Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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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 Concert Webcast: Beethoven’s Ninth and Bob Dylan Reimagined

Tonight, May 19, 2017 at 8PM EDT (GMT -5), the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will present a free webcast.  The program will feature Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and John Corigliano’s Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan.

Corigliano has set Bob Dylan’s words to music that is very different from the original recordings.  You can read more about the song cycle here on the composer’s website.  Those interested in a more detailed musical analysis of the work can find one at the link.

You can see the concert at http://www.dso.org/live.


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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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That Jokester Joseph Haydn!

Portrait of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy

The last post was kind of heavy, so I thought I’d lighten things up.  And what better way than with a joke?

In particular, Joseph Haydn’s string quartet Op. 33 No. 2, known as “The Joke.”

In this string quartet, Haydn plays with the listener’s expectations of what a string quartet “should” sound like, what the listener expects to hear.  And when we are surprised by what we hear, sometimes we laugh.  And sometimes we jump—this is, after all, the same man who wrote the “Surprise” Symphony (No. 94)You can hear the symphony’s famous second movement here (headphone/earbud listeners might want to pull them away from their ears before time stamp 0:40).

I found a great short TEDx talk by the St. Lawrence String Quartet on the last movement of “The Joke”  that provides a fun explanation of what Haydn is up to.  When the movement ends, you can’t help but chuckle.

They also have an extended discussion that includes other movements of the string quartet, and that video can be found here.

A funny point is brought out that involves the minuet (scherzo) movement.  This minuet had already showed signs of Haydn’s tinkering:  the “graceful” minuet had some starts and stops that would make it a little difficult to dance to.  Then, (in the trio section) Haydn put an interesting fingering notation over some notes.  Editors must have scratched their heads and said, “that can’t be right—play two successive notes on the same string with the same finger?!”  What you end up with, if you play it with Haydn’s fingering, is an effect that sounds like…well, a slide whistle.  It’s a funny sound, perhaps slightly inebriated-sounding, that seems to poke fun at the stately minuet.  You can hear a wonderful example of it here.

Ah, but enough explanations!  Let’s let Haydn do the talking.  Here is this wonderful string quartet in its entirety.  Enjoy!

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Image attribution: Portrait of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy (1757-circa 1805) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJoseph_Haydn.jpg


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Haiku “Wednesday”: Better Late than Never

Frederic Chopin

Consider Chopin,
Whose pianistic brilliance
Reached beyond the grave:

His unpublished works
Were supposed to be destroyed;
But fate intervened.

But then sometimes fate
Abruptly ends the music–
Sometimes in mid-line.

These posthumous works
Let the creative candle
Burn a bit longer,

Another insight
Into the life and soul of
A voice lost to us.

Work gets interrupted, whether it’s the humble writing of a blog, or the composition of a symphony.   Sometimes things are…terminally interrupted, or lie finished, but unpublished, languishing long after a composer’s death.

Chopin requested that all unpublished works that were “not worthy of me” be destroyed after his death.1  But Chopin’s mother and sisters countermanded that, and had Chopin’s friend Julian Fontana pick out the best pieces, which were then published and cataloged as posthumous works.2,3

And this is hardly a unique case.  After Schubert’s death, some of his unpublished songs were gathered into a song cycle that was called Schwanengesang (Swan Song).  While some of the songs appeared on consecutive pages in Schubert’s manuscript version, by no means were all of the songs unambiguously meant to be presented together, and his last song, Taubenpost, was clearly added by the publisher.4

And then there is the matter of incomplete works.  Schubert’s eighth symphony remained unfinished at the time of his death.  Mozart’s Requiem was incomplete—he had written sketches for several movements, and it fell to Franz Süssmayr to complete it, who added some movements of his own for good measure.

Bach’s The Art of Fugue ends in the middle of a fugue.  Mahler’s last symphony was unfinished, and Puccini’s opera Turandot was missing part of the finale at the time of his death.5

Last page of Bach's The Art of Fugue

Last page of Bach’s The Art of Fugue. The note written by CPE Bach says, “in this fugue, where the name B A C H is introduced in the countersubject, the composer died.”

