Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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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.


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Haiku Wednesday:  Alkan’s Funeral March for a Dead Parrot

This parrot is dead;
He is no more; he’s passed on.
He has ceased to be.

He’s expired and
Gone to meet his maker, a
Stiff, bereft of life,

Demised, not pining.
The choir invisible
Now has a parrot.

The words for this haiku are excerpts from Monty Python’s classic Dead Parrot Sketch, which you can see below.  But the inspiration for the post is Charles-Valentin Alkan’s Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot.

Oddly, this is not the first time I’ve done a post on music written about a bird, or even for a dead bird.  Mozart had a starling whose song may be heard in his music, and for whom he wrote a poem.  Telemann wrote the Cantata of Funeral Music for an Artistically Trained Canary-Bird Whose Demise Brought the Greatest Sorrow to His Master

So, there’s precedent (and decedent for that matter).  But the subject of this post is Alkan’s funeral march.  It has been said that he was inspired to write this after the appearance of Rossini’s opera The Thieving Magpie [La gazza ladra] in Paris.1  In his score, Alkan advises lovers of La gazza ladra not to attribute any “impertinence” to the dead parrot’s song, you know, not that he was parodying Rossini or anything.

In this funeral march, the soloists sing “As-tu déjeune, Jaco”, which is roughly equivalent to the English “Polly want a cracker?”

Alas, it is too late.  Here is Alkan’s Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot.

 

Here is Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch.

 

References

  1. https://www.allmusic.com/composition/marcia-funebre-sulla-morte-dun-papagallo-for-chorus-3-oboes-bassoons-funeral-march-for-a-dead-parrot-mc0002396751

 


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Free Concert Webcasts Alert!

stick guy singing opera on a television with a viking helmet for an antenna

This morning, April 13, 2018 at 10:45 AM (GMT -4) The Detroit Symphony Orchestra will offer a free live webcast (see it here) with the following program:

Debussy: Printemps
Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No 1 with violinist Ray Chen
Schumann: Symphony No 1, “Spring”
Hannu Lintu will conduct.

Tomorrow, April 14, 2018, OperaVision will present a live stream of events from Den Norske Opera in Oslo to celebrate the opera house’s 10th anniversary.  You can see it on the OperaVision YouTube channel.  Highlights of the broadcast will be an attempt at a world record (at 8:15AM ET, GMT-4) for the largest number of people singing Verdi’s aria Va Pensiero from the roof of the opera house (which can also be seen on OperaVision’s Facebook page), and a live performance of Verdi’s La Traviata at 3:00PM ET (GMT-4).


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Of Foot Pedals, Clogs, and a Romance: A Random Walk

This is why I can’t get anything done.

It all started with the Charles Gounod blog post.  I was doing my typical random walk through the internet, looking for interesting works to bring you, when I found the piano-pédalier: a grand piano fitted with a set of organ pedals hooked up to another piano.  Oh my.

My first thought was that this instrument has to be every pianist’s nightmare (in which, perhaps, you arrive on stage to find, not a standard grand piano, but a piano-pédalier and a very expectant audience.  And you may or may not be fully clothed.  It is a nightmare after all).

So then I started looking for more information on the piano-pédalier, which led me to composer Charles-Valentin Alkan, who was, I found out, a master of the instrument.  I plan to write a blog post about him.  I also found out his works are deemed, let’s say, rather difficult, with the possible exception of some of his miniatures, that is, his Preludes (Op. 31) and his Esquisses (Op. 63).  Since I’m all about playing the not-very-difficult, I decided to look for those.  I will note, however, that the Preludes and Esquisses contain works in every major and minor key, so I’ll be skipping over some of those, particularly the ones with numerous sharps and flats.  I found some recently published sheet music, and realized I own a book that has a couple of his pieces in it.  I then also found his listing in the ever-popular imslp.org library of public domain sheet music.  Which reminded me,  in addition to the Alkan post, I still needed to write a post on the other library of sheet music I found.  Soon!

So, later, I decided to listen to Alkan’s Preludes.  I found them quite interesting, and regretted that I been doing Paperwork that Needed To Be Handled instead of sitting in a chair, with a cup of tea, following along with a score.  I’ll just have to listen to them again!  Soon!

A full day later, after doing Things Which Must Be Done (cooking, washing dishes, laundry, etc.), I remembered that I had not yet extracted my book of sheet music to see what Alkan pieces were included.  So, settling into a chair with my music in one hand, and a cup of tea in the other, I found exactly two Alkan pieces oddly juxtaposed with one another:  First Love Letter (Op. 63, No. 46) and Man in Clogs (Op. 63, No. 23).  Was the First Love Letter from the Man in Clogs?  To the Man in Clogs?  It seemed an unlikely prospect.  In addition to being in clogs, the Man in Clogs is also in a key with five flats, with lots of grace notes that seem to depict rather graceless walking.  Hmmm…five flats and grace notes.  Since I hadn’t looked at this book (Anthology of Romantic Piano Music) for a while, I decided to see who else was represented (and perhaps find some less challenging key signatures).

