Thursday, April 29, 2010

Is George Shearing Even More Than What We Know of Him?

I was thinking about the one conversation I had with the great British musician George Shearing, whom I have discussed in this blog more than once.
As I have related to you, he made a statement to me, just before my leaving him - these are the words he uttered as best as I can recall -
"please do not think of me primarily as a pop or jazz pianist - think of me as a classical musician who happens to play pop."
After all these years, the elemental meaning of that rather unusual statement coming from one of the world's most famous performers of jazz and popular tunes induced me into considering the possible sadness attendant with this statement. With his constant connection to the classics, as he inculcates them in constancy into his arrangements, I became aware that (this is my view only, and I may be in error) he may have had an abiding and unremitting sadness stemming from the reality that because of his being born blind, the huge amount of great classics available to him simply could not be assimilated sufficiently, in numbers, through Braille, to produce a suitable repertoire for the concert stage, simply due to the amount of time which would have been required to do such a thing - thankfully, he had that illimitable talent to turn to the pop/jazz field, and so we know him for what he is.
A rare performance which I have may have given me the reason for my thoughts about this man. If you can find this recording, you will find it a most revealing document pertaining to the possibilities I have mentioned above.
It is his arrangement of Richard Rogers' great "My Funny Valentine." For about ten minutes, Shearing utilizes his overriding love for the classics by infusing this arrangement with such items as a note-for-note playing of a portion of one of Bach 's Fugues; a note-for note injection of the beginning of the slow movement from Rachmaninoff's second concerto; a fling at the style of a Strauss waltz; a canon in the style of Bach using the "My Funny Valentine" theme; shimmering passage work over the theme in the style of Liszt - the manner in which Shearing injects the Rogers tune into the fabric of the entire arrangement has prompted me to consider that this arrangement is the most telling of the musical soul; the very core, of who and what Shearing really was and is; and meant, in his statement to me.
Shearing has become even more powerful to and in my thoughts, than ever before.


Monday, April 26, 2010

Two Giants Who Made Only ONE Recording...

In 1950, two of the most powerful musicians in the world came together to make one recording. They chose the third Sonata of Johannes Brahms.
They were good friends, born only months apart, in Mother Russia.
Both of these great musicians did not especially like Brahms that much - both professed publicly that they pretty much shied away from recording the great composer, as they much preferred the offerings of the other great composers. Actually, the violinist decried the way Brahms wrote in Concerto form. And even though the pianist recorded very little Brahms, his legendary recording of the "B" flat Concerto with his father-in-law Arturo Toscanini is considered of the truly history-making concerto recordings of the twentieth century.
These two men, thankfully, collaborate here in a riveting reading of a composer they generally preferred not to perform in public.
The pianist is Vladimir Horowitz, arguably the most powerful pianistic entity of the twentieth century.
The violinist is Nathan Milstein, a violinist who, sadly, is not given as much recognition today as he deserves - actually, he was, during his career, a violinist at the same level as Heifetz and Kreisler, and one only needs to listen to the recordings available in order to know that he was indeed a giant among other giants of the violin.
What a shame that these two did not record more than this one most revealing document...

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Friday, April 23, 2010

Music From Uranus?? I Remember the Pain...

George E. MacNabb - yes, George MacNabb - oh, you say that the name is not familiar?
Quite simply, he was one of the countless heroes whom the world in general never gets to know.
He was one of the priceless gifts; namely, a teacher bearing the greatness of unconditional dedication, a deep knowledge of his art, and a possessor of illimitable empathy and love for those who were the fortunate; that is, his students.
Once each week, at the Eastman School, a group of us would troop into his den to undergo the Hell of acquiring some expertise in sight reading, a course about as popular as Dengue Fever.
Picture the room - there were two grand pianos, side by side, with two of us assigned to each piano. The room was rather large, with some pictures of great composers of the past, as I recall, on the walls.
Picture George E. MacNabb - a man of average height, always immaculately attired in a suit of dark or medium color. A head of smooth graying hair, and a voice that never rose above mezzo-forte. His whole being was that of sophistication and a polite, but deeply assuring direction of purpose.
One of his tenets in sight reading which was impenetrable was, and he actually said more than once, "it is not of importance as to whether the music you are playing sounds as if it came from the planet Uranus - DO NOT STOP! NEVER STOP! KEEP YOUR EYES MOVING TO THE RIGHT! KEEP ON PLAYING UNTIL YOU HAVE RECOVERED YOUR SITUATION!
All this said quietly.
I found out quickly what happened if I, or any of the other three, stopped...
A rather sharp jolt in the small of the back, whether it was a fist, a knee, or an elbow - I cannot tell you, as I never looked back, even for a millisecond - that was the price of stopping.
I can assure you that my sight reading ability was geometrically improved because of this tactic from a gentle, truly quiet, wonderfully urbane gentleman whom I was with for that year.
I once heard him play, with another teacher named Harry Watts, the Mozart Concerto in "E" flat for two pianos and orchestra, with the Rochester Philharmonic. He played really well, and I have always contained a solid respect (and just a shard of fear!) for this unassuming Hero, who I am sure remained and remains in the memories of those fortunate enough to have crossed his path.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Teen-agers and the Grandfathers - Performers and Composers

