Book Review: The Cat Who Went to Heaven

The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth
Scholastic, Inc. 1987

I’ve always liked stories that begin, “Once upon a time.”  Those four simple words impart a timeless quality to the narrative that follows, and all by themselves, do a commendable job of setting the mood for the rest of the story.  I like them also because they evoke memories of my early childhood, when almost every story I heard began that way.  In any case, that’s the way The Cat Who Went to Heaven begins:

Once upon a time, far away in Japan, a poor young artist sat alone in his little house, waiting for his dinner.  His housekeeper had gone to market, and he sat sighing to think of all the things he wished she would bring home.  He expected her to hurry in at any minute, bowing and opening her little basket to show him how wisely she had spent their few pennies.  He heard her step, and jumped up.  He was very hungry!

But the housekeeper lingered by the door, and the basket stayed shut.

“Come,” he cried, “what is in that basket?”

What is in the basket?  Perhaps a few of the rice cakes so beloved by the artist, or little cakes filled with sweet bean jelly?  No, it is a cat that the housekeeper bought from a fisherman in the market.  The artist is angry at first about the new arrival, but grudgingly agrees to keep her:

“Let us see the creature,” he said, pretending he scarcely cared whether he saw it or not.

So the old woman put down the basket and opened the lid.  Nothing happened for a moment.  Then a round, pretty, white head came slowly above the bamboo, and two big yellow eyes looked about the room, and a little white paw appeared on the rim.  Suddenly, without moving the basket at all, a little white cat jumped out on the mats, and stood there as a person might who scarcely knew if she were welcome.  Now that the cat was out of the basket, the artist saw that she had yellow and black spots on her sides, a little tail like a rabbit’s, and that she did everything daintily.

“Oh, a three-colored cat,” said the artist.  “Why didn’t you say so from the beginning?  They are very lucky, I understand.

Was it just luck that brought the cat into their lives, or was it something else, perhaps the kind heart of the housekeeper?  Whatever it was, the artist decides she may stay, and at the housekeeper’s suggestion, they name her Good Fortune.

Initially, the artist merely tolerates her presence in his house…

But one day he was forced to admit that Good Fortune was not like other cats.  He was sitting in his especial room watching sparrows fly in and out of the hydrangea bushes outside, when he saw Good Fortune leap from a shadow and catch a bird.  In a second the brown wings, the black-capped head, the legs like briers, the frightened eyes, were between her paws.  The artist would have clapped his hands and tried to scare her away, but before he had time to make the least move, he saw Good Fortune hesitate and then slowly, slowly, lift first one white paw and then another from the sparrow.  Unhurt, in a loud whir of wings, the bird flew away.

“What mercy!” cried the artist, and the tears came into his eyes.  Well he knew his cat must be hungry and well he knew what hunger felt like.  “I am ashamed when I think that I called such a cat a goblin,” he thought.  “Why, she is more virtuous than a priest.”

It was just then, at that very moment, that the old housekeeper appeared, trying hard to hide her excitement.

“Master!” she said as soon as she could find words.  “Master!  The head priest from the temple himself is here in the next room and wishes to see you.  What, oh what, do you think His Honor has come here for?”

It turns out that the head priest has come to commission a painting of the death of Buddha to hang in the temple, a commission that would mean a complete reversal in the fortunes of the artist, for as the priest remarks, “What the temple approves becomes the fashion in the town.”  The next day, the artist undertakes to begin the painting, but before he sets out his silk, ink, and water, he first meditates on the Buddha.  He realizes that “…he must strive to understand the Buddha before he could paint him.”  When he has finished painting the Buddha, he begins to meditate on all the animals he has yet to paint, animals that came to honor the Buddha on his deathbed: the snail, the elephant, the horse, the swan, the water buffalo, the dog, the deer, the monkey, and the tiger.  While he is reflecting upon them…

Good Fortune came out from his shadow.  When she saw the tiger she trembled all over, from her thistledown whiskers to her little tail, and she looked at the artist.

“If the tiger can come to bid farewell to Buddha,” she seemed to say, “surely the cat, who is little and often so gentle, may come, O master?  Surely, surely, you will next paint the cat among the animals who were blessed by the Holy One as he died?”

The artist was much distressed.

