Friday, February 5, 2016

David Bowie and the Baroque(?)

When I heard the opening of Bowie's final album, titled "Blackstar," I almost immediately began an aural analysis  of the harmonies he employed(something I did not expect to undergo), simply because of the paucity  of the harmonic choices he made. From the beginning of the music, the imagery dealt around two chords; namely, the sub-dominant with lowered third followed by the dominant within the key he chose. With the occasional entry of Bowie's voice and these two harmonies, followed by the ensuing expansion(still limited) of both the harmonic language and his vocal message, I realized that, for me,  I was listening to Bowie's use of Minimalism, which we hear in the two masters of that form, Phillip Glass and Steve Reich.
Fusion of the machinations of a Rock giant and these two powerful composers?
Then came my realization that Bowie and Glass knew one another, and were in conversations  from time to time. That, plus the 'Low' Symphony by Glass, based upon Bowie's "Low" recording,  and Glass in his unabashed  recognition of David Bowie as a major creative Voice.
Which took me back to  two terms emanating from both the Middle and High Baroque periods; namely, Passacaglia and Chaconne, both rather interchangeable, in that these terms signify decided limitation on  usage of material by employing either a bass(called Ground Bass) consisting of a constantly repeated statement, or a constantly repeated harmonic expression -  in either case, the music born of these kinds of circular direction is what we hear as a composition. Bach and the great English composer  Purcell championed the use of these designs, which persist past the Baroque period, through Brahms, in his fourth symphony, and the magnificent Chaconne he brought forward.
Minimalism, for me, stems from the Baroque, with its Passacaglia and Chaconne, because of the conscious efforts of the composer to purposely employ limited material in order  to form a complete idea.
Obviously, Bowie, in his contacts with Glass, must have discussed the process of Minimalism.
What I wonder about is the question:
Was Bowie aware of the connection between the works of Glass, and the tap roots of Minimalism stemming from  the purposeful  limitation of material  as projected by the composers of the Baroque?
By the way, I find Bowie to be a powerful projector  of his message in his final  incarnation, and am deeply impressed by his gifts.

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Thursday, January 28, 2016

Great Performers and their Extended Gifts...

Recently I decided to view the Rachmaninoff 3rd piano concerto, performed by Horowitz, with Zubin Mehta conducting. At one point during this performance I asked myself if my readers were aware of another aspect of the great conductor; namely, that Mehta was not only the eminent conductor the musical world has known about for years, but also a world class performer on the double bass. Then my memory brought back a recording of Schubert done by no less than Itzhak Perlman, Daniel Barenboim, Jacqueline Du Pre and Mehta himself , all in the same room at the same time.
Which led to my musing about other famous performers, such as:
Serge Koussevitsky, the founder of Tanglewood and the long time conductor of the Boston Symphony. He, as well, was a virtuoso on the double bass. I remember hearing him, as a youth, in a recording of one of his own compositions for unaccompanied string bass. My piano teacher at that time informed me that Koussevitsky was, arguably, the world's leading performer on that instrument.
How about Jascha Heifetz? On many occasions, he put his Stradivari down and played piano. There are examples of his piano playing; some rather sensational, available. Oddly, a popular tune for solo violin appeared, titled "When You Make Love,", composed by one Jim Hoyt.   If you do not recognize the name Jim Hoyt, you are not alone - Jim Hoyt was a pen name for Jascha Heifetz.
Mel Torme, one of the leading pop singers of his time, known as the "Velvet Fog" because of the silken textures of his vocals, can be seen in a photograph, playing drums with Benny Goodman. I believe that one of Torme's earlier experiences was playing drums in Tommy Dorsey's orchestra.
Nat Cole is remembered by many for his wonderful vocals, but do be reminded that in the earlier days, he was the originator of the King Cole Trio, and there are many recordings that bear witness to the reality that Cole was one of the leading jazz pianists of his time.
Stephane Grappelli  is generally considered the  leading jazz violinist of his time, with many legendary  recordings , both audio and video, available to us. A marvelously constructed classical technique is utilized to project his unparalleled improvisations , the result being the most singular voice in the art of  pop violin performance. But do go on and discover the sensational jazz pianist Grappelli was. There are recordings of his piano playing available which certify the overwhelming gifts this man was owner of.
Just a short list of added powers given a handful of artists...

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Thursday, January 21, 2016

For Valentine's Day: Three Truly Unique Opinions of "My Funny Valentine"...

