Posts Tagged ‘Beethoven’

andsnes in the house

January 13, 2012

Andsnes playing Grieg today

Earlier this week, WGBH’s Fraser Performance Studio got its very own fbook fan page. Just in time for the space to welcome one of the world’s finest pianists – Leif Ove Andsnes – for our weekly feature, Drive Time Live with Cathy Fuller.

He’s in town for this week’s performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Beethoven’s C Major Piano Concerto is on the program, the first of his mighty handful of five “piano vs. orchestra” masterpieces.

Andsnes shared some insight today on the work: “The slow movements by Beethoven – it’s not a private confession, it’s a speech to humanity. And that’s very touching, it’s a such broad feeling which is very different from Mozart or Haydn.”

Life as a touring soloist is challenging, to say the least. There are stories of notable soloists calling the front desk at their hotels just to verify the name of the city he or she is in. Who can keep track of all those time zones?

Andsnes is clear about one thing. While he could live in “any city in the world, as long as it has an airport, to be able to get around” – he’s learned a lot about himself over the years. “I’m getting more and more sure of the fact that I cannot move away from Norway. It’s a fantastic place.”

We’re glad he’s here this week. Tomorrow night’s concert is one I’ve been looking forward to for a long time!

Leif Ove Andsnes at WGBH this afternoon

top 10 classical composers?

February 2, 2011

Who are the top ten classical composers – ever?

We all have our own lists, cultivated and groomed and backed up by reasons that are equally solid. It can be a quite a bit more challenging to describe why a big name composer didn’t make it onto your list.

Today’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook featured a conversation with Anthony Tommasini, the chief classical music critic for the New York Times, talking about his top ten list. Why no Tchaikovsky, or Vivaldi or Chopin? Tommasini has sound reasons for his decision on those names, and he talks a lot about that in the show. Not every caller on the show seemed convinced.

This is actually a question that was passed around among my fellow classical hosts and aficionados at Vermont Public Radio couple of weeks ago, when Tommasini’s article first appeared in the Times. There was general concensus on Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven. Most of also chose Wagner. After that – the lists included everyone from Chopin and Liszt to Projofiev, Haydn, Bartok and Mahler.

Who’s on your top ten list?

Here’s Tommasini’s:

1. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

2. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 91)

4. Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828)

5. Claude Achille Debussy (1862 – 1918)

6. Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)

7. Johannes Brahms (1833 – 97)

8. Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901)

9. Richard Wagner (1813 – 83)

10. Bela Bartok (1881 – 1945)

And here’s my list, in no special order:

– Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky, Haydn, Wagner, Beethoven, Schubert (those SONGS!), Bartok, Mahler & Monteverdi.

If I could choose a top fifteen, I would add Shostakovich, Handel, Debussy, Brahms and Mendelssohn. It’s impossible to create such a small list on someting as subjective as music and not leave someone important out. If I had twenty or thirty to choose, I’d have no trouble doing that either! (Dvorak, Schumann, Verdi, Puccini … stop me now…)

Leave a comment here with yours, love to see your picks.

you say you want a revolution

October 2, 2010

Interesting, that this week’s episode of the public radio show To the Best of our Knowledge would be about how music is informed by (and informs) social and political revolution. This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, and Germany’s reunification.

Soundtrack to War and Peace is a thoughtful investigation into everything from the horror of war in the West African nations of Sierra Leone, and Benin – to Napoleon’s invasion of Beethoven’s Vienna, and the expulsion of Jews from 15th-century Spain.

Music is surpsisingly the biggest, but not the only, uniting factor in all of the explorations in the hour. Absolutely fascinating. Give yourself an hour to listen to this, it’s worth it.

vyo fall concert

September 26, 2010

Geese flew over downtown Burlington late this afternoon. The season’s traditional “V”s and “half-Vs” were pushed along by the lone stragglers, flying behind and honking an impatient “wait up!” to their more prescient mates.

With autumn comes the start of the concert season…I guess. That’s a qualified statement because in Vermont, it doesn’t seem like there’s ever a NON-concert season. Summers are filled with festivals and intimate outdoor gatherings while the other three quarters of the year hold their own with recitals and informal get-togethers along with the regular season concert series at all of the area venues.

This fall’s two opening concerts with the Vermont Youth Orchestra were especially anticipated events as they also marked the debut of the Orchestra’s new conductor, Ronald Braunstein.

