Thursday, July 30, 2009

Homage to a Great Musician and Equally Great Man - Roman Totenberg

He was my boss for some years at a prestigious music school in one of the great cities I reside just outside of.
He was one of the eminent violinists of our time, having played with many of the leading orchestras, let alone having given countless recitals throughout the world.
He was one of the most gifted natural teachers I have ever known.
He was a listener of the greatest empathy during conversations. The many times I spent with him in his office are loving memories I shall always hold within me.
His quiet dignity and massive adherence to whatever he became attached to in his art were a combine rarely seen among those of us in this pursuit.
He is still with us, thankfully, having been born in 1911 in Poland.
I would receive postcards from him each summer from the retreat he went to for countless summers, with the "wish you were here" kind of message always scribbled out in his evocative handwriting style.
I recall his taking on a young violinist for free for a year, without hesitation, upon hearing this teenager for just a few minutes.
I recall the love and awe young girls and boys in the prep department orchestra held for him. They would have squeezed through the hole in a doughnut for this man. And the results were truly memorable.
I recall a day in the auditorium playing a Sonatine for violin and piano I had written for a brilliant young violinist. We were in rehearsal in preparation for its premiere. Totenberg had eased into the auditorium to listen, then emerged from the shadows after the performance, approached me and gave me a resounding slap on the back, exclaiming "bravo!"
One of my defining moments, as this man had performed with Artur Rubinstein and other luminaries of the top echelon.
As Schumann once wrote in his journal about a contemporary we call Chopin - "hats off, gentlemen - a genius!"
And may I add - "hats off - a truly great human being."


Monday, July 27, 2009

Two French Giants in Music Not to be Forgotten

May I respectfully nudge History's recent artistic past into activity by reminding the reader of two great musicians from France?
Robert Casadesus came from a brilliant musical family and became one of the 20th century's most highly regarded pianists, primarily due to his elegance and sophistication, especially in the music of Mozart. He was also recognized as a composer and dedicated teacher, a combination not seen very often in a world-renown performer.
He and his wife Gaby performed often in the halls of Europe and America, along with Robert's son Jean, primarily in the works by Mozart for more than one piano.
A contemporary genius from France was the brilliant violinist Zino Francescatti, who actually collaborated with Casadesus in recording the sonatas for violin and piano by Beethoven, which I believe one can still purchase. In actuality, Francescatti was Columbia Record's most successful violinist in the mid - century, and was known for his fluidic, yet brilliant sound and evocative stylism. There were those who felt that Francescatti was as great a violinist as any during his reign of performance.
For those of you who may not have heard these two wonderful musicians, may I unconditionally support your doing so?


Friday, July 24, 2009

A Letter to a Great Pianist; the Subject, Rachmaninoff

Not terribly long ago, my wife informed me about an experience she had while driving.
She ended up pulling the car over to the side of the road while listening to a performance of the third piano concerto of Rachmaninoff. For her, it was such a compelling performance that she decided that it was safer to stop driving and simply listen to this recording.
When she arrived home, she related this experience, and asked if I had ever heard of this pianist.
I had not, but was so intrigued I investigated my favorite record store, and procured the disc for myself.
In the history of the existing recordings of the third concerto, it occurred to me that the only recording by a pianist under thirty years of age that was the most defining was that of Vladimir Horowitz, not yet thirty, recorded in London with the London Philharmonic.
Since I was a student, that particular recording had always been the paradigm of the unapproachable, when it referred, in my view, to any recording of this mammoth concert by anyone under thirty. To be sure, there were, and are wonderful recordings by many great older pianists, and during all those years I felt that no one would ever threaten the young Horowitz - until I heard this new recording, done by a pianist in his approximate mid-twenties.
The intrinsic connection with the multifaceted complexities embedded in this concerto enacted by one so young absolutely stunned me, and continues to wash over me whenever I hear this recording.
The young man (and he is still young, being in his late thirties) is Leif Ove Andsnes, the Norwegian pianist.
What remains uncanny to me is that veritably every recording I have of Andsnes bears the same power that convinces me that I am hearing the music for the first time, no matter how familiar.
He is the only pianist I know, for example, that thrusts the pyrotechnical difficulties of Liszt so deeply into the rear of the total incarnation that for the first time in music I have heard virtually all of my life, there is a new cosmos which has formed in the resulting message, especially in the better piano music of the composer.
And listening to his Mozart, especially the concerti - he has found a way to 'wrap' the orchestral sound around the piano (or, the other way around) like a cloth, making for a sound like a giant instrument of one.
I know of no other musician who is capable of transmogrifying my reactions to music in such a manner.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Part Nine - Conversations With Whom??

