Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Peter and the Wolf and Nat (King) Cole?? Yes, Indeed!

For many years, my two brothers and I would get together yearly in the Berkshires for a few days, and catch up with one another.
One fine summer day, the three of us were walking down the main street of Great Barrington, and we went into a restaurant (French food, as I recall), which was not open at the time (it was morning).
My youngest brother had known that I was working on the daunting piano reduction of Peter and the Wolf, written by the composer himself, and knew that he would be the narrator when it finally was to be performed. He had arranged with the owner of this restaurant for me to rehearse with my brother, as we had not had the opportunity to do so as yet. The piano was, of course, available, as the restaurant was still closed, and the owner graciously threw the piano room open to us.
It was a small grand, not in very good tune, even though it was in use every evening during dinner hours.
As I sat down at the piano, I noticed a small plaque on the wall to my left, and was captivated (let alone surprised) by the words inscribed - this had been the piano of the legendary popular singer and pianist, Nat Cole (remember Nat "King" Cole and his trio, at the beginning of his career?) , who had a summer home in the Berkshires, and who gave this piano to the restaurant (Cole must have LOVED the food there!)
The rehearsal went well, in spite of the possibility that this particular piano had never been attacked by classical music, only by the legendary Nat Cole, and whoever now played pop music at this restaurant each evening.


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Lois Marshall - Greatness Obscured

In my younger years, I found myself attached to a group of sophisticates and patrons of the arts, which included some activists, such as the man who hired me to teach various subjects in music at college level.
One of these interesting and arresting people was a gentle, quiet man, who did not participate very much in the invigorating and lively conversations ( a sort of "Algonquin Table") , which took place regularly. He preferred to listen much of the time.
The man was Fred Marshall, from Toronto, who befriended me and who most generously lent me his old Steinway while I looked for a piano of my own.
It turned out that his sister was Lois Marshall, one of the great recitalists of the time, blessed with a magnificent voice, and who had sung with the likes of Toscanini and other legendary musicians.
Her role in opera was limited, as she was struck, as a child, with polio, and left with a limp, which of course hampered and limited her place as an opera singer, though she did appear in opera from time to time.
Her primary role was to sing in recital, and the resplendent nature of her presence as a great artist was recognized throughout the world of music. Many of the leading singers of that period considered her as one to look up to.
I remember meeting her just once at one of our meetings, while she appeared in the Boston area under the aegis of the renown Sarah Caldwell.
Sadly, her name is not heard of these days. Her recordings are available, and I would suggest to those of you who have not heard her or know of her, to listen to a truly great musician who is pretty well forgotten in our time.


Monday, December 22, 2008

Arcadi Volodos - Another Horowitz Among Us?

Like Horowitz, Arcadi Volodos was not a piano prodigy. He did not turn assiduously to the piano until the age of about sixteen, similar to Horowitz. It is most unusual for a musician with world status not to have overwhelmed audiences at age eight or nine, such as an Artur Rubinstein or a Michael Rabin.
At any rate, the teen-ager Volodos turned his entire attention to the piano, and is now considered by many to be the world's most exciting pianist (he was born in 1972).
I recently heard his recording of the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3, and was overwhelmed with the attention he pays to the elements within the melodic and transitional phases of this monumental work. It's as if Volodos has found ways to probe inside the very melody he is dealing with, and creates an additional layer of indefinable meaning and power to the outer structure we, as knowing listeners normally pay attention to and recognize.
What is astonishing to me is that with all of the intellectual and musical prowess Volodos possesses, he is as well the owner of the most prodigious physical technique extant today.
His transcription of the Mozart "Rondo Alla Turca" is every bit the equal, in terms of difficulty and diabolical cleverness in building simultaneity in sound as any of the legendary Horowitz transcriptions. I had never contemplated the possibility of any pianist equal to or exceeding Horowitz in the fashioning and playing of virtuoso - transcriptions; however, Volodos must be recognized for this possibility. Listen to his playing of the "Flight of the Bumble-bee" transcription; or, better yet, sit back for about 8 or 9 minutes and become enveloped by a staggering performance of Feinberg's immense transcription of the third movement of Tchaikowsky's 6th Symphony - it is truly Olympian.
To encapsulate - spend some time with Arcadi Volodos, and listen to History formed as you listen. He is still a young man; and above all else, he is a poet, not simply a pianist.


