Prokofiev: Sonata for Flute and Piano James Galway – Flute;Phillip Moll – Piano

Although Prokofiev composed his Sonata for Flute and Piano in the middle of World War II, it is nevertheless one of his most uninhibitedly joyful compositions.  It was given its premiere in Moscow in December 1943, and was immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece.

Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev

Flutists often borrow from the much larger violinist’s repertoire, but that situation was reversed in this case.  At the request of violinist David Oistrakh, Prokofiev transcribed this sonata for the violin, and it is frequently heard on that instrument.

In this video, the renowned flutist James Galway is joined by pianist Phillip Moll in a recital from Waterfront Hall in Belfast, Ireland.

Published in: on September 30, 2009 at 4:46 am  Leave a Comment  
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Movie Review: “Bagdad Café”

Bagdad_cafeBagdad Café is a 1987 film by German director Percy Adlon.  It tells the story of the inhabitants of an isolated truck stop/motel in the southern California desert, and the German tourist who unexpectedly finds herself stranded there.

The proprietress of this cafe is Brenda (CCH Pounder), a perpetually angry African-American woman on the edge of desperation who, in addition to managing the cafe and motel, has two teenage children and a grandbaby to look after.  Brenda is the only one connected with this enterprise who is not content simply to let things go their own way.  She fights endlessly with her husband, who takes a much more relaxed view of things than she does, and who decides finally that the safest course for him is to leave.

The motel is also home to Rudi (Jack Palance), a one-time Hollywood set painter, Debby (Christine Kaufmann), a popular tattoo artist, and Cahuenga (George Aquilar), a short-order cook.  Into this diverse mix of characters wanders Jasmine Münchgstettner (Marianne Sägebrecht), a German tourist on vacation with her husband.  They have just quarreled for the last time, after which he headed one way in the rented Lincoln while she headed the other way on foot, pulling her luggage behind her.

In due time Jasmine finds herself at the Bagdad Gas and Oil Cafe, where, to Brenda’s surprise, she takes a room.  Jasmine understands immediately that she is needed there, and at this point, being needed happens to be what Jasmine needs the most.  She decides to stay awhile, and for the rest of the movie, we watch as she is integrated into this unlikely family and how, ultimately, one person’s strengths dovetail with someone else’s needs.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this movie is how much we come to care about these people and how quickly we are drawn into their world.  Credit for this must go to Marianne Sägebrecht, CCH Pounder, and Jack Palance for their first-rate performances throughout.  Even more must go to writer/director Percy Adlon and his wife and writing partner Eleonore, who understand that great cinema does not depend on spectacle and special effects, but on finding and exploring situations in which the audience can relate to their characters.

I’m tempted to recommend this movie to everyone, but in fact there are themes here that are beyond the understanding of most pre-teens.  To everyone else I say, put Bagdad Café at the top of your “must see” list.

Derrick Robinson

Movie Review: “Duplicity”

duplicityI really should have known better.

The On Demand thumbnail sketch for “Duplicity” read, “This smartly-paced thriller, written and directed by Tony Gilroy, stars Julia Roberts and Clive Owen as longtime lovers and corporate spies who team up to stage an elaborate con to rip off their rival companies.”  With a promo like that, how good could it be?  But Susie wanted to watch a movie, and I was happy to watch something besides HGTV, and as Pope reminds us, “hope springs eternal in the human breast.”

Briefly, “Duplicity” is about two spies, Ray Koval (Owen) and Claire Stenwick (Roberts).  In the opening scene, which takes place five years ago in Dubai, they meet at an Independence Day celebration, and we are treated to the first of many verbal fencing matches.  They spend the night together (how did that happen?) after which Claire drugs Ray and steals secret documents, an act of duplicity that sows seeds of mistrust and suspicion that permeate the whole movie.

Eventually, Ray and Claire leave their government posts to enter the high-stakes world of corporate espionage.  They conspire to defraud their respective employers and sell corporate secrets to the highest bidder.  Along the way, there’s more verbal fencing and – it must be admitted – one truly suspenseful scene in which Claire must find a copier and transmit a document before she and the document are both discovered missing.