“Good Fortune,” he said, gently taking her into his arms. “I would gladly paint the cat if I could.  But all people know that cats, though lovely, are unusually proud and self-satisfied.  Alone among the animals, the cat refused to accept the teachings of Buddha.  She alone, of all creatures, was not blessed by him…”

The Cat Who Went to Heaven was the winner of the 1931 Newbery Medal for children’s literature, but it is one of those rare books – like Charlotte’s Web and Bridge to Terabithia – that can be enjoyed by adults and children alike.  There are lessons to be learned from it by readers of all ages, not the sort of lesson we learn consciously, but longer lasting lessons that we absorb without knowing it, lessons learned by example.  It is, of course, a story about an artist, a housekeeper, and a cat, but it is a great deal more.  It is a story about sacrifice, compassion, and mercy.

Illustration by Lynd Ward (Click to enlarge.)

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on April 30, 2017 at 6:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Lowell Liebermann: Gargoyles, Op. 29 Pianist – Yuja Wang

There is good and bad music of all kinds being written at all times, and the musical fascists that would impose their own stylistic prejudices on the public are the people who are striking a real blow to the health of our musical culture. – Lowell Liebermann

Lowell Liebermann (photo: Christian Steiner)

After attending the concert given by Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang in Seattle last month, (you can read my review here) I spent some time exploring the many videos of Yuja Wang available online.  I discovered many I hadn’t seen before, and was especially taken with her performance of “Gargoyles” by Lowell Liebermann.  I had never heard of Liebermann, and was singularly happy to discover a contemporary composer whose music I really liked, an enthusiasm I think you will share after watching the video below.

The following biographical sketch of Liebermann and description of Gargoyles were written by Joseph Stevenson for allmusic.com.

Gargoyles is a colorful and engaging set of four piano pieces resembling concert etudes by one of America’s most promising young composers of its day.  He has since gone on to fulfill that promise.  Lowell Liebermann was born on George Washington’s birthday (February 22) in 1961 in New York City.  He began studying piano at eight and composition at 14, and received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from the Juilliard School of Music.  His composition teachers included David Diamond and Vincent Persichetti.  He wrote this piano set two years after finishing his doctorate.  In the 1990s he went on to write acclaimed symphonies and concertos for such soloists as flutist James Galway and Stephen Hough.  He is among the generation of American composers who left the old twelve-tone system behind and rediscovered the vitality of an extended use of tonality, freely using all the chromatic notes but generally remaining in contact with a sense of tonal center.

As a longtime devotee of art and architecture, Liebermann joins many in being bemused by gargoyles, the representations of fantastic monsters that often embellish churches and other old buildings and are said to have been placed there to scare away evil spirits.  The title “Gargoyles” refers to the general mood of the set — which is eerie and mysterious throughout and often scary and threatening — but the individual pieces do not depict any particular real or imagined gargoyles.  The piano style is rather similar to that of Sergei Prokofiev, although the harmonies are a bit more densely chromatic.  Altogether the piece runs about ten minutes.

The first movement, Presto, is a devilish work at rapid speed with wide leaps, double notes, and quick, disorienting changes in touch and loudness.  The whole effect is unsettled.  The following Adagio semplice, ma con molto rubato, is a very Romantic piece in mood (though the harmonies remain more modern), with repeated figures in the bass and a legato melody in octaves.  Even more flowing and beautiful is the third movement, Allegro moderato.  Here a melody is embedded in a flowing, wave-like figure that both hands share.  The finale is another movement at a flat-out tempo, Presto feroce.  It is ferocious, a taxing and grotesque dance in the venerable Italian tarantella rhythm.

Joseph Stevenson

When I first heard this piece, I was struck primarily by its technical demands, and by the seemingly effortless way in which Yuja Wang surmounts them.  There’s something almost nonchalant about her virtuosity.  (If I were a pianist, I might say, “unfair”.)  With each successive hearing, Gargoyles feels more unified to me, and I become aware of different aspects of its structure.  I’m looking forward to listening to more of Liebermann’s work, much of which is available on YouTube.

If you would like to know more about Lowell Liebermann, I encourage you to watch this interview with him, hosted by Zsolt Bognár for Living the Classical Life.  You may also want to read this fascinating essay from newmusicbox.org.  In it, Liebermann talks at length about his own music and influences, as well as the state of contemporary classical music.

The following video is taken from an April 2013 recital in Tokyo’s Toppan Hall.  The tempo markings and start times of the four movements are as follows:

0:18  I. Presto
2:00  II. Adagio semplice, ma con molto rubato
4:24  III. Allegro moderato
6:45  IV. Presto feroce

Published in: on March 31, 2017 at 4:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Concert Review: Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall

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Yuja Wang and Leonidas Kavakos at the post-concert reception, Feb. 10, 2017.

