Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Bach and Awe

J. S. Bach

Every now and then, I listen to Bach, and as the music starts, and I start to hear the melody lines interweave, I think, “You know, I think I’m starting to get this.” And then Bach throws in three more lines, ramps up the speed, and I realize something:

I’m not even close.

It’s very much the same feeling you might get when you’re learning a foreign language, and you decide to test your newfound skill with a native speaker.  And your methodical elementary-school-level bid is met joyfully with a flood of fluency, the torrent of a mountain stream, water flowing over and around rocks, streams combining in ways that leave one wondering where one begins and another ends.  Itisveryhardtounderstandwhenyoudon’tknowwherethewordsactuallyend.

The same goes for Bach.  When those melodic lines start to intertwine, you can try to follow them, and you catch a glimpse of one every now and then as it goes by, but it is really tough to grasp everything that is going on.

I was listening to Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 1 (BWV 1052), and immediately had to listen to it again to try to figure out what was going on, it was so good.  The first movement begins simply enough as Bach states his theme.  Ah, but then, the keyboard and orchestra begin stating the theme individually, and the keyboard adds a rippling line, and here the water image is particularly apt, as the strings and keyboard take turns surging forward then receding.  If you want to hear it and follow the score, you can do so here.

This video provides a balanced, and amazingly fast, performance of the first movement.

Another fascinating video puts the keyboard in a more prominent role, this time with Glenn Gould at piano and Leonard Bernstein conducting.  The performance begins at 5:08, but Bernstein’s introductory remarks about the performance of music that bears few interpretative markings may be of interest as well.

Ok, so now we reach the second movement.  And one would expect the same sort of interplay of instruments and lines.  You know, predicting, because you’re starting to get this.

Not even close.

Bach pulls the rug out from under your feet, beginning the second movement with an extended statement, everyone playing the same note (within the particular octave their instrument plays).  It then develops into a thought-filled, deeply expressive, one might even say somber, melody.

The liveliness of the first movement returns in the third movement, and it is classic Bach.

And yet.

There are moments, something in the strings, that seems to reach forward in time toward the Classical era.

And that’s the stunning thing with Bach.  Every now and then, you come across a phrase, and there is foreshadowing of music yet to come.  It’s there, little glimpses of the future, and yet, it’s undeniably Bach.

One more thing.  Here’s the kicker about the keyboard concerto.  Most experts say that he put it together from earlier works, probably a violin concerto, judging by the violin-like features, and there’s some direct copying from earlier cantatas.

As stunning as it is, it’s just a reworking of stuff he already wrote.

And that’s the Bach and awe of it all.

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References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keyboard_concertos_by_Johann_Sebastian_Bach

https://www.laphil.com/philpedia/music/keyboard-concerto-d-minor-bwv-1052-johann-sebastian-bach

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Free Live Webcast:  Tchaikovsky’s 5th, Stravinsky, and a New Work by Wynton Marsalis; or, Cossacks, Elephants, and a Hootenanny

On Friday, June 2, 2017 at 10:45AM EDT (GMT -5), the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will offer a free live online concert that will include a new work by Wynton Marsalis featuring violinist Nicola BenedettiHere is her official website.  Here’s the program:

Stravinsky: Circus Polka
Wynton Marsalis: Violin Concerto
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5.

The circus polka was composed for a ballet choreographed by George Balanchine for Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.  It was performed by fifty elephants and fifty ballerinas.  Balanchine said he phoned Stravinsky:1

“I wonder if you’d like to do a little ballet with me,” Balanchine said.
“For whom?”
“For some elephants.”
“How old?” Stravinsky asked.
“Very young,” Balanchine assured him.
There was a pause.  Then Stravinsky said gravely, “All right. If they are very young elephants, I will do it.”2

I have to hear this now.  By the way, the elephant ballet was only performed for a short time, after which it became popular among solely human dancers.

I’m also eager to hear Wynton Marsalis’s Violin Concerto.  From the reviews I’ve read, it is a thoroughly American concerto, with movements titled Rhapsody, Rondo, Blues, and Hootenanny.  Marsalis packs the work to overflowing with musical ideas and notions, and the work you hear on Friday may differ from previous performances—it seems to be a work in evolution.  A documentary has been created, The Making of a Concerto, which you can see at the link.  Here is the trailer.