I occasionally appear on radio to offer various performances of world famous  musicians that are, in my view, either  historically singular or not generally known, or both.
On Feb. 13, I will be on the air to talk about a trio of performances I especially like, followed by their recordings.
This session will involve one of the best known tunes of the  Richard Rodgers lexicon we know as "My Funny Valentine."
The famed British pianist George Shearing  offers his first recorded version, I believe recorded in 1956, of this song, and  envelopes us with a luscious array of 19th century patterns as only Shearing  can conjure, with an apotheosis  of Bach architecture forming a crown to this delightful recording.
For me, Cleo Laine (now Dame Cleo Laine) is not only a pop singer, but a Force - just listen to her "Turkish Delight."  In her opinion of "My Funny Valentine," recorded in 1988, she  takes us to a different place by way of   a strikingly  unique slant on how to tell the story, with  a marvelous tapestry woven around her  by way of  a piano forming the harmonies in a Classical configuration and a paucity of notes played - truly striking.
How  about "My Funny Valentine" for two violins?
AND the choice of the violinists?
How about Yehudi Menuhin, one of the 20th century's  eminent performers and
Stephane Grappelli, arguably the greatest of the Jazz violinists of his time? They recorded together during the 1970's and 80's.
Enough said -  just  listen to THIS opinion!
Enjoy the Trio!

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Friday, January 15, 2016

What Would Horowitz's Reactions Be ?...

If  Vladimir  Horowitz, arguably the 20th century's most powerful  pianist, were to come back today, just for a short visit, what would his reactions be? I wonder?
In recent days and weeks, I have been coming across performances of some of the Horowitz transcriptions played by a clutch of young pianists. As far as I've gone, the "Stars and Stripes Forever"" transcription appears to be the most  oft-played. The one most eye/ear 'catching' I've seen thus far is the performance by the young pianist Benjamin  Grovesnor. It was recorded,  I believe, when he was about eighteen, and the ease and fluidity which he projects is positively staggering - almost as if he were going through a Cramer exercise, with no palpable resistance detectable. Other performances by Kulenov and Sultanov are also  available,and can  be seen as well. In every incarnation I've been witness to, there simply is no detectable mode of resistance, the result being a performance  of a Horowitz transcription with no sign of   a Dionysian struggle extant.
The celebrated Russian Arcadi Volodos, in his playing of  Horowitz transcriptions, does give us the kind of  unfettered excitement that we associate with Horowitz, in his  legendary performances.
Sadly, he is the only pianist performing today whom I know of,  that makes the atmosphere move around these vaunted works  that celebrate and serve as encomiums to the pyrotechniques that were created by Liszt almost two centuries ago.
Which leads to another issue I have become increasingly aware of; that is, an age of emerging young pianists who can do anything with their fingers that a Horowitz or a Rachmaninoff could do, virtually incapable of playing a wrong note, but saying almost nothing.
Are there others out there like me who wonder, with some sense of foreboding, or at least discomfort, about the whereabouts of the spiritual core of this arcane language? Has it gone into hiding? Are there any teachers out there, representing other instruments, who have the same sense of 'what is happening to the message?'
Or am I alone?

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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

George Gershwin and Paul Dukas - A Conundrum Involving the Listener?

For a reason I cannot  project to you with any degree of logic or intellectual probity, I thought that I might share it with you anyway:
George Gershwin, in his decision to create an opera consisting of  an African American cast  depicting the tragedy  of  Porgy and Bess, created a bit of a firestorm of controversy and consternation, as the year was 1935 when it was created. Nothing like this had ever been done before, but Gershwin  had become captivated by this theme, and actually moved to South Carolina for a period in order to soak up the sense of atmosphere of the setting he had in mind, before committing this masterpiece to manuscript.
Well, history has certainly woven "Porgy and Bess" into the tapestry of immortality, as this story has been told innumerable times throughout the world since its first performance the better part of a century ago. I saw the production many  years back in New York, and will never forget the impact of its message.
Its magnificent array of tunes has since appeared in many forms other than in the original opera format. One of the more popular presentations is to simply have the two voices(Porgy and Bess) heard without the opera setting; that is, in concert  or recital form; such as the Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong presentation in the 1950's, or the Cleo Laine/Ray Charles performance of the 1970's.
There is no hesitation on my part in recognizing the magnificent production given us by these great performers, and the glow of Gershwin's music shining throughout.
However, it takes  much more work  for me to listen to these concert versions than it did to simply take in the total sense of  reality by watching the opera as Gershwin had  created it.
Strangely, I have the same kind of reaction when I think of the one piano sonata that Paul Dukas wrote shortly after his immensely popular "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."
The work was completed in 1900, and is one of the largest sonatas we know of.
It can take anywhere from 45 to 50 minutes to perform, and has only recently come back from relative obscurity and is recorded - the eminent pianist Hamelin can be  heard, for one.
It is an attractive piece, redolent with melody and truly fine transitional passages that fit the piano  quite superbly, with thoughts of Beethoven and Franck swirling throughout. The piece IS huge, and written by a fine composer, but one in the second tier, as it were.
One of the first critics  to hear it used the word 'recondite' to describe it - does that imply ambivalence about this work?
I think that  this may be the primary reason that I listen to the sonata quite rarely - it may require too much work to listen to it too often.
And so, these two disparate works have something in common - a kind of delicious conundrum...