Earlier this month, Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang gave their first joint appearance in Seattle in a recital that will long be remembered by those fortunate enough to attend.  Their recital happened to fall on Ms. Wang’s birthday, but it was the audience that received a present: a program of music that, while by no means esoteric, was certainly lesser known, and just as certain to expand and enrich the musical lives of everyone in attendance.

I had lingering reservations about attending this recital, reservations that had nothing to do with the program or with Leonidas Kavakos, whom I had heard perform with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in 2006, and whom I featured on this blog two years ago in a performance of the Korngold violin concerto.  My concerns were related solely to Yuja Wang, who, while she possesses a virtuoso technique, seems often in her programs to emphasize style over substance, and whose attire seems inevitably to distract the viewer from the music and overshadow her musicianship.  For an in-depth discussion of the style vs. substance dichotomy as it relates to Ms. Wang, I refer the reader to this article from the Sept. 5, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.

My concerns about Ms. Wang’s attire vanished the moment she appeared on stage, wearing an elegant, floor-length, off-white gown that would have passed muster in even the most conservative of concert settings.  Relieved that I would be able to focus all my attention on the music, I settled back to enjoy the first piece on the program: the Violin Sonata by Leoš Janáček.  This is an exceptionally passionate work, one that both challenges and rewards the listener.  The second movement is especially tender, and was the high point of the sonata for me.  Mr. Kavakos and Ms. Wang clearly see themselves as servants of the music, and surely won many new friends for Janáček with this performance.

After the passion of the Janáček, I was grateful for the peaceful opening of Schubert’s Fantasie in C major.  In the playful second movement, Wang and Kavakos demonstrated ensemble playing of the highest order.  The song-like third movement reminded us once again of Schubert’s unsurpassed gift for melody, and filled the concert hall with the same spiritual ambiance one might feel in a cathedral.  Despite the diverse character of the four sections of the last movement, it felt unified from beginning to end, and the main theme of the Allegro vivace conveyed a surpassing joy.

The second half of the program began with Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G minor.  Composed in 1917, this sonata was Debussy’s final major work.  Unlike the other pieces on the program, all of which deserve a wider audience, this sonata has been a staple of the violinist’s repertoire from the beginning.  When Ms. Wang played the two soft chords with which it begins, and which carried beautifully all the way to my seat in the third tier, I was struck at once with the thought, “What a touch!”  Later, reflecting on the performance as a whole, I noted, “Just wonderful playing!”

The final work on the program was Bartok’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in C-sharp minor.  This sonata was composed in 1921, and I cannot hear it except as a reaction to the horrors of World War I.  The first movement, marked allegro appassionato, burns white-hot from the very first notes.  Both players need a huge technique to carry off this piece.  The second movement, adagio, conveys utter desolation.  All is lost.  Kavakos and Wang adopted a more relaxed tempo in this movement than one sometimes hears, which added to the sense of desolation.  The third movement, marked allegro, is simply breathtaking: a 19th century friska in 20th century garb, building to an overpowering climax as it speeds to the finish.

The effect was overwhelming.  The audience loved it, and gave Kavakos and Wang an enthusiastic standing ovation.  In return, they gave us one encore, the graceful Andantino from Schubert’s Violin Sonata in A Major, D. 574, which, coming after the Bartok, may have been as necessary (for audience and performers alike) as cooling out a horse after a race.

All in all, it was an extraordinary recital, notable both for the artistry of the performers and the seriousness of the program.  There were no Kreisler transcriptions, no Carmen Fantasy.  Even the encore was not your typical crowd-pleaser.  There were no lollipops anywhere.  Instead, Kavakos and Wang gave us a four-course feast for the musical soul.  I look forward to their next appearance here.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on February 28, 2017 at 11:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Chopin: Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor Pianist – Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli

chopin

Frédéric Chopin

In 1963, when I was beginning to explore the world of classical music, there was no internet and, obviously, no YouTube.  CD’s were still twenty years in the future.  Long-playing, vinyl records were our primary means of discovering new music, and there was a wealth of them for us to choose from.  I well remember browsing through my local record store searching for the one record (perhaps two) that insisted on going home with me, and the sense of anticipation with which I placed it on the family turntable for the first time.

I was introduced to Chopin’s second piano sonata in just this way, through Vladimir Horowitz’ 1962 recording for Columbia Records, which also includes works by Schumann, Rachmaninoff, and Liszt.  In the liner notes to that recording, Thomas Frost quotes Horowitz as follows:

“All these pieces have been with me a long time.  The Chopin sonata I played first in ’22 or ’23.  It’s been a good friend throughout my career.  You know the story they tell – Chopin was asked if the finale was a ‘light wind over the grave’ and he said, ‘No, just gossiping between two hands.’  He was a moody man, Chopin.  But I think this idea of a final sigh or a ghostly wind over the grave is a good one.  Perhaps he meant that.”