In a previous blog, I have already gone over the issue of the stylistic prescience of two great composers; namely, Chopin and Rachmaninoff.
You may recall that I discussed the remarkable reality of both composers' stamp of stylistic originality by their seventeenth year; that is, in both of their first Concerti, one already can identify the inescapable language that both continued to promulgate throughout their lives; only the incalculable growth of their abilities to enhance and deepen their future work remain the constancy of their change in meaning, simply by way of the ongoing years that allowed for their personal growth within the style that was theirs from the beginning.
There is a strange, however logical anachronism that arises from the above reality, if one thinks about the world of difference between the art of Jazz, and Classical music.
For example, take the two great performers in Pop and Jazz, Mel Torme the singer and George Shearing the pianist. The two, as you may know, collaborated for some years and have left us with many memorable recordings.
I think of Jazz, metaphorically, as a Face, shining in youth and at times with a smile. When we hear Torme and Shearing we hear that Smile and Youth so very often, as necessary ingredients within the style, especially when Torme plunges into 'scat' singing and Shearing breaks out with his wonderful Stride Bass in the left hand - and yet these two were old enough to be grandfathers. The youth and ebullience in their more sprightly, positive incarnations belied their true ages.
Now go back to Chopin and Rachmaninoff. They both, as youngsters, had already created some of the primary melodies in their first concerti, and even though they were both seventeen, the nature of eclectic and poignant depth belied THEIR ages; it seems, almost, as if they both already had lived through a full range of life.
How wonderfully opposed the imagery of Age can be in music, depending upon the kind of music it happens to be!


Thursday, April 15, 2010

Mozart, Gershwin, and the Two Michaels

In further investigation of the status of "Lily Pons" of Gershwin, listed as melody no. 79, as I had mentioned I was undergoing in a recent blog, I have decided to terminate, at least for the moment, any additional looking into the status of this music until I am in contact with the Library of Congress.
I found that Gershwin never completed the piece, which is recorded by Michael Tillson Thomas. As the recording divulges a piece which is a complete statement, I can only assume that Thomas himself must written the completion into this music, which he then recorded. Final determination may be available in the Library of Congress.
If Thomas did indeed complete the Gershwin fragment, it brings back another Michael, whose last name was Sussmayer, who completed Mozart's Requiem and then presented it to Mozart's widow.
SO! - In both the Gershwin and Mozart cases, which were the last notes the two composers wrote, and where did both Michaels take over for the respective completions?


Monday, April 12, 2010

On This Day - Just A Thought ...

I thought that I should mention that on this date in 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed away suddenly.
My thought has nothing to do with any pro or con issue dealing with this man - I do not touch the surface of politics in this blog - whether this man was loved or feared or hated is irrelevant. I merely wish to touch upon the sad reality that he did not live to be witness to the ultimate victory over tyranny and evil he was so intrinsically involved in.
One can only speculate as to whether this man, had he lived during a different time, would have accrued the same level of power, as it seems to me that Events Make the Man, not the other way around.


Saturday, April 10, 2010

Thank You, Dear Reader; However...

I wish to thank the thoughtful reader who replied to my blog on Gershwin's "Lily Pons" - the information sent me I already am aware of. Perhaps I did not make myself clear. I knew that it is a fragment, and that Thomas recorded it years ago - I have had that recording for many years, and as that incarnation has a 'completeness' all of its own, I am simply going to undertake an attempt to procure those notes in manuscript form.
Again; thanks for the thought connected with your writing me, sir.


