NY Philharmonic presents Johnathan Biss and Timo Andres in Part 2 of the Beethoven Concerto cycle

The New York Philharmonic and pianist Johnathan Biss presented one of the segments of Biss’s project of commissioning contemporary composers to invent new piano concerti inspired by the five Beethoven piano concerti. The concert was conducted by Courtney Lewis.

The concert presented Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #2 in B-flat, Op. 19, which was apparently the first composed and started at a young age. The starting point of inspiration was the more contrapuntal and even sometimes dissonant cadenza that Beethoven composed twenty years later.  Otherwise, the work is “not one of Beethoven’s best”.

The Beethoven opened the second half of the concert.  Biss, to my ear, seemed in accelerate his tempi during certain phrases in the first movement, an odd effect.

The inspired (I won’t say derivative) contemporary piece (performed first, before the intermission) is the 23-minute Piano Concerto #3 in B-flat by Timo Andres (B. 1985). The subtitle is “The Blind Banister”, a curious metaphor, of a stairway railing looking into an abyss, across a gulf, without light – danger for elderly people alone. The gulf was, though, what the decades-spanning special dissonances in the cadenza inspire.

I ought to do more guest posting myself (or invite it), but Biss explains his own understanding of the piece here, and this leads naturally do a discussion of how composers get works commissioned today, what audiences will pay to hear (and sponsor), and it’s all potentially sensitive.

The work comprises three movements: “Sliding Scale” (slow), “Ringing Weights”, leading to a cadenza, and then a “Coda: Teneramente”. The opening emphasizes descending scales in drop-rolls in the piano, somewhat lushly harmonized, even sounding familiar to me. The middle section becomes more Parisian to my ears, in fact reminding me of the day I spent in Lourdes, France on May Day 2001, as young males danced a healing ritual. The work slows down and will finally end loudly (unusual for Andres, who considers quiet endings a usually necessary courtesy for listeners).

The NY Philharmonic program notes for the new work are here.

I had the mistaken impression that the work had been called “The Blind Barrister”, which would be a curious idea indeed, given Brexit. (Oops?  England?)

The concert had opened with excerpts from Hector Berlioz’s Dramatic Symphony, Romeo and Juliet, Op. 17, after Shakespeare’s Tragedy. The excerpts (14 min) seem to contain the love theme that starts the slow movement, and the Queen Mab Scherzo. The very ending was a loud chord and one soft grace note (like the Dvorak New World, which I have always found very curious).  I’m not a fan of excepting from works purporting to be sonata-like “symphonies” In fact, I had heard the Montreal Symphony play the complete work (with chorus) in Minneapolis around 2002 when I got a comp ticket while working for the Minnesota Orchestra.  I remember the happy ending, as the feuding families reconcile.  Not so in the two movies (especially Ziffereli’s) that I have seen , one while working as a substitute teacher. In fact, when the play is taught in high school, teachers have to explain that it was legal (even expected) for women to fall in love and marry much younger than it is today.

The concert concluded with the 20-minute tone poem “In the South (Alassio)”, Op. 50, by Sir Edward Elgar.  That refers to the Italian Riviera. There is some nice octave work in the brass with some dissonance in the development. I have a Chandos recording of this with Thomson.

James Oestereich reviews the concert for the New York Times here.

(Posted: Thursday, April 20, 2017 at 11:45 PM)

“Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race and America”: a rap musician interviews both Ku Klux Klan and Black Lives Matter people

Accidental Courtesy:  Daryl Davis, Race and America”, directed by Matt Ornstein, is a conversational (and controversial) documentary in which rap African-American musician Daryl Davis traverses the nation and talks to both Ku Klux Klan members (former and modern) and later to actors in the Black Lives Matter movement.

He feints friendship with the former “wizards”.  But the white supremacists never come up with credible rationalizations for their attitudes.   One of them says the white men built a modern civilization upon which blacks and natives depend.  But Davis logically responds with asking about out bad karma:  didn’t we build our world of plenty on their backs (taking land from Indians, and then with slavery).  There are philosophical questions about whether one share moral responsibility with one’s ancestors.