He’s offered a vision that includes a focus on core orchestral repertoire, and self-empowerment of the Orchestra’s young musicians through dedicated coaching and personalized training sessions. The approach seems to be working so far.

While the maestro stuck strictly to the music in today’s concert and didn’t offer any words of introduction to his new audience, the Orchestra spoke volumes in Dvořák’s colorful Op. 46 Slavonic Dance #8, Bach’s stately Air on the G String, Bernstein’s brilliant Overture from Westside Story, and – occupying the entire second half of the program – Beethoven’s regal Symphony #5.

I’ve never heard the VYO’s brass and winds sound better than they did today in the Bernstein and Beethoven (the final movement of the 5th was outstanding!). Principal cellist Joshua Morris’s solo pizzicato passage in the Westside Story Overture showed supreme musicianship, as did the clarinet/bassoon tradeoffs in the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 5th, and many percussion moments throughout the entire concert. Bach’s familiar Air was glassy and serene (if not memorably interesting), while Dvořák’s potent Slavonic Dance delivered satisfying syncopation of  joyful abandon and metered precision.

This “concert season” is off to a great start!

elasticity

September 25, 2010

Ronald Braunstein and me

I wasn’t sure what to expect this past Thursday morning.

Ronald Braunstein, the new permanent conductor of the Vermont Youth Orchestra, was due in the VPR Classical studio at 9 to talk with me on the air about his new job with the Orchestra. In the conversation we’d had a week earlier in his sunny office at the VYO building, I couldn’t get a good read on him at all. When I arrived that day I found him standing in the office lobby, in conversation with a young man who may have been an Orchestra member. Ronald greeted me, but he seemed distracted. Had I interrupted his conversation? Did he need to get back to that before the two of us talked? I said, “I hope I haven’t interrupted – do you have time?”  He glanced at his wrist, and still with a very serious face he looked me in the eye: “yes, it’s 2 o’clock!” Good news, he has a sense of humor!

And our time together that afternoon ended as it had begun. After an hour or so of intense discussion that ranged from conducting technique to contemporary music and art, and Braunstein’s personal history – I was on the way out of his office when he said “that’ll be 50 cents.” I must have looked puzzled. “For the pomegranate juice,” he explained, deadpan, pointing at the now empty glass he had brought to me earlier. (Um, OK…)  I gave him my best ‘indignant diva’ voice: “I don’t PAY for interviews!” and we both had a good laugh.

This Thursday morning, we were scheduled to bring that conversation to the air on VPR Classical. Would his understated sense of humor come through in an interview setting? Would mine? And how could we get at those personal details that make his life such an interesting story, without making this private, quiet man audibly uncomfortable on the air? Or worse yet, make him want to discontinue the discussion. No need to worry, I soon found out. The conversation we’d had a week earlier had apparently gone some way to break the ice and he was ready to talk when he got to the studio.

Braunstein is 55, he came to Vermont from (most recently) New York City after a career that included studies at Juilliard, teaching at the Mannes School of Music, and studies with some big names in 20th century music: Herbert Von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, Elliot Carter and Milton Babbitt. So, why Vermont? And with credentials like that, why take a position with a Youth Orchestra? “Well first of all it was the Orchestra’s incredible reputation, I’d heard about them for years. And I always wanted to go somewhere beautiful, to be the music director. It never quite worked out, I was always in places like Houston or other places that were not so green or not so nice to live.  And the other thing that was really interesting to me was that it was not connected, it was free-standing. It didn’t have any connections to any other institutions, and therefore to be the music director there I could really use my creative opinions, my philosophies and  what not to shape and guide the organization.”

Here’s something you didn’t hear if you listened in to our conversation on Thursday morning: the recording I chose to fill out the rest of the hour was the electrifying 1962 classic of Beethoven’s 5th, with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. At the downbeat of the first iconic opening notes, Ronald asked off-air, “wait – which recording IS this?” I said, “there IS only one,” and handed him the CD jewel case. For the next half hour we listened to that magnificent recording together, Ronald occasionally sharing von Karajan anecdotes and leaning in excitedly and pausing to say “listen to that!”. I’d turn up the volume, and then he would go on to point out some masterly nuance: von Karajan’s omission of the repeat in the first movement; the bassoon sixteenth notes that quietly act as the engine in the third movement; the dotted eighth notes of the celli that support the second movement; and the heroic horn entrance in the fourth. I had never listened to a piece of music before with a conductor. And I will never be able to hear to Beethoven’s 5th again now that I’ve had that special experience.

