Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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My Piano Does 11

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My Yamaha W102. Yes, that’s an electric guitar amp to the side–we’re a multi-instrumental family.

I have a piano.  Actually, I have the piano.  The one uniquely suited to my personality and temperament.

My piano does 11.

For those who don’t know the reference, in the movie This is Spinal Tap one of the guitarists in the rock band boasts that his amplifier is better than those of other bands because it goes to 11, not the standard 10.  So it’s one louder (here’s the scene).

My piano is like that.  It’s not a subtle beast.

It is not the finest piano I have played.  My piano teacher has a Steinway that is capable of great delicacy, whisper-soft and silken, and rich full vibrant tones.  In the right hands, it can create a great variety of color.

However, a Steinway was not in my budget.  Nor was a buttery-toned Yamaha grand piano that I briefly considered.  Given its price and large footprint, it didn’t seem a viable option.

My piano is a Yamaha W102.  Its nearest current equivalent is a Yamaha U5 or U5 BB.  It is not black; it flaunts its natural walnut grain (hence the W).  It has a full composer’s desk to hold music, not just a ledge.  It is 52 inches tall, the tallest upright model, and its harp (the ironwork frame upon which the strings are stretched) is as large as the harp of a baby grand.  The W uses wood that is thicker and heavier than is used in the U series.  This results in enhanced resonance.  The warm, rich tones of both the wood and the strings endeared it to me then and have ever since.  Here’s the blog post of another person whose ear was grabbed by a Yamaha W (paragraph 7, in particular).  They called it “mellow and warm with a powerful bass.”  Exactly.

It is likely to have started its life in the home of a family in Japan.  I was told that there is no market for secondhand pianos there, so they are containered up and shipped to the US.  As fraught with peril as this journey may have been (salty air and extreme dampness are not a piano’s friend), it made its way here, unscathed, to join a roomful of other Yamaha Ws and Us, Kawais, and other makes.  These pianos are sometimes called gray-market pianos.  Here’s an article on the subject.

Its story on these shores began when my child needed a piano (the electronic keyboard I had at the time was insufficient).  I made my way to the warehouse and started testing them out one by one.  This was made slightly problematic by the fact that I didn’t know how to play a piano at the time, but such minor technicalities have never stopped me before.  So I catapulted into the search.

I tested the sound of each piano and my husband checked under the hood for mechanical soundness.  From the first chord, I knew this piano was special.  We left to think it over, but an hour later I went back–I had to have that piano.  I may have fallen in love, but I hadn’t lost my head: I left with a discount, a ten-year warranty, and t-shirts.  And a beautiful piano.

There are times when I wish it (and I) were more subtle, but I wouldn’t trade that piano for the world.

And sometimes I vainly think Liszt would have liked my piano.  He was the rock star of his time, and he regularly snapped strings during his energetic performances.

I think he could have used a piano that does 11.

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Image attribution:  Photo of Yamaha W102 by C. Gallant, 2015.

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Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde Online

Leighton-Tristan_and_Isolde-1902

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra is making available a performance of Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde on YouTube.  The first act is online now.  Act 2 will be released on August 31, and Act 3 will be released on September 14.

Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde had a substantial effect on Western music. Some consider it the first “modern” music. Even if you’re not an opera (or Wagner) fan, I hope you’ll take time to listen to the overture.

So much has been written on the “Tristan chord” used in this opera.  Wagner defies our expectations of what should come next, using chords that do not resolve in a traditional way.  The effect is one of unease, longing.  It was shocking at the time; it is still beautifully disquieting now.

Here is a short discussion of the Tristan chord by Antonio Pappano of the Royal Opera House.

Here is a brief explanation that features Wagner’s own Steinway piano.

See the opera performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra here.

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Image attribution:  Tristan and Isolde by Edmund Leighton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALeighton-Tristan_and_Isolde-1902.jpg


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Haiku Wednesday: BWV 931

The Coma Galaxy Cluster, also known as Abell 1656, is more than 300 million light-years away and is named for its parent constellation, Coma Berenices. It appears to participate in the dark flow. Credit: Jim Misti (Misti Mountain Observatory) via NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center.

