Wednesday, April 26, 2017

One of Music's Most Powerful Families...

I don't think that the name Casadesus is as familiar today as it really should be.
The three members of this family I have in mind are Robert, Gaby, and Jean.
The center of this family circle was Robert. When I was a youngster, he was one of my favorites among the great pianists of the day. His Mozart was so wonderfully controlled , and I loved his readings of St. Saens, especially the Concertos. Later on, I found that he was one of very few to have recorded all of the piano music of Ravel. He was one of the leading pianists  of the 20th century.
His wife, Gaby, was recognized as one of the  more renowned  women pianists of the same period, and both she and Robert performed much together during the mid-century. Her playing of Chabrier and other French composers  placed her along with her husband among the eminent musicians during this period.
Their son Jean was becoming increasingly familiar to audiences around the world by way of his prowess as a pianist. I remember a memorable concert of the father, mother and son performing the Bach "D" minor Concerto for Three Pianos and Orchestra on T. V. in the early sixties.
Tragically, Jean's life ended in his 44th year in an auto accident.
For those of you who are not familiar with the Casadesus family, why not do a little searching? You will be more than impressed with their gifts and accomplishments. Robert, especially - he was one of the leading French musicians of the twentieth century.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

An American Impressionist? One of the Most Underrated Composers I Ever Encountered...

About ten years ago I mentioned the name of Charles Tomlinson Griffes in an early blog.  It recently occurred to me, upon thinking of this man, that  a portion  of his music emerged as some of the most singular and startlingly original musical thinking that I can recall, especially during the latter phase of my years as both a student/performer and young teacher.
His answer to French Impression should be re- investigated more palpably  than it seemingly is at this point in time. His attachment to and remarkable  promulgation of the sense of atmosphere one automatically attaches to the likes of Debussy is immediately recognizable; however, the harmonic language is amazingly original. It is true Impressionism; of interest to me is that Griffes  was born in Elmira, New York and passed away only some  36 years later in New York City.
His  early  language was nurtured  and given to manuscript during his period of study at Stern Conservatory in Berlin, at that time a private music school, with luminaries  such  as Von Bulow  and Humperdinck on the faculty.
A composition titled "Roman Sketches" houses a piece called "Fountain of  Acqua Paoela" -  a famous fountain in Rome. A brilliant description of differently sized volumes and shapes  of water flowing out of this fountain in simultaneity is represented by Griffes with the following rhythmic arrangement:
In the right hand are two lines (we are in 4/4 time) - the upper line is in quarter note triplets. The lower line is in 8th note triplets. The left hand is in 16th notes. For those of you who can grasp the ingenuity of usage  created by Griffes in his portrayal of the properties of water in this particular section of the piece - well, I would recommend your examining the results.
One, among a number of reasons why this composer has remained in my memory bank...

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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

On This Day - My Annual Reminder...

On April 12 of 1945,  one of the 20th century's most powerful  figures passed away in his southern retreat. Franklin Delano Roosevelt  succumbed to a brain hemorrhage just three weeks before Hitler's forces began the process of unconditional surrender to the Allies.
How sad it is to contemplate his not being present, as leader of the West against Nazi tyranny - on the day of victory, Roosevelt could not be there. What a  supreme form of irony, made even more poignant by his being stricken with polio, at age 39, back in 1921.
History imparts to us the reality of a  world leader who prevailed during the Great Depression and World War II - from a wheelchair, beset by almost constant pain, wearing about eight pounds of leg braces.
When asked more than once what, if anything, was the main source of inner strength, he always referred to the poem "Invictus" by Henley.
"My head is bloody, but unbowed".
"I am the master of my fate".
"I am the captain of my soul".
These particular statements in the poem captivated and held him.
Another example of how the power of Man's  Art  can forge a portion of his history into being...

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Monday, April 10, 2017

Three Vignettes in My Musical Experience and a Statement Made in the Great Depression - and How the Two Entities Dovetail...