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Larry Adler - A True Visionary

As a child, I remember going to a Larry Adler recital, and will not forget my experience:
Larry Adler, like George Gershwin, grew up in the streets of a large city (Baltimore, in this case), the son of immigrants, and with a vision.
He was extremely musical, with an overriding curiosity, of all instruments, of the lowly harmonica.
He began experimenting with this tiny instrument, spending years discovering the possibilities, then refining those possibilities, mostly through his transferring of many of the great classics to the harmonica, and ultimately became the reigning performer.
Adler gave recitals all over the world of both his transcriptions of the classics as well as music written by several distinguished composers who wrote exclusively for Adler.
During the McCarthy investigations, Adler was accused by the McCarthy entourage of being a communist, and was eventually forced to leave America for Great Britain. It was never proven that he was a communist; however, he chose England as his home, and lived there for the remainder of his life, continuing to perform throughout the world.
I will never forget that first recital. Adler came out onto the stage, with some sort of device that he wore around his neck, which held the harmonica in place before him. He seated himself in front of a concert grand (I discovered there and then that he was a superb pianist), and gave a recital for the harmonica and piano. The sounds he brought out of this tiny instrument, coupled with a wonderfully sympathetic piano performance , was a recital like no other I have ever witnessed, save for future recitals I saw this genius give.
Adler was one of the first of the geniuses that enhanced and widened the scope of my childhood.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Another Irony Concerning the Versaille Treaty?

It is, of course, general knowledge that a tyrant is formed, often, by national vacuum, such as the results of the Draconian actions taken by the victors over the Kaiser's Germany.
The absolute chaos caused by those measures, plus the Depression, created Hitler - we all know that; however, a thought crossed my mind the other day concerning, perhaps, an additional event which could very well have solidified the possibility of the rise of Hitler and the ensuing world conflict and tragedies of unprecedented magnitude that followed.
One of the conditions of the Versailles Treaty was that Germany be limited to a standing army of 100, 000. That meant that many thousands of young soldiers were released from the armed forces, and the young Hitler was one of them.
It is known that Hitler, as an aimless and deeply depressed drifter in Vienna, was elated upon hearing of Germany's waging of war and becoming a soldier in the Kaiser's army. It seems that Hitler had at last found a meaning, a role to play. We know that his contribution to the cause was one of the happiest periods in his life, as it ended the seemingly boundless drifting about. He truly felt that this was a home at last; a haven of sorts. His actions of courage under fire earned him more than one medal, and he extolled in this phase of his life.
What if he had been one of the soldiers who were among those 100,000 who remained in the German army? Would this have become his permanent mission; that is, a career soldier of relatively low rank, perhaps never an officer, who therefore would not have been given the opportunity to discover the genius to speak with the power and force of presentation that ultimately seduced a nation of some 60,000,000, resulting in his acquisition of world power, let alone the coming unspeakable tragedy we know as World War II?
Do be reminded that a lowly soldier would not ever be given the opportunity to make speeches, as Hitler ultimately did; therefore, would the voice of Adolf Hitler have been quelled before it was born?
If so, then our world would certainly not be the same today.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Benjamin Franklin and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?? Why Not??

Since the Renaissance, the production of musical sounds by spinning a goblet moistened around its rim and having a finger produce the sound by touch has been in existence. Even Galileo experimented with this device.
When Mozart was five years old, Ben Franklin, that indefatigable Renaissance Man, developed an instrument he called the ' armonica' ( from the Italian for 'harmony'), by having a rod go through about 37 or so goblets, spun around by a foot-operated mechanism not unlike that of a spinning wheel, and there you have the Glass Armonica. Franklin was also a musician, playing three or four instruments. There are some drawings extant of the old man himself sitting at his invention.
So all one had to do was to keep one's finger constantly moist in order to perform this instrument, while the goblets spun around gleefully.
Mozart wrote music for this unique music-maker, which is listed as, I believe, K. 617, or thereabout. Beethoven wrote for the armonica as well, as did many other lesser composers.
You MUST hear the sounds emanating from the armonica - like no other in music!


Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Color Organ?? - Read On!

Alexander Scriabin (1872 - 1915), was, in my view, a composer who underwent a metamorphosis like no other major composer; that is, he went from Romantic to Mystic, with compositions dealing with such illuminations as the Mysterium, with "bells hanging from clouds."
One of his works, called "Promethius", called for a keyboard Scriabin called the colour-organ, which projected a color onto a screen upon playing the keyboard, each note of which was assigned a particular color. A performance was done, or at least contemplated, in New York, as I recall, in 1915.
It is thought that perhaps Scriabin had a genetic disorder which forced one sense to be influenced by another, such as sound (music, for instance) and sight (color, for instance). Personally, I think that he did not have this disorder. It was, in my opinion, simply one aspect of his order of thought about such elements as sight, sound, scent, etc., which he talked about incessantly during the latter part of his life.
A truly fascinating life; for instance, in Switzerland, he met a gentleman gazing into the same lake Scriabin was admiring, and they became fast friends. This gentleman was no other than Georgi Plekhanov, who changed the course of modern European history by translating "Das Kapital" of Marx into Russian.
Another aspect of great interest, however tragic, was the drowning of his son Julian in a boating accident at age eleven.
I have some copies of Julian's unpublished works for piano, and they are amazing examples of a kind of genius that might well have come close to the child-genius level of Mozart.
A final reality - one day, a boil appeared on Alexander Scriabin's lip, perhaps an infection from shaving. In days he was dead. If penicillin were extant at that time, his life would have been saved, and one can only ruminate about the possibilities that would have emanated from this strange genius, had he lived on.


Sunday, December 7, 2008

67 Years Ago On This Day - Some Thoughts

"What goes around comes around" - this aphorism is in play today, as it was on a Sunday, on this date, in 1941 that the empire of Japan attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.
Some history-altering ramifications came out of that 'Day of Infamy,' as President Roosevelt called it:
One; the attack on America assured both the coming destruction of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.
It should be remembered that Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander of the Japanese Combined fleet, who was complicit in the plan to attack Pearl Harbor, had been a student at Harvard, admired the Americans, visited Detroit and the Texas oil fields, and upon returning to Japan warned all in power never to go to war with America (see my description of Yamamoto in the December, 2007 blog).
Two; almost four days after Pearl Harbor, Hitler, who was dumbfounded at Japan's action, declared war on America as part of Germany's commitment in the Tripartite Pact (Germany, Italy, Japan).
That, plus his invasion of Mother Russia, assured the world of Nazi Germany's ultimate destruction.
Incidentally, in connection with Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union, there are two dates which swim in my mind that rather eloquently represent the supreme irony that comes out of War; and that is:
June 22, 1940 - the apex of Hitler's power takes place in a railroad car, where the surrender of France to Hitlerism takes place. Hitler now is master of Western Europe.
June 22, 1941 - Hitler invades Russia in history's largest land war, not having taken a lesson from Napoleon's adventure in Russia.
Let us be thankful that there are some in power who do not learn from history, as their hubris overcomes the intelligence they were given.


Friday, December 5, 2008

Prescience in Their Language - Two Composers

It's one issue that we all recognize; that is, the overwhelming power of genius represented by the likes of a few children, such as a Mozart, or a Mendelssohn. The supreme glibness of their production defies description.
It's another issue, perhaps, to consider examples of personal language that are immediately identifiable or recognized in the Romantic aspect, and which are brought to us by teen-agers whose thematic utterances are so unique as to remain, in essence, theirs and only theirs throughout their lives from their very beginnings.
I think often of Chopin and Rachmaninoff in this particular arena of thought.
We are told that Chopin wrote his first piano concerto in 1830; actually, some of the thematic material and workings of this composition were created at age 17. That first wonderful theme was given us during that tender age, and it is redolent with an eclecticism that belies such a tender age.
The same applies to the first concerto by Rachmaninoff, who began conception of that work at age 17 as well, even though we know that he altered the work later in his career. The first theme in his concerto, as in the Chopin, remains as it has always been, and it is very clear to the listener who these composers are, in terms of the uniqueness of their thematic projections. They, from the very beginning are , and remain, Chopin and Rachmaninoff.