Thursday, December 15, 2011

Vladimir Horowitz

Otherwise known as the "last romantic", Horowitz's pianistic virtuoso has long been considered one of the deepest and most brilliant, and his interpretations remain legendary in the music world. One of the greatest things Horowitz has been associated with is his deep interpretations of romantic composers, mostly notably Chopin, some of which he himself brought to the public's attention, such as Scriabin's etude in D-sharp minor. A certain factor of his playing, which ironically was his greatest source of admiration as well as criticism, was his unique ability to add so much tone color to the piano and at times play extremely loudly, but never too harshly. A big music critique in Horowitz's day, Virgil Thompson, once reported of Horowitz that he was a "master of distortion and exaggeration", to which Horowitz replied that many great artists such as Michelangelo were also great masters of distortion. Granted, he was daring, but he never was without soul. When he played he never made exaggerated facial expressions and he never swayed as many pianists do, but the heart he played with is very noticeable when listening to his works. 
Another thing Horowitz did - at times somewhat controversial, but yet always admirable - was sometimes edit pieces to better fit the piano. For instance, he changed some phrases in Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" because he felt that Mussorgsky wasn't a pianist and he did not know how to use the piano to its fullest. He would sometimes substitute octaves for chromatic scales because he felt it added to the flavor of the piece. Understandably to change music which has been standard repertoire for decades would be subject to great debate, but nonetheless he felt that sometimes pieces needed to be modified to extract their full color. Horowitz was also famous for playing octaves extremely fast. When asked how he was able to play them so fast one reporter said that "he practiced them exactly as we were all taught to do". When playing, he almost always kept his palms beneath the keys, much lower than pianists are typically taught, and his fingers were straight when he played, as opposed to the semi-curled position that most pianists keep them. In addition, his pinky would remain curled when not playing with it, and when he would need to use it it would spring out "like a cobra". These techniques, which are not typical ways of playing, became almost a trademark of his. Horowitz once remarked that a pianist must play Chopin like Mozart and Mozart like Chopin. In other words, what he was trying to say is that a person cannot be completely overtaken by the technical details of a piece so that he removes all feeling and emotion from the piece, but he must also not let all the emotion blur the technicalities of the piece. Horowitz himself definitely lived up to this standard.

Menahem Pressler

       I have had the privilege of hearing Menahem Pressler perform twice - once at the Tanglewood Music Festival and once at Carnegie Hall.  For someone that's never heard Pressler perform before, the first immediately evident and striking impression given off is that his age and body do not seem to match the exuberant youthfulness with which he plays.  The person sitting in front of that piano in Tanglewood could just as well have been an energetic twenty five year who had just begun his professional career, basking in the emotion and power of the performance.  Yet somehow the furrows on the brow and wrinkles on the arm that so obviously evince supreme wisdom and grandfatherly experience, add a certain dimension to the music that a young adult would not be able to produce.  Pressler was born in Magdeburg, Germany in 1923 and was able to escape the Nazis in 1939, on the eve of the Holocaust.  His childhood history expressed in the music that was so brutally taken from him is nearly palpable, and is something that one does not experience often in a lifetime.  

One particular incident comes to mind when I think of someone like Pressler.  When I was a child my piano teacher invited me to visit her piano instructor when she younger, and she was certainly right when she said that it would be a good experience.  To my regret I forgot this woman's name, but like Pressler she was an adolescent in Europe during the Nazi regime.  Unfortunately she did not escape like Pressler did, and her entire family (if I recall correctly) was murdered by Hitler.  At the end of the war, after she lived through traumatic experiences in the concentration camps, she came to America.  I believe that no more than a year later she was performing publicly.  When I visited her in her apartment in lower Manhattan, the only thing that really seemed alive and real to her was the Chopin that she played with such earnestness.  I got a similar impression when I heard Pressler play.

Pressler was won many awards, such as the Chamber Music America's Distinguished Service Award, the Gold Medal of Merit from the National Society of Arts and Letters, and the German Critics "Ehrenurkunde" Award, to name a few.  He has performed in multiple competitions which include the Queen Elizabeth,  Busoni, Rubenstein, Leeds, and Van Cliburn competitions.  Perhaps he is most noted for being a founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio for nearly fifty five years, which for its last stretch included violinist Daniel Hope and Cellist Antonio Meneses.  2008 marked the last year of the Trio's performances, but its legacy has proven to be an exemplar of truly supreme chamber music, and music in general.  Pressler currently teaches at the  Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, one of the leading music conservatories in the country.  A journalist in the Los Angeles Times once wrote:

"Menahem Pressler's joyous pianism- technically faultless, stylistically impeccable, emotionally irrepressible- is from another age and is a virtually forgotten sensibility.  He is a national treasure."  
I believe it each man's personal duty to treasure and cherish the Menahem Pressler's of the world, and particular in music.  The Pressler's who carry with them the treasure of the past and the torch to the future.  The men who carry with them the emotions that cannot be understood by most, but can only be viewed with awe and deference as one views a majestic masterpiece of art at a gallery.  Those are the people that we must choose as our guides.

