Monday, April 23, 2012

Byron Janis - A Pianist With a Story Like No Other...

For those connected to the world of great music, professionally or otherwise, the name Byron Janis is recognized and conjures illimitable admiration. I would recommend to those of you who are not familiar with this astounding pianist to look into his career.
Janis stands as one of a handful of American pianists who have achieved rank of the highest level.
He demonstrated enough talent in his teens to receive an invitation from Vladimir Horowitz to study with him, which Janis did for about three years, and is one of only three students publicly acknowledged by Horowitz.
A career followed with great success, and for a period Janis was considered one of the young lions of the piano.
Sadly, tragedy became a companion; first of all, as a youth, he injured one of his pinky fingers permanently, with a loss of feeling in the joint nearest the tip, as I recall. Undeterred, Janis found ways of defeating this impairment and continued his brilliant career.
But tragedy once again visited. Janis was felled by a form of arthritis which caused such pain that what could have given the world of music one of the giants of the 20th century did not come into reality. He is now, and has been, an active champion in the fight against this most pervasive of
diseases, and continues to contribute great values to the world of music; for example, his documentary on Chopin is a positive delight and should be seen/heard by those of you who love Chopin's contribution to arts history.
As for recordings by Janis, there are several, many of which equal, in my view, any performance I know of in works of Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and Chopin. The sweep of stylistic color created in his playing of the 1st and 3rd concertos by Rachmaninoff is , for me, as compelling as any reading I know of these works; or, listen to his playing of the 3rd concerto of Prokofiev.
I, for one, can understand why Horowitz took him on as a student upon hearing him just once at a Janis concert.
Hear for yourself - you will be astounded.


Monday, April 16, 2012

A Composition Called "Triunity" - A Trinity of Four??...

Allow me to share a tale with you about a piece of music - a piece written with its genesis perhaps having never been exactly duplicated prior to its writing:
A few months ago I received an E-mail from one of my dearest friends, who happens to be an eminent violinist, and who teaches and performs in Europe. He is Ricardo Odriozola, whom I have written about before. I have been blessed by way of his many wonderful performances of my works over the years, some of which you can see and hear on the Internet, as well as obtain my music on CD, if you should like to hear this important musician perform.
To get back to this particular E-mail; it was redolent with sadness and a poignancy I remember well today, as he related to me the death of one of the most important teachers he had as a youngster; a teacher he learned to love and respect like few others in his life. I had a sense that this teacher, named Francisco, was veritably a second father to him as well as a vital component in his early musical journey. I could almost see the tears flowing from these words, and I was so touched that my first thought would be, perhaps, to write a piece in dedication to the memory of Francisco.
Almost immediately upon thinking about this issue, I became absolutely dumbfounded by a flash of memory that appeared; namely, that I had had MY Francisco in my youth, and that HE had become, as with Ricardo, a veritable second father to ME , as well as a truly great teacher, what with his knowledge, loving support and at times an almost vicious attachment to the search for artistic integrity, let alone the answers needed for the core values in performance and the commensurate unremitting disciplines. This wonderful gentleman, whose first name was Jerome, was my teacher at Eastman School of Music, and who had been teaching there for some thirty years when I first crossed his path. After my education was complete years later, Jerome and I became great friends. I would visit him regularly during my early professional years, and he truly was a kind of second father to me. Upon his passing, his music was bequeathed to me, an undying honor, knowing how many students he had worked with over so many years.
Well, an almost instant idea formed - I would write a series of brief reminiscences of my experiences with Jerome, such as "glee, after a good lesson," or "So Ein Kerl!" (What a Guy!) etc, which added up to eleven little movements, ending with an "adieu."
So these notes I wrote were formed by my experiences with Jerome. I would then send these notes to Ricardo, with no directions whatsoever; no tempi, dynamics, phrasing etc. - only the notes, and I would propose to Ricardo that he 're-compose' the music by forming the meaning of these notes to fit the entity called Francisco. In a rather true sense, the piece would have been "composed" twice; one incarnation being the image of Jerome, the other bearing the spirit of Francisco.
Ricardo embraced the concept, the result being "Triunity," describing a kind of triangle formed by two students; namely Ricardo and I, being taught, seemingly, by one entity, housed in two bodies, generations apart.
Ricardo gave the world premiere of this piece in Finland in March of this year, and it can now be seen on YouTube and, perhaps in the future, in a recorded format.
I can find no evidence of this experience having occurred before - as you know there are many hundreds of compositions dedicated by composers; but this experience was not a simple dedication to one person or entity; rather, a kind of metamorphosis traveling through space from one spirit; namely the writer of the notes, to another spirit, the performer, who transmogrified these notes to fit his spiritual needs.
To state that this was a unique experience is to understate...

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Titanic - One of Two Ships With Brief Lives...