Later he visits both Ferguson MO and then Baltimore Sandtown.  The film shows clips of the unrest after Michael Brown’s death, as well as Freddie Gray’s death.  (As for Brown, I have thought it a particular tragedy that a promising future college and perhaps pro athlete behaved the way he did, though.)  He shows footage of the attacks on Dallas police in July 2016 and also of Treyvon Martin’s case.  He gets into an angry confrontation in a rowhouse business in Baltimore with a BLM activist, who refuses his handshake.

But Daryl asks, “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?”

In the last scene, Daryl (who looks quite obese) plays piano with his rock band at a club in Bethesda, MD.  The film often provides visual backdrops with the Washington DC monuments.

The film opens with an interesting shot inside Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington DC (next to the Lincoln Theater, site of Reel Affirmations film festivals in the past, and not too far from Nellie’s, Town DVC, and 930 Club).

Name: Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America
Director, writer:  Matthew Ornstein
Released:  2017
Format: 1.85:1
When and how viewed: PBS Independent Lens broadcast, 2017/2/13
Length:  88
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  PBS, First Run Features
Link:  official

I describe my recent visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture, with many short films and videos (including a interview set) here.

There is a related series on CNN, “The United Shades of America” with Kamau Bell, April 2016 (legacy review).

(Posted: Tuesday, February 14, 2017 at 11:30 AM EST)

“Fair Haven”: an aspiring classical musician deals with ex-gay pressures at his rural family home

Fair Haven”, directed Kerstin Karlhuber, like “I Am Michael” (Jan. 28), deals with the “ex-gay” myth, but this time (I hope this is not too much of a spoiler), the plot conclusion is self-affirming.  The film presents some situations that roughly parallel some in my own coming of age. The story is by Jack Bryant.

The film’s star character, James Grant, aspires to become a concert pianist and has grown up on farm in Vermont.  The charismatic actor who plays him is the real life Michael Grant, who is a real concert pianist. So he plays The Brahms Waltz in A-fat (Op. 39, #15, with which the film score opens), the Chopin Revolutionary Etude in C Minor (Op. 10 #12), and Nocturne in B-flat minor (Op 9 #1) himself.

His dad (Tom Wopat) has become a widower with some unspecified family tragedy, and apparently mom taught piano, and the Brahms was one of her favorites.  He runs the family farm and wants to pass it on to James, who, apparently an only child, dad depends on for a family lineage.

So as the film opens, James has returned home from a Biblical conversion therapy. Dad even took some of his college money to pay for the religious experience.

The movie has flashbacks with a certain Doctor Gallagher (Gregory Harrison), and it seems to come down to an authoritarian implementation of one version of Christianity.  God’s personal plan for everyone is that everyone try to procreate.

So James attempts to court a local young lady (Lilly Anne Harrison), and it gets silted and awkward, just as it had been in my own spurt of heterosexual dating back in 1971.  Marriage and children would give him skin in someone else’s game.

He has to deal with an ex-boyfriend, Charlie Green (Josh Green) at a local store.  But when Charlie gets gay-bashed by local rednecks, there is one more reason for James to process what is happening.

James is approaching a crisis.  He could have to go to the city (Boston) and live by his wits to ever have a chance for a career in music.

I took nine years of piano myself (in the 1950s and 1960s) and was steered away (finally to computers) by family and a variety of circumstances.

As far as the religious question of “God’s plan” for biology, we can say that mammals often have other uses for sexuality besides procreation.  There is the whole idea of “polarity” and psychological growth.

I did wonder how likely Vermont sounds as a source of homophobia, even in rural areas.  It is, after all, the source of Bernie Sanders.  Back in the 1970s, one of the key people at the Ninth Street Center (as founded by Paul Rosenfels) came from Vermont.  The city of Rutland has attracted news recently because of its hospitality to Syrian refugees.

Name: “Fair Haven”
Director, writer: Kerstin Karlhuber
Released: 2017 (2015)
Format: 1.85:1
When and how viewed: private screener Vimeo 2017/2/6; DVD available 2017/3/7
Length: 92
Rating: NA
Companies: Breaking Glass Pictures, Little Film Company, Trick Candle, Silent Giant
Link:  official site

Wikipedia picture of Killington Peak in Vermont, which I skied in 1973.

