Month: November 2018

#378 BERLIOZ THE DAMNATION OF FAUST

#378

BERLIOZ

THE DAMNATION OF FAUST

RAKOCZI MARCH (MARCHE HONGROISE)

CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
GEORG SOLTI, CONDUCTOR

D’AMOUR, L’ARDENTE FLAMME

JOYCE DIDONATO, MEZZO-SOPRANO
BERLIN PHILHARMONIC
SIMON RATTLE

Collegiate music students the world over are grateful for the rest of their lives for having heard so many works they had never heard—sometimes never heard OF—in their various college classes. For me, one of those works was Berlioz’ Damnation of Faust. I first heard it when various parts of it were assigned for analysis in one of my theory classes at Juilliard.

My (now) well-worn LPs of the work by Colin Davis and the London Symphony had just been released in the fall of 1973 when I was studying the work. I was strongly attracted to this work from the first time I heard it. And true to my OCD self, once I had become acquainted with it, I had to go out and purchase it—I had to own it.

*****

The Faust legend—a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for earthly pleasure—is related in Goethe’s Faust, written in 1808. The work is considered Goethe’s masterpiece—as well as the greatest work of literature in the German language. From the time of its publication onward, it captured the attention and imagination of a very literate and religious Europe in the 19th century.

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) certainly fell under its inspiration. Berlioz, a composer who never—ever—thought small, wrote his Damnation of Faust in 1845. It is a work of nearly two and half hours that has confounded all those who would produce it ever since. Berlioz scored the work for an enormous orchestra, a 7-part chorus, a children’s choir, and four vocal soloists. Part opera, part oratorio, part cantata, it defies being presented successfully in any of those forms. Berlioz called it a “legend dramatique.”

The work is now most often presented as a concert work—as an oratorio.

*****

When Berlioz first read Goethe’s Faust, he was transfixed by it, reading it incessantly, at meals, while walking in the streets, everywhere and at all times. His eventual musical depiction of the work is true to the chronological unfolding of Goethe’s story.

In that story, Faust, who is an intellectual pursuing all the wisdom he can possibly obtain, has become disillusioned with life and is about to commit suicide. He hears peasants singing and dancing and realizes he will never have their kind of simple happiness. When he hears a distant army marching, and hears the soldiers’ enthusiasm for the glory of fighting—he knows this also is a joy he cannot ever relate to.

The Devil—Mephistopheles—comes to Faust just when he is going to kill himself, and offers him “the deal”—serve him eternally in hell and, in exchange, experience his deepest earthly desires until then–a deal Faust does not refuse.

Mephistopheles shows Faust a vision of a beautiful and innocent girl, Marguerite, who Faust is very desirous to meet. The Devil takes Faust to her, but in spite of his near reverence for her innocence and beauty, he seduces her and ultimately leaves her.

In the end—of course—Faust has been tricked by the Devil. He winds up suffering torments in hell, while Marguerite experiences the bliss of heaven.

*****

There are many moments of beauty and excitement in Berlioz’ Damnation. I’ve chosen two of the most popular—music that haunted me then–in my college days–as it does now.

The tune for the Rakoczi March had been popular in Hungary for generations at the time Berlioz utilized it in Damnation. Until Berlioz’ time, it was the unofficial state anthem for Hungary. A Hungarian musical friend in Vienna had sent Berlioz the Rakoczi melody, suggesting Berlioz orchestrate it. This he did, creating one—of three—purely orchestral insertions—no chorus or vocal soloists—into the Damnation score. In Damnation, this is the music of the troops marching by that Faust hears.

The Rakoczi March has become one of the most loved, and most often played, orchestral marches in the entire orchestral repertoire. Georg Solti’s recording with the Chicago Symphony is absolutely superb.

*****

One of the most moving moments of Damnation occurs in the fourth act when Marguerite, who has been seduced by Faust, laments that even though Faust has abandoned her, her love for him still burns intensely within her heart, and she is awaiting his return—which, of course, will never happen.

This aria was a favorite of the great Maria Callas, and is here sung tenderly by the expressive and beautiful Joyce DiDonato. The lyrics in English:

Loves fiery flame,
Consumes my beautiful days.
Ah! The peace of my soul
has fled forever!
His departure, his absence
Is the death of me,
And away from his presence,
Everything seems in mourning.
So my poor head
is soon driven mad,
My weak heart stops
Then ices over immediately.

I admire his strong gait,
Its carriage so graceful,
His mouth’s sweet smile
The charm of his eyes,
His enchanting voice,
He sets me ablaze,
His hand, caress,
Alas! His kiss
Of one amorous flame
consumes my days!
Ah! The peace of my soul
has fled forever!
I am at my window,
where outside, all day –
This is the view I wish to see him appear,
Or hasten his return.
My heart beats and presses
Whenever I feel he is coming.
According to my affection
I will always remember him!
O the flame caresses!
I would one day
See my soul exhale
In his kisses of love!