One of the best stories Ronald told was a recollection of Herbert Von Karajan’s reaction to the first time he observed the younger conductor in a performance of Beethoven’s 5th. (Imagine Ronald speaking in the elder master’s thick German accent here –) “”I have one thing to tell you,” von Karajan said, “you don’t know this piece.” I just shook my head, trying to imagine what it would be like to have a comment like that aimed my way as a young musician. It could be devastating. For Ronald it was a challenge. He smiled, “Yah, well I do NOW! And I’m younger than he was!”

Maestro Braunstein makes his debut with the Vermont Youth Orchestra in two concerts this weekend. The first took place last night in St. Albans, and the next one is tomorrow at 3 at Burlington’s Flynn Center for the Arts. Keep a close eye on his conducting gestures, Braunstein often talks about “elasticity” being one of the guiding principles of his journey through music. I wonder how that will translate to his time on the podium, and his interpretation of the classics they’ll be playing like Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, and Bach’s Air on the G String?

Oh – and don’t look for a score on his music stand, he doesn’t use one. In fact there won’t be a music stand at all. The reason why goes a long way toward giving some insight on the relationship he plans to have with this motivated, exceedingly talented group of young musicians:  “I don’t want anything between me and the Orchestra.”

the 9th

June 16, 2010

Program alert! Yesterday’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook featured a fascinating, insightful look at Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” Symphony #9. I thought I knew a lot about the circumstances that led to the symphony’s creation, and about the world it lived in. I learned a lot with this program. Like, when the symphony premiered – it had three conductors! Not quite the image you get from the movies.

Check it out, it’s worth a listen.

trading fours: hear this – not that!

September 5, 2009
perfect 'za

perfect 'za

Today I came across one of those articles that offered a comparison of the nutritional values of pizzas at national chain restaurants. Take just a moment to ingest that basic premise, if you will…

You’ve seen this kind of thing.

As a serious pizza fanatic I couldn’t resist finding out which fared best (and, of course, worst) – and, on the morbidly curious side – how many of these nefarious bad-boy pies I have personally consumed.

Not that many, it turns out. I admit the discovery leaves me with a mix of gratefulness and some measure of disappointment. For every sodium-laden, fat-drenched unearned calorie saturating the ones that ranked (BAD, very bad. Bad. Right?),  I envisioned an equally sumptuous, completely cheesy and delicious piece of pizza perfection (mmmmmm).

I dwelled for a while on the path (artery?) not taken, and ultimately decided my longevity was probably better off for the missed experience. I guess.

Articles like this pop up fairly frequently. Part of the larger nutritional awareness movement underway now, popularized with books like Eat This, Not That! Thousands of Simple Food Swaps that Can Save You 10, 20, 30 Pounds–or More!

Since I couldn’t spend the next half hour wading in melted pizza bliss I refocused (much more healthful) to consider what my choices would be for a recorded music equivalent: “Hear This, Not That! Simple Sound Swaps that Can Save You 10, 20, 30 Wasted Hours–or More!”

If you had to choose – I hope you don’t – between the Istvan Kertesz/London Symphony or Kubelik/Berlin Philharmonic recordings of the Dvořák 9th symphony – which would you pick? Very difficult to say, or even make a compelling case for recommending one over the other. They’re both benchmark performances of the work.

Same idea with Coltrane’s My Favorite Things, in the 1961 studio version vs. some of the live ones, like the 1963 Newport recording. You have to hear both. In personnel alone, the tune takes on very different colors with the Newport group, where bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Roy Haynes replace Steve Davis and Elvin Jones from the original studio ensemble. Add to that the live dynamic and there’s really no comparison here.

But sometimes these choices are more clear, and that’s the launching point for this edition of Trading Fours. Save yourself the empty calories and wasted time wading through disappointing, unfulfilling listening. Check these out.