As I continue this 'game' regarding whom I would have a solid interest in conversing with, I now veer back to my primary pursuit; namely, music:
It took almost no time at this point in time to choose two musicians I would have delighted in conversing with; the two, Serge Prokofiev and John Hasson.
One; the composer , Prokofiev, is renown throughout the world, of course.
The other, Hasson, is not so well known, but constitutes a vital portion of my consciousness as it pertains to my world of music.
I have several reasons for wanting to listen to Prokofiev, and asking questions of him.
Quite simplistically, his mind is one of fascination for me:
As a student, his personal approach to the piano drove some of his teachers veritably wild - his physical picture of the instrument and such resulting issues as his fingering and postural attitudes in piano performance made him a threat, in some of his teachers' views, to "traditionalism". As an example, his Toccata, which was written during his student days, remains as one of the most powerful examples of singularity and uniqueness coming out of the last century. Just listen to it (or try to play it, if you dare!), and you will know what I mean. He was indeed a great pianist, but from a really quite unique position, as it were.
Also; to consider the same composer writing such a wonderfully delightful and beguiling work as "Peter and the Wolf", which has delighted thousands of children (and adults) for so many years, and on the other hand, to stun and overwhelm countless listeners to the three so - called "War" sonatas, written during the Second World War, with the grinding, especially the relentless, grinding third movement of the 7th sonata - there is nothing more powerful in statement, in my view, coming out of that period.
And so, this particular mind held, and continues to hold many aspects of interest for me.
Regarding John Hasson:
Hasson remains one of the most important musicians in my experience.
I was around nineteen or twenty when this man came into my life.
His mind was bottomless. He was one of the most brilliant musicians I have ever known. He was just completing his doctorate when he became a teacher of mine.
What is, perhaps, the most curious aspect of his relationship with me, was even though he was one of my piano teachers, he was primarily a trumpet player (!).
To explain: even though his primary instrument was trumpet, he never taught trumpet. He was an accomplished pianist and a musicologist and historian.
The primary reason I chose him at that particular time was that I had discovered that he knew more about the piano repertoire than any piano teacher I had ever had, and I needed to establish my knowledge base quickly in that aspect.
Hasson, in about two years, opened the world of knowledge to me in a manner I could not have conceived of. He appeared at the right time.
We spent countless hours together; for some reason, he perceived my hunger for learning and gave me much of himself in a wonderfully selfless way.
From the philosophical universe of the Strauss Tone Poems to the seldom-played Serious Variations of Mendelssohn; from the American Impressionism of Charles Griffes to a never-played Sonata by Paul Dukas; well, John Hasson opened many doors for my consciousness to walk through, and I will forever be grateful to him.
Funny; how in my particular case, I was a better pianist by far than my teacher. But that was not the issue - knowledge, in whatever incarnation it may have appeared, was at the top of my personal priority list, and John Hasson was the man who fulfilled his mission in a superb manner.
And so, I would love to have had him return just for a short period to engage in conversation with this man; to better understand what made him click.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Serendipity on a Bookshelf! Read On...

