Month: December 2018

#408 SIBELIUS FINLANDIA

#408

SIBELIUS

FINLANDIA, OPUS 26

BBC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
SAKARI ORAMO, CONDUCTOR

The dignity of a nation reflected in music…

I’ve mentioned before—I imagine more than once—that in my drive to musically self-educate myself during my teens, I acquired many “basic repertoire” and “suggested best of the best” lists of classical music to hear—music that one was supposed to listen to before any others—music lists meant to give you, in a distilled form, the highlights of the endless fields of classical music. My OCD was already in full bloom, so I proceeded to listen to all of these works. I still have several sets of LPs that, thankfully, were available to serve this very purpose.

One of the works that made it onto every one of these lists (which, as you might expect, were almost carbon copies of each other) was FINLANDIA by Sibelius. It is a glorious work. If you have not heard it—or if you’ve not heard it for a while—I think you will enjoy this 8-minute performance.

*****

I’ve mentioned before in other posts—on his Second Symphony and Violin Concerto—that Sibelius (1865-1957) is, in most people’s minds, the greatest Finnish composer. Certainly, on the evidence of these three works alone, he deserves consideration for that honor.

Sibelius was one of the very few composers we label “great” who simply stopped composing, by choice, at a certain point in his life. For his last thirty years—realizing that the romantic sweep of his music was simply not the way of the future—that he had become an anachronism—he stopped composing. Musicologists have actually named this last part of his life the “Silence of Jarvenpaa”—the town in which Sibelius lived.

*****

But stopping composing could not have been farther from Sibelius’s mind in late 1899, when he composed Finlandia. And how the work came to be created in the first place is an interesting story.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, Finland was a Russian territory. The empire had been imposing increasingly strict censorship upon the Finnish press. By the point in time when Finlandia was composed, the liberal newspaper Päivälehti had been shut down for three months, with only the conservative (pro-Russian) Uusi Suometar allowed to continue publication. The majority of the country’s population, including of course its artists, were aghast at this censorship.

In the Press Celebrations of 1900, an organized protest against these impositions, occurred. Central to this event, and threaded through it, was the music of Jean Sibelius, who felt it incumbent upon himself to express the dignity and honor of his country in music. To do this, Sibelius composed a seven-part work:

• OVERTURE
• VAINAMOINEN’S SONG – Vainamoinen was a Finnish demigod, the originator of chants and song
• THE BAPTISM OF THE FINNS – the 4-century period during which Finland was Christianized
• DUKE JOHN IN THE CASTLE OF TURKU – the 16th century Finnish king who reconciled Protestants and Catholics in Finland
• THE FINNS IN THE 30 YEARS WAR – the heroism of Finns during this prolonged and brutally destructive 17th century conflict
• THE GREAT HATE – the scorched-earth policy of the Russians as they raped Finland in the 18th century – the same censors, the Russians, who were then silencing the Finnish press
• FINLAND AWAKENS

“Finland Awakens,” the final part of this work, is what we now know as FINLANDIA. But because it would have been too dangerous to publicly use his actual titles for these final two movements, The Great Hate and Finland Awakens–Sibelius would have been exiled or executed–he had to mask the names of these movements, not only at the initial performance but for some time afterwards as well.

The music of the last movement became immediately and immensely popular—particularly the hymn section, which even today is one of the most important national songs of Finland. Consequently, Sibelius had to rename the work several times—even though it was a secret to no one what message the music was supposed to convey. For years, Finlandia was known as “Happy Feelings at the Awakening of the Finnish Spring” or “A Scandinavian Choral March.”

It is now, of course, FINLANDIA, still a source of sincere pride for all Finns.

*****

The music, from its initial foreboding and fortissimo brass choir, is alternately turbulent and tender, but always serious and proclamative. It is music that is redolent of the pride a people can take in their own land.

The hymn-like music, at 5:08 in today’s link, which comes on the heels of much orchestral turbulence, is the heart and soul of Finandia. Many people have supposed that Sibelius took an existing hymn tune and simply inserted his own arrangement of it here. But it is in fact entirely original. The sound of a serene capella choir, singing its love for Finland, is a wonderful and unexpected contrast which never fails to connect with audiences.

This fine performance–another one in the magnificent Royal Albert Hall–is by the BBC Symphony, whose current conductor is a Finn, Sakari Oramo.

Pics: Sibelius’s home in Jarvanpaa, where Finlandia was composed – two images of the Finnish terrain

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#407 LED ZEPPELIN STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

#407

LED ZEPPELIN

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

Here’s my contention about Stairway to Heaven, the rock song from 1971 that, in the minds of rock music lovers, is the sine qua non of all rock music, the paragon of rock music excellence, the epitome of quality in song-writing: It IS unquestionably a great song—on musical grounds. Reams have been written about its lyrics—a little more about which in a minute. But my contention is that the greatness of this song is musical. Music gives it its power, completely.

Whatever metaphor from nature one might want to use for MUSIC—the wind that carries things—the fire that ignites things—the water upon which things flow—it is MUSIC that lends power to words, injecting meaning into words a thousand times more powerful than those words would be by themselves.

Maybe this is an accepted truth among all music lovers, regardless of the genre, and therefore a cliche. But I tend to think this is not the case. I think a majority of pop and rock music lovers feel that the power—for lack of a better word—in the music they love comes from the lyrics.

IMHO, nothing could be further from the truth.

And–just to put things into perspective: the breadth of musical acquaintance of most rock music aficionados—pardon my judgmental statement here—is limited, so that when they encounter music that is written and performed so well that they sense something transcendental about it, they label such music—appropriately—“great,” the “best”, and so on—an acknowledgment—whether they call it this or not—that such music is ART.

I think that kind of recognition is understandable. There are, however, many thousands of such examples in the world of art music and jazz. I am not trying to sound snooty or snarky, but as great as the music in Stairway to Heaven is as a rock song—it absolutely speaks directly to your soul from its first notes—it is a pebble on the beach among all examples of greatness in music.

