Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Norwegian music professor and doctoral student examine piano technique of 18th and early 19th centuries, saying they make some leggerio passages easier to play cleanly

Rachel Nuwer has an interesting piece in the New York Times today, “Playing Mozart’s Pieces as Mozart Did”, link.

The heart of the article is a 22-minute video by Norwegian doctoral candidate and pianist Christina Kobb (student of Rolf Inge Godov at the University of Oslo), who demonstrates older piano techniques.  These include sitting upright (not leaning over), and using primarily the last segment of the finger, moving only the last knuckle joint when possible. This can require considerable finger strength, flexibility and exercise.  Kobb demonstrates that this reduces hand movement in fast passages covering note gaps.

Kobb demonstrates with four different etudes by Johann Hummel (in E, G, Ab, and Bb-minor, the last one in slower tempo but with a lot of florid elaboration). She also picks an E-major Allegretto of Schubert (from a Sonata that I can’t quickly identify), and a passage from the finale of the Schubert G Major Fantasy-Sonata D. 894, which is rather gentle.

The piano, a Klass, has a more brittle tone.  I’m not sure it had the full 88 keys.

One other item comes to mind. Some conductors, when ending the Schubert Great C Major, let the final octave diminish. (Harnoncourt does this.)  Others (Maazel) conduct it in more modern fashion, allowing the final fortissimo to hold in the C Major Octave with the drums. I think of Schubert’s C Major as Brcukner’s “triple 000”.  I see I noted this on March 24, 2012.  Also, I’ve often wondered why Dvorak does an unusual dimuendo on the final chord of the New World Symphony (#9).  
Wikipedia attribution link for photo by Beagle84 and Cato Edvardsen of a Norwegian fjord under creative commons Share Alike 3.0 license. 


Last picture: There is a Mozart Place in Adams Morgan (off Columbia Road) in Washington DC. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Some postromantic music by Alexander Scriabin

Alexander Scriabin’s music fused late romantic and expressionistic styles in an interesting manner.  Sometimes he indulges in Wagnerian grandiosity, as at the end of “The Divine Poem”.  But typically his most emotive music also has a French feel, almost impressionistic. Yet his ancestry is Russian, and some of his mystical theories seem to be, also.

A CD from 1999 with Pierre Boulez conducting the Chicago Symphony illustrates these points.

The most important work on the CD is the early Piano Concerto in F# Minor, Op. 20 (1896), with pianist Anatol Ugorski.  Although this early piano work is said to show influences of Chopin, and it does early, it already shows the emotional sweep, with soaring melodies that suggest Rachmaninoff.  The glorious theme in the Finale has caught the attention of Hollywood a few times.  The very end has three very loud F# Major chords, but no conclusive octave with a drum roll which you expect (as from Divine Poem). The slow movement shows some simplicity, with lovely variations.

The other two works, have been called the Fourth and Fifth symphonies respectively, but they are more like Liszt tone poems.

The “Poem of Ecstasy” (“La Poeme de l’extase”), Op. 54, in C, runs 22 minutes, and has some of the language of the Divine Poem, but with even more impressionism.  There is a soaring theme that dominates the piece, finally building to a glorious C Major conclusion with a momentary pianissimo before the very end; yet the conclusion is less drawn out than that of the Divine.

“Prometheus: Poem of Fire” (“Le Poeme de feu”), Op. 60, has choral and piano parts, and shows more explicitly Scriabin’s theories of making harmonies and melodies co-generate, both out of successive intervals of fourths, which sometimes give an atonal effect.  The entire piece is centered in the key of F#. The buildup to the final conclusion is not as effective to my ear as in the earlier tone poems and symphonies.
Second picture: NASA shot of Moscow, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.


Friday, July 17, 2015

Rattle's performance of the complete Bruckner Ninth seems to use definitive version (2011-Samale and others)

I used some Amazon credit card points and got a CD of Simon Rattle’s performance with the Berlin Philharmonic of the Symphony #9 in D Minor by Anton Bruckner, with the supposedly definitive version of the Finale, published in 2011, by Samale. Phillips, Cohrs and Mazzuca.  It is one CD, running 82:10 on the Warner Classics label.

