Thursday, July 31, 2014

Vladimir Horowitz, Art Tatum, and a Gypsy Soprano - An Iconic Triune In the History of Recorded Music...

As a  musician, I have amassed a very large collection of audio and video recordings that are an overview of  a century of  a legacy of greatness of both composer and performer. From the Vorsetzer recordings of Grieg, Debussy, Ravel etc. to the latest Beethoven  revelations  by Leif Ove Andsnes, there are hundreds of discs, tapes, and CD's and videos scattered throughout the house.
A few  days ago a question fluttered across my mind's blackboard; specifically, "which two or three constitute the most unique recordings in my collection?"
Which set me to thinking about the 'detective' I  would have to become in order to decide upon two or three in my collection. And so I began the 'game', with the following results:
1. Rachmaninoff in 1926.
2. Art Tatum in 1932 and 1935.
3. Vladimir Horowitz in the mid-1980's.
There is a Gypsy Traditional tune from Mother Russia titled "Powder and Paint,' which was a favorite of a mezzo soprano named Plevitskaya, well-known a century ago. The legendary pianist and composer Rachmaninoff was enamored of her way of projecting folk tunes, and asked her to record a tune or two, with him as accompanist. The result is this recording of a saucy, fun-filled incarnation with the great Rachmaninoff enhancing the  accompaniment with his own piquant harmonies in improvised form. Do listen, and form your own opinion!
When I first heard Art Tatum's initial  recording (1932) of a tune titled "Tiger Rag," I was simply overwhelmed by the passages that  this titan dared me to believe  they were not figments of my imagination.
I then underwent an investigation, and found that Tatum had recorded it once again in 1935, which is indeed a better copy, projecting a stride bass technique that no pianist  has ever been able to equal, less replicate. Do be reminded that Tatum was legally blind.
When I bought the video titled "The Last Romantic,"  which centered around Vladimir Horowitz performing in his town house in New York just a few years before his passing in 1989, I was especially attracted to an event which lasted all of about 20 seconds, during which Horowitz made a stab at the pop tune "Tea for Two". The result was less than spectacular, except for an impish smile emanating from the Horowitz physiognomy. What immediately came to mind was that Horowitz, arguably the best player of the piano since Franz Liszt a century earlier, was an unabashed admirer of  Art Tatum, whose music was  not in any way understood by Horowitz. What Horowitz DID comprehend was  that this little, rather squat  player of the piano rivaled HIM, in terms of raw pianistic powers. The result, what with all of the apocryphal stories swirling around  these two- in absolute truth, Vladimir Horowitz was an unabashed admirer of Art Tatum, and the strange bedfellows developed  a relationship - to what degree of meaning, I am not sure.
Horowitz was mesmerized by Tatum's recording of  "Tea for Two" - hence that  little  shot at"Tea for Two" in the Horowitz video.
The question I have - I wonder if Horowitz ever got to hear  "Tiger Rag??"

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Friday, July 25, 2014

The World of Music - As Seen Through the Eyes of One of its Inhabitants...

