Friday, September 12, 2014

The Most Profound Influence Upon Me -- a Historian; Not a Musician...

For  those of you who read my blog regularly, you know that I had studied with a number of brilliant musicians and a small knot of geniuses - the base of my musical pyramid is quite strong, thanks to these luminaries.
However, the base of my  existence extends in many directions outside of my chosen field, due to a historian, not a musician;  in much the same  way that  one of the teachers I studied under  who possessed the greatest knowledge of the piano repertoire I had  yet encountered, was  a trumpet player; not a pianist (in previous blogs, I have already written about both of these gentlemen).
I recall the days when this historian, whom I had met during my  teaching days at college and high school levels, made a point of our getting together once or twice a week, in informal mode(either at his or my home, or in school).
He exercised a consistency in asking questions germane to music, as did I about issues historical,  mostly out of my growing awareness of the width of his knowledge. He often reminded me, with a smile, that   "you know more about history than I know about music."  He began working on a PHD during this period, at the age of 54 (he was about twenty years my senior).  His chosen subject was the rebuilding of the British navy by St. Vincent, and I remember my helping him arrange  many of the countless informational ingredients  deemed  necessary in order to earn the degree, which he proceeded to do.
 His range of information was enormous -  one  of our sessions might deal with the impact of the Thirty Years'  War;  the next, perhaps, might wrestle  with the social realities obscured by the wonders  of the Renaissance. I recall our spending a considerable amount of time on the Enlightenment, and its impact not only on the politics of the eighteenth century, but also how the relationship to the  Church had altered, and how such human endeavors as education and the creative core had been transformed in thought, then deed.
These last two issues were discussed at length in our sessions, with Beethoven becoming a  kind of  center piece - do remember that the great composer once gave us the ultimate  truth about the growing disdain for Authority and Royalty  during this defining period  -  "it is they who should bow to us."
This historian  was an avid listener of great music, and possessed an almost grudging admiration for those who wrote and performed. He had almost as many questions for me as I reserved for him . I believe I first met him at one of my performances.
One day, he asked me a question - a question that forever altered my way of thinking about and dealing with music, let alone veritably all other pursuits, right up to this day.
The question was "why does Beethoven's music sound the way it does?"
Of course, there was no immediate answer on my part.
I pondered that question until I realized that he was asking about all of the possible historical contexts and issues, let alone events,  before and during  the life span of the composer, that  led to his particular language, both spiritually and intellectually. In other words, this historian could have asked "why does Mozart's music sound like Mozart?" or, "why does Chopin sound like Chopin?" etc. etc....
The coruscation that followed has been the basis of all that I do in my learning processes  through all of  the years that have gone by. For me, the delight of connection in the most intrinsic form, of the power of History as elemental requisite of any pursuit I choose to learn about, cannot be described.


Friday, September 5, 2014

A Transcendent Gift to the Piano - Earl Wild...

I last wrote a blog about the miraculous American pianist Earl Wild back in March of 2006(do refer to that blog by way of the archive list on the right side of the page). This man was still with us, and   in his 80's continuing his career at a dizzying pace.
When he passed away at age 94, I recalled some of his most important and pertinent addenda to the glorious history of piano performances captured in recordings. I, at the same time,  realized  just today that I had totally forgotten to relay to you on the day of his passing, some time ago,  one of his most notable and fabled endeavors; that is, his transcriptions of several of Gershwin's immortal tunes.
They are in the styles of  transcriptions written by several students of Liszt, straddling the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They are exceedingly difficult and marvelously conceived - I  feel that Gershwin himself would have embraced these incarnations, being a strong pianist himself, and at the same time, of course, a quite wonderful writer of music for the instrument.
Some of the tunes Wild transmogrified on behalf of the piano are:
Liza; Somebody Loves Me; Lady, Be Good; The Man I Love; Fascinatin' Rhythm; Embraceable You; I Got Rhythm.
If you have not heard Wild, let alone these formidable  piano transcriptions of his;  you are in for a unique experience...

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Imagery - the Core Propellant for the Creative Process...

When the comedian Robin Williams passed away earlier this month, I gathered some of my thoughts and impressions about this unique package of  unequaled gifts in the form of a man.
His uncanny speeds in extemporaneous reaction to whatever subject he was encountering at that particular moment is, for me, not only the quintessential example of comedic genius, which, after all, is reaction in comedic form to a particular subject or issue of that moment, but also a wonderfully clear parallel to the extemporaneous gifts of an Art Tatum,or a  Charlie Parker, or a Dizzy Gillespie etc.; or the scat singing of  a Cleo Laine,  or an Ella Fitzgerald, or a Mel Torme - or what about the 'frozen'  improvisations cascading upon us in a Horowitz transcription? Or speculation (another word for interpretation)  the performer is promulgating as he or she is playing a Beethoven sonata, which can not ever be repeated in pure exactitude, as no two performances by the performer can  be one fingerprint.
The almost brutal brush textures we see in so much Van Gogh can give a picture  of this artist taking up that brush, and in one extemporaneous sweep producing  a painting before he puts that brush down; time and time again.
And when I recall the very same kind of reaction in Robin Williams when he would dazzle his audiences with the pyrotechnical  dazzle of a Horowitz, or Tatum, or Laine(listen to her scat-singing of "Turkish Delight").
Recently, in a discussion with a great surgeon, I remarked that the "only the difference between you and those of us called Artists is your medium." He hugged me(!) and then said "you truly understand."
What Schumann wrote about Chopin in his Zeitung can be applied, in my opinion, to Robin Williams; that is, "hats off, gentlemen; a genius!"
Imagery - that's what it's pretty much about...