Here are a few Pressler CDs with the Beaux Arts Trio: the complete Dvorak trios, the complete Brahms trios, the complete Mozart trios, the complete Schubert trios, and the complete Beethoven duets for piano and cello.  I hope you enjoy.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Is it possible to have a career as a musician?

Growing up I have constantly been bombarded with the ultimate optimist heuristic as to how to live life: "you've gotta do what you love".  You know, when you're a child nice cliches and motivational maxims always make life seem like a cherry blossoms in mid-spring as long as you do it right.  But the reality is that life is far more complicated than a cliche, and life doesn't always go as planned.  Walk into Julliard one time and take a look at the thousands of young ambitious adults whose life dream it is to be on the stage of Carnegie Hall, and then consider for a moment that only a small percentage of those people will ever make a real career with music.  I am not saying that if you have the passion and unfettered yearning to be profession that you shouldn't make the effort.  And I am not even saying that if you simply have the ambition to be great without any guaranteed plans of career in mind that you shouldn't indulge.  What I am saying is that if you think that it shouldn't be an issue to make a career in music - think again.  Only a small fraction of musicians "make it big" and I have met plenty of extremely talented individuals who just didn't "make it" because the competition is just way too large.  There are more than a handful of Isaac Sterns out there and more than a few Emanuel Ax's too, and they just happened to get really lucky.  You can say that they just have something special that no one else has, but that's really just an excuse.  The reality of the matter is that it is extremely difficult to make a living as a musician these days.  Obviously that shouldn't deter a person from practicing for hours a day and spending much of his time with music, because music is definitely not about the money.  In fact, anything important in life is not about money.  We need money for some things, but a person can be a musician without making money.  Plus, there are many ways to share music with people without making a big living off of it.  For one, you can give music lessons to people even if the pay is minimal and that can be a very rewarding thing.  You can volunteer to play at nursing homes and orphanages, teach a class in a school, or simply put on small recitals for your family and friends.  The main idea is to spread the gift of music to the world (see Importance of Music Education).  Truth be told, I can't really say it any better than Harry Chapin in his great song "Mr. Tanner"(yea, I know this is a classical music blog - but hey, a little diversity is healthy).

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

5 Steps to Learning an Instrument

It is hardly possible to develop as strong of an appreciation for music without playing an instrument, than with playing.  Contrary to popular belief, learning an instrument can be done at any age and at any level.  Granted, it is certainly easier to learn an instrument when the paper and ink is still fresh, but anyone can learn if they really want to, which brings me to the first step in learning an instrument - "want to".

Step 1) Desire to learn
Many are probably thinking to themselves "well, duh, if I am looking to play an instrument I obviously want to", but the truth of the matter is is that there are multiple levels in desire to learn.  The "desire to learn" that says "I just want something to do as a hobby here and there and so playing an instrument would be a good use of time", is the type of desire that is good for learning many hobbies - but not music.  Music is something that must be done whole-heartedly, without the approach that "I will do it when I feel like it". The desire of learning an instrument must come from the innermost part of a person that truly feels a pull to music.  The person who succeeds in learning an instrument is the one that spends hours and hours of his "free time" practicing, listening to music, reading about music, etc.  If there is no passion your chances of succeeding are few to none.  

Step 2) Practice, practice, practice
Do not fool yourself into thinking that if you have the fire it automatically means you will have the discipline.  Practicing in general is not something that is necessarily always enjoyable (although it should never be burdensome), and it is as never exciting when you are halfway through a piece as when you first begin a piece.  But bear one thing in mind - you will not get anywhere if you do not have thorough and disciplined practicing sessions.  For a beginner you can pass with no less than 30 minutes a day, but if you really want to be good and make it a real part of your life, you should be practicing for anywhere between an hour and a half to five hours.  The more you practice, the better you become.  

Step 3) Find a good teacher
While all your achievements and progressions in music will come 100% from you, a good teacher is often essential in maximizing your potential.  There are oftentimes misconceptions about teachers, so let's get some things straight:  A teacher will not practice for you, make you practice, practice for you, and make you practice.  Once again, a teacher will not practice for you or make you practice.  But a teacher can often give you tips and guides, encouragement when needed, proper criticism, and direction.  Obviously a teacher is much more important during the beginning phases of playing than when you are already competent on your own, but even professional musicians still take lessons.  Make sure to find yourself a teacher that you can relate to well, and is good for your level.  Some teachers are great at teaching beginners but are not skilled enough to teach more advanced students or do not have the personality to do so, and some people are great at teaching already advanced students but do not have the patience to teach beginners.  

