Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Charles Griffes - Like Mozart, A Journey Too Brief

How many today recognize, let alone know of the unique language of Charles Griffes?
A man who lived into his 35th year, and no more. and who left us with a handful of creations which beg many questions about where this singular young composer might have taken himself, along with us?
He was born not far from where I grew up, in the small town of Elmira, New York, and began writing music during childhood.
I shall not dwell too long upon relating the existence of this composer - really, all the reader needs to know that it is possible to consider his music for voice and piano essentially as important, perhaps, as the Lieder are to Germany. The marriage of the two instruments is wonderfully fulfilled, with a result like no other. His piano music is also redolent with ideas belonging only to this man. To explain:
It's really quite impossible to categorize his music; however, in his "Roman Sketches", one of the pieces in this suite called "The Fountains of the Aqua Paola" (later Acqua Paola) has such a wonderful adhesion to the play of water, like Debussy and Ravel, that even though some writers minimize or even dismiss the term attached to Debussy especially, I have to think of Griffes as America's Impressionist, at least at times.
There is one section in this piece that displays an uncanny view of the different flows of water coming out of the fountain; that is, in both volume and form. Griffes uses quarter note triplets in the upper part of the right hand, 8th note triplets in the lower part of the same hand, and 16th notes in the left, all simultaneously, in order to create an aural image of what the viewer sees.
I learned this piece as a teenager, and spent many an hour in this section of the piece, I can assure you! The result is staggeringly unique, and really quite beautiful.
Just one example of the probity this man possessed - what a sad reality it is to know that he was a visitor here for such a brief period.


Monday, September 28, 2009

Alicia de Larrocha - On the Passing of a Great Lady

It is so very sad to have to come to grips with the passing of Alicia de Larrocha, in Spain last Friday.
My first de Larrocha concert was in Tanglewood, when she played the wonderfully fluid K. 488 of Mozart, with the Boston Symphony.
There we were, in the Shed, awaiting the great lady; presently, a tiny wisp of a figure came out onto the stage, standing perhaps four feet and ten inches, and I suddenly realized that one of the world's foremost techniques lay in a hand that, probably, could not span much more than an octave.
My love affair with her playing began that summer night, and continues to this moment.
The articulation and the unvarnished honesty of her language, especially in her Mozart, will always be one of the more highly prioritized aspects of my memories of the great musicians I have heard.
Like so many truly prized geniuses, her humanity was always part of her incarnations. She loved the people she played for - there was always that arcane connection between her and every single person who was in the same room with her.
Some years ago (and many of you may recall) she appeared on TV with the acclaimed comedic actor Dudley Moore, who was a highly trained musician himself, and it was if they were on the same plane in the issues of music they shared - her sense of democratization was unparalleled.
Her playing of the other greats, including some of the Spanish masters, is also a reality of world import; and the pristine shaping of her language is the facet of her greatness that has always been a matter of intrigue to me.
She will be missed by many.


Sunday, September 27, 2009

Part Two - Conversations I Would Love to Have With Living Greats

My next grappling with the delicious idea of engaging in conversation with living luminaries is the possibility of discussing issues of import with not one, but two brilliant young musicians, both of whom are enhancing the world of music with their talents.
One of these musicians I have never met, only having occasional contact with by way of E-mail; the other is one I have known since he was a student of mine, as a teenager from Spain.
So, in actuality, I have, for many years, been in meaningful and loving conversation with him, both in person whenever he has visited from Europe, and by telephone and E-mail - my qualification for including him in this particular series is the ongoing hope that through the years, I will continue to enjoy and profit from the unique chemistry having been born out of our countless and fulfilling encounters, as he has become a musician to reckon with and recognize, for both his luminous violin performances and his station as a composer.
The other is a pianist, and, like the violinist, an acknowledged educator and mentor to many students who have been fortunate enough to cross their paths in a highly recognized university in Norway.
The violinist is Ricardo Odriozola; the pianist Einar Rottingen, and both have formed a duo, playing and recording together over a long period of time. I find that their merging has caused me to consider them as One playing two instruments - their form of symbiosis is unique, and should be heard. One can hear them by looking at their web-sites and list of recordings.
Rottingen is still a quarry I have yet to snare in conversation, but knowing how he builds his ideas in his playing, I would love to engage in discourse with him, and nothing would thrill me more than to have both of these wonderful musicians glaring at me from across the same table.
Perhaps my dream will jell - it's possible that both will be coming to America in the Fall.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Part One - Conversations I would Love to Have With Living Greats