Though one trained in musicology may get to know what's out there, it's another thing to discover that which is out there, and knowledge may have nothing to do with a discovery; only pure chance.
And that is what happened to me some years ago.
On a clear, warm day during a vacation trip, I happened to come across a little building with a sign welcoming lovers of old books. And so I decided to visit, as I used to frequent many old book stores when active as a teacher and performer.
What surprised me was that there was veritably nothing on the shelves, except for a rather large collection of old railroad schedules in different states of wear - also the smell of fresh paint.
I saw a small office across from the shelves, with a youngish man sitting at a desk. I entered, whereupon the man welcomed me to look around at my leisure. He was friendly from the outset, and informed me that he had just opened up about a week prior, having decided to give up his profession as an engineer and escape into a world of lesser pressures.
He explained that there was very little he had collected, having just gotten in some books from an estate auction not far from his little establishment. Those railroad schedules were his own collection, which he decided to put on his shelves. He then invited me to browse, as he had some painting to do.
And so I commenced to look around, which I did for about a minute or so.
I then noticed the corner of what was obviously an old book, staring down at me from the top of one of the shelves. It was a large book, both in thickness and in outer dimension, and in good condition. I brought it down, and placed it on a small table nearby, opened it and was astonished to note that it was a book published in 1776, and written by a person of note who I believe knew Haydn and Mozart, and perhaps Beethoven as well. It was the first of four volumes, with a list of sponsors which included such luminaries as Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach, one of the great composers preceding the Classical era in music.
After a moment or so in order to catch my breath, I took the book into the office, and asked what this book cost. The gentleman said that he needed to have it appraised first, and then he could offer it to me.
He asked if I could could return in a week, and I said that it would be rather inconvenient, as I would be returning home in a day (I must say that I was playing a kind of game with him, to see if he might release the book without appraisal, as it was apparent to me that he did not know what a little treasure he had in his little establishment).
He destroyed what little hope I had by stating that he intended to have it appraised within a few days, and would give me priority on the book.
And so I left, rather crestfallen, knowing that the appraisal would make this book much too expensive for me to even dream of purchasing.
To make a long story shorter, I did return a week later to witness the official demise of any hope that I still entertained, whereupon he astonished me by stating that because he had been so busy painting and attending to the other needs of preparing his book - store for a successful first summer, that he did not have a chance to have it appraised. He saw my disappointment, evidently, by asking me to consider a particular price; after all, he felt rather badly about my returning for seemingly nothing, and stated a price that absolutely floored me.
I made out a check with what must have been a trembling hand (I do not remember - it seemed like a dream to me), handed it to him, and left with this book under my arm. I DO remember that the walk from his little building to my car was the longest walk of my life.
I have often wondered if this gentleman became successful in his new venture? He most assuredly was less than successful in his encounter with me.
I have often gone by his place, which still has that original sign, but never did venture in, probably out of fear.
I wonder if he still is owner??


Friday, July 10, 2009

Marian Anderson and Franz Rupp - The Tall and the Short of It

Just once; as a child, I was taken to a recital given by the legendary contralto Marian Anderson, who was at that time in the twilight of an unparalleled career.
I remember stifling a giggle when she appeared on the stage with her accompanist, Franz Rupp - Miss Anderson was very tall, and Rupp was quite short, attaining a height ending just above her shoulder, as they both bowed their 'hello' to the audience.
However, the comedy ended as soon as the first sounds of their collaboration reached out to me.
I learned afterward about the parallels in their experiences; that is, Rupp's leaving Germany before Hitler's persecution of the Jews got underway with a vengeance. And Marian Anderson's early encounters with racism until she became an undeniable star of the first magnitude.
I think of those two side by side at that recital, each a victim of baseless hatred; both sharing their experiences with one another through their immortal collaboration, which lasted about twenty five years - each gaining their ultimate victories through their genius.
I should add that before Rupp and Anderson came together, Rupp and the fabled violinist Fritz Kreisler became world - renown, especially for the Beethoven Cycle for violin and piano, which I believe is available now on CD, especially for those of you who may have known about Rupp and Anderson, but not about Rupp and Kreisler.
Franz Rupp was quite a guy.