Von Karajan's landmark 1963 Beethoven set

#1 – Beethoven’s complete symphony cycle (Herbert Von Karajan) – The infamous, narcissistic, perfectionist, genius – choose your adjective – German conductor Herbert Von Karajan recorded four complete Beethoven cycles in his long career. The first set was recorded from 1953-56 (w/The Philharmonia Orchestra); the next from 1961-2 (with his favorite orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic); a third came along from 1975-77 (Berlin Phil.); and the last was recorded from 1982-85 (yet again with Berlin). Assuming you’ll want to get one of these (only one) and save the rest of your budget for the next three recommendations here – which Beethoven set to pick? You want the second set, released in 1963, for how it so completely embodies one single word: firepower. These recordings reveal a young Von Karajan as a powerful leader capable of getting the very most from his orchestra. There is a rawness and urgency present here that gives each symphony a thrilling edginess. The longer he worked with Berlin the smoother and more synthesized their sound became, until you get to the 1980s (recordings his like two “Adagio” CDs come to mind) and it’s so rich and refined it’s beautiful, but very nearly drained of the personality that makes the 1963 set so special. Don’t be misled by the ‘newer (recent) is better’ perception when it comes to choosing recordings. This outstanding 1960s set is how you want to hear Beethoven.

TradingFours4-GoodNews#2 – “Good News” – 100 Gospel Greats – Need the Word? Sure you do. Every good music collection needs some great gospel. Choosing one recording isn’t easy, there are a lot of artist collections and anthologies available. I’ve chosen Good News for its variety, its depth and range, and – honestly – its disproportionate value for the modest price. Let me back up just a minute: the UK’s Proper Records is a terrific company, the self-described “home for roots music on the net”. A quick A-Z review of their roster reveals everything from Gene Autry and Chet Atkins, to Thelonious Monk and the Mills Brothers to “Zah, Zuh, Zaz: an Introduction to Cab Calloway”. They license music from the artist archives, and reissue it in nicely packaged, highly curated, very affordable collections. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of their boxes going for more than $25-30 retail, and even if you don’t find a cheaper used or discount copy, it’s still worth every bit of that. Think of it this way: when you spend $25 for this set, if you follow the iTunes model of .99 cents per tune, you’re getting 100 songs here for roughly .25 cents apiece. Can’t beat it.

Good News is a 4-CD, 100-song set that works its way chronologically from the earliest material (1926: the Birmingham Jubilee Singers) to the most recent on disc 4 (1951: Five Blind Boys of Mississippi) and makes a lot of important stops along the way with artist like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, and many earlier groups in the Southern gospel ‘jubilee’ and ‘harmony’ traditions. It’s fun. It rocks. And if it’s the only gospel you have in your collection I’m convinced you’ll be completely happy with it.

TradingFours4-CityOfDreams#3 – City of Dreams: A Collection of New Orleans Music – One of the big labels for New Orleans artists is Rounder Records. Since the very beginning in 1970, their focus has been the sound of America: blues, bluegrass, folk, jazz, Cajun, and various other (African, Caribbean) world genres. Don’t all of those styles, together, also describe the unique confluence that informs the sound of the Big Easy? They sure do. You’ll hear all of those influences in the label’s recent City of Dreams anthology, with favorites like Marcia Ball, Irma Thomas, Ruth Brown and the Professor Longhair to the deeper cuts that really inform the heart of the collection. Like Eddie Bo’s soulful Hard Times, Bo Dollis’ Shoo-fly, and highlights from New Orleans piano legends James Booker and Tuts Washington, whose touching Do You Know What It Means? closes out the collection as the last track on the last disc. You’ll find that Dreams holds a good sampling of second-line brass band music, Delta blues, r & b, funk, and a whole lotta soul. There’s no way one single anthology – any anthology –  could wrap its arms comprehensively around all of the complex cultural influences at play in the music of a city like New Orleans. (Not that there are any other cities like that.) But this collection goes a long way to offer more than the usual superficial “best of” hit parade, it satisfyingly digs deeper to reveal much of the underlying artistry of the N.O. ‘sound’.

TradingFours4-Vivaldi4Seasons#4 – Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (Rinaldo Alessandrini/Concerto Italiano) – This an interesting one, with some surprisingly divisive opinions to consider and navigate in choosing the recording that’s right for your collection. The most popular music Vivaldi wrote, it’s lovely and lyrical and there’s probably no part of it you wouldn’t recognize, even out of context. That speaks to the music itself. But, for performances of the Seasons, take a look at ArkivMusic where there are more than 200 recordings currently available. Which one of those 200+ is the right one for you? That’s where the controversy enters the picture. Ongoing academic research and discovery in the area of  ‘period’ performance practices has led to the divided house that now exists in regard to how this music is actually played. With vibrato (for many years the standard for Western classical music) or without (as it would have been performed and experienced in the pre-Baroque and Baroque eras, when this music was written)? With a big, full-bodied modern orchestra, or with the smaller chamber ensemble that would have been the standard in Vivaldi’s day? Tuned to the “440” pitch standard of the contemporary concert orchestra, or, to the “415-419” of the Baroque era? On modern instruments, or with the actual instruments (and faithful replicas thereof) from the Baroque?