Having completed a series of choices related to conversations I would have enjoyed sharing with legends of the past, I thought that I might relate to you conversations I would enjoy sharing with those among the living:
My first choice would be the great pop pianist, George Shearing, whom I have written about in previous blogs.
I would greatly enjoy participating in banter with this man for the following reasons:
First of all, I do have a bit of an advantage, having had a discussion with him many years ago at a hotel he was performing in, which lasted about an hour.
As a young musician just starting out, it was indeed a thrill to be with him on a one-to-one basis. His agreeing to share his time with me was an example of how really charming and gracious the man is, and how good a listener he was; truly, I have found that most of the great talents who have crossed my path in this life have been very warm and genuine, with very little, if any, social hubris.
At this time in my life, I would be thoroughly warmed and fulfilled if I were to once again meet and talk with him, now that I have so much more knowledge and perspective about this mystery we call Music, than I did when we first talked.
His gentle, low-key way of discussing issues, followed by a truly open ear to reaction, let alone his inextinguishable and constant humor, form a combination which most efficiently opens the door to the genius that accompanies his humanity.
And above all, his perspectives about the two worlds of music he has constantly been conversant with; namely, classical and popular, and this unique synthesis which forms the Shearing Language - well, I would certainly allow him to do all the talking.
I cannot think of a great musician of our time I would enjoy being with more, in the enjoyable art of conversation.


Saturday, September 19, 2009

"The Rite of Spring" - A History of Turbulence

When the most powerful Russian composer, arguably, of the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky committed his ballet masterpiece "The Rite of Spring" to manuscript, little could he have known what a history of controversy and even violence would be the result.
His viewing of the work as one representing ancient sacrifice of a maiden to placate the God of Spring was the central focus. He and Nijinsky, the eminent genius of ballet, constantly argued with one another as their soon-to-be immortal result was carved out of their collective creative powers.
Stravinsky looked down at Nijinsky for his "total lack of understanding of the role of music" in such an endeavor, and Nijinsky sneered, on more than one occasion, at the supreme egocentricity of the composer; however, as history will have proven, the result became and is one of the most singular incarnations in the world of the arts in the 2oth century.
On May 29, 1913, the premiere of "The Rite of Spring" was given in Paris. Almost immediately after the bassoon began, there were catcalls and shouts from the detractors in the audience, followed by shoving and scuffling, then some actual fistfights in the hall. In just a matter of minutes, a full riot erupted, spilling out into the streets, with Stravinsky barely escaping physical attacks upon himself, let alone Nijinsky as well. Never, to this extent, had a piece of music caused such a reaction.
Years later, when Walt Disney worked on his masterpiece "Fantasia" which dealt, in cartoon form, with the combining of musical and visual art forms, he decided to use "The Rite of Spring" as one of his musical entries. His interpretation, however (and you know this to be so, if you have seen the movie) was to use the age of the dinosaur and other animals of that period as the visual components, rather than Early Man, and when it was made known to Stravinsky, he became incensed, berating Disney and terming his interpretation as blasphemous. Stravinsky used the word "unacceptable" as the first known use of invective against Disney.
And so, the elemental violence as Stravinsky so magnificently projects in one of his most important works and the ensuing public and interpretive consternation that came out of it is most assuredly a great moment in the saga we call Man's Art.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Leni Riefenstahl and Vladimir Horowitz - The Triumph of the Will?