*****

OK, now that I’ve alienated some readers, I’ll continue on in my sincere appreciation of Stairway to Heaven. I did not intend to deflate everything I’m about to say with what might seem to some like a straw-man argument that—perhaps—no one is seriously going to disagree with anyway. 😊

*****

Stairway to Heaven—going completely against recording industry protocol—was not released as a single when it came out in 1971. Rather, it appeared on Led Zeppelin’s fourth (and untitled) album.

Just to give the broadest picture of the song’s appeal—in retrospect–Stairway to Heaven:

• Holds a top position in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Top 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll
• Is one of Classic Rock’s Ten Best Songs Ever Written
• Is in VH1’s 100 Greatest Songs of All Time
• Is the Recording Industry Association’s Song of the Century
• Has won a Grammy Hall of Fame Award
• Is in Rolling Stones’ Top 500 Songs of All Time
• Is in Q’s 100 Songs That Have Changed the World
• Is in Guitar World’s 100 Greatest Guitar Solos

The song has been downloaded many millions of times. Every YouTube submission of Stairway has millions of views. (The one I am linking to, with just 7 million, has—I feel—the best audio of them all.)

To say the least, this a song that is loved by many, many people.

*****

Led Zeppelin was a British band. The group consisted of guitarist Jimmy Page, singer Robert Plant, bassist and keyboardist John Paul Jones, and drummer John Bonham. The group, recording for Atlantic Records, released eight albums over 11 years, from 1969 to 1979. It was their fourth album, which included Stairway to Heaven, that propelled them, permanently, to international attention.

Their style is basically rooted in the blues, but they were influenced by a number of diverse sources—Celtic music, jazz, world music and reggae—they were a band whose style it was hard to pigeonhole.

Stairway to Heaven was written shortly after the group’s fifth U.S. tour, at a cottage in western England, at night by a fireplace with a roaring fire—a picturesque scene, actually. Jimmy Page simply strummed out–created–the song, section by section, while Robert Plant wrote down lyrics—a very laid-back creation.

*****

Much has been written, as I mentioned, about the lyrics of the song:

[First section]
There’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven
When she gets there she knows
If the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for
Oh oh oh oh and she’s buying a stairway to heaven
There’s a sign on the wall
But she wants to be sure
‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings
In a tree by the brook
There’s a songbird who sings
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiving

[Second section]
Ooh, it makes me wonder
Ooh, it makes me wonder
There’s a feeling I get
When I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leaving
In my thoughts I have seen
Rings of smoke through the trees
And the voices of those who standing looking
Ooh, it makes me wonder
Ooh, it really makes me wonder
And it’s whispered that soon, If we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason
And a new day will dawn
For those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter
If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow
Don’t be alarmed now
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen
Yes, there are two paths you can go by
But in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on
And it makes me wonder
Your head is humming and it won’t go
In case you don’t know
The piper’s calling you to join him
Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow
And did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind

[Third section]
And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll
And she’s buying the stairway to heaven

One of the virtues of such opaque lyrics—like the texts in many “spiritual” books—is that they are open to interpretation. Each listener is free to make of the song whatever he wants. Generally speaking, the song has been interpreted as being:

• a story about a woman who accumulates money, only to find out the hard way her life had no meaning and will not get her into heaven
• a symbolic ode to drug use (which seems highly unlikely to me)
• a mystical fable about a medieval/pagan past

For many, the lyrics are inseparable from the song’s music. As I mention above, I am not one of them. And I would guess that most “Stairway” lovers listened to the song dozens of times before they paid any actual attention to the lyrics. Even now—going on 50 years–half a century!–from the time of the song’s peak popularity, the only lyrics I retain are “all that glitters is gold” and the refrain “it makes me wonder.”

But, again, that’s just me. 🙂

*****

The song is divided into three sections, each one of which is immediately appealing. The great site americansongwriter.com gives three appropriate labels to those sections:

0:00-2:15 Fairytale Acoustic Folk

Jimmy Page’s simple guitar accompanied initially by a pair of flutes, then Robert Plant starts intoning the lyrics – Plant had an unusually expressive voice

2:15-5:47 Sex-laden Swampy Grooves

A whole new world of instant harmony—supplied by Page’s doubled-necked Gibson guitar—and an intoxicating harmony, alternating between A Minor and D Major, the minor I and major IV chords – wonderful production quality: the engineers achieved a perfect balance between Plant’s melodic line and the guitars of Page and Jones—only at 4:20, more than half-way through the song’s eight minutes, do Bonham’s drums enter the action

5:47-8:01 Braying, blues-based hard rock

A legendary guitar solo by Page, one that instantly put him on par with all the great lead rock guitarists—rhythmically now driving to a frenzied conclusion – UNTIL, the very last final, solitary, solo-voice at 7:50: “and she’s buying a stairway to heaven”

*****
Stairway to Heaven is an exceptionally well-written song. As americansongwriter says, it is “an epic unrivaled in its grandeur and incalculable in its influence.”

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#406 BRAHMS PIANO CONCERTO #2 IN B-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 83

#406

BRAHMS

PIANO CONCERTO #2 IN B-FLAT MAJOR, OPUS 83

EMIL GILELS, PIANO
CHICAGO SYMPHONY
FRITZ REINER, CONDUCTOR

The greatest piano concerto?

For a classical pianist, there are certain works that are so awe-inspiring that they are difficult to write about. Where does one begin? The inadequacy of words, the lack of effective metaphors, the paucity of comparisons to anything in nature—all are obstacles to speaking about such works.

Rather than make clumsy attempts at natural comparisons—the Brahms B-flat Concerto is the Everest of piano concertos, the Brahms B-flat is the planet Jupiter, the Brahms B-flat is the Amazon jungle, etc—all of which fall short—I’ll just say I consider it to be the greatest piano concerto. There are many, many other pianists who would say the same thing.