Step 4) Live music
This step is sort of a reiteration of Step 1, but it is really crucial in learning music.  You need to really love music.  Your "music time" should not just be spent in front of the piano or cello, but should also be spent listening to music.  There is no limit to the repertoire of music you can become familiar with - Symphonies, operas, piano solos, concertos, romantic, contemporary, etc.  Go to concerts, reading biographies of composers and musicians, and become familiar with the rich culture music has to offer.  The more you learn to love music the more you will find yourself immersed in it.  

Step 5) Don't give up
At some point you will inevitably try to convince yourself that "this just isn't for me".  Do not listen.  Instead of brooding about it, start practicing more or improving the quality of your practicing sessions.  There is no great musician that I know of that never had a phase in his life that he threatened himself to quit.  This is another great reason to have a teacher.  A good teacher will give you the strength to continue playing when you feel that you're just not good enough.  You will never succeed if you do not push through those hard moments in which you just need to go through the actions even if you don't want to.  

With these five steps, anyone can become a great musician and find true happiness in music.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Importance of Music Education

Music is my friend 
when I am lonely
music is the one and only 
thing that never ends

Music lives everywhere
can't escape it
can't replace it

Music is my life to me
music is what it is and will always be
Music is your strength
when you are weak
Music is your hope
when you are bleak

Music is made to be played
to fade
to serenade

Music is the gift everyone should give
music alone shall live 
("Music alone shall live", by U. ashley ogonor)

The idea I would like to convey, as expressed in the title of this post, can be no better expressed in the limited confines of language than if I was to shout at the top of my lungs like a madman.  This poem does a fantastic job of expressing that what is wanted be expressed cannot be expressed.  Can I even begin to name each individual person who's life was altered because of the gift of music he received as a child?  Is it possible to measure the quality of what music brings to a person?  Just one child's life can be changed forever because one person decided that he should learn an instrument.  This does not just apply for children in less affluent cities, but also for children in wealthier communities, for music affects everybody.  Children who suffer from inner anger, anxiety, and depression; children who cannot find a haven of peace and solitude for their souls, can easily find their inner happiness in the cradles of Mozart and Brahms.  Why is it that all the government budget cuts go straight to music and the arts?  Do people not appreciate the value of human life, that for some crazy reasons the soul comes second to the body?  Do the people running society even know what a soul is?  If you are a parent, all you have to do is sign your child up for music lessons; if you are an educator all you have to do is convince your school create a real music department; if you are a citizen of a city all you have to do is convince town leaders to create more budget funding for music and the arts; but most importantly if you are a person all you have to do is teach yourself the value of music.  A video which I have been inestimably influenced by is  Music of the Heart, a 1999 drama featuring Meryl Streep, in which a woman who has been going through very stressful times brings the gift of music to a school in East Harlem, New York which transforms the life of the children as well as her own.  It is an extremely inspiring movie and one that has made a big impression on me.  Just a few generations ago before the big technological wave of televisions and all the little gadgets that suck all the goodness out of life, music was a way of life for the masses.  People didn't need a course on proper conduct when listening to a piece of music, not did they need someone to "teach them how to appreciate music" - music was part of life.  As citizens who care about the future of our community, as parents who care about the future of our children, and as people who care for the future of humanity, it is crucial that we do not allow the music to go unheard.  

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Chopin's Preludes - Op.28

A number of years ago I attended a piano recital with my father at the Mannes School of Music in New York during their annual summer keyboard festival. To my regret I do not remember the name of the pianist, but she was particular fabulous and enjoyable to listen to. One of the pieces she played was Chopin's Opus 28, the preludes, a composition which I feel is generally under appreciated, so I was quite happy when it was on the program. Walking out of the concert my father asked me a question, which I later realized could be the reason why Opus 28 is so undervalued. He asked, "A prelude to what?". Now, that's a pretty darn good question. Bach wrote preludes to his fugues, Shostakovitch wrote preludes to fugues, but where are Chopin's fugues? And the truth of the matter is that the preludes sound exactly like that - preludes. The listener expects something to follow. The pieces are not so melodic, and their lengths themselves would not pass for more than a prelude. For anyone that's played Opus 28, he will know that most of the preludes are not difficult to play at all, and almost all of them are intermediate level. So taking these facts into consideration, while keeping in mind that Chopin wrote scores of piano work almost all of which is extremely popular and often played at concerts and recitals, it is no wonder that the preludes suffer the blow.
          But in truth, the preludes are no less ingenious than the scherzos and ballades, something their seeming simplicity obfuscates. Franz List once said of the Opus: "Chopin’s preludes are compositions of an order entirely apart. They are not only, as the title might make one think, pieces destined to be played in the guise of introductions to other pieces; they are poetic preludes, analogous to those of a great contemporary poet, who cradles the soul in golden dreams, and elevates it to the regions of the ideal." Indeed, if a poet could cradle the soul half as well as that I would be impressed. Such is the power of words; such is the power of music. The preludes are not meant to be played as individual pieces, but as a collective unit, a compilation of the different aspects of the soul. Each prelude flows well and appropriately into the next as if painting a whole picture with many small ones. There are 24 preludes, one in each key, beginning on C major and working upward in the circle of fifths. There has definitely been criticism regarding the work, but that should not deter anybody from approaching the music clear minded. One musicologist has been quoted as saying that if all the music in the world should be destroyed with the exception of one piece, it should be Chopin's Opus 28. Prelude No. 20, the funeral march, captures with such stunning accuracy the mortality of life, and one renowned pianist once told me that in this prelude Chopin is writing about his own death, his own funeral. In Prelude No. 4 in E minor Chopin expresses the indifference of the world to an individual's sorrow and pain. The prelude begins with basic chords which even climax into a chilling forte, but the indifference of the world continues like nothing happened. The different expression of the soul are enunciated beautifully in the opus, which is truly an epic work. So no, there are no fugues, but the language of the soul is in preludes, which make up a beautiful picture. 