Sadly, this is the best scene in the movie.

“Duplicity” typifies everything I dislike about mainstream Hollywood movies today.  Like so many films that come out of Hollywood, “Duplicity” began not as an artist’s dream, but as a moneymaking scheme.  The stars were cast not according to their talent or suitability for their roles, but according to their star power.  This is not meant as a criticism of Julia Roberts; I thought she was excellent in her early movies.  But an actor of her stature needs to choose her roles carefully, if for no other reason than not to overwhelm the role – and perhaps the movie – with her mere presence.

The primary fault in “Duplicity” lies not with the acting or direction, but with the writing.  It is long on plot twists, and short on characterization.  We cannot identify with the protagonists, because as they are written, we have nothing in common with them.  Saddest of all, we are never able to enjoy the love affair between Ray and Claire because we can never escape the suspicion that one is playing the other for his or her own selfish ends.

I recommend this movie only for those die-hard Julia Roberts fans who are bound and determined to see every one of her movies.  The rest of us would do better to pop some popcorn, sit back, and watch an old favorite.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on September 28, 2009 at 12:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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Alicia de Larrocha (1923 – 2009)

Alicia de Larrocha

Alicia de Larrocha

Alicia de Larrocha, one of the great pianists of the twentieth century, died yesterday at age 86 in Barcelona, the city of her birth.  Alicia began studying piano at age three, gave her first recital at age five, and made her first appearance with orchestra in a Mozart concerto at age eleven.  Although she had an extensive repertoire, she was especially well-known for her interpretations of the music of her countrymen: Isaac Albeniz, Enrique Granados, and Manuel de Falla.

I had the good fortune to hear Alicia de Larrocha in person on two occasions, once with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, when she played Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto, and once in solo recital, when her program included de Falla’s extraordinary Fantasia Baetica.  She retired from public performance not long afterward, in 2003 at age 80.

The piece she performs here, “Evocacion”, is the first movement from Isaac Albeniz’ monumental “Iberia” suite for piano.  Poetic, reflective, and utterly Spanish in character, I cannot think of a more fitting musical tribute to this extraordinary pianist.

Published in: on September 26, 2009 at 6:07 am  Comments (1)  
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Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3 Pianist – Martha Argerich

Martha Argerich

Martha Argerich

Martha Argerich was born on June 5, 1941 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  She began studying piano at age three, and gave her first public concert – a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 – at the age of eight.  In 1957, she won both the Geneva International Music Competition and the Busoni International Piano Competition, and in 1965, she won the seventh International Chopin Piano Competition, which effectively launched her concert career.

In a 2001 article for The New Yorker, Alex Ross wrote: “Argerich brings to bear qualities that are seldom contained in one person: she is a pianist of brain-teasing technical agility; she is a charismatic woman with an enigmatic reputation; she is an unaffected interpreter whose native language is music. This last may be the quality that sets her apart. A lot of pianists play huge double octaves; a lot of pianists photograph well. But few have the unerring naturalness of phrasing that allows them to embody the music rather than interpret it.”

I might add that Martha has one other quality that sets her apart: a personal modesty that is utterly charming.

This performance of Prokofiev’s magnificent Piano Concerto No. 3 was recorded live in concert in March 2008 in Turin, Italy with the RAI Orchestra conducted by Tugan Sokhiev.

Trivia note: Film buffs may remember that it was this concerto that Amy Irving played to critical acclaim in the 1980 film “The Competition”.

Published in: on September 25, 2009 at 6:40 am  Leave a Comment  
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Sergei Prokofiev: Prelude Op. 12, No. 7 “The Harp”

Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev composed his Ten Pieces for Piano, Op. 12 during the years 1906 – 1913, while a student at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory.  Prokofiev himself gave the premiere of this work in Moscow in 1914.

