Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Did Joachim Raff also anticipate Rachmaninoff?

In a recent post I theorized about the emotional and technical predecessors to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Second and Third Piano Concertos, and today I pulled out a Swiss CD from a company called Claves (Qualiton), for a recording of the C Minor Concerto (Op 185) by Joachin Raff. It’s not early (Raff was 51), and the style is a bit Mendelssohn-like, but the program notes say “He used vigorous chordal blocks in rising and falling arches , as later appeared in 1909 in the Finale of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto in D Minor, Op. 30. There are also passages which anticipate the great Russian composer at the exciting close of the first movement where the themes are originally divided and alternate between both hands in an artistic duet culminating in brilliance and fiery pathos.” The outer movements both have familiar heroic themes, and the slow movement has a ¾ theme that will sound familiar. Is Raff another rather obscure Romantic composer who has left us tunes to show up in the movies?

By the way, even though Rachmaninoff came from Russia, he lived and worked in the US for a while (apparently earning citizenship), to the point that the AFMC festivals in the 1950s allowed his use as an “American” composer when I played one of the Op 32 preludes (B Minor, E Major, and almost the massive D-flat major).

(By the way, the “accepted” revised First Piano Concerto (F# minor) of Rachmaninoff has always left me cold; I wonder what the original version sounded like. I hope some pianist and conductor will revive it.)

The Claves recording features pianist Jean Francois Antonioli, with the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra conducted by Lawrence Foster, CD 50-8806, 1988; the sound is a little tubby.

The CD also includes Raff's G Major Konzertstuck, Ode to Spring, and Ferruccio Busoni's D Minor Konzertstuck, a far cry from his massive C Major Piano Concerto with chorus.

See June 12 posting for earlier discussion.

Monday, June 28, 2010

PBS POV documentary on Jock Soto (New York City Ballet), "Water Flowing Together"

Water Flowing Together” is a documentary film, directed by Gwendolen Cates, about New York City Ballet principle dancer Jock Soto, of Puerto Rican and Navaho ancestry, with much of his upbringing in Navoho country. His father was quite supportive of his ballet. The PBS Indepedent Lens link is here.  (I know, it's easy to mix Independent Lens up with the similar POV series.)

Later in New York he would live in “grungy as can be” communal circumstances (I don’t know if it was the East Village) to go to school.

He would befriend Jesse Jackson and particularly Andy Warhol.

The film emphasizes the physical contrast between New York and his homeland on the Arizona high country plateau, in the same general area as the Grand Canyon.

The film also shows some of the rehearsal and makeup scenes in the life of someone in ballet.

The film mentions his partner and gay lifestyle, but does not make a lot of it. However, the film is part of PBS’s POV Pride Month observance.

As he approached 20+ years in ballet, he decided to retire “while he was ahead”. He went to school to be a caterer, and would eventually run a catering business with his partner, but he actually was shocked that you needed a high school diploma to go to a cooking school.

The last night of his career indeed featured a grand performance at the ballet.

YouTube video of Jock at the American Ballet Winter Ball (from PlumTV).

I'll add a personal aside. In ninth grade (1958), my mixed chorus teacher (female) had actually composed a piece called "Ballet Music".  I sightread it at school. I don't remember much about it, except that it was in B-flat and 6/8 time and was rather lively.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

MPT broadcasts Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra" (Fathom Event from 2010)

On June 23, some PBS stations, including Maryland Public Television, rebroadcast the Fathom event of the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Simon Boccanegra, originally performed in 1857, but usually performed in the 1881 revision, as is the case here with James Levine conducting (MPT reference here).  Fathom broadcasts opera performances (usually on Saturday afternoons) into selected Regal and AMC theaters, usually selling out.

A reference link for the February 2010 performance is still at the Washington Post site here., with Placido Domingo performing the lead baritone role.

The Met recorded this opera with Domingo and Levine in 1995, on DG.

The Met gives an effective synopsis of the plot (link), based on an 1843 play by Antonio García Gutiérrez, with libretto adapted by Francesco Maria Piave. Like many Italian operas, the plot seems complicated and designed to make a lot points about society and politics, here in 14th century city-state Italy. Much of the story revolves around the identity (disguised for a time) of “doge” Simon’s lost (illegitimate) daughter Amelia, and there is a lot of treachery. But there is also a lot about the passing of family wealth to heirs and the threat of state or church confiscation of property. Curiously, with all its convolutions, the plot has some “libertarian” implications.

The opera does not start with a full overture (at least in the 1881 version) and in the beginning prologue the music has a bit of a lilt. But the music becomes more agitated and dramatic, with some ensemble passages having an effect similar to those toward the end of Verdi’s Requeim (1869). The ending is quiet and hushed (as Boccanegra dies) but major, much like the ending of the Requiem.

The Met will perform the opera again in January 2011, with Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Simon, with the informative link here.

Camillia0609 offers this aria of Domino on YouTube from a March 2009 Met concert.

