Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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No Wrong Number: The Aria Code Opera Podcast Series and More

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

I have been reading enthusiastic reviews of Aria Code, a new series of podcasts sponsored by WQXR, the Metropolitan Opera and WNYC Studios.  And after listening, I agree.

Each podcast discusses one aria.  Just one.  Afterward, the aria is presented in its entirety without interruption.

For those looking for an introduction to opera, this is what I would call an easy on-ramp.  The presenters provide diverse views and insights into each aria, revealing details one might not have heard otherwise.  Each podcast lasts around 30 minutes.

Arias from Verdi’s La Traviata and Otello, Puccini’s La Boheme and Tosca, and Saint-Saën’s Dalila have been presented thus far.

You can listen to Aria Code at https://www.wnycstudios.org/shows/aria-code.

 

Are you in the mood for full operas now?  Here’s just some of what’s currently available on demand at OperaVision:

Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute

Verdi: Macbeth

Puccini: Tosca

Wagner: The Flying Dutchman

Britten: Albert Herring

Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor

Click here for a list of all the operas currently available.

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Haiku Wednesday: Gabriel Fauré

Gabriel Faure

Luminous music,
Tender, calm, and so peaceful:
Gabriel Fauré

A requiem that dwells on
Eternal rest and light, peace,
Mercy and welcome.

Grace and elegance,
Music that soothes and comforts:
Gabriel Fauré.

The more I have read about Gabriel Fauré, the more I have wanted to read.  And the more I have listened to his music, the more I have wanted to hear.  What a fascinating fellow!

He was drawn to music at an early age, and was sent to study at a music school in Paris, which in time was headed by Camille Saint-Saëns.  At first, Saint-Saëns was Fauré’s teacher, but the two became close friends.

After graduation, Fauré worked as a church organist…until he showed up one Sunday morning in his evening clothes after partying all night.  Thereafter, he became the organist at a different church.1

He fought in the Siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. 1

After the war, he was choirmaster at Saint-Sulpice, where Charles-Marie Widor was organist.  The church had two organs, and the two would improvise together, trying to trick each other with unexpected key changes.  Saint-Saëns described Fauré as “a first-class organist when he wanted to be.” 1

As a professor at the Paris Conservatory, Fauré taught Maurice Ravel and Nadia Boulanger, among others.  He later became the school’s director, and modernized procedures and updated the curriculum to include works by Debussy and Wagner.  Old-timers were not amused by the inclusion of this newfangled music.  However, the group of contemporary composers known as Les Six adored him. 1

Fauré’s music spanned the period between Romanticism and 20th century music.  His later music hints at the changes that were occurring at the time, away from a fixed tonality and traditional chord progressions, and toward more amorphous harmonies.  His last work was his first string quartet, finished less than two months before he died. 1

An example of Fauré embracing the modern is now a great treasure.  He recorded a number of piano rolls, and through them, we can hear him playing his own music.  At the links you can hear Fauré play his Pavane (Op. 50), a Valse Caprise from Op. 38, a Valse Caprice from Op. 59, and Nocturne No. 7 (Op. 74).

I would be remiss to omit Fauré’s Requiem.  I could write an entire post on it—and I will, because I am currently learning to sing it.  But I need to immerse myself in it more first to be able to adequately describe it to you.  It is a towering work, a giant, but one that whispers.  A deeply emotional work, yet one that Fauré said that he wrote “for nothing—for fun, if I may say so!”2   The Requiem departs from the traditional requiem text, and focuses on eternal rest and perpetual light.  In a way, it is reminiscent of the Brahms German Requiem in its comforting tone.   It is beautiful, and I look forward to singing it and telling you more about it soon.

It is hard to know what to highlight, there are so many works I could present for you.  I’ll pick two.  First, his lovely song Aprés Un Rêve, sung here by Pumeza Matshikiza with pianist Simon Lepper.

And, for now, I leave you with Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine (Op. 11) for orchestra and choir.  Fauré wrote this when he was 19 years old, and it took first prize in a composition competition (imagine his competitors!).

