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'.  

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Strauss's Don Juan

The first time I heard Don Juan live was at Tanglewood in the Berkshires a few summers ago.   (For anyone out there who is in love with music knows that Tanglewood - summer home to the Boston Pops - is the place to be in the summer.)  This video is from the first performance Alan Gilbert, the current music director of the New York Philharmonic, conducted the Philharmonic.  Quite unbelievable.

This masterpiece by the great German composer Richard Strauss, written in 1888 and first performed in 1889, is known to be one of the classics of the late romantic period and the magnum opus of Strauss.  The piece is a tone poem based off the poem "Don Juan" written by the Austrian writer Nikolaus Lenau just decades earlier in 1844.  Don Juan, a character used by numerous composers in their works is known for his seducing women and "“to enjoy in one woman, all women, since he cannot possess them as individuals.”  
My favorite part about this opus is the great and brilliant use of music color - the way he uses different instruments and sounds.  While the piece starts off with a grand opening of the strings, the woodwinds soon come in with a beautiful melody and their use I think is very important to the beauty of the piece.  Woodwinds can either ruin a piece or make a piece.  They have that element of fantasy and charm while if used correctly can completely elevate the piece or, if not, destroy it.  Besides the woodwinds he uses bells a lot throughout the piece which really add to the fantastical element of it.  I don't know of that many compositions which use bells so regularly and untamed throughout an entire piece.  Finally, he also uses the horns at the appropriate times which really add to the effect of the louder moments such as about ten minutes into the piece he begins a nice (and famous) melody with the horns and its effect I do not think could be captured with other instruments.  
The two central melodies to the piece, the daring one started by the strings in the opening and the soft beautiful one played by the flutes, are a really terrific contrast to the beauty (of the women supposedly) and to the daringness of Don Juan.  (This is almost reminiscent of the contrast Schumann uses in his piano opus "Kreisleriana" between the monster and the little boy.) 
Already from the start of the piece one can hear Wagner shouting out of the orchestra (perhaps a bit tamed, although).  One of the reasons I am such a big fan of Strauss is particularly because he really takes advantage of the modern and grand Wagnerian style, while at the same time not straying off the path of his earlier romantic predecessors.  He does not come all-out like Wagner but he is definitely closer to Wagner than any of his contemporaries.  If you are not "literate" in Strauss do not be fooled by this piece.  Other pieces of his such as "Also Spake Zarathusra" are much more Wagnerian than this, but I would still say that this piece well represents Strauss.