On this, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic on its first voyage, another saga of equally compelling power might be remembered; and that is, the brief life of the Bismarck during the Second World War:
There are parallels between these two great ships - each experienced but one operation at sea ending in disaster.
We know that the Titanic struck an iceberg on that one voyage, resulting in its sinking approximately ninety minutes later.
The battleship Bismarck was the newest and largest battleship in Hitler's budding navy, and was the most forbidding warrior of the seas at that time, weighing about 50,000 tons fully loaded.
On May 19, 1941, it left Denmark's waters for its first (and only) foray, intending to sink British merchant vessels, and on May 27 it was sunk by the British navy.
Its chief officer, Admiral Gunther Lutjens, was a highly revered naval authority, and openly admired by Adolf Hitler. He was one of the many men of the Bismarck who died in the battle.
Hitler, after the sinking of the Bismarck, was greatly shaken by the event, and never again returned to assiduously activating prioritization of naval matters and issues, such as he had before the cataclysm of the death of Bismarck.
And so, even though both tragedies were years apart and diametrically different in the reasons for their existences, I do think of the similarities in the events; namely, the remarkable brevity of their initial and only voyages...


Thursday, April 12, 2012

On This Date in 1945 - The Passing of a President...

On April 12 in 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed away in his hideaway in Warm Springs.
I hasten to remind the reader that this recognition of Mr. Roosevelt has nothing to do with my personal view of this or any other politician I may choose as a subject. It is merely a reflection of a man who attained great personal power; additionally, I write of Roosevelt in the same light as I do of Beethoven or Mozart, or any other individual who successfully promulgates the process we call an art form.
Certainly Roosevelt falls into the category of artist by way of his mode of performance as a politician much in the same manner as a Heifetz activated on his violin, or Horowitz would communicate through the piano.
Roosevelt, on the world stage, through a combination of incalculable personal charm and political prowess, became one of the three most powerful men on earth during the Second World War, along with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader and dictator Joseph Stalin.
It is a rather sad reality that Roosevelt died only eighteen days before the suicide of Adolf Hitler and the subsequent surrender of Nazi Germany just a week after. The titanic struggle of free people, represented by the leadership of Roosevelt and Churchill, warding off the frightening specter of Hitlerism, sapped the physical strength of the President, who, after all, never gained full health after his being felled by polio years before.
Were Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt America's most powerful presidents?
One might consider the proposition that Events make the Man, not very often the other way around.


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Chopin - Where Does the Strength Come From?

The other day I found myself thinking about portions of George Sand's written memories of her lover and companion, Frederic Chopin, especially during the period around 1837, 38; probably as a result of my recent decision to re-work issues germane to the great Polish musician's life experience.
When I remind myself that Chopin suffered from ill health rather straight on from around age twelve to his thirty ninth and final year, I ask myself:
Where does the strength come from?
And one can immediately add the likes of Beethoven, with his latter life a war with total deafness; or Moussorgsky and the incessant demons engulfing a life cut short by alcoholism, or an essentially unemployable Mozart, or a Scriabin who eventually inhabits a world foreign to that other world which he first resided in - and there are other composers as well, beset by elemental powers anathema to a basic sense of personal peace.
To be sure, there were 'good days' that Chopin experienced, and the Chopin during those periods was a man of good humor and assiduously vital social assets, which included the art of conversation, especially with such colleagues as Liszt and Schumann.
But, the 'dark days' were numerous and protracted, with bouts of pain and, at times, severe coughing of blood, accompanied, of course, by fits of depression and pronounced physical weakness.
One entry by Sand described Chopin as "wild-eyed, almost apoplectic, with hair standing on end." I at times wonder if some of Sand's descriptions in her memoir are a bit inflated; after all, she was a highly gifted novelist with a commensurate gift of language.
At any rate, it is without question that Chopin was indeed engulfed by a disease of fatal consequence, which constantly brings me around to the question "how did these wonderful creations come into being? Where did the strength that propelled these immortal images into our world, our lives, come from?"
It can only be the immense power of the indescribable, arcane gift that only The Few are given, that are the true, the only possibility...


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

America's Musical Cornucopia?

During the epic event called the Second World War, America produced a plethora of composers writing hundreds of little masterpieces that History has labeled Pop Tunes. Along with these songs came a large number of gifted instrumentalists, vocalists and arrangers. The result is a treasure of musical story-telling that may well represent a Golden Age in American musical history.
Out of the horror of Man's most catastrophic struggle, with an estimated sixty million killed, emerged a period of really quite wonderful music in the form of countless little stories formed by both the tunes and the lyrics, created by a host of writers that happened, in large numbers, to converge during a period lasting but a few years.
To the contemporary listener, the music, and especially the words may sound a bit innocent and perhaps even somewhat mundane; however, do be reminded that this was indeed a different time with the core of much of the music emanating from a distant horror and a commensurate need to escape reality, even if it be for the length of a tune that lasts for about three minutes.
With such words as "don't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me,"or "I'll never smile again until I smile at you," that seeming innocence reflects the essence of two lovers, torn from one another because of the raging conflict, and multiplied thousands of times during this period.
Many of the performers of these tunes, both instrumentally and vocally, include some of the most gifted of American musicians, many of them without formal musical training. Vocalists such as Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Mel Torme, Nat Cole, Margaret Whiting, Bob Eberle, Dick Haymes, Kate Smith and many more sang with such stellar performers as Harry James, Tommy Dorsey and his brother Jimmy, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Bing Crosby's younger brother Bob,Gene Krupa, Ziggy Elman, Claude Thornhill; to name but a few.
In truth, the number of world-class musicians singing and playing together was rather astounding, and may never be replicated.
For those of you interested, look these musicians up - I think that you will find this period in America's cultural history quite stunning.