Rubinstein plays prelude no.20

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Suite for Toy Piano?

Ya.  You heard right.  If you have never heard of such a concept as a real composition for a toy piano, or something called a "prepared piano", or of a "musical" composition that contains no notes, or a man named John Cage you are definitely not alone, and in such an instance many would apply the maxim "ignorance is bliss".  Now, I have to be frank.  Just a short while ago in my life I would have used this post as an opportunity to rant on the utter destructiveness of post-modern artistic and musical styles, and I would have eulogized the impending deaths of Mozart and Schubert while this "noise" (or silence) grabs control of the concert halls.  I apologize to those who would have enjoyed reading that post, but over the past few years I've mellowed down a bit, or rather, matured a bit.  Look, when I was reared as a child it was ingrained in me that that music is synonymous with Bach and Beethoven.  Of course I've always appreciated classical rock, jazz, and other musical styles, but abstract music was a big no no.  At one point one of my music teachers told me "you know, one day you're gonna be sick and tired of listening to the predictable music of Mozart and Haydn and you'll need something else to satisfy your ear".  At the time I thought the idea was laughable.  Sick of Mozart?  But as the years have gone by, while I do not think I will ever become "sick" of Mozart, I have learned to appreciate newer styles of music.  Now, John Cage certainly is not your typical abstract composer.  But his ideas are definitely thought provoking and even beautiful.  The other night I asked a friend if I could sing 4"33 for him, and even though he really did not want to hear it I sang it anyway.  And let me tell you - my voice has never sounded more perfect.  The idea John Cage tries to promote is the beauty of the music around us.  When was the last time you thought of the car honking as music.  Or the air conditioner.  Noise is music.  The classical definition of music is generally understood to be "organized sound", but who said that "unorganized sound" is not music either.  Don't get me wrong - I would rather listen to Brahms than a "prepared piano" any day of the week,  but there is certainly beauty in the "non-music" music.  So, yea, while I think the idea of a suite for a toy piano is a bit absurd, I think the absurdity is what makes it beautiful.  
Here is a clip of John Cage talking about his idea of music:
Here is a clip of 4"33.  Vote on the poll what you think.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Art of Concertos

Throughout the history of classical music different compositional styles have come and gone, an idea, if thought about, which has contributed significantly to the beauty and complexity of music itself.  Bach wrote fugues and toccatas, an area of music which is central to classical music and to the development of later styles, but not seen too much in later repertoire.  Sonatas, symphonies, fantasies, impromptus, are all different styles and each has its proper place and time in the music universe.  Out of all the styles, I am often most touched and intrigued by concertos.  Just for the sake of clarification, a concerto is a piece of music which contains in it a strong emphasis on a particular solo instrument.  For instance, a violin concerto contains a regular orchestra and a violin which accompanies it, or often "debates" or "responds" to it.  When I think about it concertos often really touch upon the essence of what music is all about.  In our lives we have music all around us.  The people we live with, the cars and buses, the buildings and trees, our friends and our enemies.  Sometimes the music in our lives can be pleasant and sometimes it can be painful and harsh, but often we are so overcome by the music around us that we fail to hear the music of ourselves.  In Beethoven's Piano Concert in G major I hear the piano standing up to the world and taking a stance.  I hear myself in the piano debating and standing up for myself against my opposition.  In Elgar's Cello Concerto I hear myself in the cello singing along with the rest of the orchestra, but with my own voice.  The cello gives expression to the self in the whole.  The individual amongst the many.  There is hardly any other way in music to express the call of the individual, the shouting of the person, other than concertos.  And with that I shall leave you with a bit of true self expression:
Grieg's Piano Concerto.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Aaron Copland - America's Music