Picture: Disco dancing at a Pride block party, Washington DC, 2010.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

"Some Connecticut Gospel" by Tim Andres available at WQXR

Composer and pianist Timothy Andres ("Timo") has an article about his “Some Connecticut Gospel” (about 6 minutes), and an mp3 file at WQXR, with link here. Performed by Mindy Heinsohn, flute; Nicholas Akdag, bassoon; Matt Wright, trombone; Timothy Andres, piano; So Young Kwon, violin; Vessilin Todorov, viola; Hannah Collins, 'cello; Joe Magar, electric bass

He also discusses his “Bathrub Shrine” (reviewed here March 20, 2010).

The Connecticut piece sounds like a passacaglia (or perhaps [wiki url] chaconne, and the meter is not always triple) to me, over a ground bass, rising and falling. It does indeed remind one somewhat of the music of Charles Ives (which itself is varied: that composer’s “The Unanswered Question” always makes me think of the surface of Mars). Andres offers an interesting perspective of the “least New England-like” of the New England states in which he grew up.

I drove up the Connecticut Turnpike myself on a mild January 1, 2003, in a driving rain, on the way to meet filmmaker Gode Davis (“An American Lynching” site) in Rhode Island. I still remember the day.

I also remember a winter bus trip through the state in a snowstorm in late January 1965, on the way to meet friends at Amherst College in Massachusetts (more New England-like) for a hike up Mount Greylock in showshoes. I specifically remember the stop in Hartford, now the home of a major part of ING (aka Aetna), my last major employer before "retirement".  And I also recall a boyhood trip (around age 8) to a family in Waterbury, CT; that city would become a focus of Ken Burns's documentary "The War".

Senator Joseph Lieberman, Independent and outspoken, represents the state; he's a good guy on national security and on lifting "don't ask don't tell".

The WQXR site offers an embed of the composition.

I still can't way to hear Mr. Andres's "polytonal adaptation" of the Mozart Coronation Concerto. (The explanatory link with the Metropolis Enemble (aka Smallville?) is here  What does Mozart sound like with polytonality, something like neoclassical Stravinsky or Prokofiev?.)
Picture is from a state park near Baltimore, MD (not Conn.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

PBS airs "La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet" by Wiseman

On Wednesday June 16, many PBS stations showed the 160-minute documentary about the Paris opera ballet by Frederick Wiseman, “La Danse: Le ballet de l’Opera de Paris” which covers the rehearsal and even cast selection for seven ballets in Paris. The theatrical distributor is Zipporah (site ). The film is in French with subtitles, but the pronunciation is so clear that the subtitles seem superfluous.

A lot of the music is familiar, including Tchaikovsky (“The Nutcracker” rehearsed to piano, as well as the Pas de Deux to full orchestra) and Berlioz (from the “Romeo and Juliet” slow movement). The choreographed ballets include Wayne McGregor's "Genus," Pierre Lacotte's "Paquita," Rudolf Nureyev's "The Nutcracker. There is some modern music, chamber-like in quality, sometimes polytonal, sometimes with a bit of jazz. There is some music that sounds like Ligeti from 2001.

Most of the practicing is done in the Palais Garnier. This sounds like material that one would find discussed under civilization in a high school French textbook. There is a scene late in the film where the theater is being cleaned and prepared by staff for performance.

From the rehearsal scenes (which go on for a long time) one gets a sense of the athletic demands on the performers; the men generally have body builds about like that of Tom Welling (after all, “Smallville” is essentially ballet sometimes, with a lot of Tchaikovsky in the score).

Personally, I prefer ballet as originally composed (as by Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky; the conclusion of "Firebird" gets played on disco floors). I've never taken to adaptations like "Les Sylphides" (Chopin).

One ballet that I remember from my early days of record collecting was John Antill's "Corroboree" Ballet Suite, based on Australian aboriginee dances, on the old Everest label, actually an industry leader on sound in the late 1950s in the early days of stereo.

Youtube trailer from Shaker Natasha

I know the film has shown in NY and LA; but I don’t recall seeing the poster at Landmark in DC. Maybe AFI Silver will show it.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Erno Dohnanyi: Piano Concerto #1 is another "youth" masterpiece: did it set the stage for Rachmaninoff?

In 2002, Warner Brothers Television (now CWTV) launched a dramatic series called “Everwood” in which a major subplot concerns the career, eventually suspended, of a teen piano prodigy (Ephram Brown, played by Gregory Smith), and later a second pianist Kyle Hunter (Steve McQueen Jr.), whose character could inspire a sequel if WB wanted to create one.

Later on in the same “00” decade I had the pleasure to learn about the careers of a couple young musicians and composers whom I’ve covered here, including Tudor Dominilk Maican and Timothy Andres.

So naturally one goes back to the classical literature and looks beyond the most famous prodigy, Mozart, to other composers who wrote important works while young. Maybe one of the best known is Richard Strauss, and in fact Arnold Schoenberg wrote most of his post-romantic Gurrelieder in his early or mid twenties.

