Thursday, January 27, 2011

Great Virtuosi - But Not in the Classical Aspect...

Traditionally, one may consider the term 'virtuoso' when a Vladimir Horowitz, or a Jascha Heifetz, or a Pablo Casals is heard or brought into conversation.
But how about another aspect within the world of music, such as Pop?
When I was a kid, I heard a recording of a tune called "Well, Get it," and I was captivated by the clean, biting sounds and the cascading runs of a trumpet. The total assurance and panoramic view that this trumpeter exhibited struck me the same way that would occur when I would hear, say, Sergei Rachmaninoff toss off his daunting view of "Flight of the Bumblebee."
So I looked into the player behind the playing - his name; "Ziggy" Elman, who had played with the likes of Benny Goodman, and found that this trumpeter played like no other pop trumpeter, and had iron clad control of the instrument.
Another pop virtuoso was a drummer named Gene Krupa, who in his playing of "Drum Boogie" demonstrated the limitless capacities he possessed, in his passionate and absorbing connectivity with the percussion instruments he overwhelmingly attacked. Sadly, problems with drugs seriously complicated an otherwise iconic career.
When Art Tatum, Lionel Hampton, and Buddy Rich collaborated in mid-century, the pianist, vibes player and drummer were unparalleled in their pyrotechnical playing, with the driving force, undoubtedly, housed in the indescribable powers that Tatum exhibited, seemingly forcing the virtuosity of both Hampton and Rich to a level of improvisation rarely experienced. "How High the Moon" is an example; or, "Hallelujah."
Dame Cleo Laine, as a 'scat' singer and just plain vocal virtuoso, remains today as arguably the most brilliant performer in vocal extemporization, along with her wonderfully gifted husband Sir John Dankworth, as both an arranger and sax/clarinet player. Her arrangement of Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" is a paradigm in the art of building incessant patterns without, seemingly, taking a breath.
One should be able to find some of the above on the Internet - I have such little time for the computer, I have not yet searched. But do not hesitate - I think that you will be captivated by the prowess exhibited, all under the aegis we call "the Virtuoso."
And, above all, Art Tatum, for me, stands as the supreme virtuoso in the pop field. As you know, I have written much about him; therefore, I will not assault your day with additional words about this man. Do keep in mind that Vladimir Horowitz exhibited unconditional admiration for Tatum, and made a point of befriending him.
Do search, and enjoy!!


Monday, January 24, 2011

A Concert Like No Other...

I have a photograph of some of the world's greatest musicians, only one known as a singer, bellowing the "Hallelujah" chorus of Handel, and perhaps there are a few of you who either know of, or possess this photograph.
This group stood side-to-side on the stage at Carnegie Hall in the finale to what was called " The Concert of a Century," celebrating the 85th anniversary of Carnegie Hall. Prior to their singing, each of these legendary performers was heard creating his magic, giving of his time without remuneration for the purpose of raising monies for the Carnegie Hall Foundation.
Can you imagine Horowitz playing with Rostropovich? Or with Menuhin? Or with Stern?
Well, that is precisely what occurred on that memorable day in 1976, eighty five years after Tchaikovsky was invited to conduct at Carnegie's first concert in 1891.
If you do not know of this photo, please picture the following:
From left to right - Yehudi Menuhin, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Mstislav Rostropovich, Vladimir Horowitz, Leonard Bernstein, and Isaac Stern, each holding a copy of the music, and with their mouths wide open in, undoubtedly, one of the more exciting phases of the music.
An oddity - I read at least one account of Tchaikovsky firmly planting his head to one side while conducting, the reason being bandied about that he was afraid that his head might come flying off if he did not assume this particular position. I have no idea as to the reason or origin of such a strange occurrence - it IS known, however, that just a few years after his appearance at Carnegie, he died shortly after consuming a glass of unboiled water from a tap during a cholera epidemic.
At any rate, Carnegie began with Tchaikovsky and has been from that time on, one of the most acclaimed and highly esteemed repositories for ongoing greatness in the world of music.
See if you can get a copy on CD of this unique assemblage - you will thrill with the once-in-a-lifetime collaborative clutch of legendary performers.


Friday, January 14, 2011

A Further Look Into the Lesser - Known Tschaikowsky...

