Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"The Arts of" - All in One Person...

I was thinking of Noel Coward the other day, and mulching over the attainments of this true "Renaissance Man."
He achieved much fame in so many areas of the arts; primarily in drama, writing and music.
Even though his "Blithe Spirit" gained much notoriety, an equally impressive endeavor came out of a film; a film considered by many to be one of the more distinguished war dramas coming out of the Second World War.
"In Which We Serve," which I think was released in 1942, may be rather dated to some in this day (after all, this movie appeared some seventy years ago), is remarkable, not only as a kind of classic within its genre, but also contends as a truly impressive example of the talents of Coward.
How many movies have included:
The screenplay?
The Director?
The starring actor?
The musical score?
All wrapped up in one person?
Yes; all created by one Noel Coward.
By the way, it received two Academy Awards, one for the script written by Coward.
Not bad, what?


Thursday, March 24, 2011

What IS it About the Number Eleven?

During one of my more recent inane musings, the thought struck me; especially during these turbulent times, about the number eleven:

11/11/ - The Armistice, ending the First World War...
9/11 - The first direct attack on the U.S.A., toppling the Twin Towers, which killed more people than those who died at Pearl Harbor...
2/11 - Mubarak steps down as President of Egypt, leaving the Unknown to reign in that region...
3/11 - The catastrophic earthquake and Tsunami in northern Japan, resulting in one of our time's greater horrors...
Obviously, a matter of coincidence; however, rather gripping, at least to me.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Magnificent Capturing of the Piano Sound - Thirty Years Ago...

Allow me to preface this blog by stating that I am not criticizing, merely commenting:
When I take note of how so many of us listen to music through loudspeakers that are millimeters in size, wrapped around our ears; I ask how many of us DO get back, at least occasionally, to loudspeakers that are some three or four feet in height?
This question encountered me yesterday, when I came across a cassette, recorded in the mid-eighties, and in Dolby "C" sound, of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in "F."
The gifted pianist Andre Previn was soloist in both compositions, and both the sound and the performance were absolutely riveting. What I had forgotten about was the quality of the piano sound by way of the old Dolby technology - actually, it is as thrilling an aural print of any piano recording that I possess; beautifully well-rounded and highly etched at the same time.
For some reason, I had, as well, on the same cassette, two compositions by Liszt, magnificently performed by the great Cuban Jorge Bolet.
I immediately transferred this cassette to CD format, for the sake of convenience. I would imagine that all of these performances are on CD; if not, they should be, and MUST be listened to at room-sound level to receive the impact of both the scintillating separation of the instruments in the Gershwin performances, let alone the superb realism and presence of the piano.
And now, we are witness to a renaissance in the sales of the LP, primarily due to the reviving of interest in hearing music as we once did, before we donned our earphones upon the appearance of the Walkman - remember?
And so, the pendulum DOES inevitably move the other way...


Sunday, March 13, 2011

During the Madness of War, the Sound of a Piano...

Those who saw the Polanski masterpiece, "The Pianist" well remember the pianist, Szpilman, playing on a Steinway grand piano in the midst of the rubble of Warsaw, for a German officer, who befriended and protected Szpilman from certain death, as the pianist was a Jew.
The stark and lurid portrait of the sounds of a piano emanating from the horror of the ruins in the center of the Polish city brings to mind an incident that fortunately was filmed, of which I have a copy.
It lasts for but a few seconds, but this film shows us a tarmac of one of the many airfields in the Soviet Union, and on this tarmac, in the midst of the titanic struggle between Russia and Germany, are planes landing and taking off, going to and returning from a battle rather obviously not very far from the airfield.
And in the midst of all the frenetic activity and the accompanying sounds, there is a grand piano placed on this tarmac, with a young pianist playing magically. I have no idea as to whether this piece of film was a form of propagandist nationalism, or whether it was simply home movies taken by a Russian soldier or airman - I cannot locate the source; at least up to this time, but it is indeed one of the most memorable scenes that I have ever witnessed coming out of the Second World War.
The young man playing the piano was Emil Gilels, soon to become one of the musical giants of the twentieth century.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Profound Statement, Made by a Great Musician...