At 45 minutes in length, it is also one of the longest. There are, to be sure, concertos that are longer—Busoni’s and Furtwangler’s, for instance. But in terms of magical content, the Brahms B-flat is packed with beauties that other concertos lack.

*****

Warning: lengthy personal story to follow that has very little to do with the music!

I first heard the Brahms B-flat when I was a junior in high school. You may remember my habit, already acquired at that age, of reading record review magazines. This habit was not only so I could hopefully fill my life with qualitatively fine listening experiences, but it was also out of financial stinginess—I knew I could only spend whatever money I had ONCE on the recording of a given work, so it had to count. Consequently, it did not take me long to discover that the recording of the Brahms Second by Russian pianist Emil Gilels, with the Chicago Orchestra under Fritz Reiner, was highly regarded by many as the best of the best. I bought it.

For whatever reason, a strong first memory I have of the work occurred on an overcast, autumn Saturday morning. I had been listening to the record for the entire previous week, and I was out in the street, passing football with a friend. So strongly was the music going on in my head that I could only peripherally pay attention to catching and passing the ball. It was like I was sitting in the front row of a great concert by a great performer–while passing football.

I thought to myself, I hope that SOME DAY I’ll be able to play this great work. As it turned out, I did get that opportunity, but not exactly in a way I had hoped for.

Eight years after this football-with-Brahms morning, I was in the doctoral program at CCM at the University of Cincinnati. I had won the piano concerto competition playing the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto. In those days, the orchestra conductor, who would have been one of the judges of the competition, asked you what you would like to play with the orchestra, and whatever concerto you chose would be on a concert the following school year. I grabbed the chance to say the Brahms Second. He said fine, let’s plan on it next May—a whole year away.

That sounded great to me, it would give me plenty of time to learn and get comfortable with this behemoth of a work, perhaps playing it through with a second piano accompaniment dozens of times in preparation for the orchestral concert.

That contest occurred in May. I went to Istanbul during the summer to marry Tiraje. But after we were married, Tiraje had to wait three months before she received clearance to come and live to the U.S.—a standard wait time even in those pre-terrorism days. So, I arrived back in Cincinnati in mid-September by myself, thinking of course that I still had plenty of time to learn the Brahms.

By complete chance, in early October, I happened to glance at a calendar of events for the fall and saw that the conductor had moved the concert from May to early December, giving me just two months to learn the piece, which I had not even started on.

Needless to say, it was—for me—a gargantuan and tension-producing task. I found an opportunity to try the work out in late October in a South Carolina concert, and felt reasonably confident with it. As it happened, the very day I was scheduled to play with the orchestra was the day Tiraje, pregnant with Jason, arrived in Cincinnati, with all her suitcases and her cat, Peanut. It was a hectic day. The concert came and went, and was a good—and memorable—experience.

My experience of having to learn a challenging work in a short period of time is, by the way, in no way exceptional for pianists. It just happened to be MY particular experience.

*****

This is Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto. The First was hardly less imposing. That one had been written in 1858 when Brahms was just 25. Although it has but three movements—compared to the four of the Second Concerto—it is also a lengthy work, demanding a lot from both the pianist and orchestra.

Twenty-three years went by before Brahms revisited the piano concerto form. By that time—1881—Brahms was known all over the western world as one of the greatest composers. The reception the concerto received at its premiere performance–with Brahms as soloist, of course–was overwhelmingly positive–just as it has been right up to the present day. Being the landmark of pianism and concerto-writing that it is, the Brahms Second, throughout its history, has attracted the finest pianists, playing at their very best. Concerts featuring the work are predictable sell-outs. Because of its length, the concerto is often either the entire first, or entire second, half of a program.

Just a couple of other remarks.

• Brahms thought of his concertos—two of them for piano, one for violin, and one involving both violin and cello—as being SYMPHONIC in nature. The natural evolution of the concerto had been such that the performance of a concerto appeared to be conversational to an audience—one felt that the soloist and the orchestra were two entities having a musical conversation: sometimes one would speak, sometimes the other, and sometimes both at the same time. But Brahms integrated the solo instrument into the very fabric of the composition. One could easily—and correctly—think of his concertos as symphonies in which a solo instrument is woven into the overall fabric. The piano and the orchestra are one.

• It cannot be overstated how great a pianist Brahms himself was. It is obvious from his compositions, as well as the historical record, that he was one of the greatest pianists of his day, from his late teens onward. He had it all—enormous power, the widest dynamic spectrum, agility beyond belief. His works—especially this concerto—demonstrate this truth. Octaves, trills, scales in thirds, huge fortissimos that must cut through the sound of a full orchestra, the tenderest pianissimo phrases played with the most legato touch—everything is here.

• Not that it is necessary to know, with reference to the B-flat Concerto, but Brahms’ style was essentially set by the time he was twenty. Early Brahms, late Brahms—it is all cut from the same cloth. The denseness of his harmony—eight note chords being not uncommon at all—and the presence, within the same composition, of drastically differing moods—the alternation of the martial with the tender. One hears these things just as much in his first pieces as his last.

*****

The work has four movements. As is so often the case with multi-movement great works like this one, it is not for me to suggest one movement over another. The majesty of the first movement, from its opening horn motive—the tumult of the second movement, with its incredible pianissimo (and fortissimo) octave passages—the lyricism of the third movement with its lengthy and beautiful cello solo, performed here by the great Janos Starker—and the grace of the fourth movement, which sounds light and breezy but is treacherously difficult to actually play—these are just the briefest descriptions of this work.

What I can tell you for certain is that everything I’ve said about the work falls woefully short of describing its glory.

1st movement 0:00
2nd movement 16:04
3rd movement 24:17
4th movement 36:21

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#405 DEBUSSY L’ISLE JOYEUSE

#405

DEBUSSY

L’ISLE JOYEUSE (THE JOYFUL ISLAND)

ANNA TSYBULEVA, PIANO

There is a lot to think about when considering L’Isle Joyeuse, yet another of Debussy’s great piano pieces and one I have loved since I first learned it in high school—it’s been a lifelong love.