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#377 BEETHOVEN PIANO SONATA #11 IN B-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 22

#377

BEETHOVEN

PIANO SONATA #11 IN B-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 22

RICHARD GOODE, PIANO

Beethoven himself gave the label “grand” to any of his sonatas which were four movements in length—as opposed to the more customary three. The ebullient Opus 22 sonata is the 11th of the 32 Beethoven sonatas. It is comprised of four movements, so therefore it is “grand.” Composed in 1800, when Beethoven was thirty, it is the last of the sonatas regarded as “early” Beethoven, and is regarded by many pianists and music historians as the crowning achievement of these early sonatas. It is the last of the four movement sonatas that uses a particular format: first movement in sonata form, a second slow movement, a light-hearted minuet third movement, and a rondo fourth movement.

I learned this sonata with Ania Dorfmann in my sophomore year, long ago. Although Mme. Dorfmann had a long performing history of Beethoven—she had recorded the First Concerto with Toscanini (they were rumored to have been lovers, but who knows–I certainly never asked)—I think she would have said her real expertise was in Schumann and Mendelssohn. Nevertheless, I’ll always remember her demonstrating lengthy stretches of this Beethoven sonata, playing it only as someone who has played a piece their entire life can play. She knew ALL the Beethoven sonatas in the same way that an English literature lover would know all the Shakespeare plays.

The expressive Adagio second movement is the “heart” of Opus 22, as is true of so many Beethoven sonatas. And the finger dexterity required in the outer movements, particularly the fourth movement, is really quite impressive.

Strangely—especially in light of Beethoven’s own high opinion of this sonata, and its being the peak of the mountain for the early sonatas—I do not think this sonata gets played enough. At least I don’t hear it that much. Which makes me feel that much luckier to have yet another Richard Goode interpretation of the work so readily available on YouTube.

I hope you will enjoy the B-flat Major sonata. If you’ve made it thus far in our listening to all the Beethoven sonatas, this should feel like both a landmark and a (temporary) resting place to you.

1st movt:

2nd movt:

3rd movt:

4th movt:

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#376 OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN A LITTLE MORE LOVE

#376

OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN

A LITTLE MORE LOVE

I was 25 years old when I became interested in—which, as you know, for me means obsessed with—jogging. I started by running around the track at the University of Cincinnati, where I was a student. At the outset, it was just a couple of miles a day. But by the early 1980’s, when Tiraje and I (and little Jason) had moved to Dayton, it was more like 5-10 miles a day, and of course every day. It took a long time for my jogging gene to fade away. Now, in my old age, I think I’m doing great to stay on the treadmill for 30 minutes at a pace that just barely qualifies as jogging.

There IS an Olivia Newton-John tie-in here…

I had liked—not loved, but liked—Olivia Newton-John since she broke onto the scene in 1974. Her innocent, vibratoless soprano struck me as being a bit phlegmatic, but not objectionable. “I Honestly Love You” had been her first number one hit in the U.S., which was followed by an impressive number of consecutive chart-topping songs: Have You Never Been Mellow, Please Mr. Please, Something Better to Do, Let It Shine, Don’t Stop Believin’, Sam, Hopelessly Devoted To You—and then, with the success of the movie Grease featuring herself and John Travolta, You’re The One I Want and Summer Nights.

Newton-John is British, having been born in 1948 in Cambridge. Her family moved to Australia in the mid-1950’s for her father’s work, who was a professor. She had been performing since childhood, and while growing up had taken the initiative to form girl groups and folk-rock duos. Upon winning a singing contest—the prize of which was a trip to Britain—she moved back to the U.K. while still a teenager.

She released her first album in 1971, and followed that up by participating in the Eurovision contest, finishing just behind ABBA. Her career was definitely not going straight up, though, and her musical style fluctuated for a while between pop and country. With her release of “Let Me Be There” in 1974, she won the Grammy and the Country Music Association award for Female Vocalist of the Year—which ruffled some feathers in Nashville, where favorites such as Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and Tanya Tucker were all overlooked.

All of this ONJ activity was only in my peripheral vision, though. Although I found Newton-John’s singing pleasant—as I said, completely non-objectionable—I also did not find it magnetic or compelling. When I read, in the fall of 1981 that she had, with her release of the albums Totally Hot and Physical, purposefully set out to change her good-girl image, I thought I would give her a try by purchasing my first ONJ albums.

On a blindingly sunny Sunday afternoon in January of 1982–here is the jogging tie-in–running in snow drifts all over Kettering, I listened on my Walkman for the first time to these two albums (on cassettes—remember them?). I was pretty impressed. Her voice hadn’t changed, of course, just the material—which showed her to have much more vocal versatility than the simple stand-up singer I had categorized her as.

When I first heard “A Little More Love”, I thought the stratospheric high harmonies were a result of made-in-the-studio over-dubbing—a la ABBA or Karen Carpenter. It turns out that she simply had some outstanding backup singers—and some musicians who were more in line with this style than, say, the collaborators in all her previous songs had been. “A Little More Love” has been in my short list (well, not so short, actually) of “absolute favorite” pop songs for a long time.