“The Harp” Prelude is the seventh piece from this group, and exists in two versions, one for piano and one for harp.  Here, in another clip from his 1978 recital at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, is the great Emil Gilels performing the piano version.

I thought it was both interesting and fun to compare the two arrangements, and so here, performing the transcription for harp, is Anna Verkholantseva at the Royal Palace in Gödöllö, Hungary in October 2006.

And finally, a surprise.  Performing the same piece one more time is one of my newest and happiest YouTube discoveries.  This young woman is Szuyu Su.  We learn from her YouTube page that she is from Tainan City, Taiwan, Republic of China, and was born in 1998.  Her English name is Rachel, and this video was made when Rachel was eight years old.

Book Review: The Stars in Their Courses

The Stars in Their Courses, by Isaac Asimov; Ace Books 1972

Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov

Can that date be right?  Am I really reviewing a book published in 1972?  Yes, I am; you see, this is a very special book.  It was the first book by Isaac Asimov that I ever read.  Once I read this book, and discovered how well Asimov explained things that I was interested in, I read volume after volume of his science essays: Of Time, Space, and Other Things; Quasar, Quasar Burning Bright; The Universe… the list goes on and on.

But The Stars in Their Courses was the first.  How did I happen to read this book?  It’s not as though I were an amateur astronomer.  Here’s the story:

Stars-CoursesThe year was 1973.  I was living in Sacramento, California, and my older brother was getting married in Dresden, Ohio.  I was at the airport, waiting to catch a plane to Columbus, when I suddenly realized I had nothing to read on the plane.  A state akin to panic began to set in.  Four hours on a plane, and nothing to read.  I made a beeline for the gift shop and quickly scanned the book rack.  Success!  The Stars in Their Courses caught my eye.  The cover proclaimed, “Isaac Asimov tells all about the Universe, and everything else.”  This was intriguing.  I harbored a fledgling interest in astronomy, and had at least heard of Isaac Asimov.

Time was short; I bought the book, and headed back to my gate.  My heart rate and respiration returned to normal.  Long before my plane got to Columbus, I was a confirmed Asimov fan, and have remained one ever since.  Though I am not by any stretch of the imagination a scientist, nor even a student of science, I am – thanks to Asimov – a student of science history, and feel like a member of the brotherhood.

This book is a collection of seventeen essays about astronomy, physics, chemistry, and sociology.  In the first two chapters, Asimov absolutely destroys astrology.  This was significant to me, because at the time I first read this book, I knew someone who was a believer in astrology.  He knew a great deal of astrological theory, and in debating with him I always felt at a disadvantage.  I was sure astrology was nonsense, but had only my intuition to guide me.  Asimov knows not only the history of astrology, but astronomy too, and explains exactly why astrology is nonsense.  In so doing, he helped me to feel much more confident in what I believed.

Asimov’s essays are leavened throughout with generous dollops of humor.  His discussion of astrology concludes as follows:  “To be sure, there may be some among my valued Gentle Readers who will be swayed by this [line of reasoning], and who will wonder whether there isn’t something in this chain of reasoning starting from planetary position, and ending in Aries giving sympathy and Scorpio turning on the distrust.  If so, repress the thought.  I am quite certain that with very little ingenuity I could invent a chain of reasoning that is just as valid and plausible, connecting the pattern of burping of a herd of hippopotami amid the reeds of the river Nile with the rise and fall of the steel output in the mills of Gary, Indiana.”

In “The Nobel Prize that Wasn’t”, Asimov writes fascinatingly about the English physicist Henry Gwyn-Jeffreys Moseley.  “Moseley was simply a streak of brilliance…” Asimov writes, and goes on to show how, through Mosely’s work, “the foundation of the periodic table of elements was made firm as a rock.”  He relates how, because of this work, Moseley deserved the Nobel prize of 1916 in either physics or chemistry, and that “it was just as certain as anything could be in such matters that he was going to get it,” that there was, in fact, “no way of avoiding it.”  Alas, there was a way of avoiding it.  When World War I broke out, Moseley enlisted in the Royal Engineers, and was killed in August 1915 during the Gallipoli Campaign.  “He had not yet reached his twenty-eighth birthday”, Asimov writes, “and in my opinion, his death was the most expensive individual loss to the human race generally, among all the millions who died in that war.”