I’ll start with the biographical stuff and move from there into the music.

*****

Debussy’s love life was complicated. Perhaps he is, in retrospect, a psychologist’s dream study—why would anyone feel the need to behave as he did, etc? Or perhaps he was, at bottom, just a selfish, unfeeling cad, momentarily attracted to this beauty and that—like a butterfly moving about the flowers in a field.

Just to recount his primary involvements: Debussy spent his late teens and twenties with Marie Vasnier, a singer. She was his age, and much younger than her husband. She was Debussy’s mistress; her husband tolerated the arrangement. Their relationship ended in 1890—Vasnier wanted a permanent relationship, and Debussy did not. He moved on, in time, to Gabrielle Dupont, a tailor’s daughter. They had lived together for nearly five years when Debussy suddenly left her for her best friend, Marie-Rosalie Texier. Debussy threatened to kill himself—very dramatically—if Texier—who was known as “Lilly”—did not marry him. And she did indeed marry him.

Their marriage lasted less than five years. Debussy was quite bored from the start with her lack of intellectual agility and musical inclinations. When he met the mother of one of his students—Emma Bardac—he fell in love—or lust or whatever it was—with her. Emma was everything Debussy thought he wanted in a woman: a “sophisticate, a brilliant conversationalist, an accomplished singer, and relaxed about marital fidelity.” Not long before Debussy met her, she had been the mistress of the composer Gabriel Faure.

This is where it gets a little complicated—for Debussy. And, this is where the L’Isle Joyeuse enters the story.

After seeing Lilly off for a visit to her parents in the French countryside, Debussy took off with Emma to the island of Jersey, which is near France but was considered an English possession, in the English Channel. While there, Debussy refined L’Isle Joyeuse, a piano piece he had previously been working on. He wrote a letter to Lilly, while with Bardac, making no mention of Bardac, but informing Lily that their marriage was over.

Lilly, upon receiving this letter, attempted to kill herself, lodging a bullet in her vertebrae, where it remained for the rest of her ruined life.

A classy guy, that Debussy.

Bardac and her husband divorced soon afterwards. But Debussy’s marriage to her did nothing to legitimize the relationship with her in the eyes of his friends or of French society. He lost the friendship of Paul Dukas, Maurice Ravel, and many others. Bardac’s family never spoke to her again.

Debussy’s marriage to Emma was not a happy one, but endured for the rest of his life.

*****

The reason to relate all of this prior to addressing L’Isle Joyeuse is also a little complicated. Debussy took as his inspiration for L’Isle Joyeuse the Watteau painting, L’embarquement pour Cythère. This painting, one of Watteau’s most famous, depicts a group of revellers on the mythical island of Cythera in the Mediterranean, the birthplace of Venus, the goddess of love. One cannot tell, when looking at the painting, whether the couples are arriving or leaving the island. Are they just about to begin their time of love and merriment, or are they just concluding it? Underscoring the painting with even more ambiguity is the fact that the three pairs of lovers may simply represent the same couple, but at three points in their relationship—beginning, middle, end.

However one interprets this painting, what is important to note is that it meant something to Debussy, it was something he could personally relate to it.

I’ve noted many times in my posts that Debussy always gave titles to his composition. Sometimes these titles would be right up front—as in the case of L’Isle Joyeuse—and other times, at the very end of a piece, as in the Preludes.

But the importance of specific associations in Debussy’s music can’t be overlooked. There seems to be something very autobiographical about the L’Isle Joyeuse. While revising and refining the piece on the British island of Jersey, Debussy also opted for a British spelling in his title—”L’Isle” instead of L’Ile.

*****

L’Isle Joyeuse was written in 1904. It is certainly a part of Debussy’s output that can be labelled “Impressionistic.” He thought about including the piece in his Suite Bergamasque, but eventually decided on publishing it separately.

The mood of L’Isle Joyeuse can suggest—to those imaginative enough—an enchanted landscape, where amorous instincts and dreams of love are fulfilled. Knowing what we know about Debussy, that may indeed have been his intention.

From an analytical point of view, I think it is interesting to see how Debussy went about creating this kind of imaginative playground, where opaque feelings eventually all come out into the sunshine, so to speak.

Debussy uses three scales to accomplish this:

First he starts with a whole tone scale. Whole-tone scales, with their inherent harmonic vagueness and distance from traditional harmony—were the métier of many Debussy compositions:

A-B-C#-D#-F-G-A

Then he eventually merges this whole tone scale into the Lydian mode:

A-B-C#-D#-E-F#-G#-A

And eventually, at the conclusion of the piece, he writes in a full-fledged major tonality:

A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G#-A

This kind of compositional sleight-of-hand is one of the hallmarks of Debussy’s genius.

*****

There are a number of very fine L’Isle Joyeuse’s on YouTube, some of them of real historical interest to pianists, such as those by Horowitz and Richter. One that I’ve come across that I find quite compelling is by Anna Tsbuleva.

Tsbuleva is a 28-year old Russian pianist who won the International Leeds Competition—only the second woman to do so in the competition’s history—just three years ago. She has accumulated “wins” of quite a number of other piano competitions as well. I find that she lets L’Isle breathe just the way it should—she lets the music speak for itself.

*****

Some time ago, I started posting what I call “piano gems”—works that are around six minutes or less in length and are often played as encores at the conclusion of piano recitals. Although L’Isle Joyeuse could fall into that category—and although I am calling it a “gem”—I think it is actually more often played as an intrinsic part of a piano recital, either as a standalone work or in a grouping of Debussy pieces. It is just a more substantial piece, with a longer “story” to tell, than other typical encore pieces.

I hope you’ll enjoy Tsbuleva’s rendition of L’Isle Joyeuse.