Now that we're still somewhat in the celebratory spirit and the July 4th festivities are lingering inside us, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about Aaron Copland, the father of American music.  Honestly, I fell in love with Copland the first time I heard his music.  I remember quite vividly listening to a piece on the radio when I was a child which I really liked, and as it turned out it was Copland (although I do not remember exactly which one).  The great thing about Copland is he was able to write music which had a uniquely modern style to it, very American with elements of jazz and folk, while simultaneously keeping the sound extremely conservative as there are barely any elements of dissonance or atonality in it.  A lot of his music is fun and jolly (the first time I heard "Billy the Kid" I literally laughed it was so great), and some of his music is more solemn and serious, but everything he wrote had a really special spirit to it.  Here is a clip of one of his pieces, Rodeo, which I'm sure you've heard even if you're not familiar with his music.

It should be pretty clear to you now why Copland is known to be the father of Ameican music.  Copland was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1900 to Jewish immigrants from Lithuania.  When he was an adolescent and young adult he felt that if he tried he would be able to make classical music in America just as popular as jazz was.  In a sense he succeeded.  As a young man he went to France to study music, which was at that time the heart of music, and he met great personalities such as Serge Koussevitzky who encouraged him to write a piece for the Boston Symphony Orchestra to which he obliged and entitled the composition "Symphony for Organ and Orchestra".   Throughout his life Copland wrote many pieces, much of which included scores for the theater and ballet.  He wasn't just limited to American music either.  Copland's dream was to bring classical music to Mexico as well.  In the 1930's he wrote a composition called "El Salon Mexico" which really was able to synthesize classical music with Mexican folk music.  Some of his most famous scores were from the movie "Our Town" and "Of Mice and Men".  He was also very involved in Tanglewood, the Berkshire summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in which he taught for nearly two and half decades.  There was also a stage in his life when he was involved in conducting and he made appearances throughout the world as a guest conductor.  
In my opinion what made Copland really special was his passion to bring classical music to the world and his vision of integrating it with the popular music of the time.  He was a romantic; he was an impressionist; he was a modernist.  He created the future and he continued the past. 

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Independence Day

I hope everyone is enjoying their Independence Day weekend, and that everyone is doing something meaningful to celebrate this day.  The video I posted above is Horowitz's transcription of Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever", believe it or not it is probably Horowitz's most famous composition.  Something nice to add to your Independence Day experience (Perhaps some BBQ background music;)).  It is really a nice time of year, now that school's out and all, to appreciate the wonderful country that we live in, the country that introduced democracy to the world and freedom for everyone.  Let's just pray that America remains the stronghold in international politics, and that even if the East becomes stronger politically, that we should not lose our freedom and way of life in this country.  I would just like to share a quick thought about the day (nothing to do with music).  On Independence Day I think that it would be a good time to reassess our value system as a country, and that by no means is meant to imply that our current system is bad or incorrect, but rather that some of the main foundations of our values have perhaps been misconstrued to some extent.  Independence and democracy are good things and I do not believe that any true American at heart would say otherwise.  When our forefathers founded this land they meant it to be a place where people could live in harmony and there would be no oppression based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or anything.  There could be freedom of speech, carrying arms, religion, and so many more rights that were denied (and still denied) in many countries.  After America spread the idea of democracy, many more countries have followed a similar system to our credit.  Yet, independence was not intended to be incompetent with ethics.  Why are so many Americans today depressed, unhappy with their marriages, and despise aging?  Why is a ridiculously high percentage of spouses cheating on the other, or men addicted to pornography?  I think the answer to all these questions is because we are so obsessed with independence that the freedom has come to lead people to so much selfishness and unhappiness.  When you sit next to someone on a bus, when was the last time you said hello and introduced yourself?  Even freedom carries with it the burden of obligation.  Obligation to a spouse, child, neighbor, country, and even to the country.  People are happier when they are selfless.  There is really nothing more redeeming than realizing that you are living your life for something or someone greater than yourself.  There is no need to run after wealth or physical beauty unless a person is truly unhappy with who he is.  And the more selfish a person becomes the more unhappy and arrogant he becomes.  The entire country was created on the premise that we are meant to work together and not be completely self-absorbed.  We are meant to share our lives with one another; not create a wall in our brains that says that anything that doesn't have anything to do with me is nonexistent.  Freedom, more often than less, means being able to do things and not doing them because there are greater responsibilities.  Greater things in life.  Unfortunately we see this in times of war and suffering, but not enough in times of peace.  After September 11th, for example, there was so much unity in the country and people actually came out of their bubble for a little bit because the country as a whole was under attack.  And that feeling still has not left.  I think it is truly important on this day to appreciate the real freedom we have and to use that freedom, not to chain our lives, but to make our lives all the more meaningful.  Happy Independence Day!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Rufus Wainwright - Prima Donna