If you’re an Olivia fan, you already know this song. If not, I think you’ll also be impressed. She made, I believe, three made-for-TV videos of this song, complete with unnecessary head-tossing and sultry looks. I’m linking to one of those videos here. It’s the music that counts for me.

Olivia Newton-John’s personal life has not been that happy. She and her first husband had divorced, and her long-time significant other, Patrick McDermott, was literally lost at sea and presumed dead. Olivia has been dealing, off and on, with cancer for many years, and has struggled to put her daughter’s life, who suffered from extreme anorexia, in order.

Throughout all these well-publicized events, though, her career has been continuing. ONJ still tours and records. To me, her life in the limelight in somewhat reminiscent of that of Judy Garland’s. Never a moment’s peace, but not wanting it any other way.

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#375 RODRIGO CONCIERTO DE ARANJUEZ

#375

RODRIGO

CONCIERTO DE ARANJUEZ

2ND MOVEMENT – ADAGIO

JOHN WILLIAMS, GUITAR
BBC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
PAUL DANIEL, CONDUCTOR

Pictures:  Rodrigo, Victoria Kahmi, the Gardens of the Palace of Aranjuez.

I think it is probably safe to say that the Rodrigo guitar concerto—the Concierto de Aranjuez—is the most beloved guitar work ever written. I know that is saying a lot, but the widespread appeal of this concerto—and particularly its second movement—goes well beyond guitar aficionados to a much wider general audience.

Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999) had an interesting, and inspiring, life story. Born in Valencia, Spain in 1901, he lost his sight to diphtheria at the age of three and was totally blind for the rest of his life. In his childhood and adolescence, he was taught how to play violin, piano, and guitar by rote, and learned music theory and composition by Braille. All of his subsequent compositions were written in Braille and then transcribed for publication.

Rodrigo’s lack of sight did not deter him from living a full and musical life. He studied piano and composition with Paul Dukas in Paris, as well as musicology under Andre Pirro. His published compositions date from 1923 when he was just 22 years old. Twenty years later, he was awarded Spain’s National Prize for Orchestra for his “Cinco piezas infantiles.” He taught at the prestigious (and enormous, with 86,000 students) Complutense University of Madrid from the 1940’s until his death. In 1983, Rodrigo was awarded Spain’s highest award for composition, the Premio Nacional de Musica. He was raised to the nobility by King Juan Carlos in 1991, and given the title of “Marques de los Jardines de Aranjuez”—Marquis of the Gardens of Aranjuez.

Aranjuez was a town in central Spain, south of Madrid. Rodrigo’s most famous work, the Concierto de Aranjuez, takes its inspiration—according to the composer—from the sounds of nature and the evocation of 16th century Spain associated with the Royal Palace of Aranjuez, built by Phillip II.

The bereft intensity of sadness heard in the Adagio movement is without doubt why this work is one of the best known in all of 20th century art music. The actual circumstances of this work’s creation did not come out until many years after its composition, eventually told by his wife. While a student in Paris, Rodrigo had fallen in love with a Turkish pianist, Victoria Kamhi. They had met in 1929 and were married in 1933. Kahmi was a promising pianist, but she gave up her career and her musical life in order to facilitate his. The couple’s first pregnancy, in 1937, ended in a miscarriage. Rodrigo was racked with grief and pain at this loss, feelings that could only come out in this second movement. This association—his mourning for a lost child and this movement of the concerto—is not just conjecture. It certainly underscores the personal meditation on loss one hears in this music.

Rodrigo was a fine pianist, but he did not play the guitar. Nevertheless, he still manages, in his guitar music, to capture the role of the guitar in the Spanish psyche. As you will hear from the very beginning of the work, this Adagio movement also features the English horn as a solo instrument. These two instruments have a dialogue of sadness at the outset of the work—perhaps the English horn is Victoria, the guitar Joaquin?

*****

Live performances of the work, as you can imagine, are problematic. Since the classical guitar, even in the hands of a master, can only project so far into a large hall, the balance between soloist and orchestra is very delicate. I’m not sure whether all solo guitarists in this concerto customarily use amplification. I’ve heard it both ways. Tiraje and I heard the great Pepe Romero perform the concerto with the Cincinnati Symphony some years ago, and he did not use amplification. We were not sitting that far away—maybe the tenth row, on the orchestra level—and yet his sound did not always carry. In many live recordings, such as can be heard on YouTube, the guitarist is being helped by amplification—which is preferable, I think. This particular clip—featuring a guitarist I’ve loved my whole life, John Williams—seems to have taken place in the humongous Royal Albert Hall in London, in which case amplification for the guitar would absolutely have been necessary.

If you have not heard this work before, I would strongly suggest savoring it. Wait until you have the time—10 minutes or so—to really hear it out.