I once asked a great pianist what, for him, was the most difficult piece he had ever worked upon.
I expected something like "Islamey" of Balakirev, or, the infamous piano reduction of the third movement of Tchaikowsky's 6th Symphony.
What I got was a rather unexpected answer, and within a fraction of a second after my question was asked. Without blinking, he replied "nothing is easy."
A deep discussion ensued about the elemental requirements endemic to any piece of great music; that is, what to be done with the notes having been learned - in other words, the creating of music.
The traditional, or should I state the most popular reaction, is to be dazzled by the pyrotechnical attainment of a piece that requires a great physical technique, such as a virtuosic performance of the Liszt Sonata by a Horowitz, or a Richter or a Gilels. There is, of course, the normal awe of the listener when a piece of great physicality can be conquered with the seemingly relative ease that the great virtuoso can demonstrate.
But to give as much musical power of meaning to, say, the "Arietta" by Grieg, or "Chopin" by Schumann or the "E" minor Prelude of Chopin, each of these one page in length, resulting in a reaction just as awe-inspiring as one receives upon hearing the Brobdingnagian difficulties in the Schumann Toccata is the true test of what a great musician faces and recognizes.
And this is what this great pianist meant in his answer to me; namely, the reality that about twenty percent of the time in the learning of a piece of music is to put the notes into place, and about eighty percent of the time remaining is to decide about what to do with these notes.
For those of us not in the genius category, we can only, with a degree of envy, try to picture that delectable reality.


Friday, March 4, 2011

The Power of the Human Will - Three Examples...

Where the elemental power of the human will can take a man or woman is sometimes most compelling a subject, and under certain conditions it can alter the course of human history.
Take the three examples I now cite:
Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) is, even today, considered one of the most powerful film documentaries ever created. Leni Riefenstahl, a popular movie star and ballet dancer, became a film producer as well, and drew the attention of the new leader of Germany, Adolf Hitler. He contacted her and requested that she create a film on the new movement and leader. The eventual result was a film of the Nuremberg Rally of 1934, depicting the revivification of a formerly downtrodden and hapless nation formed by the decisions of the Treaty of Versaille.
The result was a resounding recognition of the new techniques in film making created by this remarkable young woman, who became a world celebrity, and whose film won awards in the West, including recognition by America. It brilliantly depicts the messianic power of Hitler, and the title of this documentary revolved around the unflagging nature of Hitler's consuming quest for unconditional personal power.
The title tells us all about the coming Hitler and his hold on about 65,000,000 people in a remarkably brief period of time.
Example number two: How about Pete Gray, the only one-armed baseball player whose power of the will resulted in his becoming a Major League player in St. Louis?
He lost his right arm in an accident on his father's farm, but his unflinching yearning to excel in the sport he loved eventually earned him a spot in sports history, even though it was for a rather brief period. There are probably some motion pictures of Gray on the Internet, demonstrating the incredible method he developed in catching a ball, then throwing it back to the infield (he was an outfielder) all within a second or two. Nothing like Pete Gray has ever been repeated, nor is it likely to be - a unique example of the enacting of the human will.
Final example: I think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who in spite of the reality that he spent so much of his adult life in a wheelchair, let alone his entire presidential career, due to polio contracted in, I believe, his 39th year. This terrible disease did not deter him from becoming one of the most powerful men of the 20th century.
Interestingly, one of his favorite expressions was the poem "Invictus" by a Victorian poet named Henley, and Roosevelt lived by some of the words in that poem; for instance, " I am the master of my fate," or, "my head is bloody, but unbowed," or, "I am the captain of my soul."
There are many other examples of the power of the human will, such as, say, Beethoven; however, three examples are sufficient at this point in time, in my opinion. After all, you have other things to do!


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

More Greatness from George Shearing...

My blog, written shortly after the passing of George Shearing on Valentine's Day centered around his legendary perusal of "My Funny Valentine," which tells us of his love, let alone his knowledge of the classics.
I thought that in the event you do not know of a CD by Shearing which best informs us of his magnificent fusion of the Classics and Pop music, please look for the CD titled "My Ship."
I know of no other of the many recordings that Shearing made during his career that better illuminates his wonderful synthesis of the two forms of music that he dedicated his life to..
A few examples:
In his magnificent arrangement of "Greensleeves," Shearing constructs a canon of three beats duration, on the unison, just as Bach might well have done with the same tune; he inculcates one of the main themes of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto into the actual "Greensleeves" theme in the most wonderfully dovetailed manner; he actually finds a way of using the Danse Russe from Stravinsky's "Petrouchka", in augmented form, as a kind of melodic umbrella hovering over "Greensleeves" in a truly ingenious manner - for me, this particular arrangement shows the genius of Shearing at its highest level.
In "The Entertainer," Shearing moves this most popular piano piece of Scott Joplin from its wonderfully open-faced simplism into an aural arena of the most sophisticated form of Jazz, without losing any forward motion; one of Shearing's most brilliant examples of stylistic transmogrification.
And so on... do obtain this CD. You will most assuredly learn more about this wonderful musician from England - remember, this man was blind from birth.