In the same liner notes, Neville Cardus elaborates on the Chopin sonata as follows:

Schumann’s often-quoted remark about the B-flat Minor Sonata – “Chopin has simply bound together four of his most reckless children” – is taken to task by most modern critics, who feel that the work, despite its unclassical form, is a completely logical entity.  In his work on Chopin, Herbert Weinstock has written, “I have heard the sonata played so that it sounded like four separate pieces; the fault was the pianist’s… But I have heard it played…with the complete, overall, four-movement structural and aesthetic-emotional unity of a Mozart piano concerto or Beethoven piano sonata… Calling the B-flat Minor a sonata was neither caprice nor jest; it is a sonata by Chopin.”  Mr. Weinstock further feels that, “had Chopin written little else, it would entitle him to a position as peer of the greatest artistic creators.”

I was introduced to Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-1995) in the same way, through his 1957 recording for Angel Records of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4.  Harold Schonberg, in The Great Pianists (1963), has this to say about Michelangeli:

If there is an Italian school, it is represented by the puzzling and redoubtable figure of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, the most important Italian pianist after Busoni (if Busoni be considered Italian).  Purely as a playing machine, Michelangeli is a legend to his colleagues, who put him in the Horowitz class as a super-virtuoso.  Some of his playing is startling in its sheer pianistic polish and perfection.  His fingers can no more hit a wrong note or smudge a passage than a bullet can be veered off course once it has been fired.  In addition he is a complete master of tonal application, as evidenced in his performance of Gaspard de la Nuit.  By any standards this is one of the triumphs of modern pianism…

Fortunately for all of us, Michelangeli’s artistry is well represented on YouTube, in both video and audio-only clips.  The interested reader will find not only his performances of the Ravel and Rachmaninoff concertos that captivated me, and the Gaspard mentioned by Schonberg, but also much by Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Debussy, and many others.

The following video is taken from a 1962 documentary devoted to Michelangeli that includes nearly two hours of Chopin’s music.  The four movements of this sonata, and their start times in the video, are as follows:

I. Grave; Doppio movimento – 0:30
II. Scherzo – 8:42
III. Marche funèbre; Lento – 16:13
IV. Presto – 25:43

Published in: on January 31, 2017 at 5:21 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Pianist – Maria João Pires

Mozart in 1777, the year this concerto was composed, by an unknown artist.

Mozart in 1777, the year this concerto was composed, by an unknown artist.

Three months ago, in my post of September 30, I linked to a video of pianist Maria João Pires expecting to play one Mozart concerto, only to discover that the conductor had a completely different one in mind.  That Ms. Pires was able to recover from the shock and play the second concerto – without the score – speaks volumes about her memory, and her presence of mind as well.

Having listened to her magnificent performance of the “surprise” concerto, I now want to present Ms. Pires performing the concerto she was expecting to play that day: Mozart’s Concerto No. 9 in E-flat, now called the “Jenamy”.  But first, a word about its subtitle, courtesy of Wikipedia:

The work has long been known as the Jeunehomme Concerto. [In fact, that’s how I referred to it in September. – DR]  Théodore de Wyzéwa and Georges de Saint-Foix claimed that Mozart wrote the piece for a French pianist ‘Jeunehomme’ visiting Salzburg.  This name is however incorrect; in 2004 Michael Lorenz demonstrated that the name was actually Victoire Jenamy (1749–1812), a daughter of Jean-Georges Noverre, a dancer who was one of Mozart’s friends.  Mozart had made Victoire Jenamy’s acquaintance during his stay in Vienna in 1773.

The interested reader will find much more information online from Michael Lorenz about discovering the correct subtitle for this concerto, but more interesting to me is what he has to say about the piece itself:

Mozart’s Piano Concerto K. 271 “Jenamy” can be described as a miracle of musical originality.  In the mastership of its orchestration, its stupendous innovative energy and its effect, despite limited instrumental means, this piece has absolutely no precedent.  It is Mozart’s first great composition, “his Eroica” as Alfred Einstein put it, “which he later would match, but never surpass.”

