Friday, November 17, 2017

Two Powerful Composers, and the Two Movies Which Best Define Them...

How many of us remember Frank Churchill? Or William Walton?
How about the tune "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?"
A tune that palpably 'picked up' the spirits of a nation beset by the Great Depression.
A tune said to be the favorite pop tune of one Adolf Hitler, who chose the name 'Wolf '  to be used to address him by those in his hierarchy.
And how about "Heigh -Ho, Heigh - Ho", sung by the Seven Dwarfs in Disney's first full-length classic in animation?
Frank Churchill joined the Disney group early in its  formative  period, and became the core power of a new form of popular music for the movies. He wrote the score for "Snow White," followed by such Disney masterpieces as "Dumbo" and "Bambi."
His music became known throughout the world, and his wonderful melodies captivated such classical performers as the American pianist Earl Wild, known as one of the reigning pianists of his time.
Wild wrote a transcription of the melodies of "Snow White," titled "Reminiscences of Snow White,"  a transcription written in the typical post - Lisztian style of the late 19th century. Wild himself made a recording of it, which you will find most captivating, especially for those of you who grew up with Disney's films as a companion. What a truly singular  pianist Earl Wild was!
How tragic - into his 41st year, Churchill took his own life, a victim of alcoholism and depression. His music has outdistanced his name...
And William Walton?  In actuality, although his name is relatively obscured in our day, this man was one of the more significant English composers of the last century. Why not listen to one of his most important works, a full-fledged Oratorio titled "Belshazzar's Feast" -  out of the Book of Daniel recounting the fear of the King Belshazzar, when that handwriting on the wall (mene, mene, Tekel Upharsin) appeared, proclaiming that "You are weighed in the balance, and found wanting."
The music is very powerful in its representation of human fear at its highest level, and the writing for chorus and orchestra  rings in its brilliance, in terms of imagery.
At any rate, a film produced in 1942 in England, titled  "The First of the Few," the title of which became "Spitfire" when shown in America, dealt with the story of R. J. Mitchell, the man who designed the air fighter called Spitfire, which dealt Hitler's attempt to invade England a fatal blow.
Walton was assigned the role as  composer for this film. The item to take note of in his  score is a Prelude and Fugue, which turns out to be a vivid revival of the Elgar 'Pomp and Circumstance'  era which preceded Walton. The prelude represents, in the film, the oncoming resilience of the British against the Nazi threat, and the Fugue artfully typifies the busy  coalescing period of the British industry as it put this vaunted airplane together and aided in the killing off of Hitler's plan to invade England early in the conflict.
Listen to these two powerful composers, and enjoy!


Thursday, November 9, 2017

How History Ties These Two Titans of the Piano Together...

Vladimir Horowitz and Simon Barere...
How are these two names connected? And how many are familiar with the second name?
Even though almost thirty years have elapsed  since his passing, the name Vladimir Horowitz continues to resonate with the followers of great piano music and of  the legends who perform these masterpieces. Horowitz, with that singular combination of  a kind of neurotic edge and 'pyrotechnique'  continues to accompany so many of us today by way of his magic.
On the other hand,  the name Simon Barere has emerged  into public awareness from time to time, then recedes back through the veils of  history. He is remembered, perhaps,  more by way of his
tragic death on the stage of Carnegie Hall on April 2 of 1951 than the recordings he left behind. I cannot recall such an event being replicated in the world of music - imagine, for a moment, those electric  moments of Barere playing for the first time in his career with the Philadelphia Orchestra and its legendary conductor Eugene Ormandy. The work was the Grieg Piano Concerto.  Shortly after the  opening of the work, a wrong note was heard, then another. Barere leaned forward, then collapsed, with his forehead striking the keyboard, and he then slid off his stool onto the floor . I remember seeing a photograph of his form lying in a heap next to the piano.
Barere was taken backstage, whereupon his death took place. It was a massive stroke.
This event  left the musical world  shaken for quite some time.   The sensationalism connected with this tragedy left an imprint lasting for months, especially among those  who recognized the measure of the loss of this man.
I think the central reason why Barere comes back to us from time to time is the nature of his life story, what with the problems Barere encountered in Mother Russia because of his being Jewish in a society that repressed others as well, such as Horowitz,  Godowsky and Heifetz, in early careers - and following Barere was the eternal bad luck,  such as his final move to Germany in hopes that better fortunes would follow, only to land in a place beset by the oncoming reality called Hitlerism. And playing in bistros and other places just to make a living...
And so it went for a time - but his enormous powers as a pianist would not be denied, and he eventually received the acclaim that these powers demanded.
But, at the height of his powers, he was taken from us.
Listen to a piece written by one of his teachers, the Russian pedagogue Felix Blumenfeld, who also was the teacher of  a youngster named Vladimir Horowitz .
It is an Etude for the  left hand alone, and demonstrates a remarkable knowledge of how to write for the piano. It's the only piece of many written by Blumenfeld that still shows up, from time to time.
It is viciously difficult, what with not only the hordes of notes that seem to make it impossible to believe that just one hand is on the keyboard; it is also a veritable lexicon on pedal techniques needed in order to promulgate the effects of the keyboard imagery engendered by Blumenfeld.
 Horowitz learned it, in preparation for future performances - however, according to contemporary accounts left us; when Horowitz heard a performance of the Etude by Barere, Horowitz decided never to perform this piece in public. We know that Horowitz had an open admiration  for the prowess of Simon Barere. Do look into the fabulous recordings left to us of this man.
To encapsulate, Felix Blumenfeld must have been one heck of a teacher... 