During the halcyon days of Adolf Hitler, the tyrant commissioned the immensely gifted Leni Riefenstahl to produce two documentaries; one was a complete filming of the 1936 Olympics, the other, one of the great documentaries of the 20th century, titled "Triumph of the Will", which emerges as the most profound encomium ever bestowed upon the man who ultimately cost the world many millions of lives.
I could not help but consider the title of this documentary as one which may very well apply to the legendary Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz.
Throughout most of his career Horowitz was beset by the devils of a fear of playing before audiences; obviously baseless to us, as he was supreme in his position as one of the greatest pianists of all time. I have already written about Horowitz and his devils, including the several times he was forced to "retire" in order to regain enough control, each time, over his devils, so that he could return to performing. What is absolutely riveting is the ultimate victory he achieved, however temporary, in order to continue to dazzle his audiences throughout the world after returning from each "retirement".
In the most recent recordings; namely, those now being released twenty years after his death by Yale and the Carnegie Hall recordings which he made between 1945 and 1950 only for his own pleasure and not for release during that period, we are hearing the magic promulgated, it seems to me, by a combination of the illimitable talent, the titanic battle he waged against Fear, and, ultimately, the Triumph of the Will.
This Horowitzian Trinity is what Horowitz was and is - without any one of the three realities of his entity, there may very well not have been the Horowitz that we have known.
Just listen to the recently released performance of the "Islamey" of Balakirev, which Horowitz learned and kept for only one year, 1950, when this recording was made.
The veritably "out-of-body" level of indescribable excitement, always under control, in this performance, represents a kind of super- being giving us an experience we veritably refuse to believe can be - but is. One can speculate ad infinitum about the reasons for the unique combination of incomparable brilliance with that kind of neurotic edge which we hear only in a Horowitz performance - for me, it all comes out of that Trinity I attribute to why Horowitz exists as we have known him.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Vladimir Horowitz at Yale?? Yes, Indeed!

The most celebrated pianist to come out of Russia after Rachmaninoff was, of course, Vladimir Horowitz. In his younger and middle years, he was able to engender a level of excitement in his audiences which had not been equaled , perhaps, since Franz Liszt had become a kind of folk-hero a century before. As a young musician, I can vividly recall, in the twenty-odd times I had gone to his recitals, the pandemonium resulting from his unequaled combination of a kind of neurotic edge and stultifying physicality in his performances, which, miraculously, did not overcome the great music- making this man could carve out of the notes he played.
In 1988, just a few months before his passing the following year, the legendary pianist gave to Yale, where he did perform from time to time, a number of 78 discs which had never been released publicly, and are now gradually being processed for the first time. There are two CD's available at this time, and I believe that another two will be released before the year is over.
The engineering has been of the highest in the restoration of the singular steeliness of the Horowitz sound, and will offer the listener the electric reality of the Horowitz presence. I can only assume that these recordings are being released in recognition of the twentieth anniversary of the passing of this giant among giants. What a priceless addendum to the Horowitz discography these recordings represent! For the inveterate Horowitz followers, this will probably close the circle surrounding the Horowitz legacy, which has remained open all these years.
Imagine! NOW one can finally hear Horowitz challenge one of the most daunting pieces ever written for the piano; and that is "Islamey", by the Russian composer Balakirev. I had always wanted to know, since my younger days, what Horowitz would do with and for this knuckle - buster ; and now, the secret is out!! Enjoy!


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Two Defining Ironies Before the Deluge

You guessed it - another figment of thought concerning the great ironies that emerge from conflict:
Both of these ironies occurred before the Second World War began in 1939.
It is known, of course, that many attempts were made upon the life of Adolf Hitler - the last count, at least to my knowledge, is forty two in number, ending in failure upon the suicide of the tyrant on April 30, 1945.
In 1938, a British attache in Germany contacted the British government stating that it would have been possible to shoot Hitler from his apartment as he paraded past on more than one occasion. At that time, the security forces around Hitler were being enhanced and improved, but not yet completed. Certainly, security in saturation form became an exacting force as the war commenced, and it became veritably impossible after 1938 to approach Hitler, for such a purpose.
And so, Noel Mason-McFarland, the British attache, became aware that he could have shot Hitler with a hand gun from his apartment at a point above a parade event. With saturation security not having been completed in 1938, Mason-McFarland realized that, and so he contacted the authorities in London.
Their reply - it would have been "unsportsmanlike" to do such a thing. (This may sound unbelievable; however, this statement is documented, and can be found if researched).
And so, no further attempt upon Hitler by the British or their allies was made during the prewar period.
The other irony also occurred in 1938. When Hitler made it known to his generals that he intended taking Czechoslovakia, a contingent of these generals began consideration of the assassination of Hitler; for them, annexing Austria to Germany, as Hitler did, was one thing - after all, German was the language of the Austrians. But Czechoslovakia, a country with a different language, was another issue. These generals saw a world war confronting Germany if such an action took place. The result; perhaps the most promising method of assassination, arguably, of eliminating Hitler that ever came to pass was planned by some of these high-ranking officers in the Inner Circle.
That plan was destroyed when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew twice from England to enact the most profound example of appeasement of the 20th century by making it possible, at the Munich Conference, to sell out Czechoslovakia, as the Czech president sat waiting in a hall outside of the conference room.
And so, the Prime Minister of England may have protected Hitler from possible assassination by some members of Hitler's own Inner Sanctum.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Two Crown Jewels from Brazil - In Case You Didn't Know...