In some cases, the works are presented as is (Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9).  But given the human nature to tinker, some latter-day composers have tried their hand at completing some of these incomplete works based on the composer’s sketches (see here for a list).  Not all of these extrapolations have been universally accepted.  They are interesting experiments though.

Some works that see the light of day only posthumously may be awkward yearbook pictures from a composer’s youth, others unsuccessful experiments that the composer neglected to pitch into the fireplace.  Others, gems that lacked a bit of polishing and a publisher.  Yet all give one more glimpse into the composer’s life, like finding a photo of a relative long gone.  I cannot help but quote Douglas Hofstadter’s poignant reference to a Chopin étude (please forgive the length) from his book I Am a Strange Loop.6

One gloomy day in early 1991, a couple of months after my father died, I was standing in the kitchen of my parents’ house, and my mother, looking at a sweet and touching photograph of my father taken perhaps fifteen years earlier, aid to me, with a note of despair, “What meaning does that photograph have? None at all. It’s just a flat piece of paper with dark spots on it here and there. It’s useless.” The bleakness of my mother’s grief-drenched remark set my head spinning because I knew instinctively that I disagreed with her, but I did not quite know how to express to her the way I felt the photograph should be considered.

After a few minutes of emotional pondering—soul-searching, quite literally—I hit upon an analogy that I felt could convey to my mother my point of view, and which I hoped might lend her at least a tiny degree of consolation. What I said to her was along the following lines.

“In the living room we have a book of the Chopin études for piano. All of its pages are just pieces of paper with dark marks on them, just as two-dimensional and flat and foldable as the photograph of Dad—and yet, think of the powerful effect that they have had on people all over the world for 150 years now.  Thanks to those black marks on those flat sheets of paper, untold thousands of people have collectively spent millions of hours moving their fingers over the keyboards of pianos in complicated patterns, producing sounds that give them indescribable pleasure and a sense of great meaning.  Those pianists in turn have conveyed to many millions of listeners, including you and me, the profound emotions that churned in Frédéric Chopin’s heart, thus affording all of us some partial access to Chopin’s interiority—to the experience of living in the head, or rather the soul, of Frédéric Chopin. The marks on those sheets of paper are no less than soul-shards—scattered remnants of the shattered soul of Frédéric Chopin. Each of those strange geometries of notes has a unique power to bring back to life, inside our brains, some tiny fragment of the internal experiences of another human being—his sufferings, his joys, his deepest passions and tensions—and we thereby know, at least in part, what it was like to be that human being, and many people feel intense love for him.  In just as potent a fashion, looking at that photograph of Dad brings back, to us who knew him intimately, the clearest memory of his smile and his gentleness, activates inside our living brains some of the most central representations of him that survive in us, makes little fragments of his soul dance again, but in the medium of brains other than his own.   Like the score to a Chopin étude, that photograph is a soul-shard of someone departed and it is something we should cherish as long as we live.”

 

I think it’s appropriate to close with a work that might never have been heard: Chopin’s Nocturne in C -sharp minor.

References

  1. http://www.radiochopin.org/episodes/item/862-episode-163-fryderyk-posthumous-chopin-polonaise-in-b-flat-minor-adieu-a-guillaume-kolberg
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miscellaneous_compositions_(Chopin)
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_compositions_by_Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9ric_Chopin_by_opus_number#Published_posthumously_2
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schwanengesang
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unfinished_creative_work
  6. Hofstadter, Douglas R., I Am a Strange Loop. New York: Basic Books, 2007 pp 9-10.

Image attribution: Final page of Bach’s The Art of Fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach. (Berlin State Library, Germany.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABach-unfinishedfugue.jpg .  The note at the end, written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, says, “in this fugue, where the name B A C H is introduced in the countersubject, the composer died.”


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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.