Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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From the Depths

Hello, dear readers, I apologize for the long absence.  Thank you for still being here.

Sometimes life gets like this: you find yourself facing a series of challenging situations, one after another, that need handling Right Now.  It’s exhausting.  And all that handling doesn’t leave time for music, whether it’s listening to it, reading about it, or writing about it.  Music went away for a while.

But music is a lot like water.  Somehow water has a way of getting in, no matter what.  Water wins, eventually, even when we try to keep it out.  Music has a way of seeping in and finding its way to you.

One day I had coffee with a friend whose husband has a very low voice, and we had been talking about the lowest note he could sing.  That night, after sinking, exhausted, into my favorite armchair, I thought of a musical phrase, and how well it would suit his voice.  And then another phrase came.   And then another.  Eventually, I went over to my computer and started transcribing notes.  I was hearing a chorus of voices together sometimes.  I was also hearing separate lines.  I transcribed them all, not knowing if they would clash, crash, cross over one another, or be a dissonant mess.

I pressed play.  Here’s a snippet.

Stunningly, the lines mostly worked together.  Technically, there are egregious errors that need to be fixed, and I should be able to address them Sometime Real Soon Now.  The “voices” you hear are MuseScore’s pseudo-human choir.  I need to fix the individual lines before actual humans attempt them.

And since the probability of actual humans singing this is low, I decided then to create a piano reduction.  This too is MuseScore’s piano rendering, lacking the nuances that a skilled human pianist would introduce.  This version is still in an evolutionary stage, and has taken some turns away from my original concept.  I would describe it as complete, but not finished, that is, it sounds like a complete thought, but I expect it will undergo extreme editing before I call it done.

Here’s the piano reduction.

More blog posts soon!  Promise!

I also promise to write something in a major key before the end of the year.  Really.

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Live! Free!  Beethoven, Turandot, Gran Turismo and More

Broadcast tower topped by music note, globe in background

Tonight, June 9, 2018 at 9PM EDT (GMT-4) The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra presents their season finale concert.  You can see it here.  Here’s the program:

Andrew Norman: Gran Turismo
Johannes Brahms: Serenade No. 2
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 1

Tomorrow, June 10, 2018 at 3PM EDT (GMT-4) the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will present Puccini’s Turandot in a concert setting. You can see it here.

For more opera, visit operavision.eu where you can see these and more on demand:

Bellini: Norma
Donizetti: La Favorite
Handel: Semele
Mascagni/Leoncavallo: Cavalleria rusticana/Pagliacci
Monteverdi: L’Orfeo
Offenbach: Blaubart
Puccini: Turandot
Verdi: Aida, La Traviata, Il corsaro
Wagner: Götterdämmerung, Parsifal


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Haiku Wednesday: Toccata

Flashing fingers fly
And dance across the keyboard
Weaving their magic.

Feet too join the dance
Executing bass figures,
Sliding as on ice.

The word toccata
Means to touch—fingers, yes, and
Heart and soul and mind.

The toccata is by nature a flashy piece of music.  It typically includes fast runs of notes, and can sound like an improvisation.  It is a showcase for a musician’s skills.  Toccatas are typically written for a keyboard instrument, but that’s not a requirement—toccatas have been written for string instruments, and even for orchestra (the prelude to Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo is a toccata).  While the form had its heyday in the Baroque period, with Bach, master improviser, at the summit (Toccata in D Minor, the toccata everyone knows), the form never entirely went away.

Schumann wrote a Toccata in C (Op. 7) which he believed was the most difficult music at the time.  In this video, you can follow the sheet music, which will give you an idea of the complexity.  Liszt also gave it a whirl (Toccata, S. 197a).

Ravel included a toccata in his Le Tombeau de Couperin, and Debussy’s Jardins sous la pluie from Estampes is a toccata as well.  One can also look to the finale of Widor’s Symphony No. 5 for a fine example of a toccata.  You can find some videos of the finale here, including Widor himself playing the toccata.

Khachaturian wrote a toccata that became very popular (the suite it came from is nearly forgotten).  The link features pianist Lev Oborin, who was the first to perform it.

For some real flash (and the piece that prompted this post) check out Prokofiev’s Toccata Op. 11.  Here it is on a piano.  Now add feet:  here is the same toccata on an organ.

Benjamin Britten’s Piano Concerto begins with a toccata.  The last movement of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 8 contains a toccata.  Also check out John Rutter’s Toccata in 7.

And now for the strings!  The last movement of John Adams’s Violin Concerto contains a toccata, and Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 5, a viola concerto, also contains a toccata (he also wrote a Toccata for a Mechanical Piano, meaning a player piano, which you can see here).

If you’re ever having a blah day, and need a quick pick-me-up, try a toccata!