Thursday, November 2, 2017

How About Some of the Great Women Performers of the Past Century? Do Read On...

Most of you may well be aware of the following women contemporaries of  our time. More specifically , do you know of their following offerings? I suggest the following offerings  as examples of their singular levels of attainment; actually, as certification of the reality that these women are  not just wonderful performers, but 'forces'...
Martha Argerich - her performance of the Scarlatti Sonata (K.141), or
the Prokofiev Toccata -
Cleo Laine - She may be around 91 as I write, as Dame Cleo Laine;  however, do  seek her historic  duet with a flutist, in the scat-singing version of  "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing,"  or
"Turkish Delight" with her late husband, let alone some of  the other unforgettable duets this husband/wife chemistry produced -
Constance Keene - know her? She walked away from the concert stage in order to teach at the Manhattan School of Music for many years.  But listen to her 1964 recordings of the Rachmaninoff Preludes (she gives us all of them), and know that Artur Rubinstein was overwhelmed by her offering, stating that he could not imagine their being played better, even by the Composer himself. For example, listen to  the "E" flat prelude  (opus 23, no.6), or the "G" minor prelude; or, the Weber Rondo op.24.
Constance Keene was the only woman pianist Horowitz ever chose to replace him in a recital, due to illness -  the only woman pianist the legendary Russian virtuoso openly admired  -
Two examples of unfettered beauty exist in performances by a soprano  named Anna Moffo, in offerings of what the human voice can create through vowels, not words, putting this instrument into direct familial cohabitation with the mechanical instruments we are all so familiar with; specifically,
"Vocalise", by Rachmaninoff ( with Leopold Stokowski  conducting); and, "Bachiana Brasileira" No.5 by Villa-Lobos, followed by  Yuja Wang performing the "Vocalise" on the piano, with the  resultant 'bel canto' reality on a percussion instrument.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

On the Process of Interpretation in Music - Two Words with the same meaning?

For me, the word 'opinion' is simply another word for 'interpretation,' when the issue of the ways of dealing with the core meaning of a composition is addressed. To enter into an attempt to explain:
It seems, in general conversation, that more times than once I encounter the impression on the part of some that continues to persist when the name Toscanini is raised.
There continues to exist a premise that the universally known tyranny of the legendary conductor was the result of his insistence that the interpretation of a composer must come to rest in totality upon the composer's  own view of  that piece. And, on the surface it seemingly makes sense as to the magnificent intransigence of Arturo Toscanini, in what is known about the countless examples of  those fearful fits of temper he flung out to the unfortunates who dared to veer off the road during rehearsals.
But, in listening to recordings of the same composition by Toscanini (which are available), one will note a difference of opinion by Toscanini himself as he travels from one period in his lengthy career to another.
First of all, how many of us  were THERE at the creation of a Beethoven symphony or a Mozart concerto? How is it possible to know what were precisely the whims of the composer in his view of that masterpiece, and at that time? And; secondly,  the composer himself may well  alter his views about a given creation as a normal  part of that process we call 'growth.'
I recall that telegram sent by the composer Prokofiev to the pianist Horowitz during the Second World War after hearing the great Russian virtuoso's performance of  one of the so-called "war" sonatas that Prokofiev had written: "my congratulations to the great pianist who found more in my music than I  did(had)."
Great art, in no matter what form, has no bottom, no top. One can only speculate as to the whim of the composer. The performances that to me are 'great' are those I recognize as those given us by the performer who has an  impressive level of   contact with the historical context, the genius of the writer, and the ability to project at a high level.
What comes to mind is what the Spanish violinist Ricardo Odriozola projects in his liner notes in a Bach album he released not too long ago - without a trace of ego, Odriozola  discusses his contact with the composer as being of relevance and import, in describing his contribution to the recorded works of the Baroque legend. Do listen, and see  if you agree with my opinion that there is much said.
What, in your opinion, does the word 'great' mean to you, as you listen to the music of your choice?


Friday, October 20, 2017

The Idefinable Ubiquity of Music...