Rounding out the program is Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, in which Tchaikovsky wrestles with the concept of fate.  And in the finale, the wrestling becomes fierce.  Check out this wild review from 1892, written by William Foster Apthorp, who was no great fan of “modern” music:8

In the Finale we have all the untamed fury of the Cossack, whetting itself for deeds of atrocity, against all the sterility of the Russian steppes.  The furious peroration sounds like nothing so much as a horde of demons struggling in a torrent of brandy, the music growing drunker and drunker.  Pandemonium, delirium tremens, raving, and above all, noise worse confounded!9

Wow.  Elephants, a hootenanny, and pandemonium.  Don’t miss it!

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circus_Polka
  2. Krista, Davida. George Balanchine: American Ballet Master. Minneapolis: Lerner Publication, p 72.
  3. http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2016/11/01/500059901/the-transatlantic-collaboration-behind-wynton-marsalis-new-violin-concerto
  4. http://wyntonmarsalis.org/news/entry/nicola-benedetti-performs-wynton-marsaliss-violin-concerto-los-angeles
  5. https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/music/nso-offers-exuberant-marsalis-concerto/2016/10/27/b5c1c3cc-9cb9-11e6-b4c9-391055ea9259_story.html?utm_term=.f1f925b105e4
  6. http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/music/reich/ct-cso-marsalis-review-ent-0714-20160713-column.html
  7. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/nov/08/london-symphony-orchestra-nicola-benedetti-james-gaffigan-wynton-marsalis
  8. http://www.sfsymphony.org/Watch-Listen-Learn/Read-Program-Notes/Program-Notes/Tchaikovsky-Symphony-No-5-in-E-minor.aspx
  9. Boston Evening Transcript, October 24, 1892 via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No._5_(Tchaikovsky)


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Free Live Webcast: Vivaldi, Mahler, Brubeck

Guitarist Sharon Isbin, photo by J. Henry Fair

Guitarist Sharon Isbin, photo by J. Henry Fair

Tomorrow, Saturday, April 8, 2017 at 8:00 EDT (GMT -5) the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will present a live concert webcast featuring guitarist Sharon Isbin.  The program will include Vivaldi’s Concerto for Lute and Orchestra in D major (R. 93), and new music from Chris Brubeck, Affinity: Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra.  You can read the program notes for the Brubeck concerto here.  Chris Brubeck is the son of jazz great Dave Brubeck.  You can see the webcast at this link.

The program will conclude with a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 10 as completed by musicologist Deryck Cooke.  Leonard Slatkin will conduct.  Mahler had completed a draft of the symphony, but most of it was not orchestrated at the time of his death.  Mahler fans may be interested in this 1960 BBC broadcast recording featuring a lecture by Cooke and a performance of his first (incomplete) version of the symphony’s reconstruction.

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Image attribution: Photograph of Sharon Isbin by J. Henry Fair via http://www.sharonisbin.com/photos.html.


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Free Webcast Concert: Berlin Phil, Mehta, Zukerman Play Tchaikovsky and Elgar

On Sunday, March 12, 2017 at 3PM EDT (8PM in Berlin, UTC -4) the Berlin Philharmonic will present a free concert on its website.  The concert will feature Zubin Mehta and Pinchas Zukerman, and the program will include Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and Elgar’s Violin Concerto.   The concert is a benefit concert for UNICEF.


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Happy Birthday, Chopin!

Frederic Chopin

Piano works are
What he’s known for, but there’s more
That you need to hear:

Concertos, duets,
His versions of Polish songs,
A stirring trio.

Get to know Chopin
In a whole new dimension
In non-solo works.

Now let us all say
Happy birthday to the great
Frédéric Chopin.

It is Chopin’s birthday today! Church records list his birthday as February 22, 1810, but since Chopin and his family celebrated his birthday on March 1, it is considered the correct date.

Where does one begin to write about Chopin?  He was brilliant.  His works revolutionized the piano repertoire, and enriched the world of music forever.  His mazurkas and polonaises captured the soul of Poland, his nocturnes and preludes plumbed the depths of human emotions.  Countless words have been written about his piano solo works.

So I’m going to write about his other works.

Did you know that Chopin didn’t write solely for the piano?  Certainly, there is a piano present in all his works (and he wrote a piece for two pianos, Rondo in C for Two Pianos, Op. 73, Op. posth.), but lesser known are his compositions that include other instruments.