ADAGIO MOVEMENT – JOHN WILLIAMS, GUITAR

And, I would be remiss if I did not also mention that the outer movements are a joy to hear as well—lively and ever so Spanish. For that pleasure, you may want to listen to Pepe Romero with Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos conducting:

COMPLETE CONCERTO – PEPE ROMERO, GUITAR

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#374 BACH CANTATA #28, BWV 28 GOTTLOB! NUN GEHT DAS JAHR ZU ENDE

#374

BACH

CANTATA #28, BWV 28

GOTTLOB! NUN GEHT DAS JAHR ZU ENDE
PRAISE GOD! THE YEAR NOW DRAWS TO A CLOSE)

FIRST MOVEMENT (of six)

ARLEEN AUGER, SOPRANO
STUTTGART BACH COLLEGIUM
HELMUTH RILLING, CONDUCTOR

Written 1725

I think it is sometimes easy—at least it was easy for me—to assume that because Bach lived, worked and died within the confines of Germany—no travel in his lifetime beyond its borders—that he was, in some way, inferior to the other great composers of his day. In particular, inferior to his exact contemporary Handel, who was truly the international, cosmopolitan composer of his time. Was this a lack of vision on his part? A lack of the self-promotion gene? Due maybe to a lack of self-confidence? A lack of compositional ability?

I think that understanding this requires us to get into Bach’s psyche. It may be difficult for many present day 21st century citizens to relate to a man for whom service to God is the prevailing dictate of his life. However Bach envisioned it, to him his relationship with a divinity that created the world and provided an (eternal) escape from sin was the guiding light in his life. Seeking God’s approval by doing what he—Bach—could do best—which was musical composition—was THE main thing. Self-aggrandizement was the furthest thing from Bach’s mind. Within Germany, then, he rose to be THE preeminent musician in all of Protestant Germany, securing the post of music director of St. Thomas church in Leipzig, the most important center of Protestant Christianity in Germany.

Bach was anything but a wallflower, he knew his worth, and he attained what would was considered to be the top compositional post in all of Protestant Christendom. And, I should mention—in retrospect, he is widely considered the greatest musical genius of all time.

So, the position Bach held in Leipzig was a plum position. He was responsible for the music for four churches including St. Thomas. He was in charge of the lives and education of the boychoir boys who lived at St. Thomas. His family life was busier than most. Bach, as you may know, fathered many children.

Bach and his first wife, Maria Barbara, had seven children, of which two died in infancy. Maria Barbara died in 1720, and Bach had shortly remarried, Anna Magdalena, in 1721. They started having children at the very same time Bach acquired the Leipzig position. They ultimately had thirteen children, seven of whom did not survive childhood. The fewest number of children, then, in the Bach household at any given time during these early Leipzig years would have been eleven. Bach assumed the role of music educator/father to all of his children, especially the boys, several of which became noted composers.

All of this is just to give a little context to the environment in which Bach was composing during the 1720’s. From 1723-29, Bach was composing at an absolutely white-hot pace, often composing one cantata per week. He found all the vocal soloists for his works, rehearsed the choirs every day, and conducted every performance of every cantata—meanwhile seeing to the education of the live-in choir boys (including teaching them Latin), and trying to provide a cohesive family life for a burgeoning clan.

Not that anyone reading this needs a reminder, but I like to remind myself from time to time that, given the task of writing a single Bach-style cantata—six or seven movements, several of which would feature vocal soloists, and at least two of which would involve a choir, and all of which would involve the most creative instrumental writing—that given such a task, most other composers of the time—even the best—would have had to devote a considerable amount of time to produce just ONE. Bach literally tossed these off one after another.

*****

Cantata #28 was composed in 1725. Like so many of the other cantatas, it features four vocal soloists. Bach would very often have, as his initial movement in the cantatas, an orchestra-and-chorus movement that introduced, and revolved around, a chorale theme—a melody either written by himself, or much more likely, someone else, such as Martin Luther himself. But in Cantata #28, Bach starts with a soprano singing a virtuosic aria which commands the listener to praise God. This cantata was (and is) sung on the Sunday that falls between Christmas and New Year’s—a final reminder for the year to congregants about getting one’s priorities in order.

It is sung here by the wonderful Arleen Auger. This movement typifies so much about singing Bach—the separate articulation of every note, in particular. The “conversation” that one hears at the opening was typical of the “concerto grosso” form, a conversation between a small group of instruments with another larger one. And like one hears in many of Bach’s keyboard works, one hears here, in the interplay of orchestra with soloist, the juxtapositioning of faster-moving notes in the orchestra with longer, detached ones in the soloist’s part.

This is a really delightful movement.

Pictures: St. Thomas then, St. Thomas now, St. Thomas interior.

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#373 BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH

#373

BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD

FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH

I have often wondered what I would be like, musically as well as psychologically, if the majority of my music listening during my growing-up years had been primarily to classical music—that my acquaintance with popular music would have been—at best—just that—acquaintance only, only peripheral to the “main” stuff, which would have been classical. Would I be more musically sophisticated? Would I have accomplished more as a classical pianist? Would my college years have been any different than they were? Would my choices in other things—books, art, even friends—have been different? I guess the main question is, was my attraction to popular music—which was pretty dominant until I was at least 18—something that slowed down, perhaps even stunted, my musical growth in other directions?