I recall, during my teaching days, an event which had been arranged by a string player friend of mine to meet some ten or so students from Brazil; specifically from the distinguished Sao Paulo Conservatory, who would be here for about two weeks. I was to give some seminars dealing with the piano repertoire at the school I was teaching. For some reason I cannot recall, these students were not able to come to this country at that particular time, and consequently the seminar never did take place, which was a disappointment, to be sure.
This particular reminiscence prompts me to convey to you ( for those who are not familiar) the existence of two great musicians from Brazil; namely, Bidu Sayao and Heitor Villa - Lobos.
Sayao was one of the twentieth century's reigning singers, with a voice of such luminescence and power, that once heard, it will not be forgotten. She experienced a long and immensely successful career here in America and in Europe, and was considered as one of a handful of memorable sopranos of the century.
Villa - Lobos is considered by many to be the greatest Brazilian composer, with a language of immense individuality. His wonderful pieces for voice, the Bachianas Brasileiras (Brazilian Bach - Pieces) are a wondrous admixture of the Brazilian folk tune and his inextinguishable love for Bach, with the Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5 as the most famous. Look for the fabled performance of Sayao performing this wonderful incarnation.
When performing, I took delight in playing some of the piano music of Villa - Lobos, especially "The Baby's Family", a suite of brief pieces for the piano. Listen to Artur Rubinstein's wonderful performance of "Polichinelle" from that suite.
These two should be held in memory for their great contributions to the world of music.


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Further Musings on the Irony and Surrealism in War

For those of you who follow my blog you are, of course, familiar with my occasional digressions into one of Man's most faithful and ubiquitous companions; namely, War. And today I mulled over some of the more sublime examples of human asymmetry in Conflict:
When Berlin was stormed by the Russian armies in the final month of World War II, with Stalin allowing a few days of rape and pillage as an act of revenge for the Nazi's destruction of over 7000 towns and looting of perhaps some 7oo museums in Mother Russia, Russian troops exacted, perhaps, the greatest act of looting in modern times by removing countless items in hundreds of trucks; what becomes rather surreal is that most of those trucks were made in the good old U.S.A. as part of the enormous amount of materiel that the Americans had sent Russia, mostly by way of Murmansk in the north, in order to aid the Russians in their struggle for survival, and ultimate victory.
There is at least one report of the following incident in the fighting in the West: German troops ceased their fighting to watch a group of American troops play baseball.
I also thought of some "what ifs?" -
The ME 262 was the first operational jet plane in World War II, and it was German. It appeared so late in the war that it was not a viable factor. What if the ME 262 had been produced a year or so earlier? How, if at all, would that have altered our bombing campaign against Germany? At that time, we had essentially total control over Goering's Lufwaffe in most sectors, and were destroying most of Germany's large cities. Would the 262 have altered that equation, at least for a period, which would have considerably lengthened the agony of that war? The American had no jet plane in World War II.
Tank for tank, the American Sherman was no match for the German Panther. Even though the Panther was beset by mechanical issues, it was one of the most fearsome weapons in the German army. In addition, the German had developed essentially one of the the most singular artillery pieces in all of that war; namely, the Krupp 88 - millimeter, which possessed significant destructive power over the allied tanks. It is, of course, the ultimate reality of production which won the war. The American could produce at such an enormous level that Hitler's hordes were simply overwhelmed by the amount of ordnance produced, in spite of the reality that some German weaponry was superior to anything that the opposition possessed.
And even though the V-2 was a terror weapon, rather than one of military value in the larger view of the war, it did inflict a different kind of punishment, and the German had it first - what if Hitler had produced it in significant numbers a few years earlier - what difference would the nature of the conflict had taken?
All I am sure of is that I am thankful for the miracle of American industry, which kept Britain alive at a critical time early in the war, and, most important of all, made it possible for Russia to hold the Nazi at bay, then turn near disaster to ultimate victory despite some 27,000,000 having died.
Just musing... Please do forgive.