 

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#404 MELODY GARDOT FIVE SELECTIONS

#404

MELODY GARDOT

THE RAIN
LOVE ME LIKE A RIVER DOES
SO WE MEET AGAIN MY HEARTACHE
GOODNIGHT
LA VIE EN ROSE

Depth that belies her age…
Living proof of the power of music therapy…

Tiraje very often stays up late at night listening to jazz on YouTube. In particular, she loves jazz singers and seems to have heard just about everyone. At dinner, we always listen to some music, and last night I asked her: who are some female jazz singers that I don’t know about? She started naming one person after another, and we listened to many—all very good—but the one whose voice really appealed to me—REALLY appealed to me—was Melody Gardot.

I am sure my jazz-knowledgeable friends know all about her, but she is new to me. I am sure I will be listening to her voice the rest of my life.

It turns out, her “story”—her life story—thus far—is compelling. Although she is still a relatively young 33 years old, she has already lived a lot of life. Ironically, one might say that she owes who she is—and who she has become—to a bicycle accident that she probably wishes had never happened.

*****

Melody Gardot grew up playing piano—jazz and pop. She started playing in piano bars while in her teens on weekend nights in Philadelphia, near where she grew up in western New Jersey. While studying fashion at the Community College of Philadelphia, Gardot was involved in a serious bicycle accident. She was hit by an SUV that had run a red light.

Since I can’t describe the aftermath of the accident—and of Gardot’s recovery from it—any better than Wikipedia, let me quote from there: “[Gardot] suffered head and spinal injuries, and her pelvis was broken in two places. She was confined to a hospital bed for a year and had to remain lying on her back. She had to re-learn simple tasks, such as brushing her teeth and walking. She was left oversensitive to light and sound, requiring her to wear sunglasses most of the time. Gardot suffered short-term and long-term memory loss and had difficulty with her sense of time. She has compared her recovery to ‘climbing Mount Everest every day’ and often wakes with no memory of what she has to do that day.”

Gardot’s recovery is absolutely fascinating, and gives us experiential proof not only of the mysterious power of music but of the biological underpinnings of that power. Scientists believe that listening to music and trying to hum or sing help the brain form new neural pathways. And that is what happened for Melody Gardot.

Like Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman who was shot in the head in an assassination attempt, Gardot had suffered traumatic brain injury in her accident. The accident had damaged the neural pathways between the two cortices that control perception and higher mental function. Gardot first had to re-learn how to hum, then to sing, and then, always lying on her back, how to play guitar. Because of her extreme sensitivity to sound and light after the accident, Gardot only listened to music at low volume levels. During her physical therapy sessions on a treadmill, she listened to the laid-back bossa nova music of Stan Getz.

Encouraged by a visionary and intuitive physician, who believed music would help heal her brain, Gardot began writing her own songs. She was at first quite reluctant to record any of them, feeling they were too personal. When she was finally convinced to make a few of them available on Itunes, the Philly radio station WXPN—the same station that helped launch the career of Norah Jones—began promoting her.

The rest is now history: her tapes made their way to Universal Music Group, she was signed as a recording artist, she has now recorded four albums and has been nominated for Grammys. She is fluent in French, and has become a well-loved performing artist in Europe (and of course, here in the U.S.) She is a Buddhist, a passionate advocate of macrobiotic cooking (which she feels greatly helped her recovery), and is one of the most active proponents of music therapy in the world, visiting hospitals and universities to discuss its benefits.

*****

All of this—her accident, her recovery, the way the brain can heal, the benefits of music therapy, and so on—would be interesting in any individual. But in Melody Gardot’s case, her music and her soft-spoken song-writing are eloquent testimony to how an already-present talent can metamorphose into something even grander than it was initially through appropriate and guided therapy.

Let me quote again from some of the reviews of Melody Gardot from songkick.com:

• [Gardot] has found critical success with her jazz-infused pop, finding comparisons with Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell and Eva Cassidy…

• With a name like that, she was surely born to sing, although there’s plenty more to Melody Gardot than meets the eye. She hails from Philadelphia, but considers herself a “citizen of the world”, and despite being just twenty-nine years of age, she’s already made a major impression in the jazz world, a genre often seen as inaccessible for people of the younger generation. It helps, of course, that Gardot writes all of her own material, but it’s also true that there are touches of the Latin influence to her sound. She’s been nominated for Grammys and has seen her records go platinum in parts of Europe, but she’s not all about recording. She’s also a committed advocate of music therapy, dedicating a sizable amount of her time to helping others through sound. As a touring artist, she’s stuck reasonably close to jazz convention at her own shows. With her extensive live band, she can deliver career-spanning sets that delve into every aspect of her music…

• Philadelphian Melody Gardot may only be thirty years old yet she has already made quite an impression on the jazz scene with her impeccable musical talent and honest songwriting voice. There is a wonderfully personable, warm mentality to Melody’s stage demeanour and she clearly enjoys the company of her accompanying musicians as they involve each other during earthy, acoustic instrumentals.

• There is an assumed manner about the singer, she simply seems grateful to have the opportunity to stand onstage and share her music with the attentive audiences. She is constantly thanking them for the huge applause the likes of ‘The Rain’ and ‘So We Meet Again My Heartache’ receive. You would never believe this lady is so esteemed in the music world, having been nominated for numerous Grammy awards…

*****
Her music, much of it available on YouTube, is an embarrassment of riches—there are no inferior songs, no lemons. Just heartfelt songs, sung with an understanding of life that belies her age.

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#403 MOZART “QUEEN OF THE NIGHT” – ARIA FROM MAGIC FLUTE, K. 620

#403

MOZART

“QUEEN OF THE NIGHT”

ARIA FROM THE MAGIC FLUTE, K. 620

DIANA DAMRAU, SOPRANO
ORCHESTRA OF THE ROYAL OPERA HOUSE
COLIN DAVIS, CONDUCTOR

I want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas! I hope you will regard this post as a pleasant Christmas offering, even though the sentiment expressed in the Queen of the Night aria is anything but charitable! 😊

*****

For a future post, it might be fun to find and post as many commercials as possible that utilize great music as sales-pitch reinforcements. What brings this to mind right now is that I have been hearing the Queen of the Night aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute in a certain car commercial lately.

