Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

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Haiku Wednesday: Sitka Spruce

Photo, looking up at a group of sitka spruce trees

Sitka spruce photo by Peter Pearsall/US Fish and Wildlife Service

Once the wind would howl
Around your supple branches.
You stood, majestic,
Among the tall trees.
A silent sentinel, you
Looked out on the world.

That was not your fate.
To be cut down in your prime
Seems all too bitter,
But keen eyes picked you
To help others see and hear
A whole inner world.

And now the sound swirls
Like snowflakes, landing softly,
Hushed and whispering;
Or hits you like hail,
Ferocious, unrelenting.
You pay it no mind,
As you once did on
An Alaskan hillside; but
Now, Sitka, you sing.

Sitka spruce is the wood most commonly used for piano soundboards due to its resonance, flexibility, and great strength.  Piano soundboards resonate and propagate the sound generated by the strings of the piano.

Today’s haiku was inspired by a documentary.  Sitka traces the restoration of the Steinway grand piano at The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC.  The soundboard of the piano at The Phillips Collection had cracked, and this had adversely affected the sound.  Piano fans will enjoy seeing the inner workings of the instrument, and the meticulous work involved in restoration process.  The soundtrack is provided by Joseph Haydn (performed by Olivier Cavé).

And now, here is Sitka.


Image attribution: Sitka spruce photo by Peter Pearsall/US Fish and Wildlife Service,


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Free Concert Webcast Tonight! Beethoven’s 3rd and More


Join the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, for a free concert webcast tonight, Saturday, October 14, 2017 at 8:00 PM (GMT -5).  You can watch it at this link.  Here’s the program:

Conor Brown: World premier of How To Relax with Origami

Barber: Piano Concerto featuring pianist Olga Kern

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3, “Eroica”

There will be a pre-concert talk with Leonard Slatkin starting one hour before the concert.


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Haiku Wednesday: Spanish Dance

The candles flicker,
The music swells; a dancer’s
Skirt swirls as she spins.

The faint tap of heels
Echoes against the dance floor
As two move as one,
Each seeing only
Their partner.  They dance, and hope
It will never end.

Today’s musical offering is from Enrique Granados.  Granados wrote a collection of Spanish dances for piano in 1890 (12 danzas españolas, Op. 37, H. 142, DLR 1:2).

During a visit to the US, Granados recorded some piano rolls of his music. Here is Granados playing Danza Española No. 5, Andaluza.  The original piano rolls are reproduced using a Steinway grand piano, so the sound is sumptuous.  In the piano roll Granados takes some lively liberties with his composition; he is clearly not meticulously following the score.

You may also enjoy Granados playing the haunting Danza Española No. 2, Oriental.



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Plein Chant: The Challenges of Open-Air Singing

Choir singing in open air being menaced by sun, bugs

I haven’t been posting much lately because it has been a busy choir season.  Recently, we had the privilege of singing at an open-air event.  It was wonderful, with several choirs and soloists performing, fine speakers, overall, a truly memorable event.

However, there were certain aspects of open-air singing that I was not prepared for, so, as a public service, I thought I would alert you to some of the hazards that you might have to confront, and provide you with some helpful tips.

The Sun

The venue in which we were performing had a roof, but all four sides were open.  The sun, which at first was a pleasant, cheerful presence, over time became the blindingly bright, searing ball of flame that it is.  The highly reflective white music pages became hard to see, a situation made worse by burning, salty sweat dripping inevitably into the eyes.  It would have looked weird to don sunglasses, even if we had them, so that was not an option.  Or, for that matter, a sweatband, never elegant under any circumstances.  In addition to the threat of heatstroke, some of us were treated to the musical equivalent of a trucker’s tan.  I’ll call it a tenor’s tan, the sunward arm bronzed from the tip of one’s short sleeve to the wrist, the hand remaining ghostly due to its sheltered position beneath the music binder.

Note: bring water.  Long sleeves, while counterintuitive in hot weather, are not necessarily a bad thing, and are useful for mopping the sweat out of one’s eyes.


Thankfully, no one inhaled a bug while prepping for a dramatic forte note.  I’m sure it has happened.  Instead, we were visited by the occasional wandering insect of the stinging variety.  On-stage decorum precluded frantic arm waving (or running away, or wildly swinging one’s music binder).  Instead, I mentally intoned the mantra I typically use when encountering snakes while hiking, “I’m a tree, I’m a tree…”, hoping they’ll somehow get the message that I am not something to bite.

Note: forget bug spray; singers would rather inhale a bug than smell that all afternoon.  Be brave.


We were seated (thankfully) on risers, standing when it was our turn to perform.  But there were no railings behind the back row.  There was a fear that some poor bass would fall off, into the deep end you might say.  A basso profundo indeed.  I am happy to report there were no incidents.

Note: be aware of your surroundings at all times.  Especially edges.

No feedback

When you sing inside, you always have some sort of reflection of your sound, either from a wall behind you, or across from you, and it helps to evaluate your sound in comparison to others.  But outside, with no walls, the sound escapes from your lips…and keeps going.  You might be able to hear the person next to you, maybe the person behind you, but, if you’re toward the back, everything in front of you is inaudible.  Typically, a monitoring speaker is placed facing a choir so they can hear themselves, but this was not the case this day, or if it was, it was so quiet we couldn’t hear it.  More frighteningly, we could not hear our pianist, which meant watching the conductor was no longer optional (note: conductors will tell you it is never optional).  Probably ok, since it was pointless to look down at the music, because we couldn’t see it in the blinding sun anyway.