I can add little to that, except to say that this concerto is a joy from beginning to end.  Listening to it, I am struck over and over by the charm and elegance of the first movement, the surpassing tenderness of the second, and the jaunty exuberance of the third, which seems to go on and on in an ecstasy of imagination.  I’m especially grateful for the glorious sound in the attached video, in which John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

The three movements of the concerto, and their start times in the video, are as follows:

1. Allegro – 0:09
2. Andantino – 10:43
3. Rondo (Presto); Menuetto (Cantabile) – 22:06

Published in: on December 31, 2016 at 12:25 pm  Comments (2)  
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Saint-Saëns: The Carnival of the Animals With Verses by Ogden Nash

Camille Saint-Saëns by Alberto Rossi

Camille Saint-Saëns by Alberto Rossi

Long before I began writing this blog, I knew that one of the best, longest-lasting gifts one can give a child is an appreciation – a feeling – for classical music.  With that in mind, for the past few years during the gift-giving season, I have featured several videos especially for children: two short films by Andrew Rangell, an awe-inspiring performance of Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy by the ten-year-old Sarah Chang, and last year, a performance of Prokofiev’s beloved Peter and the Wolf.  I have every intention of continuing that tradition, and this year, I want to share a piece of music that was given to me as a child: Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals.

Saint-Saëns, who lived from 1835 to 1921, composed the Carnival in 1886, but, concerned that such a lighthearted work might harm his reputation as a serious composer, allowed only private performances of it during his lifetime.  Its public premiere took place in 1922, and it quickly became one of his best-loved works.

carnivalIn the late 1940s, Goddard Lieberman of Columbia Records and conductor Andre Kostelanetz had the inspired idea of adding poetry to Saint-Saëns’ score.  Ogden Nash was their first and only choice as poet, as was Noël Coward as speaker for the projected recording.  The result of this collaboration was released in 1950, and I was introduced to The Carnival of the Animals not long afterward.  I still have that record, by the way.  It may have played a large role in my love of poetry as well as classical music.

In the video that follows, Andre Kostelanetz conducts the New York Philharmonic.  Leonid Hambro and Jascha Zayde are the piano soloists, Julius Baker is the flute soloist on “The Birds”, and Frank Miller is the cellist on “The Swan”.

Incidentally, while I don’t speak French myself, I understand that the correct (that is to say, Saint-Saëns’ own) pronunciation of his name, is “sa(n) sonce”.

Introduction

Camille St. Saëns was wracked with pains
When people addressed him as “Saint Sains.”
He held the human race to blame
Because it could not pronounce his name.
So he turned with metronome and fife
To glorify other forms of life.
Be quiet, please, for here begins
His salute to feathers, furs, and fins.

Royal March of the Lion

The lion is the king of beasts
And husband of the lioness.
Gazelles and things on which he feasts
Address him as Your Highoness.
There are those who admire that roar of his
In the African jungles and veldts,
But I think, wherever a lion is,
I’d rather be somewhere else.

Hens and Roosters

The rooster is a roistering hoodlum,
His battle cry is cock-a-doodlum.
Hands in pockets, cap over eye,
He whistles at pullets passing by.

Wild Jackass

Have ever you harked to the jackass wild
Which scientists call the onager?
It sounds like the laugh of an idiot child
Or a hepcat on a harmoniger.
But do not sneer at the jackass wild,
There is method in his heehaw,
For with maidenly blush and accent mild,
The jenny-ass answers, shee-haw.

Tortoises

Come crown my brow with leaves of myrtle,
I know the tortoise is a turtle.
Come carve my name in stone immortal,
I know the turtoise is a tortle.
I know to my profound despair
I bet on one to beat a hare.
I also know I’m now a pauper
Because of its tortley, turtley, torpor.

The Elephant

Elephants are useful friends,
Equipped with handles at both ends.
They have a wrinkled moth-proof hide;
Their teeth are upside down, outside.
If you think the elephant preposterous,
You’ve probably never seen a rhinosterous.

Kangaroos

The kangaroo can jump incredible.
He has to jump because he’s edible.
I could not eat a kangaroo
But many fine Australians do.
Those with cookbooks as well as boomerangs
Prefer him in tasty kangaroo meringues.

The Aquarium

Some fish are minnows,
Some are whales.
People like dimples,
Fish like scales.
Some fish are slim,
And some are round.
They don’t get cold,
They don’t get drowned.
But every fish wife
Fears for her fish.
What we call mermaids
And they call merfish.

Mules

In the world of mules,
There are no rules.

The Cuckoo in the Depth of the Woods
(For some reason, this verse has been omitted
from the recording linked to above.)

Cuckoos lead bohemian lives,
They fail as husbands and as wives.
Therefore, they cynically disparage
Everybody else’s marriage.

