Monday, October 25, 2010

Interesting Bedfellows - Acknowledged Musicians and Movies...

I'm not much of a movie-goer; however, there are some movies out there with rather interesting combines of films and internationally recognized musicians.
Some examples:
The 1931 horror classic, "Dracula," based upon Bram Stoker's play out of London, was given a new injection of music in 1999, written by one of America's best-known composers of our day, Philip Glass, and performed by the Kronos Quartet, a group founded in America about a generation ago and known for its eclectic views. The new addition by Glass may not help the rather dated movie very much, but it is certainly an item of interest to those of us who walk upon musicological paths.
A masterful short play by Noel Coward was cast very beautifully into movie form in, I think, around 1945, and enhanced, not by music written for this movie, but by way of various sections of Rachmaninoff' 2nd piano concerto, and performed beautifully by one of England's stellar pianists, Eileen Joyce.
A movie called "Humoresque" was produced out of Hollywood, starring two powerful stars of the time, John Garfield and Joan Crawford, and wound around the story of a young and brilliant violinist, played by Garfield. In the title area of the movie, the name of the violinist who actually did the playing for the Garfield role was shown - a young and promising violinist - his name, Isaac Stern, soon to become one of the world's leading violinists.
A movie, coming out of the 1930's, titled, "They Shall Have Music," had a story line dealing with young people in the poorest section of town, seeking financial aid to better their lives through such shards of magic as Music. These youngsters happened upon a benefactor who agreed to aid them through his playing, in order to garner sufficient funds for the betterment of a community project. That benefactor was none other than a giant among the acclaimed violinists in the 20th century - yes, Jascha Heifetz himself, and I MEAN Jascha Heifetz himself, who actually takes his own part in the movie, and projects his magic in a movie that is less than distinguished.
Let's not forget that movie I once discussed in a previous blog, "Song to Remember-"
The story of Chopin, played by one Cornel Wilde, an actor with a physique around twice the mass of Chopin, who weighed in at around a hundred pounds - it was quite surreal, watching this Adonis, flexing his muscles at the piano, portraying a musician who was in poor health from childhood to his premature passing.
However, the piano music was provided for the movie by the legendary Spanish pianist Jose Iturbi. And because of the Iturbi addendum, I watched this movie as a child several times, willing time after time to endure the movie in order to hear the brilliance of Iturbi.
There are other examples under this aegis; however, I will bore you no longer.


Monday, October 18, 2010

"THAT'S Using Your Head!" - Conductors at the Piano...

In my young years,I remember that the noted Spanish pianist Jose Iturbi, with whom I had some lessons (I have already written about that), upon his becoming conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic for a period of time, seemed to enjoy the double role of conducting from the piano during various piano concerto performances, as I saw him doing just that several times during his tenure. One does not witness that double role very often, as not all conductors are piano virtuosi; however, be reminded that just a few hundred years ago, keyboard artists would direct from the instrument, in the days before the baton.
As an example, a few years ago, I saw the great Norwegian pianist Andsnes, at Tanglewood, do two or three Haydn piano concerti in the manner being done during that period; that is, Andsnes sat at the piano, with his back toward the audience, playing and conducting his wonderful Norwegian orchestra, and bringing back the way it was done in the 18th century and a bit beyond.
However, as one moves through the ensuing periods, and the technology of music demanded a conductor and his magic stick, usually on a podium, we do not see a conductor at the piano as much.
One really memorable example of the "exception to the rule" was a performance of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" done by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, done during the 1980's. Bernstein had such control over the total needs of the music that, whenever he was actually playing sections, he would conduct with his head, with the orchestra knowing precisely what each head-nod meant. Bernstein, of course, was a brilliant pianist, and this performance is worth seeing. Yes, it must be available from some source, as I have a copy of that performance on video.
I would strongly suggest to those of you who have not seen a conductor pianist doing a relatively modern work in this format, that you pursue ownership of this performance - it is truly memorable, in terms of total endeavor.


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Toscanini - The Two Faces of Tyranny