As I may have mentioned before;  for me, the two most ubiquitous bedfellows in Human History are War  and Music. The dominating question I sometimes ask myself;  which came first?  Do read on:
That unique moment in World War I, when a number of opposing troops stopped killing one another in order to sing Christmas carols together, essentially stopping Time - followed by the resumption of the killing.
Or, the German pop tune, Lili Marlene - there were times when that tune was sung by both sides during that war, in German and English. There were moments when the opposing troops could hear the song in both languages simultaneously during quieter times - how about THAT as an example of the station of popularity?
Between the two great wars, in the early thirties, two nations were involved at the same time in massive re-development; one, led by a new president named Roosevelt in a program designed to  bring a culture back from the shattering calamity called the Depression; the other, led by a man named Hitler, in order to prepare for ultimate world domination(proven in Hitler's Second Book). A pop tune, written in, I believe, 1929, titled "Happy Days Are Here Again" was sung in both countries during this period, again in English and German.
During the Battle for Britain in World War II, when English airmen began bombing cities in Germany, that 18th century Scottish tune, "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" appeared with new lyrics sung by the British pilots - instead of "bring back, bring back, bring back my Bonnie to me" the words were "bring back, bring back, bring back my bomber AND me."
Music - always there; just  waiting...


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Stamp of Genius In the World of Music, As Given Us In The Product...

Traditionally, when we ruminate on  the impact of genius as it appears in the arts, the core of thought  quite  often centers around the impact of the attainment levels of the artist being discussed; for example, it has been said that Mozart began writing music before he could write his name;  or,
Liszt began the development of his pyro-technique at the piano by the age of eleven or twelve;  or,
Gershwin alters the direction of history with his Rhapsody in Blue; and, so on...
I thought that it might be fun to mull over specific products  left by the genius being discussed, if for no reason other than to, perhaps, grasp a more lucid example of the significance of that attainment:
How about a chap named Pergolesi? This 18th century composer established, once and for all, comic opera, and became firmly established as a force in lyric opera, having created a language of his own, and,sadly, for such a tiny particle of Time. He passed away at age 26 - how many know of him today?
Let's consider the Brontes - we, of course,  know much about this family. "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights" come to mind, among other great novels written by members of the Bronte family.
Anne Bronte dies at age 29; Emily, at age 30. Such a tiny particle of Time...
What about John Keats, one of the great lyricists of his time? His poetry remains, for us, some of the most beautiful coming out of English Romanticism. He is taken from us at age 25...
Arguably the most powerful conductor of the twentieth century, with an orchestra; namely,  the fabled NBC Symphony Orchestra, created just for him. The level of his demands remains the source of conversation to this day. Arturo Toscanini remained tight-lipped about talents of his contemporaries; however, when Guido Cantelli entered his life, Toscanini spoke more highly about the brilliant promise of this young conductor, and took him under his wing. It is generally thought that only Cantelli could become the official Toscanini Successor.
But Cantelli died in a plane crash near Paris  at age  36 - Toscanini was never told about the tragedy...
Vincent Van Gogh - the world knows his name, of course.
But, to further gain an understanding of the level of genius given to a human, why not take a look at the juvenilia by this artist, at, from ages 10 through 17?   As  a lost young soul, beset by his desire to become an active force in religion and/or human welfare, he  was always painting. Do search for and look at what this kid could do before age twenty...
Jascha Heifetz is also well-known for his days as a child prodigy. For me, perhaps the most significant product he left  was   his performing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto at what  was, I think, his debut performance - at age  9...
Alexander Scriabin left his stamp when he moved from late Romanticism to Mysticism, all within forty-odd years. And his son, Julian, left four little preludes. For those of you who can detect stylistic differentiation in  music writing, but are not familiar with these pieces, take a look at them; then ask, how can a child of eleven  write music like this? It's almost as if Julian took up where his father left off- nothing like this is replicated in the history of the art.
And Julian died that year, at age 11, in a drowning accident...


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

My Favorite Quotes of a Pianist Named Oscar..,.

I have written, at times, about the pianist Oscar Levant; however, his derisive style of humor should be remembered along with his recordings of Gershwin's piano music.
Not only was Levant a gifted performer but he also was noted for his literary abilities - two of his books, "A Smattering of Ignorance" and "Memoirs of an Amnesiac" can still be gotten.
I did a  program on Tufts University radio recently on the life of Levant, which included some of his quotes - thought that I might share some of my favorite little gems with you, in the event that you may not be familiar with his brand of humor:
"What this world needs is more geniuses with humility - there are so few of us left."
"I knew the singer Doris Day before she became a virgin." (Levant first said "I knew the singer Doris Day when she was still a virgin" but decided to 'enhance' his view of the singer).
"Schizophrenia has its merits - you never dine alone."
"I think a lot of Lennie Bernstein, but not as much as he does."
(In conversation with Gershwin) "George, if you had to do this all  over again, would you still fall in love with yourself?"
Gershwin once asked Levant "Do you think that my music will still be heard a hundred years from now?" - Levant's answer was "Yeah, if you're still around."
"A politician is one who will double-cross that bridge when he comes to it."
Just a few examples of Levant's view of his world through humor...