I find that my reaction to the use of great music in the service of capitalism alternates between amusement (mostly) and disgust (sometimes). But—since I’ve been hearing this particular commercial pretty often—and hearing Mozart’s stupendously great and difficult aria so frequently, as background music—I felt I should go ahead and post the aria in its full glory, the way it SHOULD sound.

I’ve loved the Queen of the Night aria since I first heard it, and my guess is that most people have the same reaction. The vocal acrobatics alone make it “must-listening”—like watching a tight-rope walker, high up there with no net below.

*****

Since I am slowly (very slowly, I know) covering all the Mozart operas in my posts, I WILL eventually be addressing the entire Magic Flute, certainly one of Mozart’s greatest creations. For right now, I just want to zero in on this one aria.

The Magic Flute was the last—of 22—operas that Mozart would write. When thinking about Mozart and opera, it’s important to remember that ever since Mozart was a little boy, it was obvious he had a very strong theatrical streak. He wrote great concertos, great symphonies—great this, great that—but operas were where his heart was. Writing for the stage came as natural to him as breathing. Some of the most enjoyable and enlivening times of his life were spent with the librettists of whatever opera they would be collaborating on. The Magic Flute was completed just two months before his death.

It may be helpful to set the stage for the Queen of the Night aria, which is certainly a part of the opera that audiences wait for. Technically, the aria is Act II, scene 8—somewhat late in the opera’s action—and the aria’s actual title is “Der Holle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen”—”Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart.” The scene depicts a fit of vengeful rage in which the Queen of the Night places a knife into the hand of her daughter Pamina and exhorts her to assassinate Sarastro, the Queen’s rival–or else she will disown and curse Pamina.

The libretto for Magic Flute was written by the very talented Emanuel Schikaneder. Here is his Queen of the Night text, in English:

Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart;
Death and despair blaze around me!
For if Sarastro feels not the pain of death through thee,
Thence shall thou be my daughter nevermore.

Disowned be thee forever,
Abandoned be thee forever,
Shattered be forever
All the bonds of nature

If it is not through thee that Sarastro turns pale!
Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye, gods of vengeance, hear the mother’s oath!

The aria is certainly one of the most famous in the opera repertoire, and maybe the most famous “rage aria” ever written. Mozart apparently wrote it for his wife’s sister, Josepha Hofer, who had the extraordinary range and power to pull it off.

Supposedly, on the night of Mozart’s death—as he lay, unknowingly, on his death bed—Magic Flute was five weeks into its run— Mozart whispered into his wife’s ear that his sister-in-law would now be singing the Queen of the Night, hitting and holding that B-flat so impressively: “Hear ye, gods of vengeance…”

*****

There are many fine Queen of the Nights on YouTube. Over time, the aria has become a yardstick for coloratura sopranos to show their worth. Soprano Diana Damrau’s Queen is certainly one of the best. In addition to singing with absolute control, she is quite an actress as well, bringing an element of the demonic to her portrayal of the Queen.

*****
Just as an aside: Mozart, of course, did not know that when he was composing Magic Flute that it would be his last opera. But it is interesting to hear certain orchestral passagework in Magic Flute—in this very aria, actually—that exactly replicates parts of his very first opera, written when he was 11 years old, Die Schuldigkeit des Ersten Gebots. In that regard, the operas form an unintended set of bookends in the world of Mozart opera!

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#402 MERAL GUNEYMAN CHRISTMAS SONGS

#402

MERAL GUNEYMAN, PIANO

CHRISTMAS SONGS

I’LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS
GREENSLEEVES
CHRISTMAS IS HERE
THE CHRISTMAS SONG
IT CAME UPON THE MIDNIGHT CLEAR (via Chopin)
OVER THE RAINBOW

A laid-back and cozy Christmas to you…

I remember the first time I met my talented sister-in-law. I had come down to the second-floor cafeteria—which overlooked busy Broadway—from my usual perch in a fourth-floor practice room at Juilliard. I sat down by a girl—a pianist who was in my theory class—and who I would marry five years later—and saw she was talking to a beautiful girl who, strangely enough, looked very much like her. They were both chattering away in Turkish. It turns out the girl I was interested in had a younger sister—also a pianist—who had just arrived from Turkey to start her own Juilliard years.

And what a pianist she is. She made her orchestral debut, as piano soloist, with the Buffalo Philharmonic under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas, and has subsequently performed with orchestras all over the world. As a young pianist, she won many prestigious piano competitions, the William Kapell and the East & West Artists International competitions among them. She has been invited to many international music festivals such as the Cervantes and Monterrey Festivals in Mexico, the International Istanbul Festival, the American Music Festival at the National Gallery in Washington D.C., the Frederick Chopin Festival, and the Ljubliana Festival in Slovenia. She has taught and concertized at Harvard, Princeton, New York University, Georgetown, SUNY at Purchase, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Bosphorus University in Istanbul.

She’s got impressive credentials…

Her recordings, whether classical or jazz, meet with universal acclaim. Her classical recording of the Frank Bridge Sonata was chosen as one of the top five of the year by the prestigious Fanfare magazine. I posted her recording of Gershwin—Playful Virtuosity—here about 18 months ago (Music I Love #13).

Jazz—and spontaneous improvisation—has always been a comfortable domain for Meral. She recorded her album of Christmas song arrangements—A Christmas Memory—in the sweltering summer of 2004 for release at Christmas time of that year. It has become her best-selling CD. Many of her arrangements were improvised on the spot and recorded in one take.

I’m proud to call her my sister-in-law on musical grounds alone. But, Meral also happens to have a heart as big as all outdoors—she is selfless when it comes to other people—AND is New Jersey’s biggest animal lover. How many ailing dogs, cats, birds, squirrels, and deer has she rescued over the years? I’ve lost count.

*****

So, forgive me this paeon of praise for my sister-in-law, Meral Guneyman. With Christmas coming tomorrow, it seemed like the most natural thing to feature some beautifully arranged and played Christmas songs. I love all of them, but I have a real soft spot for her Over the Rainbow.