Firstly, I feel it extremely important to bring to everyone's attention that the New York City Opera, as of now, is planning on leaving the David H. Koch Theatre in Lincoln Center (which also houses the New York City Ballet) because of financial reasons.  Clearly this would be a huge loss, not just for Lincoln Center, but for the entire New York music world.  There is a petition which calls to allow the Opera to stay where it is, which I encourage everyone to sign.  The petition can be found on the website:  I just signed the petition moments ago, and it doesn't cost any money so there's nothing to lose.  On the petition you can post a comment for added effect, which is probably most effective if short but meaningful.  I thought I might share with you my comment:
To me, Lincoln Center represents the heart of music.  I have been coming to Lincoln Center ever since I was a little kid, and I will never forget my first concert there.  The NYC Opera is an integral and intrinsic part of the Center and I think it would be a real loss for the entire music world, and especially for New York.  I think that it would be an extremely worthy cause to make sure that the Opera does not leave its heart.  
You can read more about the decision on this article by the NY Times.  

Speaking of the New York City Opera, just two nights ago, Tuesday night, the Opera put on a free concert at the Winter Garden of the 
World Financial Center, starring Rufus Wainwright who is most well-known for his opera "Prima Donna" which the NYC Opera is planning on presenting next spring.  The opera premiered in 2oo9 in Manchester, but has yet to see the face of New York.  At the concert the other night, Wainwright played two arias from the opera (which is in French), "Dans mon pays de Picardie" and the more famous one "Les feux d’artifice".  There is no question Wainwright is extremely talented and writes nice music, but his composition skills are not as up to par as many would expect a professional composer's to be.  In terms of his "pop" music which includes repertoire such as his "Hallelujah" and "Across the Universe" I happen to be a big fan and I think he is a really talented composer (and musician).  You definitely hear a lot of Bob Dylan in his music, and there is definitely a lot of heart and soul which makes it so attractive.  The simplicity of his music with the heart definitely puts him in the same ballpark as Chapin, Dylan, and Judy Gardland, and for that he gets two thumbs up.  Although I've never heard his opera, Prima Donna (no, I never went to England to see it), I have heard mixed things about it.  While people say that it is a creative opera, it apparently has plenty of faults.  Just the language, French, for instance, seems to be a rather ironic choice for an opera who's themes (both content and music) are overtly more modern than 19th century Bizet, and for whom English would seem to be much more appropriate a choice.  In fact, the Met is not performing the opera at all (even though it helped commission it along with the NYC Opera) because they wanted it to be in English.  Besides the language though, many of the musical passage's transitions have been allegedly rigid or not smooth, and the entire tone of the piece is apparently unclear and ambiguous.  Even so, I do hope to see the opera when it comes to New York (hopefully at Lincoln Center), and I am very much anticipating the event.  

In terms of the rest of the concert on Tuesday, Wainwright performed a few of his pops songs, and there was a performance of a few other opera arias, including Bizet's "Habanera" from Carmen and the quartet from the third act of "Rigoletto" by Verdi.  You can read more about the concert on this article by the Times, as well as an article (also by the Times) written in 2009 about Prima Donna after its premier in Manchester.  I do not think I could close this post without posting a video of the quartet in Rigoletto, now that I mentioned it, as it happens to be my favorite aria in opera. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Claude Bolling - Baroque Jazz

A piano teacher once told me "Bach is the source of everything".  I did not understand at the time the truth and depth of those words, and to this day I still do not fully grasp that concept, but the more music I listen to the more I understand.  I have often heard people say things along the lines of "Bach is boring" or "baroque music is dull", but truly trained ears can hear that all music has its sources in baroque and especially in Bach.  Many later composers implement baroque styles more evidently (take Beethoven's string quartets, for instance, or Mozart's Requiem), but even in those compositions that you cannot directly hear baroque music, the sources lie in it.  While this is a complex concept to fully comprehend, the connection between baroque and jazz does not take a rocket scientist to grasp.  The entire concept of jazz is based directly off of the baroque style and is extremely evident when listening.  Sometimes when I'm listening to Miles Davis I can just hear a Bach fugue accompanying.  There is really no one who brings out this connection more than Claude Bolling, a French composer, who wrote "baroque jazz" music.  The first time I listened to a recording of this type of music (it actually was not a Bolling CD) I was literally blown away.  Bolling really displays true brilliance in connecting these two types of music.  You cannot really understand that "Bach was centuries after his time" until you listen to Bolling.  The music is simple, granted, but simplicity breeds genius and this is some of the most creative stuff you can get your hands on.  All music, in truth, is interrelated and you can always trace different styles back to different sources. While much of it is not so obvious, I think a lot of the time this connectivity is overlooked and not appreciated enough.  Often the transition between different periods fogs this notion, but the concept still remains true.  Here is a sample of his music (Yo-Yo Ma plays cello).  I think you'll enjoy.