Vimeo of Michael Grant playing piano.

(Posted: Monday, February 6, 2017 at 7:30 PM EST)

 

Thomas Pandolfi gives piano recital “Russian Romance and the Movies”

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Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016, Thomas Pandolfi gave a recital at the Frist Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC on a Steinway.  The concert was “free” but a donation offering to support hurricane relief I Haiti was taken.

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The theme of the concert was “Russian Romance and the Movies” and the recital bridged classical with popular repertoire.

The concert started with a piano solo transcription of Richard Addinsell’s one movement “Warsaw Concerto” (really a rhapsody) in F Minor, composed for the 1941 WWII film “Dangerous Moonlight”.  That piece used one side of one of my first 45 rpm records back in the early 1950s.  The composer had been tasked to compose in the style of Sergei Rachmaninoff.  ( I had a fantasy about this at age 16 in 1960; read about my own Sonata #2 manuscript here).  Let me digress with stream of consciousness:  I ponder the hackneyed Beethoven Sonata #14 in C# Minor, “Moonlight” (I like the last movement), and the song “In the Moonlight (Do Me)” from “Modern Family”, composed and sung by Reid Ewing (around 2011), a piece that makes perfect musical sense if you play the music by itself on a church organ (B-minor, D Major), by memory and ear, as I did one Sunday after service at First Baptist.

The program did include Rachmaninoff’s infamous “Prelude in C# Minor”, Op. 3 #2, which is not from one of the two sets preceding the concerti. My own preference would be to play the last from Op. 32, the bombastic D-flat Prelude.  I played this as a senior in high school (also the E Major and B Minor).

He performed two popular piano pieces by Anton Rubenstein: The Melody in F, Op. 3 #1, and the Romance in E-Flat, Op. 44 #1, which became the song “You are my dream” often sung by Frank Sinatra. Rubenstein, like Beethoven (and like Prokofiev and Saint-Saens) composed five piano concerti.  Some people thought he was an illegitimate son of Beethoven.

He played the Nocturne in D-flat, Op. 9 #2, for Left Hand Alone, by Alexander Scriabin, which achieves amazing sonorities with one hand.  The work is Chopin-like.  Pandolfi briefly discussed how Scriabin abandoned his lush romantic style after the fourth and fifth sonatas and went on to compose nearly atonal works like the “Black Mass” (and “White Mass”) sonatas.  The “Black Mass” is a guilty pleasure of mine.

Pandolfi played the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from “The Nutcracker” by Tchaikovsky, imitating the sound of the celeste in the upper registers.

The also played the biting March from the “Love for Three Oranges” opera by Prokofiev.

He concluded the first half with his own transcription of melodies from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story”, including “Maria”, “I’m in love with a beautiful girl”, and “Somewhere” (the tonally ambiguous melody that ends the opera).  I do remember seeing the film in 1962.

After the Intermission, Pandolfi played his own Fantasy on Show Tunes of Thomas Hamlich (1944-2012), who had been the youngest student ever at Julliard. The music included “The Way We Were”, “A Chorus Line” (which I did see on stage as well as film) “Ice Castles”, “The Sting” (with Scott Joplin), and “A Mirror with Two Faces”.

Pandolfi played two encores.  One was the famous Chopin Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9 #2 (I had a Columbia LP with Istomin playing them in high school;  a worn sapphire needle from 1950s technology ruined it).   The other was a big Fantasy (by him) on themes from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera”. I’ve seen the 2004 film.

I talked to Pandolfi about the composition process, and he said if was very difficult to use Avid Sibelius or similar products to do transcriptions of other composers’ or of “popular” material.

Pandolfi described how performing artists live on the road, use frequent flier miles, and sometimes drive intermediate distances.  He said he had a serious auto accident Saturday and the airbag prevented all but the most minor injuries, in a crash that might have been fatal.

My own experience driving long distances is that the biggest safety danger is people changing lanes too suddenly, cutting in and weaving in and out – aggressive driving, especially on I-95 toward Richmond and I-66 toward Manassas.  I’ve had plenty of close calls.

