Monday, April 23, 2018

A Great Work for Piano - and Two Famous Names in Pop Music...

The cast of characters:
Irving Berlin
Richard Rodgers
Vladimir Horowitz
Samuel Barber
The League of Composers -

In the year 1950, a new work for solo piano  was introduced. This work was commissioned by the money of Irving Berlin (remember "White Christmas?") and Richard Rogers (remember "My Funny Valentine?"),  in an organized move by way of  The  League of Composers, a group created for the promulgation of supporting new works written by contemporary American composers. That particular commission was directed to composer Samuel Barber to write a major work for the piano.
The result was the Piano Sonata.
When I think of Samuel Barber, his famous Adagio for Strings is what I hear first almost every time.
An atmosphere wafting from the High Baroque, especially from  that unique sense of spirituality emanating from the work of Handel and Bach. The "Arioso", or sections of  "The Messiah" come to light. But Barber does NOT sound like either of these giants - what is fascinating to me about this composer from Pennsylvania is that the language of his music bears its own uniqueness, and is like no other. The creations of Barber are certainly not  avant-garde; there are no ostentatious  sounds of  a revolutionary new concept   thrown at the listener.  What amazes me is  the natural sense of lubricity in the core of his language. There is a  view of the Baroque, at times; or an aural connection with the Romantic that is totally disconnected, stylistically, from the great 19th century masters.
Barber, for me, is one of the most stunning originals I know of.
In this Piano Sonata, for instance, he uses chromatic and diatonic language freely, along with the twelve-tone system, all in cohabitation with one another, in some of the most brilliant writing I know of coming out of the 20th century. In the final movement, he brings the Fugue into focus, using syncopation, jazz and "blues" to totally obliterate any trace of the Baroque influence in this form of writing. It's like no other Fugue I know.
By the way, Barber chose Vladimir Horowitz to premier the Sonata in 1950. They had known one another prior to the writing of this piece. Barber had originally considered it as a three- movement composition, but Horowitz shouldered his way into the picture and insisted that there be a "flashy"  ending to the music. Barber resisted, resulting in Horowitz calling him a "constipated composer."
Infuriated, Barber answered by writing a 4th movement in just a matter of hours, which IS that fantastic 'fugue' I had just mentioned - all jotted down in one day.
I often think of this composition as perhaps the most important large-scale piano solo creation by an American composer in the 20th century.
And the luminosity that Horowitz imparts. It's veritably as if this sonata was written for him.
Do listen.  And be overwhelmed...


Friday, April 13, 2018

I Forgot! Please Forgive This Muddled Musician...

I should have acknowledged yesterday, April 12, as a date to be remembered, so do please forgive my forgetting that on  April 12 in 1945, arguably the most powerful American Head-of-State in our time, Franklin Delano Roosevelt , passed away at his retreat in Georgia.
There are no political attachments involved in my recognition of this man - it's all so simple, from my humble view. A number of his programs, right or wrong, divisive or not, were the propellants that served to begin the process of extrication from the Great Depression, which was completed on the day that the Japanese Empire attacked us on Dec. 7, 1941.
Sometimes, when I think of this day, along with other events which History judges as significant, I undergo a totally aimless, but sometimes rather delicious  bundle  of   thoughts of a modality we call Speculation; for instance, I sometimes ask myself if Roosevelt would have  become as powerful  had he been President at another time? How would he have  utilized and formulated  his position in these divisive times, as an example?
Then other beguiling questions would arise; such as
What if Mozart had lived until age 54, rather than 34? Would there have been the Beethoven we know today? - or,
What would the form of the  20th century, let alone the present century, be, had a teenager named Adolf Hitler been accepted as a full-time student in the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna?
What if George Gershwin had lived another twenty years(he  died in his late thirties)? Would we be hearing  the same Leonard Bernstein?
What if penicillin had been there for Alexander Scriabin in 1915?  Would the Russian Road have created a different direction?
What  would  a tortured man we call Van Gogh have given us, if  fifteen more years were given him?
And so on...
All unanswerable questions, of course. But speculation is a seducer of great minds as well - do allow me to relate  this event I experienced with a great mind:
Several years ago, I contacted the acclaimed historian Steven Ambrose, as I had a question for him, which he graciously and unhesitatingly  answered. Well, a correspondence of several letters  was established, and I proudly possess these letters as a fond remembrance.
I have a brief film clip of Ambrose speculating on the Battle of the Bulge, which began late in 1944.
Ambrose actually develops an argumentation that if Hitler had indeed won this battle and gotten to the port of Antwerp, splitting the Allies, Stalin might very well have become so disgusted with Britain and America, that he quite possibly  might  have thrown his towel in Hitler's direction and formed an alliance with  the  Nazi leader in order for the two tyrants  to become co-leaders in Europe, even with the devastation caused by the Nazis in Russia during the three preceding years. Ambrose actually speculated that this could have occurred had Hitler been  successful in the Battle of the Bulge.
And so I'm not alone in playing this game!...