Concerts in the Park - where art thou?

For all of you that read my post about the summer, can now shed a tear or two for probably my favorite New York City event of the season.  The "concerts in the park" which has been one of the New York Philharmonic's most anticipated traditions, is taking a bow off the stage for the summer of 2011.  Alan Gilbert, the Philharmonic's music director, said that instead he wants to do a memorial concert for September eleventh, and he will also do a concert in Central Park on September 15th.  I can't say that I am not disappointed, although I do think the memorial concert is a really good thing.  The concert in the park events were really a big part of my summer, sitting on the Great Lawn of Central Park listening to the Philharmonic - New York, music, get the idea.  Anyway, here is an article from the New York Times about the decision.  Really good article.

Ok, a couple of other quick things.  Firstly, I would like to draw your attention to the "pages" link on the side of the blog which I will be quickly adding to.  I am going to make a new page which will feature a new musical personality (composer, conductor, musician etc.) or composition every week.  I will give an overview of it/him/her and talk about it.  I really am open to comments, so if there is anything you want me to write about, whether on that page or the entire blog, just let me know by writing a comment or sending an email and I will definitely read it and, if feasible, write about it.  

Finally, I couldn't leave you without a piece of music.  Here is a great video of Wynton Marsalis playing Haydn's trumpet concerto (1st mov.).  A really really great piece of music.  

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Keeping Score

It's strange that for a composer who wrote brilliant and legendary music, who was the conductor for the New York Philharmonic, and who was just overall one of the biggest musicians of last century, that one of his greatest legacies should be a television series he aired for children.  Everyone's heard (if not seen) of Leonard Bernstein's "young people's concerts" - aired 53 times in forty countries across the world - in which he would talk about different musical topics to children.  The bad news is that we don't have Leonard Bernstein anymore.  The good news is that we have the San Francisco's Symphony Orchestra which is now airing a new television series called "Keeping Score".  My understanding is that "keeping score" is not just geared for children, and it will focus on learning about specific composers (Mahler, I believe, is the first).  The series will be aired on PBS starting on June 30th.  "Keeping score" isn't just a television program however.  The Orchestra is doing an entire outreach program in which it will get children and the masses to learn more about classical music.  In an article I read by the Washington Post it said that one quarter of the audience at any given night at the Orchestra is the first time they're experiencing a classical music concert.  Cry or laugh, but it's just the facts.  I think this is a really great endeavor and it will hopefully make our youth a little more cultured and music-oriented.  We really need to educate our children (and even adults) about the importance of music, as our culture drifts further and further away from it.  Lady Gaga is real competition believe it or not.  This definitely will not be the last time I will be talking about the importance of musical outreach, so don't relax so quickly.  Here is a short video about their show about Mahler:

Monday, June 27, 2011

Summertime - no, not Gershwin

        Alas, the summer months are upon us and the living is easy, fish are jumping and the cotton is high, school's out and the music is playing.  In other time!  The great thing about New York (I apologize to all those out-of-towners) in the summer is that it presents endless cultural opportunities and the music always seems to be playing.  One of my favorite summer pastimes is just to walk around central park, breathe, and listen to the music.  A jazz trio, children playing, a solo clarinetist, and even the taxis seem to add a special dimension in the summer.  I feel that in the summer there is something more we can appreciate in music than the rest of the year, and it's not (just) the weather.  In the summer a whole burden of stress seems to be lifted from our shoulders, and even amongst those who work and don't have a break.  The stress of school, deadlines, family issues, all seem to be nonexistent for at least a period of time in the summer.  Love fills the air and music fills the souls.  We can take this stress-reduced time of year and really get in with what life is all about.  Whether it be the way we listen or make music, spend time with our family and friends, going to a museum, or just having a good time, the easy and cool aura of the summer can really give us a push for the rest of the year.
       We'll definitely be talking about the different musical opportunities over the summer, but for now here is  a great article I saw in the NY Times published this week about The Knights, an orchestral group that performs every summer in central park.  The concerts go until August 22 (so says the article) and if you want something musical, fun, and meaningful to do this summer, this is a wonderful opportunity.  So now is the time to gear up and really do the things that you can't do during the rest of the year (and in ways you can't during the rest of the year).  Toodaloo.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor

      I do not think it would be overly daring of me to vouch that I am not the only one who has been touched by little more than Felix Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in E minor.  Perhaps distinguished as one of the greatest romantic pieces written, Mendelssohn’s concerto is constantly performed at concerts throughout the world, well known even amongst people who do not indulge in music regularly, and always seems to touch and make a great impression on even the most “unmusical” soul.  I believe the first time I heard the concerto live was by the Israel Philharmonic at a special performance in Jerusalem, and I really felt as though the entire room was in a trance.  There is just something magical about music that some extremely talented composers are able to bring out in a very special way that is much more difficult to hear in other music.  Why it is this way with some compositions over others is a question that definitely cannot be answered simply, and maybe the answer lies deeper than words, but whatever it is you can definitely feel it when it comes.  Felix Mendelssohn is just one of those composers.  The great violinist Joseph Joachim once said: “The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven's. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart's jewel, is Mendelssohn's.”  The term “heart’s jewel” is a term that cannot be explained in any other way than the actual concerto itself, a concept that can be appreciated by anyone who listens to the piece.

            Perhaps a glimpse into the magic of the piece can be explained by the solitary and soloist nature of the violin, and perhaps one can even say – seductive.  Any concerto, for the most part, falls into one of two categories.  Either the solo instrument has a “conversation” or “argument” with the orchestra, or the solo instrument acts as a one-man show and the orchestra just acts as a supplement.  In this concerto there is no question that it is the violin who is speaking.  Just from the opening of the piece it is easy to tell that you aren’t in for your average composition.  Unlike many large compositions, Mendelssohn jumps in with the main theme from the very first note with the solo violin.  No orchestra.  Nothing fancy.  Throughout the entire piece it is the violin who is singing, crying, and laughing.  In all three movements the listener is touched by the deep and moving song of the violin and it’s almost as if the orchestra is just identifying with the violin as he gives a monologue of his life. Out of all the instruments violin is arguably the one that pulls on our heart strings (no pun intended) more than any other, and throughout the concerto it is almost as if the violin is coming from inside us.  The themes in the movements are relatively simple, easily hummable, and pretty catchy (especially the finale), but somehow that pure simplicity really adds to the magic of the piece. 

Friday, June 24, 2011

To Mozart or not to Mozart - that is the question.

For as long as I can remember I was under the impression that Mozart himself began his piano career as a child by playing a Mozart sonata.  The truth is, is that is not so off as Mozart did began writing his first sonata at the age of three as the legend goes.  But it still remains a mystery to me why the first "real" music children are taught is Mozart.  On the one hand, it is easy to understand what attracts piano teachers to Mozart and why it has become such standard repertoire for beginner pianists.  For one, it is rather "basic" music and does not require any fancy techniques that many other composers require like Chopin or Schumann, and it also serves as a good way to fool children into practicing their scales.  I'd say an average Mozart sonata has more basic scales in it than in almost any other composer.  The melodies are fun and simple and the harmonies are not too strenuous or tedious - but, when played right, can greatly increase the pianists's skills.  Like all Mozart - simple but genius.
So, at first glance, it would seem as though the practice to begin teaching with Mozart is the best way to go. 
Now here is my problem.  While Mozart cunningly appears as the easiest music to play, in reality it is probably one of the hardest to master.  I had a piano teacher once whose father used to be a concert pianist (the real stuff), and my teacher told me that his father always refused to play Mozart in concert.  Why?  Well if he hit a wrong note in a Schubert impromptu or in a Debussy piece most likely it would go by unnoticed by the large majority of the audience.  But if you play a wrong note in Mozart even the most unmusical person would be able to notice.  Now, that's not the reason why Mozart is more difficult and should not be starters' music, but it definitely adds to the complexity of the pieces.  Vladmir Horowitz once said "you need to play Chopin like Mozart and Mozart like Chopin", and any pianist out there knows exactly what he is talking about.  Mozart may come off as simple and easy but that's only if it's played poorly.  The way Horowitz played Mozart doesn't come anywhere near how a beginner plays it.  Yes, it increases your skills, and yes, it has easier notes than other composers, but it completely sucks out the music of the piece.  You can't fake a Chopin nocturne as "soulless" or "dull" but if you don't play Mozart correctly then it is very easy to mistake it for a bunch of scales.  
That's just one point.  Another reason I do not think Mozart should be starting music is precisely because the exactness of how it is supposed to be played.  Don't get me wrong - I certainly do not think children should not be taught exactness and should be allowed to get away with small mistakes in the piece.  But in Mozart it is so difficult to get everything perfect and perfection is the key in Mozart.  Like I said, if you mess up one note in Mozart it completely destroys the piece.  I feel that it is often too tedious for little kids to get an entire Mozart sonata perfect, so why start with something that they will not be able to play entirely well?  And even worse than a wrong note (and this goes with any composer) is a bad interpretation which is almost inevitable for a child who just began playing.  
What should we start our little ones on then?  It's a good question and it needs much thought.  Perhaps easy Chopin, Bach, it is definitely not an easy answer, but I think the time has come for a change in piano teachers syllabus'.