(Posted: Monday, October 17, 2016 at 10 AM EDT)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

David Kaplan presents the new “League of David” dances, and Beethoven

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Last night, David Kaplan gave a recital at the Mansion at Strathmore, at the Mansion.

The first half of the program comprised the “New Dances in the League of David”, which the pianist, in conjunction with an arts group, commissioned with the assistance of several American composers.  I have described the work on a legacy blog account of a concert at the Library of Congress in 2015 here. The work is based on the original “Davidsblundertanze” by Robert Schumann, adding five more little episodes to interrupt the flow.  It’s sometimes hard to follow where one addition begins and another ends.  Steinway piano in the small auditorium at the Mansion was quite loud.

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The work provides a good example of the “business model” for today’s artists (who make a living performing and sometimes teaching) and composers (who make a living off of commissions and, yes, sometimes visiting professorships).  Many larger works today are collaborations of several composers and tend to be “clever” rather than epic collages of post-romantic emotion.

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The second half of the concert comprised the Piano Sonata #21 in C, Op. 53, the Waldstein, by Beethoven.  I’ve covered that work here before .  Kaplan does not lower the volume on the last two chords, a descending figure which I will use in my own Sonata 3 at the end  (current notes )   The opening movement strikes me of how it uses rather simple harmonic schemes (going to the dominant immediately, but using mediant for the second theme) and varies the material, especially in the Recapitulation, to make everything work.

I would have liked him to play the “les Adieux” (No. 26) as I had explained here.

I’d like to mention a few works that I haven’t reviewed here, so I’ll talk a little about three more of Beethoven’s last Sonatas.

One of these is #30, E Major, #109, which has a slow-fast-slow arrangement of movements.  The finale is a theme and variations of a very slow chorale in ¾ time.  In the 1999  (Fine Line) film “Trick”, directed by Jim Fall, written by Jason Schafer,, pianist Gabriel (Christian Campbell) plays the opening chorale of the last movement while a gay trick Mark (Joh Paul Pitoc) massages and slowly undresses him from behind.

My favorite of the late sonatas is #31 in A-flat (Op. 110).  It starts with an animated slow movement (as had #28 – Sept. 24) which could have sounded perfunctory.  Then there follows the rapid F minor march-scherzo, followed by a long slow-introduction (B-flat minor to A-flat minor) introducing an arietta theme, leading to a great fugue, interspersed with the arietta theme in rondo fashion.  The fugue is based on the potentially awkward interval of the fourth.  The fugal theme then gets “developed” by inversion.

Of course, everyone has an “Op. 111” kind of day, referring to the two-movement structure of the last Sonata, #32, in C Minor, with the famous ethereal variation set for the quietly ending finale.  (Why 9/16 instead of 9/8?)  Prokofiev used the same structure for his Symphony #2 in D Minor, but Profokiev’s 111 is his Symphony #6.

The early Piano Sonata #4 in E-flat, Op. 7, with the gentle Allegretto finale, was a favorite of mine when I worked on my first book in the middle 1990s.

(Published: Friday, October 14, 2016 at 11:15 AM EDT)

Recital by Roman Rabinovich in Baltimore; Beethoven, Haydn, Schumann, and his own “Capriccio: A Clown on a Bicycle”

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Again, I go on the road to hear a concert.

Today, Uzbekistan (Tashkent)-born pianist Roman Rabinovich (b. 1985) gave a recital at the George Washington Carver center for Arts and Technology in Towson MD.

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The program opened with a Sonata in G Major, Hob.XVI:39, by Franz Joseph Haydn.  The Sonata sounds courtly, with the openly Allegro Con Brio almost a gavotte.  The Sonata form is monothematic.  The closing Prestissimo ends quietly.

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Next Roman played his own 4-movement sutie, “Capriccio: A Clown on the Bicycle” (sounds rather Truffaut-like).  The music tended to be mostly linear and polyphonic, and a bit Stravinsky-like. The movements include a gigue and waltz.  It was premiered at Alice Tully Hall in NYC in 2016.