Obviously, I’ll never know the answer to that. But, as I’ve mentioned numerous times by now, my song-by-song memory-playback of my whole life, which is very often crystal clear—however it came about—is something I value. And this event-by-event life recall only seems to have occurred with pop songs.

So, it’s like the proverbial gift horse, I guess.

*****

I was in ninth grade, 15 years old, when “For What It’s Worth” was being played on the radio. My memory associated with the song could hardly be more mundane.

All during my growing-up years, I attended a Saturday piano performance class, held by my teacher for all of his students. This involved—until I could drive—riding the bus from the suburb I lived in to downtown Dayton, a 30-minute bus ride, plus a 30-minute 2-way walk. One sunny spring Saturday in May (May 20, to be precise), I had gotten off the bus and was walking the mile walk home down Stroop Road. And “For What It’s Worth” was playing in my mind, over and over again.

“For What It’s Worth” happens to be an anti-war protest song—or at least that is how it lives on in people’s memories. In 1967, the Vietnam War was raging and many thousands of American boys were losing their lives there for no good reason—the pawns, as soldiers always are, of political powers. In Los Angeles, songwriters Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and Richie Furay collaborated on writing “For What It’s Worth” for their group, Buffalo Springfield.

The odd name of the group derives from a spur-of-the-moment decision after the band’s members saw a steamroller at a construction site with that name. Buffalo Springfield became the house band at the famous LA Whiskey-a-Go-Go and was soon signed by the famous music promoter Ahmet Ertugun of Atlantic Records.

I was perhaps at a good age—at 15—to appreciate the anti-war stance of the song. I had no real responsibilities in life yet. I was free to observe, living in my white suburbia cocoon where it was hard to avoid seeing Walter Cronkite every night on the evening news, reporting the latest war atrocities. Part of the glue that held the then-nascent hippie movement together was their stance against the war. Dressing like a hippie proclaimed one’s solidarity with the movement. I did my best, in my impressive teenage geekiness, to dress appropriately.

*****

Protest songs such as “For What It’s Worth” were not unique. Even in its day, though, it was not clear—or ever made clear by its writers—whether the song was specifically about the Vietnam war. There have been a number of very strained, retrospective interpretations of the song’s lyrics as referring to the Los Angeles Watts riots—a few years BEFORE the song was written—or to the Kent State shooting—a few years AFTER the song was written. To me, it seems obvious that the lyrics refer to protests—“a thousand people in the street”—against the war, and the political football that the war had become—“nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”

These, of course, are all pretty deep thoughts for a 15-year old to be having—staking out an anti-war, anti-violence philosophy based on the facts as you knew them.

But, that had nothing to do with me, and nothing to do with my love of this song.  I loved “For What It’s Worth” purely on its musical merits. The singular high-pitched guitar twang, with its lengthy vibrating, first on E then a fifth above on B, repeated endlessly; the song’s LACK of modulation, its harmonic sameness in verse-after-refrain repetitions. It was like a musical mantra to me, and still is. It would be nice, I suppose, if I had also been “into” the lyrics, but in truth, Buffalo Springfield could have been singing la-la-la, and I would still have loved the song.

*****

“For What It’s Worth” WAS a musical milestone, of sorts. It certainly propelled the careers of some major figures in the rock music world of the late 1960’s. Buffalo Springfield’s tenure in the pop music world only lasted a few years, from 1966-68. Stephen Stills, of course, went on to be an integral part of Crosby Stills Nash and Young. Neil Young, after a successful solo stint, also joined CSNY. Rich Furay went on to form the band Poco. Another member of Buffalo Springfield, Jim Messina, went on to form Loggins and Messina.

“For What It’s Worth” was Buffalo Springfield’s sole great hit. Here are the famous song’s lyrics:

There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind
It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side
It’s s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away
We better stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
Stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
Stop, now, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
Stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

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#372 ESPERANZA SPALDING HEAVEN IN PENNIES

#372

ESPERANZA SPALDING

HEAVEN IN PENNIES

In the words of my son Jonathan, Esperanza Spalding is absolutely, stupidly talented—that, of course—if a translation is needed—is a compliment of the highest order.

And talented she is.

Spalding (b. 1984) grew up in northeast Portland in a rough neighborhood, raised by a single mother. As a young child, she one day saw Yo-Yo Ma on an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which inspired her to pursue music lessons on the violin. She became so good so quickly that she was concertmaster of the Chamber Music Society of Oregon by the time she was 14. An ability to pick out anything she heard on the piano soon became evident. In addition to playing violin and piano, Spalding also played oboe and clarinet in high school. When she was 15, she became strongly attracted to jazz, gradually learning to play jazz bass by sitting in on practice sessions of other Portland musicians. She sings in English, Portugese, and Spanish. She is also a fine saxophonist, just another skill she picked up along the way. So—this is a talented woman.