The Birds

Puccini was Latin, and Wagner Teutonic,
And birds are incurably philharmonic.
Suburban yards and rural vistas
Are filled with avian Andrews Sisters.
The skylark sings a roundelay,
The crow sings “The Road to Mandalay.”
The nightingale sings a lullaby,
And the seagull sings a gullaby.
That’s what shepherds listened to in Arcadia
Before somebody invented the radia.

Pianists

Some claim that pianists are human,
And quote the case of Mr. Truman.
St. Saëns, upon the other hand,
Considered them a scurvy band.
Ape-like they are, he said, and simian,
Instead of normal men and wimian.

Fossils

At midnight in the museum hall,
The fossils gathered for a ball.
There were no drums or saxophones,
But just the clatter of their bones,
A rolling, rattling, carefree circus
Of mammoth polkas and mazurkas.
Pterodactyls and brontosauruses
Sang ghostly prehistoric choruses.
Amid the mastodonic wassail,
I caught the eye of one small fossil.
Cheer up, sad world, he said, and winked.
It’s kind of fun to be extinct.

The Swan

The swan can swim while sitting down.
For pure conceit he takes the crown.
He looks in the mirror over and over,
And claims to have never heard of Pavlova.

Finale

Now we reach the grand finale,
Animale, carnivale.
Noises new to sea and land
Issue from the skillful band.
All the strings contort their features,
Imitating crawly creatures.
All the brasses look like mumps
From blowing umpah umpah umps.
In outdoing Barnum and Bailey and Ringling,
St. Saëns has done a miraculous thingling.

Published in: on November 30, 2016 at 9:53 am  Leave a Comment  
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Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht

Arnold Schönberg by Gareth Southwell

Arnold Schönberg by Gareth Southwell

In my post of January 2012, which featured the Berg piano sonata in a performance by Marc-Andre Hamelin, I wrote that I had never counted any music by Berg, Webern, or Schoenberg among my favorites.  The lone exception was Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, which I fell in love with during my college days, courtesy of a 1967 London LP featuring Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I was captivated at once by the drama and romanticism of Schoenberg’s score, and the hold it exercised on me then has only grown stronger with the passage of time.

Fifty years later, the music of Berg, Webern, and Schoenberg is largely terra incognita for me, and Verklärte Nacht is still my only favorite.  Now, however, I’m looking forward to exploring more of Schoenberg’s output, particularly his violin concerto and the symphonic poem Pelléas und Mélisande.  Who knows what we might see in future installments of this blog?

The following notes were written by the contemporary American composer, Kathy Henkel, for a performance of Verklärte Nacht by the LA Philharmonic.

Arnold Schoenberg was 25 when he dashed off Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) in a flurry of inspiration during a three-week period in September of 1899.  At the time, he was vacationing in the scenic Austrian countryside near the mountain resort of Semmering.  His first large-scale work was also one of the most passionate pieces he ever penned.  As such, it remained close to the composer’s heart throughout his life.

In both its original setting as a string sextet and the later arrangement for string orchestra made in 1917, [revised again in 1943 – DR] Verklärte Nacht enjoys a reputation as one of Schoenberg’s most popular works.  Nonetheless, this sensuous score suffered the fate of many of his creations — getting off to a rocky start with the public.  Although its lush Post-Romantic sounds are perfectly accessible to today’s ears, the piece was greeted with hisses and horrified gasps at its premiere in Vienna on March 18, 1902.  Several aspects of the work provoked this reaction.

Though composers had attached programmatic ideas to chamber music in the past, no one had ever applied the symphonic scope that Schoenberg brought to his Op. 4 when he wedded the tone-poem concept of Franz Liszt and Richard Strauss to a work for small string ensemble.  The subversive infiltration of Wagnerian harmonies into such an intimate musical setting was likewise unsettling.  Further fueling the controversy was the shockingly erotic poem (by turn-of-the-century standards, anyway) that gave its title to the piece and served as Schoenberg’s programmatic inspiration.

From a collection published in 1896, entitled Weib und Welt (Woman and the World), Richard Dehmel’s poem chronicles a poignant conversation between a man and a woman as they walk through the moonlit woods on a cold, clear winter night.  Tormented by guilt, the woman confesses that, wishing to fulfill herself through motherhood, she had become pregnant by another man before meeting and falling in love with her companion.  She ends with a heart-rending lament: “Now life has taken revenge, for I have met you — ah, you.”  As the woman stumbles tearfully on in silence, the man considers the situation, then speaks: “Let the child you carry not burden your soul.”  He assures her that because their love is so strong, the unborn child will become his.  Redeemed by his love and forgiveness, her world-weary heart is lightened.  They embrace, “their breaths joined in the air as they kiss” — and as they continue their walk, the night takes on a transfigured aura.