I have written about 560 blogs since beginning them in 2007, mostly  in representation  as a  musicologist, spasmodic composer and at times a fulfilled  performer, with an occasional dip into the well of history.
Today, I realize that I rarely, if ever, have delved into the wonders of  that which I  am most assiduously attached  to:  that is, the art and  attending  wonders and rewards of  Sharing  one customarily calls Teaching.
And so I have decided to delve into my world of reaction  to and  experiences with  some of the teachers I studied with:
There will be no names of teachers; only the internal issues of  recognition of import and their ways of  making their import known to me.
For example: in Performance, I studied with several teachers, some known world-wide.
One would deal primarily with the overriding priority we call Technique. His modus operandi was, simply,
"what good is attempting to portray the idea without possessing the digital requisites to project that idea? An extremely  musical entity is a useless entity without the weaponry to make that idea come alive."
Another teacher, well recognized,  prioritized the ways of dealing with those notes to make the idea come alive, if the technique was extant. And so here was the opposite premise; namely, "even if  the performer was virtually incapable of playing a wrong note, what worth is there if he or she was not born with that priceless gift of making music come to life?"
One or two teachers dealt with both aspects, but made sure that the student chosen was indeed gifted with an item no teacher can teach; that is, the gift of being musically endowed. And so, their screening process with potential students was vertically relentless in searching for that indefinable gift.
And, in Music Analysis; that is, uncovering the linguistic secret given to the written note was a fascinating bevy  of interests and issues to me.
For example, one teacher insisted that there was a specific reason for the existence of each and every note written. In even a scale passage he would insist that "this note is a passing tone - that note is an accented passing tone - this note is an appoggiatura  - that note is a chord tone"  etc.
Other teachers would be more liberal, and in sweeping and  more generalized ways  they would  accept my answers to the reason for the notes being analyzed.
And there are other aspects connected with the language of music; however, I will go no further, simply because the above experiences are being shared with you to prove and certify one reality about Learning; and that is, the word Perspective is the most valuable asset in the learning process - mere linear absorption is only the beginning of the process we call Learning.
And when I teach, the word "why" is,  in ongoing constancy, held up to the light.

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mozart and Mendelssohn Got Their Way - Two Curious Events,,,

I would invite any of you reading this blog  who are professional musicians to let me know if you might have experienced an event or events  similar to the following  "encounters"  which I underwent as a student:
On two different occasions, each event about two years apart, I prevailed over my piano teacher as regards choice:
The first event:   I insisted that I learn the Mozart piano concerto K.488, in spite of the reality that my teacher had planned on my learning another work at that particular time. I had just received an answer from the acclaimed musicologist and  historian Alfred Einstein; an answer to a letter I had written him,  asking about  tempi in Mozart as applied to the projection of bel canto in his piano music. I was so enamored of his answer that I insisted that I learn that particular concerto for two reasons; one, that Einstein himself considered the K.488  as fine a concerto as any other in that form in the Mozart repertoire - and, two; the glorious romanticism of the second movement -  most specifically, the combine of tempo and  'singing.'
My teacher, as I recall, was not too happy about my attempt to override his choice of music. I cannot remember the sequence of events; but, I got my way!
Event number two was an announcing to my poor, suffering pedagogue of the moment that it was my intention to learn the daunting  Variations Serieuses of Mendelssohn as soon as possible, primarily because it  was, as I now recall, the only one of three sets of variations  Mendelssohn wrote that was published DURING his short life, and that this aspect of human drama appealed to me; and, of course, it was a wonderful work, arguably the best of his variations. Again, I cannot recall the possible squabbles I may have encountered with the teacher - but AGAIN! I got my way! It took about a year, but I learned it.
The prodding question remains:
WHY did I get my way?

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Friday, July 11, 2014

Franz Josef Haydn - An Anomaly Unparalleled?

A few weeks ago, I decided to embark upon an adventure with a number of my students who had completed a study of both harmony and counterpoint with me. This 'adventure' consisted merely of a suggestion on my part; specifically:
"Try as fervently as you can to put yourselves into the worlds of Mozart and Beethoven as students of Haydn, with the attendant level of imagery these geniuses possessed, and what they saw in the works of their teacher. Then promulgate  an  analysis of what you see in his music that you might not  otherwise  have uncovered."
I was astounded at the general results - these students came up with additional and multidimensional answers germane to some of the Haydn piano works which could very well have been analyzed by either Mozart or Beethoven, or both. As  for  those of you who can analyze music through your own expertise, one  knows that in certain incarnations, there can be more than one answer available, and the only reality one comes up with is speculation; for example, "did Haydn want this area to be a secondary dominant or a minimal modulation? Is it through precedent? Or something else?"
There are sections within countless compositions that can bear more than one answer, in musical analysis, and one simply cannot summon the long -departed composer to supply us with a specific answer.
And therein lies the reason that I asked these students to assume a position of transfer in order to enhance their sense of analytical skills.
And they really enjoyed dealing with this process.  Their palpably increased awareness of Haydn's legendary  abilities to squeeze the juices of variations dry and to promulgate some uncanny surprises in a number of  surprising but totally logical twists and turns in his approach to modulation, are perhaps the salient reactions I have noted in these students. A great example in Haydn:  In an "E" flat sonata, the second movement is in "E", not "B" flat. How come?  The answer appeared to a couple of these students: "E" is the enharmonic  'other name'  to "F" flat, the Neapolitan of "E" flat major.
Nothing proven; except perhaps, an increased awareness of the curious limitations coexisting  with the  exquisite boundlessness attached to the process we call knowledge. 