Background photo (modified): The Coma Galaxy Cluster, also known as Abell 1656. Credit: Jim Misti (Misti Mountain Observatory) via NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center.

Less than a haiku,

And more than a universe:

Bach’s 931.

Bach’s BWV 931 is one of the little preludes from the Little Clavier Book for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach.

BWV931

I was working on this a while back.  It is only two lines of music, less than a haiku.  It is far from the most complex of Bach’s work, in fact some even question whether it is his work.  There aren’t many recordings of it.  It is not as easy as it might seem.  In fact, playing it well is surprisingly hard.  But why?

I think it’s because there is so much packed into those two lines, those two seemingly throwaway lines, that when you start unfolding that little universe, you can never fit it back in the box again.  It could be a sleepy afternoon in a Renaissance garden, or the after of a before-and-after moment as you gaze into the distance.  It is timeless.  The fingers may change, but the song remains.  And there are intricacies of expression that, played poorly, are grating, played well, are sublime.

Here’s BWV 931.  After you listen to it, my challenge to you is to now find a random prelude or Song Without Words, by Chopin, Mendelssohn, Bach, Grieg, anyone (though perhaps not a Schoenberg prelude unless you’re conversant), truly focus on it, and hear what it might have to say to you, see where it takes you.

Sometimes the smallest, briefest voice speaks the loudest.

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Image attributions:

[Photo modified] The Coma Galaxy Cluster, also known as Abell 1656, is more than 300 million light-years away and is named for its parent constellation, Coma Berenices. It appears to participate in the dark flow. Credit: Jim Misti (Misti Mountain Observatory).  Via NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center. http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap060321.html

BWV 931 via imslp.org.  http://imslp.org/wiki/9_Kleine_Pr%C3%A4ludien,_BWV_924-932_(Bach,_Johann_Sebastian)


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Another Leap

Leap Into the Void by Yves Klein

Yves Klein (French, 1928–1962). Leap into the Void, 1960. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. © Yves Klein, ADAGP, Paris; Photo: Shunk-Kender © Roy Lichtenstein Foundation. Via metmuseum.org

I saw this photograph for the first time last week and knew I had to post it. Yes, there was photo-doctoring long before Photoshop (the Soviets were masters of the art). You can see how the photo was made here.

Yves Klein was fascinated with levitation and the concept of the void. His art could be as much about the performance of the creation of art as the artifact of that act of creation. A fascinating fellow.

I leapt into keyboard playing as a child despite the lack of lessons (fortunately, I was able to start taking lessons later…much later).

I leapt into choral singing, never having sung before (other than caroling and the occasional happy birthday, more or less).

I leapt into composing because I could not keep from doing so.

I leapt into blogging not sure if I could, or if anyone would read it.

Sometimes you just have to leap, even if you’re not sure where you’re going to land.

I’d like to thank you, readers, for visiting and commenting, and for your overwhelmingly positive responses and encouragement, for which I am grateful. I hope you’ll keep catapulting with me.

And now here’s my question for you: what would you dare to do if you knew you could not fail/fall?


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Classical Music Streaming:  After a Rough Start, Getting Better and Better

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01100111 01110010 01100001 01101101 01101111 01110000 01101000 01101111 01101110 01100101 [Gramophone]

There are a number of music streaming services that, for free or for a monthly fee, allow you to select from a vast or narrowly focused array of music, set up playlists, and listen.  Or search for a particular piece of music.  Or listen to the equivalent of a radio station.

It’s been a mixed success for classical music.  But it’s getting better.

A number of good articles have been written to explain this phenomenon in detail (see here and here) but in a nutshell the initial problems seem to have stemmed from the fact that the data template that’s been used to tag a piece of music was initially designed for popular music:  Song name: Performer: Album name.  That’s pretty much it for some databases.  So you might not be able to find out which movement, the composer, the performers, soloists, or conductor.  No classical music radio station DJ with a dulcet voice to inform you.  But my experience has been that the services are including this type of information.  That may be a recent development.