"I HATE conducting - I suffer so much."
"I do NOT want to hear the note - I want to hear the SPIRIT of the note!"
This was Toscanini.
At a rehearsal with the great singer Farrar, after several bouts with her (and she was a true Prima Donna), Farrar finally said to Toscanini, "after all, Maestro, I am a star, too - " Toscanini, while pointing to himself said "when the sun shines, the stars do not."
After another argument during a rehearsal with, I believe, another fabled singer, Galli-Curci, Toscanini stopped the entire proceeding, looking directly at her chest and bellowed, " if THOSE were the seat of your brains, we would have no trouble!"
This was Toscanini.
When it was announced that Toscanini would be become Director of the New York Philharmonic, the watchword among the performers in the orchestra was "watch out - Toscanini is coming."
After his stint with the Philharmonic, many performers talked freely about their experiences with the conductor. One said "in both rehearsal and performance, his eyes were hot, burning coals and that stick was something alive."
Another stated that "Toscanini on the podium was indeed the Sermon on the Mount."
This was Toscanini.
During his final days, he once said, very sadly and with despondence, after his being addressed as "maestro" by someone in the room, "please do not call me 'maestro' any more - I am no longer 'maestro'."
His one-of-a kind commitment to what he always referred to as the "wishes of the composer" drove him and those who performed under him to levels many said they could not have achieved in any other situation.
He was a vicious foe of the tyranny called Fascism in his beloved Italy, let alone his renowned hate of Hitlerism in Germany, and was once set upon by a group of thugs in, I believe, New York. Upon hearing of this incident, the Italian dictator expressed public pleasure of this incident, whereupon Toscanini said that he would not return to his adored Italy until Mussolini was gone.
This was Toscanini.
Imagine -before he was twenty, he was playing 'cello publicly.
He was a wonderful pianist, and I have video of his playing some Wagner at the piano brilliantly.
His memory was beyond description - it was said that as many as some 600 compositions were stored in his brain.
Germany, in early 20th century, hailed him as the greatest conductor of Wagner.
Italy, in early 20th century, hailed him as the greatest conductor of Italian opera, especially Verdi.
His coalescing of the NBC Symphony Orchestra created a reaction that amounted by many "in the know" as having created the greatest orchestra ever, and, interestingly, many in this day feel the same way.
Toward the end, his love for and admiration of the young conductor Cantelli made them almost a father-son relationship, perhaps even stronger than the relationship he had with his son-in-law Vladimir Horowitz. Toscanini was never told about the tragic plane crash that took Cantelli away from us.
The Maestro loathed tyranny to his inner core - he raised millions of dollars for the war effort against European Fascism; and yet, he was, in truth, a kind of tyrant who struck fear into so many who played under him - most of the same musicians understood this form of "tyranny," and loved him, for the most part, as much as they feared him.
The images we can see of Toscanini on a TV screen, after a half century since his existence, continue to exude a kind of implacable energy and drive that, for me, never fails to assail me in a manner I experience in no other performance in video form. In some arcane way, Toscanini invades my senses with a kind of power that slams into me from across the room - I can only imagine what it must have been like to be in the same room with this man.
This was Toscanini...


Monday, October 11, 2010

Roy Halladay, Ted Williams, Artur Rubinstein - All Partners??

When I think of the word 'performance,' I consider the term 'the art of' in the very same context. To explain:
In watching the performance of Roy Halladay, in pitching a no-hitter last Wednesday, in the major league playoffs which will lead to the emergence of the best baseball team in the world of 2010, I was struck by his brilliant tactics in overpowering the hitter facing him, one after the other, until his creating an almost perfect game came into being.
The choices made in carving out a masterpiece; deciding which of his impressive repertoire of pitches to throw, each of which was a decision required of the moment, until all of the 28 batters he faced (Halladay allowed one walk) were denied a hit, reminded me of the process of creativity and the choices made therein that we see in the performances of the great artists, and the study and the quality of decision-making demanded by that artist in order for that performance to be defining - for Halladay to decide upon a fastball, or a curve, or a pitch at different levels of speed and location; well, is it not the same kind of thing that we have to undergo in order to achieve the needs required by a Bach, or a Liszt, etc. that face us in the same manner that a batter stands there challenging a Halladay?
I think of the book (yes, a book) dealing with the art/science of hitting written by arguably the greatest raw talent in the art of hitting, and the last baseball player to bat over .400 in a baseball season; his name, Ted Williams, who, as an aging batter hit a home run in his final time at bat in his final game - reminds me of Horowitz in his overpowering performance of the great "A" flat Polonaise of Chopin, in Moscow, not too long before his passing.
Curt Schilling, a pitcher who retired just a few years ago, would end up opening a large notebook after almost every game he played in, so that he could record his view of the performance in order to enhance the quality of his next appearance, or to note as to how better he could pitch against a particular opponent the next time around - seems to me the same kind of thinking required by any performer at a high level, no matter the medium of performance it might be, whether it turns out to be a baseball bat, or a violin, or a football, or a brush with an array of colors held by a Picasso.
The word 'performance' is the bottom line reality faced by us all, no matter what level, or what tool, or what event creates the need for that magic word to be actuated.


Thursday, October 7, 2010

Dr. Bruno Walter and Mozart - Greatness Incarnate...

I recently came across an old album I had totally forgotten about, which I had purchased during my early years. It was released with the title " Mozart - the Final Six Symphonies."
In transferring it over to CD, I listened to the performances, all done by the legendary conductor Bruno Walter, who, fortunately for us, turned much of his attention to Mozart during his final years, after a lifetime of defining performances, especially of Gustav Mahler, with whom he had a strong relationship.
With the plethora of recordings of the Mozart symphonies, I was reminded, while listening to Walter, as to the essence of elegance and plasticity that Walter gave to the readings of these final symphonies of the great Austrian. Quite frankly, I must state that the connective tissue formed between conductor and composer is the kind of experience that puts Mozart's limitless luminescence into a focus I cannot remember having known before, considering all of the performances I have heard of these works throughout my experience.
It is most fortunate for the world of music that a young Bruno Walter, during the 1920's, before Hitler came to power, took the tyrant's tirades and warnings about Jewish musicians in Germany seriously, and rather soon after left Germany.
One of the high points in the recordings for me was the way Walter produced the 'fiddling' aspect in the final movement of the "E" flat symphony, truly reminiscent of blue grass fiddling in America, and therefore, innately or otherwise, forming a solid parallel between the two cultures in the folk phase of music making.
Hope that you can get this recording.