Played without break, the music mirrors the five sections of the poem: an introduction, which sets the scene in the shadowy forest; the woman’s depressed trudge and anguished confession; the man’s deep-toned, comforting forgiveness; the enraptured love duet in an optimistic major mode; and the ethereal apotheosis, representing the “transfigured night” itself.  The first part of the score hovers around a despairing and anxious D minor.  Then, the second section evolves through a more hopeful D major, as the scene and music pass from dark to light, from guilt to forgiveness.  Throughout this process, Schoenberg continuously transforms themes and motifs to render an intensely expressive musical depiction of the powerful human drama of Dehmel’s poem.

After hearing the Vienna premiere, Dehmel himself wrote to Schoenberg: “I had intended to follow the motives of my text in your composition, but soon forgot to do so, I was so enthralled by the music.”  And indeed, the music completely holds the listener’s imagination as Schoenberg’s magical score travels the road from the first line of Dehmel’s poem to the last: “Two people walk through bleak, cold woods… Two people walk through exalted, shining night.”

Notes by Kathy Henkel

In this video, we hear the New England Conservatory Chamber Orchestra, playing without a conductor, in a live performance from 2013.  I think the darkened stage creates just the right atmosphere for a performance of Transfigured Night.

Published in: on October 31, 2016 at 1:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor Pianist – Maria João Pires

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Imagine for a moment that you are an internationally renowned concert pianist and that you have been engaged to play a Mozart concerto with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra.  Your first run-through with the orchestra is taking place not in the privacy of an empty concert hall, but at a lunchtime concert before the Amsterdam public.  Confident in your preparation and years of experience, you take your seat at the piano.  The conductor raises his baton, gives the downbeat, and the orchestra begins to play… the wrong concerto!

That’s the sort of thing nightmares are made of, but it’s exactly what happened to Maria João Pires at a 1999 concert conducted by Riccardo Chailly.  She was expecting to play Mozart’s Concerto No. 9 in E-flat, known as the “Jeunehomme”, but there was a miscommunication somewhere, and the orchestra launched into the Concerto No. 20 in D minor instead.  Pires’ shock and dismay – and her remarkable recovery – were captured by a documentary film crew in this unforgettable clip:

This video was my introduction to this extraordinary work, and watching it, I was captivated by Pires and her playing.  Certainly, the drama of her plight intensifies the drama of the beginning of this concerto, which is described elsewhere by Chailly as evoking “a feeling of nowhere, loneliness, and despair.”  I couldn’t wait to hear the whole piece, and was delighted to find the video below, in which Pires plays with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Pierre Boulez.

One of the most rewarding aspects of this blog has been the new music I have been exposed to while writing it, and the extent to which that music has enriched my life.  Nowhere is this more true than in the concerto presented here.  I wrote in 2011 about how, with Mozart, I often feel like I’m on the outside looking in at a party to which everyone has been invited except me.  I’m happy, and in some sense humbled, to report that with this concerto, the door to that party may finally have opened.  I already have more Mozart in mind for future posts.

A note about the cadenzas: Numerous composers have written cadenzas for this concerto, including Brahms, Busoni, and Beethoven, who played this concerto himself and who wrote the two cadenzas performed here.  They are, incidentally, the only cadenzas Beethoven ever wrote for a concerto composed by someone else.  Pires had some interesting things to say about them in an interview with Wesley Horner:

Wesley Horner: Beethoven wrote the cadenzas that you will perform.

Maria João Pires: This is the important thing about this concerto for me.  I think Beethoven wrote the cadenzas because he chose this as his favorite concerto for sure.  It became so much of what he himself could identify with.  The character of this concerto is so dark and strong and full of energy – very much like Beethoven.  So I think the cadenzas are wonderful.

Wesley Horner: How does it change the concerto to have these cadenzas written by Beethoven?

Maria João Pires: It gives a support to the concerto.  Beethoven could see exactly the character of the concerto.  He loved it because he could also feel it himself, and he wrote the cadenzas that make it strong, this dark side.

Wesley Horner: And he was still able to perform at that point.

Maria João Pires: Exactly, yes, yes.

In the video that follows, the first movement cadenza begins at 11:38, and the third movement cadenza at 29:00.