Because of the immense popularity of such works as "The Nutcracker," or the Piano Concerto, or the Sixth Symphony, the solo works for piano by Peter Tschaikowsky tend to be overlooked.
The suite for piano, "The Seasons," may well be the most popular work for that medium, with "June" and "November" being the pieces most often played, and justifiably so, as the other months in that suite may be considered less inspired elements of that opus.
I decided to look over the Opus 21; the "Six Pieces," which the composer began late in his 32nd year, finishing them in the following year.
My sense is that, for the most part, the music is not readily identifiable as Tschaikowsky; actually, out of context, I believe that even the experienced listener would have difficulty in identifying as to who wrote much of that music.
I would respectfully attribute that to the more probing and stylistically experimental attitude that seems prevalent in the composer's mode of thinking, as he wrote this music.
I am not stating that this is great Tschaikowsky; however, for the budding musicologist and musical theoretician or historian, I would recommend them for study, as it reveals, at least to me, a more arcane aspect of the Tchaikowsky the world otherwise has gotten to know so well.


Saying 'Goodbye' to an Icon of the Twentieth Century...

Three days ago, one of the most popular and well-liked songstresses of the mid-twentieth century passed away.
Margaret Whiting worked with almost all of the great pop and many of the jazz artists of renown, and made many memorable records during her long career. Her father, Richard Whiting, was a leading composer of pop music, and is, perhaps, best known by way of a rousing tune which splashed all over the radio world of that period, "Hooray for Hollywood." Her sister, Barbara Whiting, was a well-known film actress who was featured in a handful of films made during the same period of time.
Her work with the fabled British pianist George Shearing is still a morsel to summon up and listen to, as well as her work with the likes of Bob Crosby and the Bobcats and countless other luminaries of the pop world, and resulted in her becoming a household name, especially during the war years. Some years after her career was over, Whiting appeared on the Larry King program with George Shearing, singing some of her fabled arrangements with the luscious taste of the Shearing piano as a redolent accompaniment.
She was not as gifted technically as an Ella Fitzgerald or a Cleo Laine, but she possessed a pure, simple truthful approach to pop singing which endeared her to the public.
Margaret Whiting will be remembered by many, and missed.


Friday, January 7, 2011

"The Art of-" How About Practising??

I cannot recall whether I had told you about an arts class I was conducting with honors students involved, and an event I thought might have some effect upon these young people.
I decided to alter the social fiber of a process which, of its own nature, requires only one being to enact; namely, the process of practice. After all, does one customarily practice an instrument before an audience?
And so I decided to let these students experience something they may never again undergo - I approached a colleague of mine; a 'cellist, who taught at the same institution I was teaching in, and asked him if he would select a short piece by a master which he had never learned, and practice that piece before these students. At first, he looked at me rather incredulously, then quickly understood the potential value involved for these young people.
A short time later, he constructed this short piece ( a piece by Bach for unaccompanied 'cello) in the middle of the circle formed by the students surrounding him.
For close to ten years after this incident, I would periodically receive either letters or telephone calls telling me of the impact upon the caller or writer; that is, the view of a process of intimate design suddenly thrust into the outside world, as it were.
I tell you this simply because true practice is an art form, as it is a creative process if done in pure terms of architectural thought.
Each piece of fine music is indeed a fingerprint, and should be treated as one, both in the learning and the performance. I make sure that each student I deal with is reminded that the ways of practice will determine the future of that music.
For instance, if I choose to teach or perform a piece, I must decide as to priorities - if a piece is a physically daunting incarnation such as, say, something by Liszt, I would make sure that the most difficult parts are dealt with first, with the least demanding learned last. I have from time to time learned a piece backwards, if the final part of that music is the most demanding technically. On the other hand, if the music is slow and dream-like, such as a John Field Nocturne, I would work from beginning to end, then ask "now that the notes are in place, what do I do with them?" To buttress this approach to a piece that may have lesser technical difficulties, but project truly great music, a great pianist once said to me that "NOTHING I do is easy."
And so, such as in architecture, the cornerstones have to be in place before the building emerges, and learning a piece of music in the most efficient way is to be, in truth, a kind of architect.
Any intelligent musician quickly learns that anything less than quality time spent in practice is a waste of time.