Note: keep time, read lips when necessary.  And do no harm (drop out if you’re not sure, come back in when you’ve found your place).

I’d like to point you toward a video at this point, or at least audio, but apparently there was a recording problem, and the sound that was captured from anyone who was not wearing a mike (i.e., the choirs) was a weak, feeble whisper not at all representative of what was being produced or transmitted to the live audience.  I think the bees clustering on a microphone would have made a louder sound, though I suspect it would be less four-part harmony, and more George Crumb’s Black Angels.

So, I hope this will help you get ready should you have the opportunity to sing outside.  Be prepared as well for:  thunderstorms, darkness, cold weather, high winds, dust blown by said high winds, audio feedback of the ear-piercing variety, earthquakes…you get the idea.

Just remember to have fun!



Discovery!  Unknown Viola Work by Shostakovich Found in Archives

Photograph of new Shostakovich viola work

Courtesy of

The Strad reports that a previously unknown work for viola and piano written by Dmitri Shostakovich has been found in Moscow.  The discovery was announced on the composer’s birthday (25 September).

The piece is titled Impromptu Op. 33 (Shostakovich later assigned the number to another work).  It was found among the papers of violist Vadim Borisovsky of the Beethoven Quartet.  It is believed it was written for violist Alexander Ryvkin of the Glazunov Quartet.  The duet was written, apparently in one sitting, in 1931.

We do not yet know what this newly-found work sounds like.  Shostakovich wrote one other work for the viola, the Viola Sonata (his last composition), which was written in 1975.  You can listen to it here.

Read the article in The Strad here.


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Haiku Wednesday: Small is Beautiful; Palestrina’s Missa Brevis

lavender plant with tiny flowerslavender plant

Look closely; you’ll find
Hidden beauty sometimes in
The smallest places.

It had been quite a day.  An ugly day.

It was the kind of day that, for me, only the exquisite beauty of Renaissance polyphony would wash away.  And who better than Palestrina?

So I settled into my favorite chair, started some music, and closed my eyes.  Beautiful.


I noticed that the movements were going by a lot quicker than I expected.   Palestrina was moving at quite a clip.  Before I knew it, the piece was over.  Wait, what?  Already?  Which Palestrina had I selected?

It turned out I had selected an album containing Palestrina’s Missa Brevis, from his Third Book of Masses of 1570.  It is a complete mass, no movements omitted, as can be the case in some masses.  But it seemed noticeably shorter than some of his other masses.  How much shorter?  I did the only thing I could think of to verify my impression.

Selected Palestrina Masses performed by The Tallis Scholars conducted by Peter Phillips
Title Kyrie Gloria Credo Sanctus Benedic-tus Agnus Dei I Agnus Dei II
Missa Benedic-tus es 5:59 7:10 10:59 10:22 6:45
Missa Nasce La Gioja Mia 3:06 4:33 7:25 4:52 4:25
Missa Assump-ta Est Maria 4:42 5:41 8:06 5:31 5:50
Missa Sicut Lilium Inter Spinas 3:42 6:12 9:01 5:19 5:02 n/a
Missa Papae Marcelli 4:02 5:37 8:56 6:40 6:40
Missa Brevis 2:52 3:07 5:24 4:34 5:33

You can see from the table that a) I’m a nerd; b) most of the movements of the Missa Brevis are half the length of those in the Missa Benedictus es, and for the most part are noticeably shorter than those of other masses.

While the work is short, Palestrina more than makes up for it in the beauty of his composition.  This could be the most peaceful 2:52 of your day: here is the Kyrie from the Missa Brevis.

You can watch a performance of the entire piece (23 minutes) here.

If you will be performing this work with a choir and need some help learning your part, you can visit the CyberBass page for the Missa Brevis, where you can hear and download your part for each movement.  Scores are available at the Choral Public Domain Library, or at the Petrucci Music Library (IMSLP).

May you find beauty in unexpected places.
Image attributions: Photos of lavender plant and flower by C. Gallant, 2017.

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Haiku Wednesday: Autumn Nocturne

Photograph of lake viewed through autumn leaves

The sky is slate gray
Dead leaves crunch beneath my feet
Or skitter away.

Collar turned up, I
Shove my hands in my pockets
Against the cold wind.

I walk along with
Furrowed brow, lost in thought, with
Even measured steps.

Looking up, I see
Autumn’s rich, vibrant colors
Surrounding the lake.

More than the cold, it
Takes my breath away–there is
Beauty everywhere.

Here is Stefan Jackiw performing Chopin’s Nocturne in C# Minor as a violin solo. Exquisite.

Here you can find a haunting piano solo performance of the nocturne by Wladyslaw Szpilman, whose story became known worldwide in the movie “The Pianist.”


  1. About the nocturne:,_Op._posth._(Chopin)
  2. Sheet music:,_B.49_(Chopin,_Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9ric)

Image attribution: Lake view through autumn leaves by [CC BY-SA 3.0 us (], via Wikimedia Commons,