Friday, April 9, 2010

Gershwin - A Melody Surrounded by Mystery

During my younger years, I heard a recording of a composition written by George Gershwin previously unknown to me. It was for piano solo, and quite remarkable for its content, about which I will explain shortly.
That composition re-entered my memory the other day, and I thought that I should pursue the possibility of seeing if a copy of it is available for performance, as I know of nobody in the field other than that performance I heard years ago who actually has it in his or her repertoire.
I have just now gotten underway in search for this piece. It was named "Lily Pons," which seems to me a piece written in dedication to the acclaimed French soprano. To the best of my knowledge, it was written around 1933, and, by way of further research, I find it to be labeled also as "melody no. 79."
It is an an expression of some prescience, as it is a fusion, very deftly wrought, of both Impressionism and Jazz - to me, the result is a fascinating possibility of where Gershwin might have been moving stylistically which, sadly, was cut off by his premature death.
As of today, I have no solid means of determination as regards the possibility of finding a copy of this music - at present, I am not sure as to whether it has indeed ever been published. But it is, for me, a fascinating foray into the field of the Unknown, as regards my finding a copy.
To be continued...


Thursday, April 1, 2010

April - a Fateful Month in the 20th Century

As today is April 1st, I found myself ruminating over the countless pranks (mostly unsuccessful) I engineered as a youngster on April Fool's Day; however, my thoughts soon drifted over to three events during the 20th century's greatest conflict that aided in crafting the direction of history, the results of which helped form the world as we know it today:
On April 1, 1945, American troops landed on the Island of Okinawa, just 300 - odd miles from the Japanese mainland, the ultimate goal being the use of Okinawa as a spring board for the planned invasion of Japan.
The battle lasted almost three months, extending well into June. The results were an indication as to what was to be expected were the Americans to invade the mainland. On Okinawa, the Americans suffered over 50,000 casualties, some 12,000 having been killed. The Japanese lost over 100,000 killed, not to mention the many thousands of civilians lost as well.
The Kamikaze sank some thirty of our ships and damaged about 3oo vessels.
In the opinion of many, if not most military historians, this horrific battle was the catalyst resulting in the decision to use the Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the only two atomic weapons ever used in anger.
On April 18, 1942, sixteen B-25 bombers took off from the aircraft carrier Hornet and headed toward Japan. The genius of then Colonel Jimmy Doolittle is still a tale to marvel at today - imagine these bombers on a carrier, each weighing some 31,000 pounds empty, lifting into the air from a heaving ship. No bomber was ever designed to do such a thing. Doolittle was not only a brilliant pilot - he had earned a doctorate in aeronautical engineering at M.I.T., and used his combination of bravery in battle and a wonderfully imaginative and highly developed intellect to stage such an event; for instance, he knew that each plane would have to take off just as the carrier would descend into a coming wave, in order to help boost these large planes into the air. He also had installed painted broomsticks on each plane to create the impression of machine guns bristling from all sides. Most brilliant, perhaps, was his order not to bomb the radio station in Tokyo so that the totally surprised and confused staff would broadcast warnings to the people about the totally unexpected raid, causing even more fright and chaos, which it did.
The raid caused little damage, but it caused great consternation among the Japanese militarists, which ultimately led to altering ensuing plans which ultimately led to the disaster for the Japanese forces at Midway later in the same year.
Finally, in April of 1943, President Roosevelt instructed the Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, to "get Yamamoto," meaning that the Chief of the Combined Japanese fleet would be inspecting the island of Bougainville - it was known to the Americans as they had broken the Japanese naval code. The result: on April 18, a force of American P-38's intercepted Yamamoto's plane and shot it down, after having traveled some 400 miles. This was one of the most astounding military feats in the entire conflict. The man who had planned Pearl Harbor, and was one of Japan's most brilliant military leaders (and, as a young man, attended Harvard), had been assassinated, leaving the Japanese Empire without one of its most cherished and valued military minds.
Yes, April has been quite a month.
Incidentally, let us remember that President Roosevelt died on April 12 of 1945, never to be witness to the ultimate victory over the forces that threatened the entire world during those days.