She entered Portland State University at the age of 16, the youngest bass student in the program. She was soon accepted, on scholarship, at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. But the high cost of her living expenses in Boston nearly discouraged her to the point of dropping out. Pat Metheny, the legendary guitarist and Berklee graduate himself, gave her strong encouragement to continue—she had “the X factor” necessary for success: “it was immediately obvious to me that she had a lot to say and was also unlike any musician I had ever run across before. Her unique quality is something that goes beyond her pretty amazing musical skills; she has that rare ‘X’ factor of being able to transmit a certain personal kind of vision and energy that is all her own.”

As readers of my posts know, I am a Pat Metheny fanatic. This kind of praise from someone of his stature is as good as gold.

She gets her inspiration from all kinds of sources, from Madonna to Ornette Coleman to Wayne Shorter to Brazilian songwriter Milton Nascimento. Thus far in her career, Spalding has won 4 Grammys, including the 2011 Grammy for Best New Artist, the first time the award was ever presented to a jazz artist.

“Esposure” is the title of Spalding’s sixth studio album. “Heaven in Pennies” is a track from Exposure that really grows on you. Here are her lyrics:

Look at you
Too proud to say what you need
What? the bell in the church of your mind
Ain’t been swung in such a long time
Dull brass and spiderwebs, choking the sound
Locks on the gate round your fountain, all dry
Pretty cherubs of stone await silver rain from the sky
Why?
You might come down and open your mind
Down searching the ground for pennies
I wish for a voice from the sky
While searching the ground the pennies

Open the door to your steeple
It’s empty where people would gladly
Give a coin to restore your rosy window panes
Broken and boarded up
Others come mending the curtains
Re-roping the bell that reminds you to move
While you pray
Polish and ring on down
Each wish you make
Children now splash in the fountain
The coins we have counted are laid on a plate
To feed them more

Now
Now come down and open your mind
Start searching the ground for pennies
We all wish for our riches on high
And still search the ground for pennies

Now
We all wish for our riches on high
And still search the ground for pennies
Oh, come down and open your mind
Start searching the ground for pennies
We all wish for a voice from the sky
While searching the ground the pennies
Now come down and open your mind
We’re searching the ground for pennies
We all wish for a voice from the sky
While searching the ground for pennies
Oh, come down and open your mind
Keep searching the ground for pennies
We all wish for our riches on high
While working the ground for pennies

If you’re hearing Esperanza Spalding for the first time, you may also enjoy SEEING her doing a sketching-out rehearsal of “Heaven in Pennies”:

My son Jonathan introduced me to Spalding’s music, and I’m so glad he did. As he says, she IS the real deal.

 

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#371 DEBUSSY PRELUDE TO THE AFTERNOON OF A FAUN

#371

DEBUSSY

PRELUDE TO THE AFTERNOON OF A FAUN

CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA
PIERRE BOULEZ, CONDUCTOR

A diversion before even speaking about the music:

I have spoken a number of times of how thrilling to me my musical education at Juilliard was. A very large part of that 6-year thrill was coming into contact with excellent players from all over the United States and all over the world. Truly, these young people were like no other group of young people I could ever imagine. My first year there, in particular, was extraordinarily eye-opening. I remember an ongoing feeling I had that first year of feeling truly unsophisticated—from the sticks, so to speak—when observing my fellow students, all of whom seemed to be 18 going on 35. Eating in the cafeteria was like being in a mini United Nations—so many different languages to hear, so many different personalities present at every table. Robin Williams (from the drama division) dancing on tabletops, ballerinas and violinists showing off to each other on the spur of the moment, everyone always very “alive.”

I’m recalling these things now because of today’s post, Debussy’s wonderful Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. I should explain that, like many large conservatories then and now, Juilliard had several student orchestras. One could think of them as the “A” team, the “B” team, and so on. I had a friend in one of my classes, a violinist whose boyfriend was a flutist. I played chamber music with the girl, Dana. Her boyfriend was Tim. We were all about 20 years old. This boyfriend was not only a flutist, he was principal flutist in the Juilliard Orchestra—the “A” team. Dana and I were talking about an upcoming concert on which Debussy’s Prelude was going to be played. That is when I learned that her boyfriend was going to be playing the lengthy and seductive flute solos that are heard throughout the piece. I was astonished. I only knew Tim casually, but nevertheless—to put it in athletic terms—it was like knowing someone who plays tennis, someone just 20 years old and seemingly a regular guy, who you find out is going to be playing in the U.S. Open next week.

You get the idea. The classmates I got to experience at Juilliard are people I’ve never forgotten. Philip Smith, who became principal trumpet of the New York Phil, John Fullam who became principal clarinetist for the Buffalo Philharmonic, David Wakefield who was the horn player for the American Brass Quintet—and dozens—scores, really—of others as well. These outstanding instrumentalists were as inspiring to me as all my pianist colleagues.

The concert featuring Tim’s playing of Debussy was, like all the Juilliard Concert Orchestra concerts, outstanding.

OK, sorry once again for my self-indulgent walk(s) down memory lane. 🙂

*****

There are a number of bullet items one should take note of when thinking about Debussy’s history-making Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun:

• Supposedly, Maurice Ravel, when speaking about Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, said that “if there is music to be heard at the Gates of Paradise, then this is it.” For Ravel, a composer of considerable stature, to say such a thing is pretty significant. It elevates the piece to a certain level even before one has heard it.

