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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Haiku Wednesday: Music That Gets Stuck in Your Head

What can you do when
Music gets stuck in your head?
I guess it depends.

If it’s some horrid
Tune, ill conceived or performed,
You must replace it.

But a fine tune can
Resonate through the day, a
Personal soundtrack.

It’s happened to all of us: something sparks the memory of a tune, or you hear a snippet on the radio, or from a passing car.

And suddenly it’s stuck, your brain rehearsing the notes in an infinite loop.  If you’re lucky, it’s more than a few lines.

Some people call it an earworm, a uniquely unappealing term, though I suppose it’s apt if the song in question is something you probably didn’t want to hear the first time you heard it.  For me, there is an abysmal song from the 80s that, once sparked, will.not.go.away until I Berlioz-blast it from my brain.  I won’t tell you what it is, because that would be wrong.

But sometimes, the sticking of a tune can be a delight, and that happened to me yesterday.  I’m not saying I want it to get stuck in your head, but I think you’d like to hear it.

I was checking out some Deutsche Grammophon listings on Spotify (Essential Liszt, Essential Bach), when I saw Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlist.  So I started clicking.

Everything stopped when I played Tchaikovsky’s Romance in F Minor (Op. 5) performed by Joseph Moog (here’s the album listing from the record company).  It caught my ear.  It stayed with me all afternoon, and I was ok with that.  It begins with a sentimental minor-key melody that reminds me of a thought-filled walk along a riverside in the fall, the ornaments glistening like sun sparkling on the water.  The middle section is suddenly lively, as if one had to cross a busy intersection before continuing along the river.  The middle section gradually subsides into calm and returns to the main theme.

This is Opus 5?

Then I found out Tchaikovsky had written a cantata, overture, symphonic poem, symphony, and two operas before he got around to writing the Romance.  But he was so exacting that he destroyed the poem and the operas, and probably winced every time someone brought up the cantata, overture, and symphony.  But he kept the Romance, and it is a well-loved piece.

Here is Moog’s performance on YouTube for those of you who do not have Spotify.

Of course, before I found this YouTube video, I found two other interesting performances, by Mikhail Pletnev and Sviatoslav Richter, that I thought you might enjoy.

You can find the sheet music here.

References

  1. Leonard, James, Romance, for piano in F minor, Op. 5, Allmusic.com, http://www.allmusic.com/composition/romance-for-piano-in-f-minor-op-5-mc0002659624
  2. Jakubowski, Kelly, “Earworms: why some songs get stuck in our heads more than others,” The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/earworms-why-some-songs-get-stuck-in-our-heads-more-than-others-68182
  3. Kelly Jakubowski, Sebastian Finkel, Lauren Stewart, and Daniel Müllensiefen, “Dissecting an Earworm: Melodic Features and Song Popularity Predict Involuntary Musical Imagery,” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, November 3, 2016, http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/aca-aca0000090.pdf


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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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Haiku Wednesday: Winter

Trees covered in ice and snowCardinal in ice-covered tree

Ice has turned the trees
Into a fine filigree:
A shawl of white lace,

Tracery beaded
With berries, ‘til cardinals
And jays replace them.

Water droplets cling
To the tips of icicles,
Forming pearl-edged fringe.

Winter’s shawl remains
Until spring smiles and dons her
New leafy green dress.

Snowy winters have been a great source of inspiration to countless composers.  I thought I’d present a few and give you some resources to find more if you would like a playlist that provides the sonic image of a snowy day (whether you’re in the midst of one looking out at the falling snow with a cup of hot cocoa, or sipping a cool drink while looking for a little relief from sweltering heat).

Here is Tchaikovsky’s December, performed by Denis Matsuev, from The Seasons.

And how can we forget Vivaldi?  Here is the first movement of Winter performed by Voices of Music from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.

Want more?  Check out WQXR’s page “10 Pieces That Sound Like a Winter Wonderland”, as well as Classic fm’s “Winter Music.”  If you subscribe to a music streaming service, I’m sure you can find more classical winter playlists for your listening pleasure.

And to close, a wonderful percussion performance of Debussy’s The Snow is Dancing from The Children’s Corner.

 

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Image attributions: Trees covered in snow and ice, photo by C. Gallant, 2016.  Cardinal in tree branches covered in ice, photo courtesy of Genuine Kentucky website [no photographer credit given], http://www.genuinekentucky.com/kentucky-is-even-beautiful-covered-in-ice-pictures-of-the-day/.


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The Sugar Plum Fairy’s Celesta

‘Tis the season for Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, and one of the most well-known pieces from that work is the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

So how do you get that magical tinkling sound?  The celesta.

The celesta is a keyboard instrument that produces its sound through the striking of metal plates with little hammers connected to the keys, in the same way that pianos strike strings.

Here is a video from the Colorado Springs Philharmonic introducing the celesta.

If you are interested in a more in-depth treatment of the mechanics and the manufacturing of celestas, see this video from Schiedmayer Celesta GmbH.

Would you like to see The Nutcracker in its entirety?  You can!  EuroArts presents it on YouTube (with minimal commercial interruption).  You can find the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy at time stamp 1:29:00.  If you would like to see a purely orchestral version, you can see The Nutcracker performed by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra (with the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy at 1:22:00).

But the celesta doesn’t go back in the storage room after the Christmas season!  It is used in a number of other works, namely Mahler’s Symphony No. 6Symphony No. 8, and Das Lied von der Erde, as well as several symphonies by Shostakovich.  A wonderful use of the celesta can be found in Gustav Holst’s The Planets in the mystical final movement Neptune.

It can also be found in Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite, and many operas.

Listen, and I think you’ll be surprised how often you’ll find the celesta adding that extra bit of magic to the music around you!


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Free Opera Binge Watching!

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

I had hoped to showcase this weekend’s livestream of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (musical direction by Kirill Petrenko, with a fine cast including Jonas Kaufmann) from the Bavarian State Opera.  However, it has been postponed.  For more information, click hereHere is a video about the production.

Undeterred, I searched the internet for a replacement.

I have found you hours and hours of opera.  And I don’t mean The Ring cycle.

The Vienna State Opera  is currently offering for free Wagner’s Parsifal and Götterdämmerung (ok, some of The Ring; click here for details). The opera company typically offers livestreams by subscription (single, monthly, by season).  You can watch at the time of event, or slightly time shifted to accommodate your time zone.

Not a Wagner fan? Here’s what The Opera Platform website has for you right now (the assortment changes over time; click here for details):

Bell  In Parenthesis

Bizet  Carmen

Boesmans  Reigen

Debussy  Pelléas et Mélisande (not available for viewing in the US)

Puccini  Manon Lescaut

Rossini  The Barber of Seville

Tchaikovsky  Eugene Onegin

Tchaikovsky  The Queen of Spades

Verdi  Macbeth

Wagner  Parsifal

(this is the same production available at the Vienna State Opera site)

Wagner  The Valkyries

 Enjoy!

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Image attribution: C. Gallant, 2016.


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Free Opera Online: Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin

Eugene Onegin and Tatiana, illustration by Pavel Sokolov

BBC Arts and the Garsington Opera have made available a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. You can see a complete performance, view a synopsis, and enjoy interviews with the conductor and director.

The opera is an adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse. You can see the Russian and an English translation at the Pushkin’s Poems website.

The opera will be available until the end of 2016, so don’t miss out!

You can see it at the BBC Arts website or at the Garsington Opera website.
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Image attribution: Onegin and Tatiana, illustration by Pavel Sokolov, [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Onegin3.jpg