One day, during my years as a high- school student, in the Prep Department at the Eastman School of Music, I was approached by my beloved piano teacher, Jerome Diamond, who asked if I'd be interested in performing at a meeting of the Rochester Chamber of Commerce during a lunch break there -  to offer a brief period of keyboard entertainment to the reigning officers of this august body of movers and shakers.
It was left to me to decide upon the music to be performed.
And so I decided to assemble an assortment of the sort of music that would best befit the event; that is, relaxing little gumdrops written by the likes of Victor Herbert and beyond.
Do picture the event:
Youngish to middle-aged men, all looking pretty much the same to me, as I recall, clinking cups and speaking with mouths full  of the foods offered - there was a constant murmuring sound emanating from these gentlemen as I played.
I clearly remember my not being upset at their lack of attention to my ongoing contribution to the great arts. I as clearly remember a decision I made at that pregnant moment to try out a piece I had up to that moment never played for an audience, which  I had recently learned with Diamond.
The piece was the Military Polonaise of Chopin.
As I dove into the music, I rather gradually became aware that the clinking and the murmur had stopped. The atmosphere had been transmogrified.
When I finished (and I really thought that it went well) I was greeted by loud applause, with some of the gentlemen standing while doing so, followed by some back-slapping and declarations such as "great" or  the like.
Diamond was not at this function-probably teaching back at the Eastman a few blocks away.
As well as I seemed to have performed, I continue to feel a sense of relief that Diamond was not there.
Would he have been angry at my decision to do what I did?
I never knew whether he ever knew about what I did.
To this day I continue to feel relieved, even though he might have been happy about my Chopin that day.
Vignette No. 2:
Later on, as a young  man and student, I recall working on the great Mozart Concerto K 488. On a particular day  my teacher at that time entered my room and asked if I would like  to try the music with him doing the orchestral part on another piano - I said "yes!" and we repaired to a nearby room with two pianos.
As the first movement moved toward the cadenza, I was aware that the teacher was having more trouble playing his reduction than I was playing the solo part. Notes that Mozart had never contemplated graced our little musical soiree, and I felt gleeful in that they were not coming from my piano - how often does the student feel triumphant over the teacher??
I have absolutely no idea as to why and how this incident came to pass.
But, again, I had experienced and enjoyed another moment of triumph.
Vignette No. 3:
While teaching on a Tuesday afternoon at the Longy School , I had a break of about 40 minutes, and so  I decided to continue working on a transcription of the Russian  Sailor's Dance by Gliere.  I used all kinds of tricks that I felt would mesmerize any audience that would hear it later on. I must say it did indeed become one of my encores in future performances, as it was received really quite well.
Well, during  one of my more fire-eating variations, the door to the studio opened (no knock), which disrupted me. As I looked up to see who had raped my privacy, I was astounded to see no other than the director of the piano department, David Bacon, forming a "Wow" with his mouth, and clapping silently, followed by a broad smile. Bacon was a respected pianist of his day, about a generation
older than me.
And yet another moment of triumph.
"Never in my life have I  been so well disposed."
My words? No - they certainly fit my three vignettes.
Adolf Hitler uttered the words, upon his realization that the Great Depression was opening the curtain of opportunity for his life's work to come into being.
How utterly arcane; how strange , the power of the word can find such totally different paths to follow...

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Violinist and Bach - Where, When and How Does the Term "Great" Fit In?...

Do  pick up a copy of a double CD, produced by Amethyst Records; then, wrestle with me about one of the truly ubiquitous  terms extant in the arts; namely GREAT.
During the past century-plus of recordings of the music for solo violin, countless listeners have been exposed to a plethora of performers giving them their views of these matchless pieces by the Baroque giant.
From Heifetz, Kreisler,  Milstein,  etc., the power of communication of a language without words has enhanced the nature of human experience by way of  a little instrument suspended  by a thumb and the  four fingers which conduct the listener along that magical path.
The performer in this particular incarnation of these pieces is an associate professor  at the Grieg Academy of the University of Bergen. His name is Ricardo Odriozola. The  music: Sonatas and Partitas by Bach.
Before listening to his performances, do read the little booklet, written by Odriozola, that is included.  For me, his main tactic in writing about the playing of this music, both in the view of the ultra-known aspects of these pieces and his intellectual and spiritual view  of same may well aid you in  particularizing the core meaning  of his recording you are about to hear.
What struck me was his statement on page two:
"Also, may I cast aside all modesty and say that I believe that my views on this music are as valid as anyone elses."
Which, for me, brought into lurid focus the word 'great.'
How many times, in my experience, have I heard a performance that made the atmosphere eddy and writhe in a manner that tells me "this is a great performance" - by an individual either not known, or, perhaps, lesser known?
Does 'great'  apply only to those artists we customarily refer to as great?
In a conversation I once had with the distinguished pianist Ansdnes (be assured that the following observation was made by me only after we had gotten to know one another!), I, with a smile, offered
"the only difference between you and me is that you can 'be up there' all of the time, and I can  'be up there' only occasionally " . Andsnes laughed, as I recall. I immediately pointed out that 'genius' helps.
But  as I listened to this recording by Odriozola, the statement I projected to Andsnes came roaring back to me.
I can distinctly  recall that countless times, during my performing years, there were seconds, or perhaps minutes during which I intrinsically felt that I was eliciting as much meaning to the notes I had just played as any one I have ever heard play those same notes.
The  greater number of the statements of Odriozola in this particular view of these works by Bach are etched by and infused with every bit of the power and thrust of linguistic  meaning by the composer as any I have ever heard - the name Odriozola disappears and the  music, nothing else, hangs in front of me in the same manner of  empirical reality attached to my lifelong connection with this music.
The very same reaction I have when these same pieces are played by Heifetz, Kreisler, Milstein and the rest.
From my perch, Odriozola needs to be heard. He belongs to the coterie established by the history of the recorded performances of these transcendent jewels.