Chopin wrote two concertos for piano and orchestra (Op. 11 and Op. 21).  There are many wonderful videos of the concertos performed at the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, and you can find them here.  You can also hear and see Piano Concerto No 1 performed by Evgeny Kissin (Zubin Mehta conducting) or Martha Argerich (Jacek Kaspszyk conducting)Here is a link to Piano Concerto No 2 performed by Arthur Rubinstein (conducted by Andre Previn).

Cello fans will enjoy this video of Chopin’s Cello Sonata (Op. 65) performed by Natalia Gutman and Sviatoslav Richter, or this performance of the Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major (op. 3) performed by Daniil Shafran and Anton Ginsburg.

Here is Chopin’s Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano (Op. 8), a wonderfully stirring piece of music.

Chopin also set several poems in Polish to music.  Here is one of his Polish songs for voice and piano.

And now, since it is Chopin’s birthday, here is a fun tribute to him, the song Happy Birthday in the style of Chopin, with some added improvisation.


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Mozart Mania: Over 8 Hours of Free Webcasts Now Available!

Mozart

More Mozart than you can shake a baton at!

More Mozart than you can Handel!

Ok, I’ll stop now.

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra has made all six programs of its MozartFest concert series available on YouTube until March 3, 2017.  That’s over eight hours of music available for your viewing and listening enjoyment.  Here’s the link for the “Mo-Fest BingeFest playlist.”

Here’s what you can see.

Overtures!

to Cosi fan Tutte

to Don Giovanni

to La Clemenza di Tito

to The Marriage of Figaro

to The Magic Flute

to The Abduction from the Seraglio

Concertos!

Bassoon Concerto

Flute Concerto

Concerto for Flute and Harp (exquisite!)

Horn Concertos 1, 2, 3, and 4

Oboe Concerto

Symphonies!

No 35, “Haffner”

No 36, “Linz”

No. 38, “Prague”

No. 39

No. 40

No. 41, “Jupiter”

But wait, there’s more!

Eine kleine Nachtmusik

Concertone

Sinfonia Concertante

You can also see works by Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Mahler, Bruckner, Schumann, Tchaikovsky and more on the Detroit Symphony Orchestra channel.  Click the Videos tab to see what’s available.


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Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4

Beethoven

The other night I decided to listen to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4.1

Wow.

Let me tell you more about this incredible piece of music.

Beethoven wrote Piano Concerto No. 4 (Op. 58) in 1805-6, and it was first performed at a private concert in 1807.  It was not performed at a public concert until December 1808.2   But what a concert!  Here’s what was on the program:3

Symphony No. 5

Symphony No. 6

Choral Fantasy

Piano Concerto No. 4

Ah, perfido!, a concert aria

Mass in C (excerpts)

The audience spent four hours in a freezing cold theater listening to this concert of a lifetime–it would be the last time that Beethoven would perform as a soloist.

A feature that distinguishes this concerto from many others is that the piece begins with the piano alone.  This would have been totally unexpected for the audience.  And when the orchestra finally comes in to state the first theme, they do not come in playing in the announced key (G major), but an unexpected key (B major).

But you might be saying to yourself, “Yeah, sure, but what makes it so great?  Where’s the wow factor?”

Aside from doing the unexpected, Beethoven takes you on a wild ride.  In the second movement, it is as if the orchestra and pianist are facing off against each other–how will that struggle end?  And it has exciting, demanding piano writing.  Watch the pianist’s hands. Then recall this quote from composer Johann Friedrich Reichardt, who attended the first public performance:3

[Beethoven] played with astounding cleverness and skill, and at the fastest possible tempi.

Wow.

(Of course, then I think, imagine how long the concert would have been if he hadn’t!)

The references below will give you detailed descriptions of the concerto’s three movements.  But you might be tempted to just jump in and listen.

This link will take you to a YouTube page where you can find great performances of this piece by many prominent pianists and orchestras.  The list extends for pages.  Here I’d like to highlight the performance of pianist Mitsuko Uchida and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mariss Jansons at the 2013 Proms Festival.  I hope you will enjoy it!

References

  1. Since inquiring minds will want to know, I listened to (and watched) pianist Jonathan Biss and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on the DSO Replay subscription streaming service. Phenomenal performance!
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_Concerto_No._4_(Beethoven)
  3. http://www.laphil.com/philpedia/music/piano-concerto-no-4-g-major-op-58-ludwig-van-beethoven