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Friday, July 4, 2014

The Lively Arts - In Unexpected Juxtapositions...

I have written about some of these individuals in previous blogs; however, I thought that it might be of interest to cite additional examples of The Unexpected and wrap them all into one neat package:
Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin  both sang as choirboys in their youth;  Hitler at the Seminary in Lambach, and Stalin, who gained a scholarship at the theological seminary in Tiflis, the capital of Georgia.   How different would the twentieth century have turned out to be, had the young Hitler been able to pass entrance requirements at the Academy of Art in Vienna?
Reinhard Heydrich presided in a 90 minute meeting of high ranking Nazis in Wannsee in 1942. This meeting dealt with one item on its agenda for that day -  that item was The Final Solution. Heydrich was arguably the most valuable Nazi serving Hitler, demonstrating a perfect, demonic mode of pure genocidal proficiency that arguably could have made him Hitler's successor, had he not been assassinated just a few months after the Wannsee Conference. Hitler himself  referred  to  Heydrich,  in actual  conversation,  as "the  man with the iron heart."  Reinhard Heydrich was  a highly gifted violinist, and performed at weekly recitals in the home of  Admiral  Wilhelm Canaris, at that particular time Hitler's intelligence chief.  Heydrich's  maternal grandfather had been  the Director of the Dresden  Royal Conservatory, and his  father had founded   the Halle Conservatory of Music.   It is difficult for me to picture this tall, blond monster named Reinhard  Heydrich , in a comfortable room with fireplace supplied,  in communion with Schubert, Mozart, Beethoven...
And what about the man who led the crusade into France on D-Day in 1944 to begin the liberation of  a suffering humanity?  The oil paintings of Dwight  D. Eisenhower can be seen.  Do search for a 1955 portrait he did of Winston Churchill, for instance, and the craggy granite of the British leader as Eisenhower the artist saw him.
Or look at the tender creations in still life format that the General created. I'm not calling these paintings great art - I'm simply projecting  to you  another side of one of History's best known warriors.
And what of another great warrior named George Patton? The  reflective, internalized  choice of words in some of his poetry gives us another part of the puzzle we call Patton.
Omar Bradley was one of America's most gifted generals, and gave much to the success against the Nazi hordes in Europe, especially as a leading  member of Eisenhower's General Staff. During moments of rest and reflection in battle, especially during the first few days of the  terrifying  Battle of the Bulge, Bradley would summon rather intense creative powers, especially in Calculus, and create 'games' with this and other mathematical  processes, in order to transport him, at least for the moment, into another world. There is a research fellowship in Bradley's name at Muhlenberg College.
Edward Teller, the creator of the hydrogen bomb, was one of Oppenheimer's entourage in the Manhattan Project, which gave the world the atomic bomb. When Oppenheimer first asked Teller to join him in this historical project, Teller  said he would if he were  allowed to bring a piano with him, so that he could play his beloved Beethoven  Sonatas.  Much to the discomfort of those fellow scientists who were trying to get much needed sleep, Teller played his beloved sonatas into the night. And nights...
And how about the paintings of two of the world's best known crooners, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett?
Much of the time, many of their paintings are on display somewhere.
 Charles Ives is known to the musical world as one of America's most singular, most powerful composers.
He made his fortune, however, as one of the most successful innovators in the field of insurance, specializing in such aspects as estate planning and corporate insurance law.
The most sensational examples of The Unexpected, to me, are the performances of two legendary musicians performing on Unexpected instruments:
Jascha Heifetz, of course, is considered by many to be the 20th century's reigning violinist.
But what about Heifetz at the piano?
And Stephane Grappelli was the greatest of the Jazz violinists.
But what about Grappelli at the piano?
Go to YouTube - the treasures are there for you to witness...
And there are others; but, enough for now...