Ads can be a problem in these streaming services.  I was listening on a free version of a streaming service to Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum, a lovely, solemn piece, and each movement was demarcated with a frenetic drug store ad.  Ok, the paid version of the service would get rid of that, but it was jarring.  Hint:  look for recordings that offer entire pieces as one track.

But a number of streaming services, noticing the high level of engagement of classical listeners, have been working to get it right.  An article on Pandora’s efforts can be found here.  Both Pandora and Rhapsody focus on offering radio stations with a specific focus.  Apple Music is a new player in this arena.

Spotify is hard to beat for price and amount of music.  And users who are in the know are beginning to compile playlists of great use to the classical consumer.  Also, you can listen for free, which is not the case for some of the services.  But if you’re not willing to pony up the monthly fee, better get used to ads.

The Naxos Music Library allows you to type in composer, piece name, etc., and it returns a bunch of results performed by various orchestras/artists.  Its offering of music is extensive but it’s not cheap.  If you’re lucky, your local library subscribes, and if that’s the case, you can get free access.  So check your library’s webpage.  Also, check adjoining counties’ systems; sometimes you can cross-register your card and gain access (I was a lucky recipient of that bit of magic).

Another service one might consider in the US is Classical Archives.  And let me not forget Amazon’s Prime Music, part of its Amazon Prime program.  Some of the same music available in Amazon’s Digital Music Store is available for streaming in this program.

Sinfini Music has compiled information on some other streaming options, and you can read it here, but bear in mind that some of the services profiled there are not currently available in the US.  Yet.  Stay tuned, the landscape is evolving rapidly.

If this sort of service is of interest to you, the companies typically offer a free trial period to explore their offerings.  So take a look and see what suits you best.  But here’s where streaming can be interesting.  Like no other time in history, if you’ve got 127 hours, you can hear all of Mozart on Spotify.  Or Beethoven, or Schubert, or Vaughn-Williams.  Even if you want to hear something obscure, it probably exists somewhere.  That was impossible just ten years ago.

Welcome to the new world of old music.


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Haiku Wednesday -Edvard Grieg’s Lyric Pieces

Edvard_Grieg_(1888)_by_Elliot_and_Fry_-_02

Grieg’s Lyric Pieces
Ten books of songs without words
All tell a story

Edvard Grieg wrote 66 songs for solo piano that are collectively known as Lyric Pieces. They are in various opus numbers, and were written between 1867 and 1901.  A characteristic feature of the Lyric Pieces is that they paint a picture or describe a mood. These miniatures are gems, and I have enjoyed learning a few of them.

Here is Stephen Hough playing excerpts of the Lyric Pieces.

Here is Grieg himself playing Butterfly.  The sound quality is so good because he played into a Welte-Mignon reproducing piano.  The date of the recording is 1906.

And here is a 1903 phonograph recording of Grieg playing Wedding Day at Troldhaugen.


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Beethoven + Schnabel = Incredible Deal

BeethovenArtur Schnabel

Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t call this blog Bargain Basement Classical.  Nevertheless…

I’ve talked in the past about Artur Schnabel, one of the great pianists of the early 20th century.

How would you like to hear him play the Beethoven piano sonatas for $2.19?

Amazon currently has an album of Schnabel playing the piano sonatas (except, inexplicably, #31), plus the Fantasia in G Minor and Für Elise thrown in for good measure.

You may need to download the Amazon music player, but I find it innocuous, and if you’re an iTunes user, you can have it download your music directly into iTunes.  Your music can also be made available in the cloud for listening wherever.  And yes, there’s an app for that.

Here’s the link to the Amazon listing.

For the audiophiles out there, the sound quality is good.  While some old recordings show their age badly, these are ok.  Listen to a snippet on the website, you can see for yourself.

$2.19 for 101 tracks, people.  Schnabel.  Beethoven.  What more can I say?