• The work was written in 1894 when Debussy was 32. Pierre Boulez, the great 20th century conductor (of the NY Phil) and composer felt that the work—even though written six years before the 20th century began—was the first great 20th century work, a true vision of the future. As an aside to that statement and as a testament to the esteem in which Debussy is held, I remember that my teacher at Juilliard for Piano Rep—Joseph Bloch, a kindly and accomplished man through whose classes every pianist went—often said that the greatest composer of the 20th century—the one with the most permanent influence on the direction music would take—was Debussy. Considering that Debussy died in 1918, that is an amazing statement to make, and it certainly left its mark on me.

• Debussy IS thought of this way by many musicians. His use of harmony—what he heard in his mind—was so different than what had come before him. And his disregard for formal structures and what had been known, up to that time, as functional harmony, were the pillars of his craft.

• Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was inspired by the poem of the same name by Stephane Mallarme (1842-1898.) It is important to know the story: a faun was a mythological creature, half-human, half-goat. The poem describes the sensual experiences of the faun who is just awakening from a pleasant afternoon nap. He then has a dialogue with several nymphs—the female deities who inhabited nature—about his dream-like impressions.

• Mallarme’s poem is regarded by many as the greatest poem in the French language. Interestingly, Mallarme was definitely NOT thrilled with Debussy, his younger artistic colleague, using his poem as a springboard for a musical work. He was dead-set against the idea, feeling that the very idea of attempting to express in music the ideas of literature went against nature and against logic—that “even with the best intentions in the world, it was a veritable crime as far as poetry was concerned to juxtapose poetry and music, even if it were the finest music there is.” But after attending the premiere performance, he was a different Mallarme: “I have just come out of the concert, deeply moved. The marvel! Your illustration of the Afternoon of a Faun, which presents a dissonance with my text only by going much further, really, into nostalgia and into light, with finesse, with sensuality, with richness. I press your hand admiringly, Debussy. Yours, Mallarmé.”

• The solo flutist is the faun throughout. As Boulez said about it, “the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music.” I’m linking here to the Boulez recording with the Cleveland Orchestra, one of my favorites. Maybe it was because Boulez was French, or maybe he simply had an affinity for Debussy, but I find Boulez’s Debussy recordings to be uniformly wonderful.

 

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#370 BRAHMS DOUBLE CONCERTO IN A MINOR, OPUS 102

#360

BRAHMS

CONCERTO FOR VIOLIN AND CELLO (“DOUBLE CONCERTO”) IN A MINOR, OPUS 102

FIRST MOVEMENT

DAVID OISTRAKH, VIOLIN
MSTISLAV ROSTROPOVITCH, CELLO
CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA
GEORGE SZELL, CONDUCTOR

I was a junior in high school when I acquired my love for the music of Johannes Brahms. Although I had learned a number of his piano works by that time, I had not delved into his orchestral or choral writing until I heard his German Requiem. So, I didn’t really know Brahms.

As I was growing up, I was fortunate to have friends who were also talented pianists and music-lovers. One of them, Tom Johnson, lived in Oakwood—at the time, Dayton’s wealthiest suburb—and his parents’ house was situated on a hill that overlooked all of downtown Dayton, such as it was. Tom was two years older than me, and in addition to being a fine pianist, he was really intelligent. (They don’t always go hand in hand.)

Tom was home for Christmas vacation from Harvard, and I had gone over to his house for the evening. In my eyes, Tom was all about sophistication. During our evening of talking enthusiastically about music, he pulled out an LP that he said I just HAD to hear. “Your life will never be the same,” he said.

The recording was Brahms’ German Requiem, performed by the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, conducted by Ernest Ansermet. He was right, my life was never the same. As we sat and listened to Brahms, looking out over downtown Dayton, I thought that all was right with the world. I drove home late at night, determined to buy that recording—mail order, of course—immediately.

*****

Not only did I listen to as much Brahms orchestral music as I could during the rest of high school (and consequently for the rest of my life), I also felt I had to know everything about Brahms the man. What kind of PERSON creates such beauty? What were the circumstances of his life? What thoughts went through his head?

I don’t know that I have the complete answer to those questions even today, but I do have an entire bookcase devoted to my many Brahms books. The very first one of these I read—Karl Geiringer’s 1936 excellent biography—I read in its entirety sitting on the stairstep going from our garage into the house during that junior year of high school. I’m not sure why I settled in reading on that step, but I did. It is a very pleasant memory.

*****

Brahms would write many works involving the orchestra—two Serenades, four Symphonies, five miscellaneous (and large) works including his amazing Variations on a Theme of Haydn, ten works that involve choirs (including the Requiem), and four concertos. The Double Concerto, Opus 102, was to be his very last work for orchestra.

At Juilliard, I was lucky enough to have a music theory teacher for several consecutive years who loved Brahms, Norman Grossman. He had his classes study many of Brahms’ works, including the Double Concerto, which is where I made its acquaintance.