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gabriel_Faur%C3%A9
  2. Letter from Fauré to composer Maurice Emmanuel, quoted in Nectoux, Jean-Michel, Gabriel Fauré – A Musical Life, trans. Roger Nichols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p 116.
  3. http://www.classicfm.com/composers/faure/guides/howard-goodall-gabriel-faure/

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Image attribution:  Photograph of Gabriel Fauré by De Jongh, Lausanne, 1907 [Public domain in US], original held by the Bibliothèque nationale de Francehttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Faure1907.jpg


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Haiku Wednesday: Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No 2

Photograph of Camille Saint-Saens

Camille Saint-Saens

Saint-Saëns wrote five
Piano concertos and…
You gotta hear this.

Piano Concerto No. 2 is famously described as starting like Bach and ending like Offenbach, and is a very popular piece.  Saint-Saëns wrote it in 17 days in 1868.

Did you see this weekend’s live webcast from the Verbier Festival that included Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No 2?  If not, you can see it for a limited time here (all Medici.tv’s live broadcasts from the Verbier Festival will be available for free for a limited time).

Georgi Li was the pianist.  Joshua Weilerstein conducted the Verbier Festival chamber orchestra.  Spectacular performances all around.

George Li’s performance was exciting and precise, it was brilliant. By the way, Li has been playing this piece since he was 12 (yes, there’s a video at the link–and he was already good at age 12).

 

So what performance should you listen to?  If you want to hear and see, there’s the Li performance mentioned above.  Or this performance by Arthur Rubinstein.  There are abundant choices on YouTube.  Gramophone devotes an entire article to the various audio choices.

 

Or, you can listen as Saint-Saëns himself plays the opening to his Piano Concerto No. 2 in this historical recording from 1904.

 

It’s a delightful piece of music.  I hope you’ll enjoy it!

References

  1. Piano Concerto No. 2 (Saint-Saëns) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_Concerto_No._2_(Saint-Sa%C3%ABns).
  2. Piano Concerto No. 2, About the Piece, LA Philharmonic http://www.laphil.com/philpedia/music/piano-concerto-no-2-camille-saint-saens
  3. Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No 2 – which recording is best? http://www.gramophone.co.uk/feature/saint-sa%C3%ABnss-piano-concerto-no-2-which-recording-is-best

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Image attribution: Photograph of Camille Saint-Saëns by Nadar, [Public domain} via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CSaint-Saens.jpg


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Free Concert Webcast from the Verbier Festival

violin and bow

On August 6, 2016 at 7PM CEST (UTC+2) (that’s 1PM EDT in the US) Medici.tv, in conjunction with The Violin Channel, will present a free live webcast from the 2016 Verbier Festival in Switzerland.  The webcast will feature Joshua Bell, violin; George Li, piano; Emmanuel Krivine, conductor [postscript: Joshua Weilerstein was the conductor,  although Krivine was originally listed on the announcement]; and the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra.  Here’s the program:

Saint-Saens: Piano Concerto No 2 in G Minor, Op. 22

Bizet: Symphony No 1

Saint-Saens: Violin Concerto No 3 in B Minor, Op. 61.

You can access the webcast at this link.

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Image attribution: Violin and bow by Pianoplonkers (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGerman%2C_maple_Violin.JPG


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Evil Masterminds, Organists, and Halloween–Spooky Classical Music Sources

Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera, 1925

Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera, 1925

It’s getting toward Halloween here in the US and I got to thinking about spooky music.

Why is it that organ music is always considered mad scientist/evil mastermind music?

I mean, think about it: do these guys have time to be practicing their arpeggios and pedalwork?

Do they really want their hands tied up with massive nasty, gnarly chords?

Is it easy to come up with byzantine evil plans while playing the intricate counterpoint of a fugue?

Can we picture an evil mastermind wearing sensible organist shoes?

Photo via OrganMasterShoes.com

Photo via OrganMasterShoes.com

C’mon, really?

I guess we’re stuck with that image though.

So, ok, we’re going with it.  What are our options here to make folks think an evil genius lives at your house while you’re handing out candy at Halloween?

Everyone thinks of the Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor first.  Recordings of ALL of Bach’s organ music are available for free.  Or you can download a subset of more familiar pieces.  The pieces were recorded by Dr. James Kibbie on baroque organs in Germany (learn more about the project here).

Also, check out The 13 Scariest Pieces of Classical Music for Halloween (and the readers’ suggestions) for classics like Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre, and Liszt’s Totentanz, among others.

Looking for something different and original?  Try Frederik Magle’s music.  Delectably dark and hair-raising, from traditional Gothic organ to rock/classical fusion.  Here’s Origin.