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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Major Artist's Most Powerful Statement...

I  will, for the moment, move  to an art form other than music, primarily because I do not very often move outside my primary field:
A great movie is indeed an art form - Disney, in his history-altering view of animation in such masterpieces as "Snow White" or "Bambi" is  one such artist so well-remembered; or, Alfred Hitchcock, with his  sense of vision in  movies we continue to watch, such as "The Birds" or "Suspicion" are but two of  a number of  possessors of images and ideas that result in immortality in the same  sense of reality when one thinks of a Bach, or a  Beethoven, or  a Winslow Homer.
George Stevens most assuredly is among the Exalted, as director of such movie epics as  "Shane" or "Giant" or "Place in the Sun," among a number of other masterpieces we see in our day; however,  I personally consider his work during the Second World War in Germany to be the most powerful statement of his creations. Even Stevens himself stated that his experiences altered his thinking forever about the kinds of movies he would create after the conflict was over.
Stevens was assigned to make a film record of  the war from D-Day to the last days in Berlin. He chose a coterie of top notch writers and cameramen to create this film, using, for the first time in war, 16 mm Kodachrome film.All were part of the armed forces and in uniform, including Stevens, who was made a lieutenant colonel.
This group of unarmed men was as close to the conflict as any soldier involved in the fighting, and  in constant and dire danger from the first day to the surrender, almost a year later.
The sense of presence, with the gifts these men had in creating a record of the horror of war,  brilliantly enhanced by the wonderful quality of color that the Kodachrome process possessed, is, for me, the most evocative example of the final year of the war that I have in my personal collection of filmed documents.
If you have not seen this document, and have interest, my recommendation is automatic.

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Thursday, December 24, 2015

An Evening of Music by Mozart And Salieri - Both Were There...

On an evening in 1786, a rather special occasion( a kind of Regal Gala) took place, during which music written specifically for this event had been written by a rather brash young genius we know as Amadeus Mozart and an established and popular composer named Antonio Salieri.
Mozart was in his thirtieth year; Salieri, a composer of the Court, six years Mozart's senior.
Picture this: two young fellows just  doing what they were assigned to do, in order to earn an evening's pay.
Both were given the task of writing music of parallel forms, to be performed back-to-back; for instance, an overture by Salieri was played first, followed by an overture written by  Mozart. This event must have been of considerable  length, as symphonies by both composers, let alone vocal works as well, were on the program.
To have been "a fly on the wall" during this event - I  wonder, from time to time, what the audience reactions were on this night over two centuries ago, to the music of the relatively unknown Mozart and the well established Salieri. After all, Salieri was the Power of that period, having been the teacher of such aspirants as, say, Schubert and Liszt. Yes! And even Beethoven , for a brief period.
I wonder how many in that audience had an efficient awareness of the reality that Mozart already was at this time? How many knew what Salieri must have known by 1786; that is, of the sublimity of Mozart's gift?
We know that Salieri had a fear and palpable hatred; not for the man Mozart, but for his talents.
It should be remembered that Salieri was indeed a fine composer, with luminous melodies woven throughout his works. It just so happened that a musical giant was a contemporary...
And; yes indeed - I would have LOVED to be that "fly on the wall" on that evening in 1786!
AND!  Oh, yes - did Mozart and Salieri speak to one another that evening?  There is no document I can find to answer that question...

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