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Monday, March 20, 2017

The Most "Seasoned" Disc Jockey? Read On...

Some months back, I was invited to do a series of radio programs out of Tufts University; and, unexpectedly, it seems that the reactions to my approach have  been positive.
And so; even though I thought I would do it for a few times and then disappear into the mist, I am continuing with this  little diversion at the rate of approximately one  every four or five weeks.
My approach is simple - it deals with either musicians who may not be quite as familiar to the radio audience; or, events or performances which should be better known about.
Some examples:
Diane Schuur, a superb pop vocalist, in a couple of wonderful duets with trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, during which  she becomes the trumpet and he becomes the voice.
The vocal "force" from England, Lady Cleo Laine, doing incredible 'scat' singing with her musician husband, in their incarnation of the Turkish Rondo of Mozart, which they titled "Turkish Delight."
The legendary pop violinist, Stephane Grappelli, paired with one of the world's great classical violinists, Yehudi Menuhin, in their flowing version of Richard Rogers' "My Funny Valentine."
A 1906 recording of one of the great pianists of that period, Josef Lhevinne, totally overwhelming the Octave Study of Carl Czerny.
George Shearing and his vision of Fusion, in a  1980's  delight of the same "My Funny Valentine" in the styles of  composers ranging from Bach through Rachmaninoff and Delius.
Art Tatum doing the version of "Tea for Two" which positively ensnared no less than Vladimir Horowitz, who insisted upon  meeting with and establishing a friendship with the blind titan of pop piano. Horowitz actually attempted to create a transcription, believe it or not, of "Tea for Two," but did not get very far. A few seconds of his attempt can be found on video. Honestly!
Bernie Krause, one of the founding members of the Weavers over a generation ago, earned a PHD in bioacoustics, and has a recording of an orchestra, with no humans in the group - talk about a unique example of music-making...
And so on.
It's been fun, and I plan on going on with this particular pursuit.

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Friday, March 10, 2017

The Return of a Stradivarius - Now, Finally... a Performance On That Instrument -

In a blog some years ago, I recounted the experience of the theft of  a rare Stradivarius  violin in the school I taught in for twenty seven years.
To reminisce:
The place - the Longy School of  Music, Cambridge, Ma.
The year  - 1980.  If I recall correctly, it was a Thursday in late spring or early summer.
I was teaching there on this day, and suddenly catapulted into a time of chaos and confusion, when it quickly became known that the rare Ames Stradivarius violin, owned by the director of the school, Roman Totenberg, had disappeared from his office.
Sadly,  Totenberg passed away  just a few years before this wonderful instrument was recovered and returned to the Totenberg family.
And; finally - on March 13, a private concert will be held somewhere in New York, I believe. The Totenberg Stradivarius will, at long last,  be  the instrument of performance, by a former student of  Totenberg, who had come from China to study with him many years ago.
I am full of happiness about this coming event. I found Roman Totenberg to be not only that wonderful violinist the world had known of for many years, but also the warmest and most  quietly  gracious  man I have ever worked with and for. The youngest little performer in his own private orchestra at the school was precisely as important to him as any professional he ever worked with during his illustrious career.
I can only wish that, somehow, Roman Totenberg knows that his beloved Strad is back...

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