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The "Warsaw Concerto," a Pianist I Never Got to Know, and the End of an Era...

This week I  learned of the closing of Mt. Ida College, a well-known and highly regarded little liberal arts school  nestled in a pretty setting in Newton, Ma.
With a student population of about 1400,  insurmountable fiscal problems have forced Mt. Ida to close after this year's  graduation exercises are complete. At least this is what I was told the other day.
Then the recollections connected with this college came into focus, beginning with an event during my high school days in Rochester, N.Y. -I recall hearing, at around age 15 or so, a recording of a composition written by a British composer  whose  name was Richard Addinsell, with the  Boston Pops conducted by Arthur Fiedler, and a pianist whose name was Leo Litwin. The music was cloaked in the garb of Rachmaninoff, and redolent with  one pretty melody after another, and was written as a monument to the horror and devastation of the capital city of  Warsaw shortly after the Nazi invasion of Poland which began the Second World War.
As a high schooler taking piano at the Eastman School of Music, and learning the magic of the likes of a Chopin or Brahms etc., etc.,  I became enamored  of this new delicacy, which became the most popular composition written by this secondary composer, and took America by storm during this period.
And so, without my beloved piano teacher ever knowing of it, I purchased the "Warsaw Concerto" and learned it. I rather quickly became the music department's 'favorite,'  being called upon to play it whenever there was time to do so - I recall being asked to perform little sections of the piece by various teachers whenever the time allowed, and was called 'maestro' by the members of the varsity baseball team, as I happened to be one of the pitchers on that team for about three years.
Well, after those years passed, and I went on to  the usual learning process in both Europe and here, I would occasionally reminisce about the "Warsaw Concerto," but from a different view; namely, the pianist Leo Litwin. He  was a terrific performer, and I would wonder about him from time to time.
Many years later, I moved into the town I continue to reside in, and eventually got to know about Mt.
Ida College in Newton, just a few minutes from my town.
That's when I discovered that the head of the music department was none other than Leo Litwin!
I excitedly decided to meet with this guy, who had been one of those on my piano hero list. Sadly, before I was able to arrange a meeting with him, he passed away - that's when I found out that he  had been a resident in my town!  How sad it was for me...
And now his beloved little college will be no more.
I've had better weeks...

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Wednesday, April 4, 2018

In Music, a Triumvirate to be Noted...

At times, whenever I am involved with the composer Chopin in whatever pursuit I will have chosen, my thoughts form around the reality of an experience beginning with the birth of this man, and ending just one generation short of  our present century with the passing of Artur Rubinstein. The third component is Ignacy Jan Paderewski, who occupied the last forty years of the 19th century and the first forty years of the 20th. All three were Polish.
There is no need, of course, to discuss the triumph of Chopin - the history book has  taken care of that issue.
And  for those of us who remember the man who could not wait to perform for his beloved public, always bounding to the piano just to project that first note and then  create a world for both performer and listener like no one else, there was Rubinstein.
Paderewski is perhaps remembered a bit less today; however, his unique sense of hubris and a patrician attachment to the art formed a pianist of great recognition during a long career. As a matter of fact, he became a kind of  folk hero  in his beloved Poland, resulting, as an example, of his becoming one of three Premiers, believe it or not, at the time of the Treaty of Versailles.
Three dabs at a   touch of humor, if I may:
The great  painter Delacroix and Chopin were close  friends, which resulted in the famous portrait of the composer. Chopin gratefully acknowledged Delacroix's graceful treatment of the nose in that painting; however, Truth persisted by way of the supposed last words of Chopin on his deathbed, quietly complaining that "I was cursed with a short life and a long nose."
At the Treaty of Versailles, Paderewski represented his country by way of his signature - and he was heard stating a question as he signed,  "what am I doing here?"
I recall that during the last three or four years of his almost 80-year career, Rubinstein could no longer see the piano in front of him, as he had become blind frontally - but only he knew. Finally, into his 90th year, as I recall, he decided to retire as a performer...
But his immense spirit prevailed. I have a short video of this giant, in retirement, traveling to Mexico.
And there he was, at an outdoor  table in Mexico City, a cup of coffee in one hand, a cigar in the other, wearing a sombrero and a smile like no other smile I can remember.
A Trio like no other in the arts...