You just wanted a nice recording of the Four Seasons. You didn’t know there would be so many decisions involved to find one. OK, well, before I recommend this one for you I will mention that I tend to prefer the ‘period’ performances, with their lighter touch, transparent textures, and often slightly faster tempi. There are wonderful recordings of the Seasons that find something of a balance, featuring modern instruments and orchestras with a soft ear toward the ‘authentic performance’ sensibilities: recordings with violinists Gil Shaham, Gidon Kremer, Joshua Bell, Julia Fischer are very nice and meet that standard to my ear. There are period ensembles that offer very nice, if not wildly adventurous performances: the English Concert, the Academy of Ancient Music, and the Raglan Baroque Players are of this variety. Then there are “the Italians”; groups that follow the ‘period’ performance path and offer raw, viscerally exciting readings that strip away the accumulated years of varnish and offer the music in a bracing, fresh context. (Which is kind of funny, really, when you consider the ‘fresh’ context is a style hundreds of years old!) Ensembles like Europa Galante, La Stravaganza, Il Giardino Armonico, Accademia Bizantina, and the Venice Baroque Orchestra fall into this second camp. So do Concerto Italiano, with their director Rinaldo Alessandrini.

At the great risk of planting my flag irreversibly in the ‘period’ music camp, it is this last recording I am recommending. Unapologetically. There is much color, nuance, and capacity for a new listening experience, even in pieces like these you’ve already heard many times. It takes the right recording to make that point. I’m offering this one as my choice because it gave me that experience the first time I heard it (and, in repeated listening). I heard – actually heard – Vivaldi anew again in this lively, articulate, passionate recording with the Concerto Italiano. That doesn’t happen very often.

I can’t offer this suggestion as THE definitive, one-and-only Four Seasons recording, because that would presume I had heard them all (not the case). And, there’s so much diversity in the different performance styles among the many groups who have recorded these concertos. But it’s sure a good place to start, and if you like it, and you decide you really only need one Four Seasons in your archive, it would be an equally fine place to stop.

(By the way, for a concise history of tuning practices, take a look at this article.)

That’s it for this edition of Trading Fours. We started with pizza and ended with Vivaldi (so it goes!), and what I hope will be some very satisfying listening experiences for you. Happy Labor Day weekend!

Trading Fours is an occasional series here designed to build your music library and share ideas about favorite recordings, in the long tradition of learning about music from friends. If you have picks to share leave a comment here. Send me your four choices along with a quick explanation of the theme that holds them together. I’ll do the rest and get them posted here to share with everyone else.


third stream

May 24, 2009
Modern hero: Gunther Schuller (NPR photo by Andrea Shea)

Modern hero: Gunther Schuller (NPR photo by Andrea Shea)

Sometimes, when faced with a choice, the very best answer is “both”.

In this morning’s story on NPR’s Weekend Edition, Schuller recalls the revelation of hearing Duke Ellington on the radio, and telling his father that music was equal to anything Beethoven or Mozart wrote. (Heresy!)

I first encountered Gunther Schuller years ago as a beginning French Horn student. The Horn has few heroes, and he’s one. My private teacher had a whole collection of LPs on Gunther’s own label, GM Recordings – I was fascinated by its eclecticism. In fact as far as I could tell that was the only unifying element of the label’s offerings, which included Gunther conducting the great classics and his own compositions, jazz orchestras, and a wide array of unusual and exotic (to my 10-yr. old mind) contemporary music.

So it started with the Horn but the more I listened to music the more I appreciated Schuller for his non-denominational musical views, as realized in his ‘third stream’ philosophy to create a safe, academically sanctioned place for common ground between jazz and classical styles.

In my career and in my life, Schuller’s convictions have continuously served as a sort of centering source for understanding (and validating, I suppose) my own omnivorous love of all things musical. And I know he’s had the same effect on many generations of other music appreciators, all over the world.

Truly inspiring.


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