Enjoy these selections from A Christmas Memory.

 

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#401 ZOMBIES SHE’S NOT THERE

#401

ZOMBIES

SHE’S NOT THERE

Yes, another 1960’s pop song that I loved.

Actually, I also really liked their “Tell Her No” and “Time of the Season,” two of the Zombies other hits from that decade. But it was this first hit song of theirs that I especially liked—the mysterioso bass part, the almost-falsetto singing, the lyrics—it was a minor-key song that set a certain mood.

In 1964, the breakthrough year for the Zombies, they were a five man band: Rod Argent (singer/songwriter), Paul Atkinson (guitar), Hugh Grundy (drums), Paul Arnold (bass), and Colin Blunstone (lead singer). Originally called The Mustangs, they soon changed their name to the Zombies. The name sounded cool—but they only vaguely knew anything about the “walking dead” in Haiti.

The group won a beat-music competition in Britain, were signed by Decca Records, and had a huge first hit, both in the U.K. and the U.S. with “She’s Not There.”

Like other British invasion groups, they had a U.S. tour following this initial success. At two and a half minutes long, “She’s Not There” was neither long or particularly short for a successful pop song in 1964. But the group had creativity problems in terms of writing songs that were actually long enough for release as singles. “Tell Her No,” their next hit, was long enough and kept their name alive. They were induced to sign with CBS Records in 1967, and this resulted in their third, and final, big hit of the 60’s, “Time of the Season.”

The Zombies disbanded in 1969. Like many a previously successful band, they still often re-unite in order to tour and capitalize on their former fame. Back in the 60’s—and it’s still true today—Rod Argent’s “She’s Not There” is the song they will be remembered for.

The Zombies will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019.

Well, no one told me about her
The way she lied
Well, no one told me about her
How many people cried

But it’s too late to say you’re sorry
How would I know, why should I care?
Please don’t bother trying to find her
She’s not there

Well, let me tell you ’bout the way she looked
The way she acts and the color of her hair
Her voice was soft and cool, her eyes were clear and bright
But she’s not there

Well, no one told me about her
What could I do?
Well, no one told me about her
Though they all knew

But it’s too late to say you’re sorry
How would I know, why should I care?
Please don’t bother trying to find her
She’s not there

Well, let me tell you about the way she looked
The way she acts and the color of her hair
Her voice was soft and cool, her eyes were clear and bright
But she’s not there

But it’s too late to say you’re sorry
How would I know, why should I care?
Please don’t bother trying to find her
She’s not there

Well, let me tell you about the way she looked
The way she acts and the color of her hair
Her voice was soft and cool, her eyes were clear and bright
But she’s not there

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#400 HOLST THE PLANETS – MARS, THE BRINGER OF WAR

#400

HOLST

THE PLANETS
MARS, THE BRINGER OF WAR

BBC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
SUSANNA MALKKI, CONDUCTOR

ISAO TOMITA

ROYAL PHILHARMONIC
ANDRE PREVIN, CONDUCTOR

I do not mean to shortchange any of the rest of Holst’s seven mini tone poems which comprise his masterwork, The Planets, by focusing today only on MARS. Every movement of The Planets—MARS the Bringer of War, VENUS the bringer of peace, MERCURY the winged messenger, JUPITER the bringer of jollity, SATURN the bringer of old age, URANUS the magician, and NEPTUNE the mystic—all of them are wonderful. I will link to the entire work at the end of this post.

But ever since I first heard MARS, I really loved the controlled excitement Holst was able to create when he wrote it.

Gustav Holst (1874-1934) was a British composer. The Planets is certainly his best-known work, but he was hardly a one-hit wonder, having written substantially in many genres—opera, orchestral, solo piano, solo vocal, chamber, works for band, ballet, and quite a bit of incidental music. Nevertheless it was his work, The Planets, written 1914-16, that most music lovers immediately associate with his name.

Each of the movements of The Planets is supposed to conjure ideas and emotions that are associated with the astrological significance of each individual planet—the supposed influence of the planets on our psyche. This was not just a passing interest in Holst’s life or simply a hook upon which to hang musical ideas that he hoped might be popular. Holst was a real devotee of astrology and horoscopes.

Originally scored for two pianos, Holst then transferred his ideas to orchestra. His good friend Adrian Boult conducted the first performance. Boult (1889-1983) became—justifiably, because he was so attuned to Holst—THE conductor who would be most associated with The Planets. He made at least three recordings of the work, one of which was my entry point to knowing any Holst at all.

*****

I am linking to three clips:

• A live performance of the work by the BBC Symphony in that most impressive of halls, Royal Albert in London.

• A performance—actually, a “rendering” would be a better word—of MARS by the Japanese pioneer of electronic and “space” music, Isao Tomita. Tomita (1932-2016) became world famous in the 1970’s with the consecutive release of album after album of note-by-note realizations of great classical music on analog synthesizers. Among these albums were Holst’s The Planets, Snowflakes Are Dancing (music of Debussy), Pictures At An Exhibition (Mussorgsky), The Firebird (Stravinsky), and Daphnis and Chloe (Ravel). In total, he recorded 19 albums, and wrote 13 soundtracks.

As you might expect, his work was either widely denounced as being derivative, unnecessary, and disrespectful (to original composers) – or it was viewed as showing great music in a different light. One either loves Tomita or hates him. I fall into that first category. I own a LOT of Tomita CDs.

• Finally, I am linking to a performance of the entire seven-movement work, as performed by Andre Previn and the Royal Philharmonic. The Boult recording IS available on YouTube, but the sonics of the Previn are much more up-to-date and, I think, will make for an enjoyable listening experience for you.