The version is similar to the 2008 by the same scholars, but the last pianissimo before the final D Major affirmation is eliminated.  The music comes to two big climaxes on the “octave theme” from the first movement, crashing on dissonance.  But this time, it goes right into the final rising motive (similar to the Bruckner Seventh) with less obvious reference to the descending figures from Bruckner’s Third and Beethoven’s Ninth opening.

The scholars claim that this is the most authentic Bruckner possible, even if other composers (like Letocart) would have handled this material differently. On a June 19 posting here, I gave a link to their research paper.  They believe that this is the conclusion Bruckner would have written.
I was mistaken about a performance by Inbal on YouTube, which has a much “simpler” conclusion preceded by a harmonic trick used in the Eighth (but with a “pianissimo” intervening before the final peroration.)

Other composers, when providing a “big tune” triumph in a Picardy major to a cyclical work, usually don’t use a “false pianissimo”.  (A big mystery to me, though, is the very last note of Dvorak’s New World.)  Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, and Grieg avoided doing so in the bombastic conclusions of their popular piano concerti.  (Tchaikovsky does do this in ballet, and especially to end the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture.)  However, a penultimate pianissimo and a brief “misterioso” before crashing to a triumphant close can reaffirm the final tonality, in a work where the listener has been kept in constant tonal and harmonic suspense.  Arnold Schoenberg does this at the end of Gurrelieder, moving from F to a final C there is a brief slow soft slowdown before the final Wagnerian “FFF” pedal point on C with full chorus, organ, orchestra and percussion. 

I’ve probably noted that I got a recording of the 3-movement version with Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony around Christmas in 1961, right after coming “home” from my William and Mary expulsion.  The music has a lot of importance to me, most of all the hanging dissonances (like the famous one near the end of the slow movement, where all twelve notes of the chromatic scale fit into one chord).  The notes mention Schoenberg, but I think some of the effects actually anticipate Alban Berg, especially in Wozzeck and Lulu.  I’ve discovered a curious relation between some of the motives in the Ninth here with some scalar or interval-based motives in my own “Third Sonata”, most of which I wrote in 1962 and which I expect to finish (the Finale) soon.  I may need the final false pianissimo to emphasize the final crash down on C (about 8 measures of FFF) after all the atonality and chromaticism before (where I often mix chords and tonalities a tritone apart). 

Update: Oct. 20/Dec. 13

The Youtube for the Rattle finale is here. There is a passage where the octave theme crashes to a dissonance;  then there is a coda that recapitulates the grand hymn theme after building up from a pianissimo, to come to the dissonance again, and this time the music does not go back to pianissimo but remains FFF to the very end as it plays the rising theme taken from the Bruckner Seventh, with counterpoint from the Bruckner Third and Beethoven Ninth overlaying until one final shout D Major chord.  Letocart says Bruckner wanted to use only the Hallelujah at the very end, but Samale seems to think the last 20 measures or so should recapitulate all of western symphonic music to date.   

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Universal Horror Make-Up Show at Orlando, and then some

Another little stage event for me this past weekend was the Universal Horror Make-Up Show at the Pantages Theater replica at Universal Studios in Orlando, basic link here. Universal's own link is here

Let me make a note about the pricing.  Parking at Universal was $22 and covered, whereas at Disney it is $17 and outdoors.  The admission prices are about the same.  A multi-park at either company for a singleton is about $155 (a single park ticket is about $95).  Both offer express-line passes for as much as $100 extra a day (is that for a whole family?), which, while completely legal, I think sends a bad message to kids (that you can morally buy yourself out of the inconvenience others face).  You don't need them.  The longest line I faced was about 20 minutes (at Shrek) without the pass. 

I'll also note that it may sound absurd to visit Orlando in July.  The humidity and heat are OK if you can get into the shade; there is usually a breeze.  Thunderstorms in the afternoon are frequent and unpredictable, but provide quick relief.  I have some hip arthritis, which actually goes away in heat (probably because of low barometric pressure). 

