original Worship hymnal but only with the melody. I actually have fond memories of this tune in the “I Vow To Thee My Country” version. My daughter used to play it all the time in her room. It was from the Charlotte Church CD “Voice of an Angel”.

  10. Randolph Nichols says:

    You’ll need to refer to the WIII accompaniment edition. This is not a traditional four-part accompaniment a choir can double,however. Some chords expand to six parts.

    John Dunn also knew Langlais. Last week I subbed at another church and played Langlais’ “Fugue on O filii et filiae.” When I told John he said, “Oh yeah,I pulled stops for Langlais on that piece.”
    Though I’ve admired John since the late 1960s when I moved from a small town in Kansas to the east coast, he continues to amaze. Today for the pre-mass rehearsal he used THAXTED as a warm-up, transposing each verse in a different key from that on the page. I’ve never know anyone who transposes with such ease.

  11. Randolph Nichols says:

    “Known.” The inevitable typo is another reason I endorse the web with great hesitatiion.

  12. Liam says:

    And I embrace the Web with glee to mortify my longtime editorial perfectionism.

    As a former horn player, I respect people who can really transpose. Horn players conceal amusement over the travails of other instrumentalists who complain about transposing a whole step, perhaps a minor third. Transposing larger intervals (including tritones – one movement of Brahm’s 2d Symphony requires that – the costs of a lovely solo) is a horn player’s regular if not exactly daily bread.

    I had a music theory teacher in college who transposed a tritone on occasion to screw around with the three students in our class who had perfect pitch, to even their handicap.

  13. Tony Neria says:


    I am also a former horn player. I gave it up in my second year of college though. Figuring I would either go crazy or starve to death.

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