One piece I’ve talked about here is the first piano concerto of Eugen d’Albert, an essentially late teen composition, but another post-romantic who wrote influential music by his early twenties is Ernst von Dohnanyi, with Hungarian name “Erno Dohnany”.

Dohnany was a student of d’Albert, and his Piano Concerto #1 in E Minor, Op. 5, all 46 minutes, at first seems like a homage to the style of the young Brahms. The somber orchestra opening is said to be inspired by Brahms’s First Symphony (to me it echoes Rachmaninoff’s famous Prelude), but soon a second subject (“G# -- A G# F# G#---“) is even more noble (as was true of the stormy first movement of Brahms’s own First Piano Concerto, composed at age 25). In fact, Dohnanyi likes broad themes in whole notes, with the soloist building configurations in triplets underneath.

The Dohanyi Concerto really does have three separate movements, more or less, with the first coming to a quiet close, but they are thematically interrelated. He tends to like improvisatory forms, as if inspired by Liszt. In the finale, he takes a cue from d’Albert and provides a most original cadenza, the “middle” of the movement, with orchestra. Afterwards, he then clearly takes us into an area that Rachmaninoff would master in his own finales: he takes a “scherzando” theme (as did d’Albert did after his own cadenza) in compound meter and prepares us for a “big tune” (after some quotes from the hymn “Immortal Invisible”) that is like this: “B – C#_B E F# G#” (I don’t know how you write music staffs in Blogger or Wordpress yet, but I suspect if I hunt I’ll find a way).

Here we’re in the same emotional world as Rachmaninoff whose Second Concerto (in 1900, a few years later) would do the same thing, and which would Rachmaninoff would perfect in his masterpiece, his Third Piano Concerto in D Minor. Note that Rachmaninoff would write his concerti in separate movements but would provide plenty of modulatory transition between them. But it’s Rachmaninoff whom we generally give credit to for the “Big Tune” ending (sort of your “As Time Goes By” from Warner Brothers’s Casablanca trademark, which sounds like piano concerto music from film noir) – where the “chills and fever” is followed by one more prestissimo race to the finish. So it is here with Dohanyi: the majestic hymn (which tries to overreach itself in the brass) is followed by one more return of the scherzando in prestissimo virtuosity, racing to the end. And now the piano writing, rather than echoing early Brahms and some Liszt (in the leggerio passages) really sounds frankly like Rachmaninoff. I’m convinced that Rachmaninoff knew the d’Albert and Dohanyi concerti pretty well and could not have written the Second and Third Concertos, now so established in every concert pianist’s repertoire, without them.

Let us not forget another early Dohanyi masterpiece, the Piano Quintet in C Minor, Op. 1, dated 1895 (when the composer would have turned 18). The piece cries out for a full symphony orchestra, however. The finale seems to use 5/4 time inventively before building up to a frenzy again, to close with a famous and majestic “A-men”. Will Dumbarton Concerts bring this work to Washington some time with one of its guest chamber works. If so, it would be an interesting pairing with Maican or any other composer today in his twenties.

The Dohnanyi Piano Concerto #1 is paired with #2 (1947, to me not as interesting and rather like Prokofiev) on Hugaraton (date 1994) with pianist Laszlo Baranyay and the Budapest Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gyorgy Gyorivanyi-Rath. The back of the CD gives the key of the second concerto as B Minor (which I think is correct) but the inner notes say B-flat minor.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Joshua Bell gives "light classics" concert at Kaplan Penthouse in Lincoln Center

On June 2, Maryland Public Television rebroadcast another concert from the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse in New York’s Lincoln Center with violinist Joshua Bell, who looks so youthful at 42.

Bell described how he keeps musical memorabilia and autographs in his New York apartment, as he mentioned his album “At Home with Friends” (still OK if you’re "shy"; you don't even have to be "mighty"). He opened with a transcription of a Dvorak Slavonic Rhapsody with pianist Simon Mulligan. Later, Renee Flemming appeared to sing “Morgan” by Richard Strauss. But the “treat” seemed to be Frankie Moreno – a pianist whom Bell said he had first heard at the Golden Nugget – doing the Beatles song “Eleanor Rigsby” in an arrangement that mixed in both jazz and rock.

He later performed a movement from a Grieg violin Sonata (with Mulligan) after making a weird allusion to the reincarnation of Rachmaninoff in piano rolls.

Bell performed the Pablo Sarsate Tarantella that I recall from an old RCA Victor sampler record from the 1950s.

Then folk-songer-pianist Regina Spektor performed with Bell. The album will contain her “Meatball Song” aka “The Left Hang Song” aka “A Lesson in How Fleeing Preservation Is”; this Music Mix story (from Entertainment Weekly) has a rather athletic ("might"??) picture of the two.

Bell played the Richard Rogers song “I’ll Take Manhattan”. He played “Yankee Doodle” as an encore.

The concert was lightweight with many varied items, but tended not to leave an impression as a cohesive “artistic statement”, compared to many other materials that I have covered lately.

The show was interrupted by PBS appeals for funds. Bell’s playing at a Washington DC Metro station incognito in 2007 was mentioned; few people recognized him.