Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Spanish pianist Alicia De Larrocha

Spanish pianist Alicia De Larrocha died very recently at age 86. Born in Barcelona, she had established a unique career and identity by the 1950s, and was well known for her interpretations of Mozart as well as Spanish composers like Albeniz and Granados. Sometimes she was characterized as “minimalist” or “diminutive”. (See how she performs Mozart’s last piano concerto in this YouTube video link). She also played Beethoven, Schumann and Rachmininoff, but her piano style was a bit understated, or at least that’s how I recall her when I took piano in the 1950s. Standing at 5 feet 1, she was unusual, in that many successful concert pianists (especially men) are tall and have large hands.

NPR carries the AP story, dated Sept. 26, here.

In my own mind, I remember comparing her to Polish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, who died in 1959.

Attribution link for picture of a bridge in Bilbao Spain (pd, Wikipedia) I visited Bilbao in April 2001.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Country and western featured at Virginia Hospital Center street fair

On Saturday, September 27, 2009, the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington VA (along with several other corporations in the health care business, including Blue plans) has sponsored a “Family and Friends” street fair on 16th Street, in front of the Hospital.

A country-and-western group (not identified) is performing with elecrtic guitars on the stage. (“It might get loud.”) The music was pretty much what you would hear at a country-and-western bar (like Remington’s in Washington or the RoundUp in Dallas). The fair should go on all afternoon, although in sprinkly and cloudy weather.

The “teddy bear” (not “The Chicken” at MLB parks) runs around the crowd to entertain it, and a taco stand serves low-fat high-fiber taco sandwiches that would have pleased low fat diet advocate Gabe Mirkin in the 1990s.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Ellen show presents sensational street violinist

Today, the Ellen Show presented a fantastic 13-year old solo violinist named Justus Rivera, from Philadelphia, who says he is completely self-taught. I thought I heard him say he doesn’t like classical music, but he played some virtuoso Pagainini-like improvisations on the show. The link for Ellen’s “Video of the Day” is <here (no embed was offered).

Actor/director/producer/writer/Twitter-master/Renaissance-Man Ashton Kutcher discovered the boy playing at Rittenhouse Square in Central City Philly, with YouTube link here.

Here is an embed from the Philadelphia NBC affiliate where Rivera talks about meeting Kutcher.

View more news videos at: http://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/video.

Remember that Joshua Bell played at a Metro stop in Washington?

The Ellen Degeneres show today also offered a post-script from the Red Carpet act at the Emmy’s, with Andy Zenor, in shirt and tie, offering himself in the spirit of the 50s honky-tonk, “Who wears short shorts”. The video link is on the left side of Ellen’s home page. He caught a little bit of what has happened to Steve Carell, as the revelations continued. (Remember what happened to Troy McClain on The Donald's "Apprentice"?) It was hot outside in LA (September is LA’s warmest month), and they didn’t leave him alone. And he didn’t undergo it for a team. (See all May 14 2009 post, August update).

Friday, September 18, 2009

Composer Leon Kirchner, who synthesized many modern idioms

The New York Times today (Sept. 18) a story by Anthony Tommasini about the death of composer Leon Kirchner at age 90, link here. Kirchner’s style varied, varying from Bartok, through the atonal expressionism of Schoenberg and Berg, to inclusion of electronic music and jazz. The news story discusses his four string quartets, of which the last is the shortest. He also wrote two piano concertos and various other chamber works.

This YouTube clip of Kirchner’s music is the “Trials and Tribulations of Learning Kirchner”.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

NY Philharmonic opens season tonight with Lindberg, Messaien, Berlioz; new conductor is Allan Gilbert

Summer in New York City moved into fall at 8 PM tonight at the Lincoln Center, with the opening of the 2009-2010 Season, broadcast on PBS, with the main link here.

The new music director is Allan Gilbert, and the work opened with a tone poem “EXPO” by the composer in residence, 51 year old Magnus Lindberg. The work was in a typical polytonal style, almost reminding one of Bernard Herrmann.

Renee Fleming, in a bright blue dress, performed the song cycle by Oliver Messiaen, “Poemes pour Mi” (1936). The work comprises nine short songs and sounds esoteric. In the middle, Gilbert suddenly had to turn a lot of pages of score. The orchestral writing had a lot of parallelisms in the woodwinds. The music was the composer’s celebration of his marriage, and the work (in the text of the poems) is said to celebrate marital passions, something missing from modern culture according to conservative movie critics like Michael Medved. Here’s another link describing the piece which can be played with piano instead of orchestra (although that’s hard to imagine).