Sunday, September 6, 2009

Pregnant Words From Those Renown

This morning I was ruminating over statements made by famous individuals, and thought that I might encapsulate a small number of them for your pleasure. Some of the following I have already written about in different contexts; however, I am adding a few for the first time:
Frederick Chopin - (purportedly on his death bed) - "I was cursed with a short life and a long nose."
Richard Wagner - "Brahms - that prophylactic composer."
Isoroku Yamamoto - (in 1915, years before the first aircraft carrier) - "The navy of the future will gain its primary power from planes on ships."
Peter Tchaikowsky - "I've just now finished poring over music of Brahms - what an artless bastard."
Josef Stalin - (during the struggle against the Nazi invader) - "Only the unborn are safe."
(to his soldiers) - "If one takes a step forward, he may die; if one takes a step backward, he will die."
(to his Minister of Oil) - "If the Nazis take our oil fields, we will shoot you. If you are forced to dismantle our oil fields before the Nazis arrive, we will shoot you."
Ludwig Beethoven - (about his thoughts of royalty) - "It is they who should bow to us."
Stan Laurel - (on his deathbed) - "I'd rather be skiing." He had never learned to ski.
In one of his movie classics, Laurel, after an exceedingly deep-seated exchange of thoughts with his partner Oliver Hardy, concerning the vicissitudes of life, looked into the camera with one of those wonderfully vacant stares, and uttered, with a sigh, " Life isn't short enough."
Bela Bartok - (on music competitions) - "Competitions are for horses, not artists."


Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Symbiosis Formed by Two Composers Born a Generation Apart

Bernard Herrmann was born in 1911, Stephen Sondheim in 1930; both in New York.
History knows both of these men well; Hermann as one of Film's great composers, and Sondheim as one of Broadway's legends.
Hermann is well-remembered for his scores in such classics as Psycho, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Citizen Kane (cited by many as the greatest film yet made), Taxi Driver, The Magnificent Ambersons; and other films, many in association with the fabled Alfred Hitchcock.
Sondheim is still among us and is revered by thousands as the composer of the music for such Broadway classics as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, and others, not to mention his writing the lyrics for Bernstein's West Side Story.
And with all of this notoriety, a little known event bound these two giants together:
When Sondheim was a teenager, about fifteen years of age, he went to see a movie titled Hangover Square, released, I think, circa 1945.
The young man was fascinated by the musical score, which contained a one - movement piece called Concerto Macabre. He went back once again to see this movie, as the music compelled him to do so - a young Bernard Herrmann had written this music as one of his earlier endeavors in movie music.
Sondheim relates to us that the tension and color endemic to the music in this lesser known horror movie remained with him, and this aspect is best represented in his horror classic Sweeney Todd, which he states was influenced by Herrman's incarnation in Hangover Square.
And so; two composers, born a generation apart, never in view of one another, united to form a kind of commonality in the horror genre which helped to create one of Broadway's modern classics.


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Artur Rubinstein - Did he Wear a Sombrero??

Longevity, coupled with genius - an unconquerable combination in the arts.
Try to imagine a career which lasted almost eighty years, his having performed publicly for the first time at around age eight. Very few people knew that during the last performing years he was essentially blind, with no frontal sight. He could see the piano only from the outer edges. But his sense of keyboard location was so ingrained, that he could perform as well as always - I have a video of his playing some Brahms and Schubert during that period of veritable blindness. He was a man of such incredible will that he simply decided that in his early nineties he would stop performing, as it was becoming increasingly ' inconvenient' for him.
During those retirement years, he was simply re-born, traveling widely, and continuing to play here and there. I have a piece of film showing him visiting the Chopin piano in Poland, bending over from a standing position, and playing the same keys that the fabled nineteenth century composer had played - and with some tears.
I also remember seeing some home movies taken of the ninety -plus year old visiting Mexico, sitting at a table with his favorite short cigar and a cup of coffee, engaged in deep conversation with some friends, and wearing a sombrero.
My favorite statement coming from this man was about Horowitz, after Horowitz never showed up for a luncheon date - "a great pianist, but not a great musician."
I would imagine that there was a bit of rancor about Horowitz, especially after having been a victim of that aborted lunch date. To my knowledge, the two never spoke to one another after that incident.
My enjoyment in writing about Artur Rubinstein will never wane.