I went to this particular show on late Friday afternoon.  The show lasts about 25 minutes.  The most remarkable event is the slicing off of a woman’s arm.  The woman is chosen from the audience, but I believe was pre-selected. 

It may giving away too much of the magic to explain “the prestige”, but knives can be fake and can fold, and secret pockets of red ink (like that of an octopus) can exist.

I had actually visited the original Universal (in LA) in  December, 1969 on a job interview trip (for Rand) just before getting out of the Army, and actually acted in a mock “Day in Court”.

I’ll mention also Diagon Alley, where there was a vaudeville group in the town square.  The Hogwarts Express train shows, as a film on the indoor windows, both Modern London and then scenes from Harry Potter’s countryside.  Hogwarts Castle and ride is at Islands of Adventure, which otherwise is nothing special (rather like a Busch Gardens).  But the Universal Studios park is quite interesting, as is Disney's Epcot (the Magic Kingdom shows its age, and the Tomorrowland area looks dated and passe, if retro).  I didn't get to Downtown Disney or Disney Hollywood, but  the Disney Hollywood looks interesting and would be similar in spirit to Universal's (it looks a little smaller on the map).  

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

"An American Adventure" at Epcot

The Disney Epcot World Showcase offers a half-hour play “The American Adventure” in the theater half way through the exhibit (between Japan and Italy, formally “The United States”).  The theater is modeled after a plantation in Georgia (is it “Tara”?) although it reminds me of “My Old Kentucky Home”.

The play consists of a conversation between Ben Franklin and Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens), giving a summary of all of American History since the Revolutionary War. Many “film-strip” stills of landscapes from American history are projected as backdrops, on a very wide screen, and there is some moderate stagecraft.

The play is preceded by the “Voices of Liberty” singing in a hallway a cappella. 

One of my own screenplays is called “American Epic”.


So this play might challenge a recent Vox article that the American Revolution was not good for a lot of people.  l 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Apollo 8 Re-enactment: how a "safe" lunar trip depended on every single worker

The re-enactment of Apollo 8 at the Kennedy Space Center is quite a lesson in workplace values. The audience watches a few short newsreel films about the space program in the 1960s on multiple screens, before being admitted to a theater with an exact replica of the original Houston control center.

Apollo 8, in December 1968, carried men around the Moon for the first time  It preceded man’s first walk on the Moon by about seven months.

One single mistake by a single worker in setting up the entire hardware and software infrastructure could have led to the deaths of the three astronauts. The presentation makes a point of that.

Monday, July 06, 2015

National Constitution Center in Philadelphia presents "We the People": one-man play with cyclorama

Yesterday (Sunday July 5, 2015), I attended a one-man play “We the People” in the Kimmel Theater (Arena) in the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia ($5).
An actor tells the story of the Revolutionary War and then the development of and signing of the Constitution and later the Bill of Rights (1791).  Around him, a cyclorama appears, along with various videos.
He points out that many individual rights we consider fundamental today were left to the states.  That was particularly true of slavery, as well as women’s suffrage, and finally LGBT rights and equality (for which there is a separate temporary exhibit).
The play summarizes the development of these more modern rights and quickly takes us through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
In the circular area around the theater, there are many exhibits showing how the interpretation of the Constitution changed and how modern ideas of fundamental rights evolved. For example, the taking of Native American lands is shown, as is Andrew Jackson’s populism. 
The Mobius Strip was interesting – not sure how it fits into history.


Thursday, July 02, 2015

Smithsonian presents Peruvian folk music outdoors on Mall near Capitol

This is a pretty modest story for a music blog, but I was impressed with the folk music at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival outdoors, which I visited yesterday, July 1. 
There was some pseudo-square dancing, “singles club” style (no break or dirty dancing, please). 
The music emphasized homemade instruments, rhythm, and moderate dissonance, something similar to a lot of music coming from younger composers in NYC these days.  Maybe some of them will make the visit to see this.

A lot of visitors would enjoy the handmade crafts (manual labor) and food, like on Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown”.   


Related post on Wordpress media (July 2), and on International issues (June 27).