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#399 BACH GOLDBERG VARIATIONS

#399

BACH

GOLDBERG VARIATIONS

ANDRAS SCHIFF, PIANO

When thinking about Bach’s Goldberg Variations, it is hard to know where—what topic—exactly to start with. The significance of the “variation” in music history, a form through which composers showed their mastery of the compositional art over the centuries? A summary of the Goldberg Variations themselves, one of the peaks of the entire keyboard repertoire? The differences involved in playing the Goldberg Variations on piano as opposed to the harpsichord, for which it was originally written? Or the many significant recordings available of this major work?

Or, the place it occupied in Bach’s mind, whether it had any particular significance for him?

The Goldberg Variations are such a monumental work that each one of these topics could require its own separate post. Alas, I will have to settle on the quick summary method. 🙂

*****

The story that is most often associated and recounted, generation after generation, regarding how the composition of the Goldberg Variations came about goes like this:

A certain Russian ambassador named Keyserlingk often visited Leipzig while in Germany. Supposedly, on one of these visits, he brought along Johann Goldberg, a friend and harpsichordist who Bach already knew as a result of teaching him when he was in Leipzig. This Keyserlingk was not in great health and frequently had insomnia as a result.

His expectation from Goldberg is that when he (Keyserlingk) would have insomnia that Goldberg would play music on the harpsichord to soothingly lull him to sleep. Keyserlingk asked Bach if he could write something appropriate for Goldberg to play during these sleepless nights. Bach accordingly wrote a set of variations—a theme and 30 variations—for Goldberg to play.

It is amazing—to me, anyway—that this story continually gets repeated. It absolutely has to be untrue:

• This information comes, supposedly, from one of Bach’s sons (Wilhelm Friedemann) who supposedly related the story to Johann Forkel, Bach’s biographer. So, it is second-hand information, even if it Forkel did hear it.

• Forkel’s biography was written 52 years after Bach’s death, and 61 years after the composition of the Variations.

• Goldberg would have only been 14 years old at the time when the variations were composed. Even if he had been a competent harpsichordist, it is not likely he could have even played the Goldberg Variations, which is one of the most challenging keyboard works ever written.

So…the story is not too believeable. One wonders why has the “Goldberg” appellation has stuck like glue to these variations?

*****

What we do know is that Bach felt that this work was one of his very best, a creation he was proud of. Quite exceptionally for him, he had the work published—Bach did not ordinarily have his works published. Publishing was expensive. And, for a work of the complexity of the Goldberg Variations, Bach’s expectation would not have been that it would be widely performed. As he himself stated in the title page upon publication: “These variations are for composed for connoisseurs, for the refreshment of their spirits, by Johann Sebastian Bach.”

*****

Variations, as a form in which music was written, had already, in Bach’s time, been the conduit through which composers showed their true creative worth. Most often, a simple theme was written (or, as was often the case, “borrowed” from another composer or another composition of one’s own) followed by variations on that theme, each one increasingly complex. If the set of variations were long enough, the composer would also vary the emotional content and mood among the variations, giving the listener, at the conclusion of the work, the feeling of having been on something of an emotional journey. Such is the case with the Goldberg Variations.

They rank with other sets of variations as being near (or at) the pinnacle of keyboard variations. Among these would also be Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Brahms’ Handel Variations and Paganini Variations.

*****

The thirty variations on Bach’s “aria”—his theme—are a formidable challenge for the pianist. I say “pianist”—as opposed to “harpsichordist”—because that is the instrument the work is most often played on in our time. Purists—and there are plenty of them—insist that the work should only be played on the harpsichord.

Bach specifically wrote in the score that the work was to be played on a two-manul harpsichord. A “manual” was a keyboard—so, a harpsichord with two “manuals” had two keyboards. Each one of the keyboards would have had a certain timbre which would sonically differentiate it from the other—hence, the illusion of dynamics could be created. It is because certain of Bach’s keyboard works—the Goldberg Variations, the Italian Concerto, and a few others—have these dynamic possibilities vis-à-vis two manuals that we can infer that Bach wanted—desired—dynamic differences to be heard in his keyboard works.

Therefore, at least one reason for playing the Goldberg Variations on the piano is for the greater expressivity possible on the piano, with its infinite gradations of sound. Another reason, of course, is simply that the sound of the piano can project so much further into a performance space than a harpsichord. The use of the damper pedal in Bach—while not “outlawed”—so to speak—is not particularly necessary and is always used very sparingly. Legato—the overlapping of one key to another—is a characteristic of piano playing that was impossible on the harpsichord, and therefore, is opalso used sparingly in Bach (mostly in his slower pieces).

*****

So, with all this as an introduction to the Goldberg Variations, there is just one final thing to mention, and that is recordings. In a previous post, I have mentioned Glenn Gould, and the fame he acquired as one of the great Bach players of all time. He recorded every single keyboard work of Bach (I have those 50 CD’s and they are a treasure). He became internationally known overnight with his 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations. His reputation as a Bach player is so high that, to many, it seems like sacrilege NOT to use Gould as the shining example of any Bach work under discussion.

But, of course, there are many other great Bach players. One of them that I highly admire is Andras Schiff. As you will hear, his Goldberg Variations are a convincing and compelling interpretation, in a live performance.

There are a number of superb recordings of the Goldberg Variations available on YouTube. For a variety of interpretive stances, you may also want to check out:

Rosalyn Turick – a noted Bach specialist, from a 1957 historic and reflective recording

Daniel Barenboim – another amazing live performance

Glenn Gould – the fastest version on the planet!

Keith Jarrett – jazz pianist turned classical harpsichordist

One of my favorite harpsichord versions of the Variations is that of jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, who shows his versatility as a classical musician here. YouTube only has the theme and a few of the variations available, but at least this can give you an idea of what this work sounded like to Bach himself.

Aria:

Variation #1:

*****

At an hour and twenty minutes in length, listening to the Goldberg Variations is an experience that requires some commitment. Even if you cannot afford the time to listen to the entire work, you will still gain an appreciation of this great keyboard masterpiece by simply listening here and there anywhere you choose.

Pics: Bach, Adras Schiff, Rosalyn Turick, Daniel Barenboim, Glenn Gould, Keith Jarrett

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