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Great Voice Has Passed On...

With apologies for a brief respite from my blog writing, which I shall resume later this week, may I relay to  those of you who may have missed the sad announcement that the legendary  Italian soprano, Licia Albanese, passed away  the week before last, at the age of 105.
If you have not heard her sing, I would strongly suggest that you listen to the scintillating  colors that she created; both in the characters she sang, and in the vocal powers she possessed.
During my school years, I made a point of listening to her as much as I could, marveling at the instrument this woman was the owner of;  especially in Italian opera, which is what she was primarily noted for.
Two other singers who also fall into the category of sheer vocal weaponry, for me, are the American artists   Marian Anderson and Richard Tucker.
Anderson, who could move into the tenor range with the same unalterable purity as her venturing into the soprano realm, simply pulled me into her gravitational field by way of the sounds  that emanated from her throat, regardless of the music;  whether it was a  Spiritual from the cotton fields of the American South, or  a Lied from Schubert - I believe that she was the first Black to be accepted by, and  sing in the Metropolitan Opera .
As for Richard Tucker - well; do listen to his performance of "Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen" from La Boheme,  after which  I would wonder if you  might still have been  more impressed by the likes of  Caruso, Gigli, or   Peerce - or any other tenor you may have heard sing Italian opera, after listening to Tucker.
This man, for me, constitutes another example of what the power of the human instrument can accrue...


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Vincent d'Indy - A Composer Who Should Be Known More Than He Is...

When I think of the reaction in France to the music of Wagner, and the ensuing results, culminating in, among other aspects of reaction, Impressionism itself;  a composer stands out, not only because of his influence upon composers such as Debussy, Satie and  Albeniz, his standing  as an educator of much import, but also his music. His name: Vincent d'Indy.
Do read about his reactions to the music-dramas of Wagner, and how he reached into the history of the Drama to enhance his musical  proclivities. Also look into the founding of his Schola Cantorum, an institution which  brought back a reexamination of pillars of  musical antiquity, such as Gregorian chant and  the giant Palestrina, and how to meld these ancient entities into the existing fabric of late nineteenth century French music. Incidentally, Schola Cantorum exists today.
One of the dramas which d'Indy inculcated to enhance a really interesting musical output was an epic poem which goes back to the Assyrians, or  Babylonians, or Sumerians,  some two or more thousand years B.C. - Istar, an ancient princess, ventures into the Underworld (some of us call it Hell) in order to free her lover from eternal  captivity. In doing so, she would have to enter and pass Seven Gates, discarding one of her garments (seven in number, of course) as she passes through each gate. When she discards her final garment at the Seventh Gate, and stands naked, her lover is freed.
To me, d'Indy may very well have been in a whimsical mood when he thought of how to bring music to this ancient story. He composes the Istar  Variations.
The music BEGINS with the final variation! The most wholly clothed  - and as each variation is introduced, it has lost an article of its clothing - it is less florid and colored, until after the final (the FIRST!) variation is completed, the Theme finally is given us, and in unison. There it (she) stands, naked as a babe.
This piece must therefore be hailed as one in the form of Variations in Search of a Theme.
I can easily imagine witnessing the reactions of one  Papa Haydn, the master of Theme and Variations; if he were brought back just to witness his favorite personal form and see it placed in reverse. I just have to feel that a guffaw would escape him; knowing of his sense of humor.
d'Indy - a  fellow who marched to the beat of his own drum.
Incidentally, this fellow was exceedingly gifted as a composer - listen not only to Istar Variations, but a composition which was arguably his most popular; a lovely piece of music titled Symphony on a French Mountain Air.
Do search him out, and you may well have considered finding d'Indy's music and thinking more than worthwhile...


Wednesday, August 6, 2014

On This Date in August of 1945 - A Product of the Human Creative Impulse...

Hiroshima was transmogrified in  about nine seconds.
In a vote taken by a group of scientists  involved directly with the birth of the Bomb, shortly after Hitlerism was eradicated - the question being "should we continue to work on the Bomb?" - the answer was an instantaneous and resounding "YES." Was the affirmative answer declared because the Japanese were yet to be dealt with for Finality; or was it, in reality, a knee-jerk reactive declaration for the creative impulse to be consummated and placated, now that the Secret seemingly was more close at hand?  To this day, there is still argumentation swirling around this issue. The thirst for knowledge; especially, a thirst for a definitive answer to a question or questions seemingly close to being answered, resides  in all  of those who deal creatively  in the arts or the sciences. A  composer who approaches the ending section of a work becomes, naturally, increasingly aware of the significance of the material having been written down; the result may well be a kind of refocusing on the import of the quality inherent in  completion. In performance in general, it may well be that the performer or performers assign a different code or responsibility  to any ending area in order to further vindicate the reason for the performance itself.
I  often think about human reactions to creative process - they appear to be similar -  for instance, in an interview with Vannevar Bush, who was the first Scientific Adviser  in the  history of the Republic (to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman), and involved with the Manhattan Project, Dr. Bush was asked what he thought was the most valuable military asset invented by the Americans prior to the Bomb.  Vannevar Bush practically glistened as he declared that the proximity fuse saved countless lives and hastened the defeat of  Nazi Germany. His  obvious pleasure in describing the development and ultimate ingenuity of this device was the same kind of reaction I've seen in musicians upon their producing a particular level of greatness in a particular performance.  I remember seeing that "glistening" in a Serkin performance of  a Schubert sonata.
I could go on with other examples of the same kind of reaction among those who deal with the creative process; however, the subject has, I think, been dealt with enough for now(mercifully!).


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??"