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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Two Historic Recordings in the Year 1957 - If Only Rachmaninoff Could Have Heard...

One of a handful of young pianists whom Vladimir Horowitz chose  to work with was the American Byron Janis.
This singularly gifted pianist achieved international recognition rather quickly, and performed both in recital and with many of the great conductors, receiving the highest praise by both critics and audiences wherever he appeared. It is indeed fortunate a reality that Janis produced a number of recordings that attested to his greatness before  the scourge of arthritis put a temporary halt to his career  at the height of his successes. Fortunately, he was able to recover enough to perform once again. 
I think of two such defining performances, both recorded in 1957; namely, the first and third Concertos of Rachmaninoff.
The first Concerto was done with the legendary Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony; the third Concerto with  Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
The restored versions of these recordings were processed, as I recall, around 1997, and brilliantly convey to us the magnificence of Janis' readings and his wonderfully balanced assessments of the two great conductors he worked with in what I consider to be two of the more important  readings of  these works that are available to us.
Do listen to these recordings, and see if you agree with me that the sweep and  the swirl of the idiosyncratic ways of Janis give Rachmaninoff a kind of meaning that is simply not expected, and yet embraced.

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Rachmaninoff, the Man from Cuba, and Edinburgh, Scotland - a Historic Master Class...

In 1986, the Irish pianist Barry Douglas won the coveted first prize at the Tchaikovsky  Piano Competition.
This was the culmination of years of assiduous toil at the keyboard, and it constituted  the beginning of  a run of  international performances and ultimate recognition as one of the young lions of his time.
Before this victory in Mother Russia, young Douglas was one of six chosen to participate in a Master Class at Usher Hall in Edinburgh; the others chosen were promising aspirants from the USA(2), Brazil, Germany and Great Britain. The Master Teacher was the legendary  pianist from Cuba, Jorge Bolet. The music prepared by all six was the 3rd Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto.
I have a  copy of that master class, and it is one of my personal treasures. These six young hopefuls were, all of them, superbly prepared and highly gifted players of the piano. Of course, at this level, playing the piano superbly is only the gateway to the next and most vital aspect of reality; namely, -what do we do with the notes learned? Bolet was riveting in his dissection of the music, and the attending pursuit on his part to convey to these young pianists the innermost aspect of the language lurking somewhere within these notes that were being played. I must say that these six musicians had dealt with, in preparation for the Master Class, to an admirable level the issue of the core meanings of the written notes, as they perceived them. Bolet took these budding musicians on a journey with him to reveal  the world that lay before them, and the  widening eyes and increasingly parting lips of these musicians were proof of the genius Bolet possessed as a communicator, let alone as an artist.
Of the six,  Barry Douglas has ascended to the upper rungs of that ladder all artists must climb, and we can obtain recordings of this singularly gifted  pianist.
If you can, look for Barry Douglas in his recording of Moussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition."  For me, it is a thrilling foray into the architecture of the music; almost as if  Douglas had  found a way to "re - paint" the works of Hartmann, the artist who inspired Moussorgsky, onto  the keyboard, with fingers instead of the brush.
Now into his 55th year, Barry Douglas is a force that we just might become more aware of...

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