If you want an interesting comparison to the Messiaen, try “Reflections on James Joyce” (2004), here by Tudor Dominik Maican, written when he was 15 (piano, flute and voice – when I see the Washington Post offer audio files of new music on its website, I remember that the newspaper had a Sousa march named after it). This sort of music takes the Mahler concept of art song to the ultimate.

The conclusion was Berlioz’s warhorse, the Symphonie Fantastique in C Major. Although some writers thought of this music as a drug trip, even back in the 1960s, this performance was no-nonsense, reading it as if it came from German (rather than Gallic) symphonic repertoire. Gilbert even took the first movement repeat. The signature performance for this work was the Command/Grand Award recording with Vandernoot in 1963, on 35 mm film to record (in the days that elliptical styli were coming into use); the brass in the “March to the Scaffold” really snarls and brings back the days of the guillotine.

Wikipedia attribution link for Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York (GNU license). The hall looks different than it did in the 1970s, when I went to many concerts.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Arlington Constitutional Garden Bell Ringing

It may be stretching things to call this a “performance”, but Arlington’s Constitutional Garden (Virginia), at Wilson Blvd and George Mason Drive, about one-half mile from the Ballston Common, has its bell ringing at “High Noon” every federal holiday, particularly Labor Day. It’s a very loud percussion instrument, almost like its parent in Philadelphia.

It’s the “private citizens” who do the bell ringing.

The garden tends to stay in bloom until well into December, until finally there have been several hard freezes, maybe some snow, and maybe one night in the teens to finish the purple blossoms off.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Retrospect: Brahms Symphony #3, Op. 90: still an analytical enigma

In June and July, when I drove around locally and had my car radio on, PBS station WETA played various performances of the enigmatic Symphony #3 in F Major by Johannes Brahms several times, with various conductors including Giulini and Abbado. My own CD is a slow-paced performance from Leonard Bernstein.

I have to preface my comments by a quote from some young person’s concert in my own piano days of the 1950s: “I will play Brahms. You may not like it, but it will be good for you.” Some people do find listening to Brahms (apart from the First Symphony) like eating your vegetables.

I’ve always found the Third (Op. 90) a curious work, following Brahms triumphant #1 and then the relaxed and then ebulliently explosive #2. F Major sounds like a strange key for a symphony, as the most pastoral of all the tonalities (hence Beethoven 6 and then 8).

But the opening of the work: A F Major chord, then a diminished 7th emphasizing the minor A-flat, then major, then descending on the minor, seems not at all ironic or martial in character as such major-minor shifts do in Mahler (or even Schubert); instead, the effect is that of self-analysis, of soliloquy, the kind of that famous song in Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel”. (Say, the work, like Gershwin's Piano Concerto, is F, rather than specifically F Major.) Brahms, with all is compound and syncopated rhythms and excursions to remote keys like A and D major, seems to be annotating his own style of composition with his exercises in unresolved dissonance and long lasting tension that follow (no doubt inspired by a single moment in Beethoven’s Eroica). This was a very daring work harmonically for 1883.

The second movement, an Andante, and the official “slow movement”, actually works in its dominant key C Major, and stays with the ear. It’s the “minuet” or Poco Allegretto that is the most famous from this work, and the most common on YouTube (the Berlin Philharmonic offers a trailer of it), and it moves more slowly than the official “slow movement”, and it sounds like real Brahms, not like a Landler. The movement figured in the 1961 French film “Aimez-Vous Brahms” (about a love rectangle) which I saw with a friend in Williamsburg as a college freshman just before my debacle at William and Mary, well documented elsewhere in these blogs.

The finale goes back to the tonic, but F minor, with a Hungarian style theme reminding one of the early piano sonatas. The music fakes a triumphant resolution but settles, in the descending figures from the first movement opening, into a quiet close, the only Brahms symphony to do so. All four movements end quietly.

Brahms represents one major arm of German romanticism, the "disciplined" style derived from Beethoven. Mahler, Bruckner and Strauss (eventually Schoenberg and Berg) seem to me more dervied from Schubert, with Liszt and Wagner entering on their own (and also eventually inspiring "modern" atonality).

Berlin Philharmonic teaser follows:

Still photo: glass blowing kiln in Jamestown VA; I think I visited it Thanksgiving Day 1961 with parents and a friend; this is my photo from Aug. 2009.