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He then followed with the largest work of the concert, the Piano Sonata #28 in A Major, Op. 101, by Beethoven. His own remarks noted that Beethoven had not composed for four years, having sunk into depression.  The opening movement begins on the dominant E Major, and manages to keep a lot of quiet tension by original use of old harmonic patterns.  The second movement is a march (anticipating a similar movement in the Schumann Fantasy), with an inquisitive trio.  Then there is a shot Adagio  in A Minor that briefly recapitulates a little material from the first movement, before the joyous finale, with becomes the main event.  The development section of the Finale is a fugue that anticpates the Hammerkavier.  Sometimes, Roman’s tempos in the quieter passages do seem very deliberate.

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After the Intermission he followed with “Surfaces”, a four-movement programmatic suite by Michael Brown, based on four abstract paintings by Roman.  The music uses tone clusters, and the quiet ending is described as a send-off into outer space.  Somehow this music reminded me of Michael Crichton’s 1997 novel “Sphere” with the 1998 film by Barry Levinson, about a spaceship discovered under the ocean.  Roman has a blog posting about connecting visual art and music.

The concert concluded with “Faschingsschwank aus Wien”, (“Carnival Jest from Vienna”) Op. 26, is a suite in five movements (B-flat), somewhat like a sonata, but with the first movement very episodic. The music is supposed to be a sequel to the Carnival, Op. 9, and is another example of Schumann’s building big works out if miniatures.

As an encore, Roman played a piano transcription of the finale scene from Maurice Ravel’s ballet “Daphnis and Chloe” (sheet music).

I bought his autographed CD, which includes the Couperin “Ordre 18eme de clavecin”, a Sonata in A-flat by Haydn (who was not afraid of more black keys), and the 24 Preludes of Chopin.  The third from the last, in G Minor, is of interest to me because I was studying at the end of ninth grade in 1958, after my first piano teacher died suddenly, when something else traumatic happened that I’ve documented in Chapter 1 of my first DADT book. Roman takes the piece very fast.

Rabinovich likes to perform the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto #3 (I’m not sure which first movement cadenza).  When meeting him, I forgot to ask him if he is familiar with the C#-Minor Piano Concerto if Amy Beach, or the first piano concerto (a mammoth one-movemen work) of Eugen D’Albert, whose form is inspired by the Liszt B Minor Sonata, but which adds a fugal cadenza and thrilling short finale at the end.

(Posted: Saturday, September 24, 2016 at 11:45 PM EDT)

“Hello, I Am David”, biography of eccentric pianist David Helfgott, complements “Shine”

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Name: “Hello, I Am David”
Director, writer:  Cosima Lange
Released:  2015
Format:  video
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant, 2016/9/11
Length 97
Rating NA   (language: German)
Companies:  

Beleza Film, Piffl Medien

Link: David’s

 

 

(Also, “Shine”, below)

Hello, I Am David” (2015) is a documentary, interview-style biography of Australian-born pianist David Helfgott (born, 1947), directed by Cosima Lange.

The documentary is structured around his playing passages from several classical compositions, most notably Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto in D Minor.  There are scenes that conclude with Helgott playing each of the first two movements alone (which would not happen in a real concert) and the movie ends with the “big tune” conclusion of the Finale.  Other music includes Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata in F Minor, and Bach’s Italian Concerto.  Oh, it begins wirh Rimsky-Korsakoff’s “Flight of the Bumblebee”.

Helfgott has a very showy performance style, almost as if he were playing Gershwin.  He tends to take virtuoso pieces fast.

Through interviewing other performers (often in German), conductors, friends, and second wife Gillian, we learn the history of his mental illness as a young man.  It has been called “schizoaffective disorder”.  After treatment, he lost a lot of his performance skill, which he had to recover gradually. Yet, he seems “versatile”.  He fathered four children by a first wife, and is a good swimmer.

Much of his illness may be related to his father’s resistance to his studying piano in the US, even though his father had introduced him to music.

Helfgott’s life was dramatized in the 1996 film “Shine”, directed by Scott Hicks (Fine Line Features), where Geoffrey Rush plays him as an adult.  The documentary mentions the difficulty in casting his part. The earlier movie had mentioned the family’s history with the Holocaust and the fear that David’s leaving would break the family.

(Published: Sunday, September 11, 2016, 8 PM EDT)