Published in: on September 30, 2016 at 12:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Nielsen: Symphony No. 3: “Espansiva”

Carl Nielsen

Carl Nielsen

Carl Nielsen wrote his Symphony No. 3 during the years 1910-1911, at the same time, incidentally, that he was writing the Violin Concerto that I featured on this blog in December 2014.  The premiere of both works took place in Copenhagen on February 28, 1912, with Nielsen conducting the Royal Danish Orchestra.  The subtitle, “Espansiva”, is Nielsen’s own, and is taken from the tempo indication of the first movement, “Allegro espansivo”.  According to the English composer and musicologist, Robert Simpson, the term “espansiva” refers to “the outward growth of the mind’s scope and the expansion of life that comes from it.”

Nielsen himself described this symphony in program notes he wrote for a performance in Stockholm in 1931:

The work is the result of many kinds of forces.  The first movement was meant as a gust of energy and life-affirmation blown out into the wide world, which we human beings would not only like to get to know in its multiplicity of activities, but also to conquer and make our own.  The second movement is the absolute opposite: the purest idyll, and when the human voices are heard at last, it is only to underscore the peaceful mood that one could imagine in Paradise before the Fall of our First Parents, Adam and Eve.  The third movement is a thing that cannot really be described, because both evil and good are manifested without any real settling of the issue.  By contrast, the Finale is perfectly straightforward: a hymn to work and the healthy activity of everyday life.  Not a gushing homage to life, but a certain expansive happiness about being able to participate in the work of life and the day and to see activity and ability manifested on all sides around us.

Significantly, Nielsen goes on to say:

I must be permitted to emphasize that my remarks must in no way be viewed as a program.  The art of music cannot express anything at all conceptual, and [my] remarks… must therefore be conceived as a private matter between the music and myself.

What a wonderful, joyful work this is!  Nielsen’s individuality is immediately apparent – just listen to the dramatic opening chords – as are the grandeur of his conceptions and the exuberance and lyricism of his themes.  Especially moving to me are the wordless solo voices in the second movement.  By the end of the video, you may well want to check the schedule of your local orchestra, just to see if they will be performing this symphony anytime soon.

I have to comment on the brilliant editing in the attached video, which manages to capture the different sections of the orchestra, as well as a succession of soloists, at exactly the right moment.  The many close-ups impart such an intimacy to the video that, by the end of the symphony, I feel like I’m on a first-name basis with the principal oboist.  (Her name, by the way, is Eva Steinaa, and she has almost single-handedly taught me to love the oboe.)  The video also captures the joy of the conductor, Michael Schönwandt, as he leads the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in what is clearly a labor of love for everyone concerned.

The tempo markings of the four movements, and their start times in the video below, are as follows:

I. Allegro espansivo (0:43)
II. Andante pastorale (with Denise Beck, soprano and Lars Møller, baritone) (12:18)
III. Allegretto un poco (22:03)
IV. Finale: Allegro (28:08)

Published in: on August 31, 2016 at 4:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Sam Harris on Trump vs. Clinton

trump-clintonToday’s post  is the first – and very likely the last – political post of my blogging career.  The reason for this is simple: I am one of the most apolitical people I know.  Ever since 1964, when Goldwater ran against Johnson, I’ve tried to avoid political discussions, which to me seem unproductive at best and divisive at worst.  Whenever I hear a political argument, or am tempted to advance one myself, I hear a little voice inside me saying, “But what about this?” or, “What about the other hand?”  The closest I come to a personal political philosophy is a paraphrase of Newton’s Third Law: “For every political argument, there is an equal and opposite rebuttal.”

So why have I chosen to turn my back on my apoliticism now, after more than half a century?  The answer is two-fold.  First, the upcoming presidential election here in the United States is, to a greater extent than ever before, more about character than about issues, and I feel on much more solid ground evaluating the candidates’ personal strengths and weaknesses, which are on display daily for everyone to see, than their political positions, which are subject to endless debate.  Second, I recently discovered Sam Harris: American author, neuroscientist, and philosopher.  Harris sees clearly – and articulates precisely – what most of us see only dimly and cannot articulate at all.  He has strong opinions on the subject of Trump vs. Clinton.  I’m convinced he’s right, and am happy to let him speak for me.

Harris regularly publishes a podcast, “Waking Up with Sam Harris,” and the video below is taken from his update of June 15.  While there is obviously more that could be said about Trump vs. Clinton, what follows is enough.  As Harris says, a lesser-of-two-evils argument makes perfect sense here.  Take a few minutes, listen to what he has to say, and judge for yourself.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on July 27, 2016 at 2:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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