Thursday, July 9, 2009

Carl Davis - A Composer Who Should Be Better Known

Carl Davis is far better known in Britain than he is in America, and should be highly regarded for his creative gifts and attainments.
He is a native New Yorker, but moved to England in, I believe, his late twenties or early thirties, and continues to reside there. He is probably in his early seventies at this point in time.
Although he has written quite voluminously in various forms, spanning from ballet to music for silent movies (he is probably the most effective composer of any music written for the Chaplin silent movies), I find myself constantly going back to what, in my view, is his most powerful statement as a composer; and that is his music for the gigantic documentary "The World at War."
I have seen this documentary several times, and was recently given the 30th anniversary edition (2004) on DVD, with digitization of the video aspect being the primary improvement in this particular release.
It was begun in 1971, shown first in the following year, with world distribution, I think, in 1973 - 74.
The original documentary consisted of twenty six episodes, each about fifty minutes in length, and remains, in my opinion, the most definitive video production of World War II.
The bringing together of great talents, in both scholarship and media aspects, such as Noble Frankland, the eminent English historian; Stephen Ambrose, at that time a young historian on his way to greatness; and Carl Davis, the composer already discussed, resulted in a landmark production which, in terms of dimensional power, remains unchallenged as a video perusal of history's greatest conflict.
In twenty six episodes, the music that Davis wrote for this Opus Magnus is repeated many times, of course. One does not sit down and write a composition that will last for twenty hours or so.
But the insertion of his music at the times chosen for these incarnations is superb. This reality, plus arguably the best music I know by Davis, gives us an unparalleled message of great power of meaning that rivals the power of the story line itself.
Davis uses a poignant melody that turns out to be the theme at the beginning and end of each episode. It has a powerful, yet poignant element in it that gives the viewer an instant sense of connection to the nucleic reason for the existence of the documentary. What is almost uncanny for me is that the many different melodies that Davis wrote become so efficiently fused to the elemental strength depicting the horror and haplessness of war, and even now, after the viewings of this story I have experienced, the music of Carl Davis remains as memorable to me as the historical material itself.
Even if the reader is not interested in the documentary, perhaps the music should be heard for its message and power of projection. The music is probably available by itself on CD.
I think of the great composers for films, such as Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Bernard Herrmann, John Williams, Herbert Stothard, Erich Korngold, Frank Churchill etc. From my view, the music of Carl Davis should be included in this group.


Monday, July 6, 2009

Mozart! - Is There NO Limit??

What some of us won't do for Mozart...
I taught at all levels; from elementary to college-level.
One of my memories at elementary level was to contrive an approach different from the usual musical projects that deal with children at those age levels.
I decided to write a play depicting the life story of the fabled composer, and present it in the following manner:
There would be not one child in the audience, only those family members and/or friends of those children going to that particular school.
I assigned a sentence of my play to every child in that school, including the kindergarten kids. I had them lined up in order of the story line, each child moving up to a microphone and speaking his or her sentence, then moving on so that the next child would be able to speak the assigned sentence into that microphone. In that mode, the entire story of Mozart (as I wrote it) would be related; after all, there were several hundred children in that school, which gave me plenty of room to have the Mozart saga given out to that particular audience.
It was a most difficult project for me to do, but it was worth the expenditure, if for no reason other than those kids getting to really know who Mozart was.
And that line of kids was indeed long! From the microphone in the auditorium to the halls in the school. The teachers dutifully help herd the children along as the play proceeded.
It required about two months for me to produce this performance, and I was told that it was indeed a "class act;" however, never again would I do such a thing - I was exhausted for a solid week thereafter!


Thursday, July 2, 2009

Personal Disasters in My Musical Experience...

I was reminiscing this morning about some of my experiences in music, both as a performer and as a teacher, and recall the following little morsels:
In one of the countless recitals I would arrange for my students each spring, I recall one in particular -
One of my young ladies, upon beginning her music, was obviously so frightened that she commenced to perform the wrong piece, which totally confused the audience as they gazed at their programs and tried to fathom as to what was going on. I can assure you that it was sheer torture for me as I listened to a piece of music by Beethoven, when it should have sounded like Clementi.
What astounded me was that this young lady went right through the piece as if it were the one anointed for public performance, and she divulged to me after the recital that she realized what she had done within the first few seconds; however, she did not lose her composure, which was truly amazing to me. I should have been angry at her; however, it made me laugh along with her, which relieved her immensely, as I'm sure she felt that I would have done her in with invective.
At another of my student recitals, one of my pupils was accompanying a violinist, and when the page-turner turned the page, she turned two pages instead of one, and as the sheets were not bound, one of the sheets left the stage and fluttered out onto the first row of listeners - you are correct, if you surmise that the performance had come to an ignominious end.
As a performer, I remember (vividly!) my playing the Villa-Lobos "Polichinelle", from his "Baby's Family." Although it is not written in, the great Artur Rubinstein would add a glissando (the use of a fingernail gliding up or down the keyboard) at the end of the piece, following immediately with the striking of the very top note on the keyboard, resulting in a very splashy ending. I decided to employ the Rubinstein glissando whenever I played this piece as an encore. In this particular performance, unfortunately, I employed the glissando, but ended up whacking the wood panel just to the right of that high "C"; the result, an unprecedented way to end this piece of music.
I could go on, but I feel that my face has reddened enough.