Here Stockhausen presents his composition Gesang der Jünglige, which is just a little unnerving, and I imagine terrifying in the dark, played at low volume in some obscure corner.

Got 99 cents? Go to Amazon’s MP3 store for The Darkest Classical Piano Pieces, or the Little Box of Horror, or 100 Must-Have Horror Classics.  All may not be what you think of as terror-inducing but for 99 cents, one can’t quibble.

And finally, this less terrifying but fascinating mash-up of classical works by Guy Cavill, from The Frankenstein Suite, Movement 3, It’s Alive – The Frankenstein Breathes.  I like how the composers’ faces morph into one another in the video, all focused on the eyes.

Do you have any other suggestions for scary music?  What’s the most terrifying music you’ve heard?


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Songs from Childhood

When you think of music that children listen to, you might think of nursery rhymes, folk tunes, jump-rope songs.  The music of my early childhood can be summed up in two words.

Jackie Wilson.

Jackie Wilson

You probably have at least two questions.  Possibly the first is “Who is Jackie Wilson?”  He was an American pop singer of the 1950s who influenced singers from Elvis to Michael Jackson to Van Morrison.  Rolling Stone magazine ranked him 26th among the 100 greatest singers.  But I’m not going to count that question.  So, 1.  Why Jackie Wilson?  2. What does this have to do with classical music?  I’ll answer both.

1. My mother was a huge Jackie Wilson fan. Huge.  She had all the records.  My father took her to New York City to see a show.  They never went to New York City.  She also had a stereo that surpassed mine in sheer volume, not to mention size.  My stereo rattled the blinds.  Hers rattled the windows…in the neighbor’s house.  And you could stack LPs and play one right after the other.  Which she did.  A lot.

I didn’t realize how much this music had sunk in until something like 20 years had passed, and a Jackie Wilson song came on.  And I still remembered all the words.  I don’t know any nursery rhymes or folk tunes (“Oh do you remember sweet Betsy from Pike?” No, not really).

2. So it came as a great astonishment to me the first time I listened to Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera I Pagliacci when the aria Vesti la Giubba began. I knew it.  But I knew it as My Empty Arms, sung by Jackie Wilson.  And now I wish I could have heard him sing it in the original, because he had a spectacular voice.  Later I came to equate Alone at Last with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Night with an aria from Camille San-Saëns opera Samson and Delilah (Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix).

Sure, some of Jackie’s music is schlocky.  Someone once said (I wish I could remember who) that he never met a song he didn’t like (his rendition of My Yiddische Mama is unexpected, but part of a tribute to Al Jolson, whom he admired).  But that voice.  The voice of a man who had once been a Golden Gloves boxer (his athleticism shows on stage), whose opportunities to sing classical music were at that time non-existentLonely Teardrops indeed.

But he wasn’t the only one to turn classical music to a popular top hit.  Here is a website that has compiled a list of popular songs that have borrowed classical themes.

So what are the songs you remember from childhood?  What songs did you play for your children?

Mon Coeur s’ouvre a ta voix performed by Olga Borodina

Jackie Wilson’s Night

Vesti la Giubba performed by Jonas Kaufmann

Jackie Wilson’s My Empty Arms


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The French Connections: The Soundtrack

FrenchConnectionsCircle003

For each of the composers in the illustration I have selected a piece of music or two for your listening pleasure.  I deliberately tried not to pick the pieces the composers are best known for, so there will be no Carnival of the Animals here. The exception is Widor’s Toccata, because, well, it’s a cool piece of music, and that’s the instrument I started on (and no, I never got that far—not even close.  But one can dream).

 

 

Fauré Pelléas et Mélisande Suite Op 80

Poulenc Stabat Mater

Saint-Saëns Violin Concerto No 3

Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 5

 

Franck Violin Sonata in A Major, 4th Movement
(Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk! Thanks WQXR!)

 

Berlioz Reveries

 

Got some time?  Here’s the complete Symphonie fantastique performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

 

Widor Suite for flute and piano

 

This is what Widor is known for: the Toccata from his Symphony No 5

 

Here’s the beginning of a Widor documentary.  If you’re an organ fan, you’ll enjoy this.

 

Gounod Repentir

 

Debussy Beau Soir

Beau soir indeed.