In the essay, “Worlds in Confusion”, Asimov completely discredits the ideas espoused by Immanuel Velikovsky in his book Worlds in Collision.  In others, he touches on the extraordinary accomplishments of Isaac Newton, tells the fascinating story of the invention of the lightning rod by Benjamin Franklin, the introduction of anesthesia, and the impact of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

I owe a great debt of gratitude to Isaac Asimov.  Much of what I know about science is due to his skill as a “professional explainer”.  Although what I don’t know is vastly greater than what I do, what I do know is enough to satisfy me as to the sufficiency of the scientific method of inquiry.

I recommend this book for everyone.  This is science for the layperson.  Those of you who have an interest in science will meet an old friend between its covers, and those who don’t will still enjoy the essays.  If an interest in science is kindled by this book, so much the better.  There is a whole world of Asimov waiting for you.

Derrick Robinson

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Prelude Op. 23 No. 5 Pianist: Emil Gilels

rachmaninoffAlthough Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) was one of the great pianists of the 20th century, and a successful conductor as well, it is primarily as a composer that he is remembered today.  The spiritual descendant of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff remained aloof from the new modes of expression that characterized 20th century music, and is often referred to as the last composer of the Romantic era.

To conclude our brief look at Rachmaninoff’s music, Emil Gilels (1916 – 1985), another of the 20th century’s great pianists, gives a stirring performance of one of his most romantic works, the Prelude Op. 23 No. 5, which dates from 1901.

Published in: on September 20, 2009 at 7:45 am  Comments (2)  
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Gabriel Fauré: Requiem

Gabriel Fauré

Gabriel Fauré

Gabriel Fauré (1845 – 1924) was a French composer, organist, pianist, and teacher.  A prolific composer, Fauré was at home in many different idioms, including choral music, opera, orchestral and chamber music, and works for solo piano.

Composed between 1887 and 1890, the Requiem is the best-known of Fauré’s works.  Concerning it, Fauré wrote, “It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death, and someone has called it a lullaby of death.  But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience.”  Fittingly, the Requiem was performed at Fauré’s own funeral in 1924.

In March 2009, I had the privilege of singing in a memorable performance of the Requiem – in a chorus composed of two church choirs and four high-school choirs – under the direction of Anthony Giles, with soloists Marana Avant and Barry Johnson.

This performance features the National Chamber Choir of Armenia and the Youth State Orchestra of Armenia, with soloists Mane Galoyan (soprano) and Gurgen Baveyan (baritone), under the direction of Robert Mlkeyan.

(Note: The first image below links to a performance of the entire Requiem.  The seven images that follow link to individual movements.)

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Two Pieces for Piano Pianist: Manlio Giordano

Manlio Giordano is an Italian-Swedish pianist who began his formal piano instruction at age three, started giving public performances at five, and performed on Swedish national radio at ten.  He received his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in music from Lund University in Sweden, and has since performed throughout Scandinavia and other countries.

The two pieces that follow were both encores to a beautiful – and notably personal – interpretation of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, also available on YouTube.  The first piece is Rachmaninoff’s hauntingly beautiful Prelude Op. 32 No. 10.

The next video is an absolutely splendid performance of one of Rachmaninoff’s most exciting piano works, his Etude Op. 39 No. 9.

Note: In a comment to a previous entry on this blog, Mr. Giordano mentions that he has been looking for a long time for a CD of Vladimir Sofronitsky playing the Etudes Op. 8 and Preludes Op. 11 by Scriabin.  Does anyone reading this know what album he is talking about and how one might find a copy of it?  If you do, please reply in a comment to this video.  Many thanks.

Published in: on September 18, 2009 at 8:41 pm  Comments (2)  
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