Surprisingly, there were works by Amy Beach, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, and Clara Schumann, in addition to the usual suspects, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn (Felix), Rachmaninoff, Schumann (Robert), and Tchaikovsky, as well as others.  My eyes settled upon a familiar name:  Gabriel Fauré.

What a wonderful time I had last year learning and singing Fauré’s Requiem!  What piece of his was here?  Romance sans paroles [Romance without Words] Op. 17 No 3.  Wait—this is do-able!  (Have I done it already?  If I did start learning it, I know I never finished.)  The left hand is a very regular pattern; four flats, not so bad; a little messing about with the left pedal of the piano, and the right, but hey, it’s not like wrangling a piano-pédalier, right?  I read through it in my head, and thought, yes, I’m going right to the piano to try this!

But then I realized I had better write this post before I forget the weaving path by which I came to this point.  And so, due to the Romance Without Words, the Man in Clogs will have to wait just a little longer (perhaps he can read over his First Love Letter, a romance with words, while he’s waiting).

And Mr. Fauré will have to wait as well, because my tea is now cold, and I just need to go warm it up.  Then, I promise, I’m going right to the piano.   As soon as I answer this ringing phone…

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References

  1. Anthology of Romantic Piano Music: Intermediate to Early Advanced Works by 36 Composers, Maurice Hinson, ed.  Alfred Publishing Co, Inc., 2002.


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Two Live Concert Webcasts Tonight!

Broadcast tower topped by music note, globe in background

Decisions, decisions!  There are two live concert webcasts tonight.  Which will you pick?

Tonight, April 7, 2018, at 8PM EDT (GMT-4) the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO), conducted by Leonard Slatkin, and violinist Yoonshin Song will present Béla Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2.  There will be a pre-concert interview with composer Steven Bryant at 7PM.  You can view the DSO concert here.  Here’s the full program:

Steven Bryant: Zeal (world premiere!)

Béla BartókViolin Concerto No. 2

Richard Wagner: Siegfried Idyll

Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks

At 9PM EDT (GMT-4) The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and violinist Maureen Nelson will present Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark AscendingYou can view the SPCO concert here.  Here’s the full program:

Charles Gounod: Petite symphonie for Wind Instruments

Lembit BeecherThe Conference of the Birds

Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending

Antonín Dvořák: Serenade for Strings

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra has a free app available for iPhone, iPad, and iTouch so you can enjoy their live concert webcasts and concert library wherever you go.  The Detroit Symphony Orchestra has a free DSO To Go app which is available for iPhone, iPad, and Android.

What if you can’t make either concert?  The SPCO has a free concert library that you can watch on demand.  The DSO has their Replay performance archive, which is available for a year with a $50 donation to the DSO.

I hope you will enjoy the concerts!


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Haiku Wednesday: Charles Gounod

Charles Gounod

Today’s a good day
To get to know Charles Gounod,
The French composer.

Ave Maria
Is the only thing most know
(and the Hitchcock theme).

But he wrote over
600 pieces; one, a
National anthem.

And so, I urge you
To get to know Charles Gounod,
The French composer.

If you ask people what they know about Charles Gounod, you’re likely to hear about his adaptation of Bach’s Prelude in C Major, the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria.

Some might mention his opera Faust (here’s a short excerpt).

Some might remember that he wrote The Funeral March of a Marionette, known to some readers of a certain age as the theme to the television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Then it gets very quiet.

And yet Gounod wrote over 600 pieces, including two symphonies and the delightful Petite Symphonie for woodwinds.

Gounod wrote several masses, his best-known being the Messa Solennelle de Saint-Cecile.  Gounod’s Marche Pontificale became the national anthem of Vatican City.

A rather unusual piece (and instrument) that you need to see is Gounod’s Concerto for piano-pédalier and orchestra.  It is a grand piano equipped with pedals like an organ.  Here is the first movement.*

Want more?  For all things Charles Gounod, be sure to check out charles-gounod.com, a webpage created by Gounod’s great-great-grandson, containing photographs, letters, a discography, and more.

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*Composer Charles-Valentin Alkan wrote a number of pieces for the piano-pédalier, including a series of preludes, as well as etudes for the feet alone.  Looks like that might be another blog post!

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Gounod
  2. http://www.charles-gounod.com/vi/
  3. http://imslp.org/wiki/Category:Gounod,_Charles

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Image attribution:  Charles Gounod by Nadar (a.k.a. Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, 1820–1910): Photographer Adam Cuerden – Restoration. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACharles_Gounod_(1890)_by_Nadar.jpg.