[Just coincidentally, another reason I loved his class was the opportunity to play footsies with Tiraje, who was also in his class…but that is another story.]

A “double” concerto, as you can guess, is a concerto for two instruments and orchestra. This final orchestral work of Brahms is of gigantic proportions and requires two absolutely first-rate and well-matched soloists to be successful. One might think that this “requirement” would be easily met these days, but the logistical challenge (not to mention the financial one) for an orchestra in finding two high-caliber soloists to commit to a performance, say a year in advance, is not that easy. Many orchestras present the Double Concerto utilizing their own principal violinist and cellist.

Tiraje and I heard such a performance—an outstanding one and the only one we’ve heard in person—in Cincinnati a few years ago, which featured Eric Lee, the symphony’s principal cellist and his brother, Benny, violin.

*****

As with so many of Brahms’ works, I truly love this concerto—in particular, the first movement. How to best convey one’s enthusiasm for a musical work you love to those who have never heard it? How to infect another person with the same thrill you receive from it? Obviously, if I knew the answer to that, I would do just that right now. I guess, in this case, all I can do is to suggest that you listen for certain places in the movement:

• listen to the virtuosity and perfect overlap of Oistrakh and Rostropovich at 2:05 in their extended cadenza at the outset of the work
• at 2:25 and 3:10, let the majesty of the work wash over you and speak to your soul
• at 5:52, luxuriate in the lushness of Rostropovich’s vibrato and the lyricism of Brahms melodic writing

I think this is a remarkable and lengthy first movement. Its intensity never lets up. It concludes, in this clip, at 16:52. Of course, the second and third movements are totally lovely, as well. But this is one of those War and Peace-length works. If the work is not familiar to you—I would wrap myself up in the first movement a few times before going on with the rest of the work. But that’s just me.

David Oistrakh (1908-1974) was the renowned Soviet-era violinist, one of the preeminent violinists of the 20th century. Likewise, Mstislav Rostropovitch (1927-2007), also Russian, was one of the titans of cello playing in the 20th century. I will never forget hearing a public master class at Juilliard in 1976, where Rostropovich was instructing the 20-year old Yo-Yo Ma how to play the cello! It was pretty impressive to hear the two of them up on stage.
This recording, by the way, was to be George Szell’s final recording. He died just weeks later of cancer, leaving an amazing legacy of recorded performances to the world.

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#369 HUGO REINHOLD IMPROMPTU IN C-SHARP MINOR, OPUS 28, NO. 3

#369

HUGO REINHOLD

IMPROMPTU IN C-SHARP MINOR, OPUS 28, NO. 3

JUNGRAN KIM KHWARG, PIANO

I think that not many classical musicians, even pianists, are familiar with Hugo Reinhold (1854-1935). When this kind of thing happens—when a composer sinks into obscurity within a century after his life—it’s usually for good reason. There is probably not much substance there.

And, for all I know, that is basically true of Hugo Reinhold. There isn’t all that much known about him. He was an Austrian composer. He certainly had good pedigree, studying with the great composer Anton Bruckner and the great pianist Julius Epstein while growing up in Vienna. He lived in Vienna his entire life, teaching at the Akademie der Tonkunst. His works were apparently appreciated enough in his lifetime to be performed by the Vienna Philharmonic. So, he was probably no wallflower—composers in any time period had to be relentlessly self-promoting.

But, he is known now by just a handful of works. His most famous work for piano is his Impromptu in C-sharp minor.

As a young teenager, I remember first learning Chopin’s famous Fantasie-Impromptu, which is certainly, in the minds of many, one of Chopin’s greatest hits. Its mid-section was even made into a popular song, “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” early in the 20th century. But Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu was among a handful (a very large handful, actually) of works that Chopin did not deem as being good enough to warrant publication. In fact, he specifically instructed his friends and students not to publish it after his death.

Fortunately, that request was ignored and the world has Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu.

In a case of obvious hero-worship, Hugo Reinhold composed HIS Impromptu, modeled on that of Chopin. Same key, same length, same exact form (a strict A-B-A—probably the very reason Chopin did not publish his—he probably felt it was lacking in originality).

Shortly after I learned the Chopin Fantasie-Impromptu, I was assigned the Reinhold Impromptu. I loved the piece and still do. It is quite exciting, and, like Chopin’s, has that requisite singing mid-section. I feel the piece gets short shrift.

Josef Raeiff, the renowned Juilliard teacher, had a strong affection for the Reinhold Impromptu. I wish more people today did. Because it is a suitable piece for up-and-coming piano wunderkinds to play, one finds a slew of clips on YouTube by various children playing it, from (it seems) age 5 on up. That’s kind of a shame because a certain amount of sophistication is called for in playing the piece.

Jungran Kim Khwarg, who has made a career of recording piano music that is off the beaten path, performs the Reinhold Impromptu the way it should be played, without any fuss or pretensions, with utmost clarity and not too fast—a fault of so many players of this piece.

I hope you’ll give this gem a listen.

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