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Free Concert Webcast: Stravinsky, Chopin, and a World Premiere

Broadcast tower topped by music note, globe in background

Today, Friday, June 1, 2018 at 10:45 AM EDT (GMT -4) the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will webcast a free live concert.  Here’s the program:

Jared Miller: Luster (World Premiere)
Frédéric Chopin: Piano Concerto No 1
Igor Stravinsky: Rite of Spring

Robert Spano will conduct, and the Chopin piano concerto will feature pianist Seong-Jin ChoSee the concert at dso.org/live.


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Free Concert Webcast: Tchaikovsky’s Sixth and Two World Premieres

Broadcast tower topped by music note, globe in background

Tomorrow, Saturday, May 26, 2018 at 8:00 PM EDT (GMT -4) the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will offer a live webcast. Jennifer Koh will be the featured violin soloist, and Peter Oundjian will conduct.  You can see the webcast at dso.org/live.  Here’s the program:

Roshanne Etezady:  Diamond Rain (World Premiere)
Chris Cerrone:  Concerto for Violin and Orchestra “Breaks and Breaks” (World Premiere) (read the composer’s notes on the piece in his May 22, 2018 News entry here)
Tchaikovsky:  Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, “Pathétique”

The webcast will begin an hour before the concert with interviews with composers Roshanne Etezady and Chris Cerrone.  You can see the concert notes on the conductors and pieces here.


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Free Live Concert Webcast:  Baroque to Classical

Broadcast tower topped by music note, globe in background

On Saturday, 19 May 2018 at 9 PM EDT (UTC-4), The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra will present a free live concert webcast that traces the transition from the Baroque to the Classical.  You can see the concert here.

Here’s the program:

Charles Avison: Concerto Grosso No. 5 in D Minor (after D. Scarlatti)

Jan Dismas Zelenka:  Sinfonia in A Minor for Orchestra

C.P.E. Bach: Sinfonia in E Minor, Wq. 178

Franz Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 6, Morning.

 

The SPCO also has a great library of concert videos that you can access here.  You should be able to see this concert there in a short while.


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Piano’s Everests: Islamey and Gaspard de la Nuit

Elisa Tomellini plays grand piano on top of a mountain in the Alps

Elisa Tomellini plays grand piano on top of a mountain in the Alps.
Photo copyright Joseph Giachino.

Islamey by Mily Balakirev and Gaspard de la Nuit by Maurice Ravel are considered the most difficult pieces for solo piano.

I had the great good fortune recently of hearing an excellent live performance of Gaspard de la Nuit.

Wow.  There are no words to describe the experience, but I’ll try.

The sound of the piece is stunning, the visual perception of the performance, no less so.  The hands cross over one another, the fingers move so fast, they can be a blur to the human eye.  And as hundreds, perhaps thousands, of notes roll by, you realize the pianist has memorized all of them.  And that is only one part of it.  The first hurdle is technical—being able to physically play the piece.  The second is expressive—and that’s where the piece comes to life, and the pianist adds his own interpretation.

Ravel based this 1908 piece on a collection of poems, Gaspard de la Nuit, by Aloysius Bertrand.  If you read French, you can find the book of poems here (free on Project Gutenberg).  If you want to see the three poems that Ravel used (in French and English), you can see them here.

The first movement is about a water nymph that tries to tempt the listener to join her in her underwater realm.  The second movement is a depiction of a hanged man on a scaffold in the desert.  The third movement depicts the antics of a goblin, Scarbo, as he capers through the night.

Here is Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, performed by Lucas Debargue.

If you want to read the sheet music to see what the pianist has read (and memorized) to perform this piece, you can follow along here to a performance by Benjamin Grosvenor.

There is a masterclass on YouTube for Gaspard de la Nuit, taught by Vlado Perlemuter, who studied with Ravel and recorded all of Ravel’s solo piano music.

In the third movement of Gaspard, Ravel had the intention of creating a piece of music more difficult that Balakirev’s Islamey, written in 1869.  Balakirev drew his themes from folk music of the Caucasus and Crimea.

Here is Balakirev’s Islamey, performed by Giuseppe Mentuccia.

Here is a masterclass on Islamey taught by Lang Lang.  It’s worth noting that the person performing the piece in the masterclass is 17 years old.

In watching these masterclasses, one thing that stands out is that the comments laser-focus in on specific measures, specific phrases.  As I said earlier, when you learn music at this level, you don’t just learn the notes; that’s just the first step.  Then, you consider the execution of phrases, their speed, the speed of separate sections of a given phrase, how connected, smooth, a phrase should be, how the volume evolves over a phrase.  And that’s just one phrase.

Most of us may never be able to play Islamey, or its equivalent for the instrument we play.  And some of us do not play instruments.  But thinking about the music in this detail, listening for these nuances, will make the music richer, fuller, and more enjoyable.

We may not make it to Everest, but even the view from the foothills is worth the trek.

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Image attribution:  Elisa Tomellini plays a grand piano at a concert given on top of a mountain in the Alps, setting a world record for the world’s highest piano concert (4460 meters), via http://dmajor.tv/2017/07/11/elisa-tomellini-the-highest-piano-concert-the-world/.  Photo copyright Joseph Giachino.