October 2007


October 31, 2007 17:48

Happy Halloween

Some good music for Halloween:

Danse Macabre
Night on Bald Mountain
Devil’s Trill
Devil in the Kitchen
Fair Moon Rising
Witches’ Dance (Paganini)
The Devil Went Down to Georgia
Dies Irae
Love-Death (from Tristan und Isolde)
Long Black Veil
Tom Dooley

Any others?

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From India to Scotland to Cleveland in Four Days

October 28, 2007 16:41

Two weeks ago, I was fortunate to have tickets to three very good concerts in four days.

First was Ravi Shankar and his heir apparent, his daughter Anoushka. (For video clip go to http://youtube.com/watch?v=PZVnV6VQreE ) I first heard Ravi Shankar when I was in college, when he gave a free concert in which he played and explained Indian classical music. The rhythms played on the tabla (Indian drum) were very complex and exciting. Ravi Shankar played intriguing, beautiful music on his sitar. The quarter tones used in Indian classical music did not disconcert me or interfere with my enjoyment of the music at all, although before the concert, I had thought they might. Mr. Shankar is now 85 years old, so I decided to hear him again now. At the concert I attended on Friday, I could tell that he was old and frail. He had to be helped onto and off of the stage by two people. The music he played was slow and languorous, and he played it beautifully. Occasionally Anoushka would take the lead, and her playing was quick and lively. Between sets, Mr. Shankar would put his sitar on the floor by his side, and his daughter would walk around the stage behind him, pick up his sitar and tune it for him. That’s the way you can tell you’ve really arrived: Someone else tunes your instrument for you. Overall, it was a wonderful concert.

Sunday, I heard my favorite Scottish traditional music group, the Tannahill Weavers . They are definitely a high energy group. The band consists of five men who, all in all, played bagpipes, pennywhistle, flute, guitar, and fiddle and sang at this concert. Early in the concert I saw one of the guitar players step forward with one foot, and then I heard a chord which seemed to come from nowhere. I went to the sound crew and asked them what was happening. They told me that the guitarist was stepping on one of several pedals, each of which played a different chord with a keyboard-like sound. I was really impressed with the musician who could play two instruments at once, one with his hands and one with his feet. All five band members would sing together, sometimes a cappella, and their five part harmony is a kind of group signature. I love it. It was rousing, good music. When I left, I felt like going home and playing The Atholl Highlanders (a strong, rhythmic, loud tune used to arouse the Scotsmen’s blood and get them to march off to battle), but I remembered the hour and my neighbors, so I just listened to one of Tannahill Weavers CDs, which I played softly. I bought one of their CDs (Arnish Light) which has some beautiful pieces I want to learn by playing along with the CD.

Monday night, I went to hear the Cleveland Symphony, conducted by Franz Welse-
Most. This orchestra is clearly one of the best in the world. If I had to define their special quality in one word, it would be “clean,” not in the sense of sterile, but in the sense of clean articulation. I could hear each section of the orchestra delineated clearly, and I could hear how they all communicated with each other. The visual aspect of the interactions is one thing that makes attending a live performance so special. Another fun thing about watching this live performance was seeing the bows go back and forth in time with the rhythm. Somehow, it made the perception of the rhythm stronger.

The highlight of the concert was Tcaikovsky’s Symphony #6, the Pathetique. I will share some information from the program notes by Eric Bromberger that helped me understand the symphony better. The word “pathetique” is best translated into English as “emotional” or “passionate.” Tchaikovsky wrote some notes for himself about the sympathy before he began writing the music: “The ultimate essence of the plan of the symphony is LIFE. First movement – all impulsive, passion, confidence, thirst for activity. Must be short. (Finale DEATH – result of collapse). Second movement love; third, disappointments; fourth ends dying away (also short).” However, Tchaikovsky explained it quite differently in a letter to his nephew. He wrote, “I had an idea for a new symphony, this time with a program – but a program of a kind that will remain an enigma to all. Let them guess it who can…This program is permeated with subjective feeling. While composing it in my mind, I wept frequently.”

My own reaction to the symphony is closer to what Tchaikovsky described in his letter to his nephew than what he described in his notes to himself. The symphony is really an enigma because it is so complex and full of changes. It had me on the edge of my seat, listening and looking for the next change. It sounded as if there were some kind of change – dynamics, tempo, instrumentation, or mood – about every two measures. I think that would be a difficult piece to play. A very good conductor would be needed. Tchaikovsky tosses out so many melodies and so many beautiful, lyrical passages. I was swept away by each one.

The performance of the symphony ended in a way that I have never seen. After the last note was played, the conductor froze in his position, with arms raised and shoulders hunched over. The musicians held their instruments in playing position. I was confused. I wondered whether they were going to play something else, but I really didn’t think they would. After a few seconds, the conductor brought his arms down and relaxed his body. At the same time, the players put their instruments down. This was obviously the end of the piece, and the audience applauded wildly. I had a problem with that. It broke the mood I had been in, the mood of bleakness which Tchaikovsky had intended for the end of his symphony. Instead, I felt quite happy, hearing some of Tchaikovsky’s beautiful, lyrical passages in my mind.

Thus ends my four day musical journey. It was a great trip.

PS. Check out my website

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Beethoven's Ninth: Joyful and Controversial

October 8, 2007 23:25

I heard a fantastic performance of Beethoven’s Ninth a few days ago. It featured the National Symphony Orchestra and the Choral Arts Society of Washington and was conducted by Leonard Slatkin. That symphony is BIG. There were 200 people on stage, including a huge chorus. My reaction to each performance of a work is different, and this one was no exception. I especially noticed the parts that were not big. I don’t think anything was played piano, but sometimes themes were introduced by a few instruments, usually brasses, playing a bare bones version (3 or 4 notes) of the theme to come. Only Beethoven can pull off such long introductory or transitory passages and maintain the tension and excitement. About a dozen times, I was sure that the first singer would start singing in the next measure, but I had to keep hanging on until it finally happened. The bass, Morris Robinson, had a magnificent voice which filled the concert hall. From then on, the music grew bigger and more glorious. I felt myself taking long, slow deep breaths involuntarily, an experience which I seldom have except during meditation in yoga. After a while, I felt like a hot air balloon about to float up and away. The whole experience was stunning and joyful.

After the concert, the experience became interesting in a different way. I told one of my friends that I had been to the concert and loved it. She had read the review by Tim Page in the Washington Post, and he tore the performance to shreds. He blasted Slatkin for using Mahler’s revised, enlarged version of the Ninth and said that the first three movements were played in a manner that was “harsh…forced and joyless.” I told her that I had read the program notes, and Slatkin had explained why he had not played the Mahler version. The critic should have done his homework before writing his devastating review. My friend said that she had grown up listening to a set of records of all of Beethoven’s Symphonies conducted by Toscanini. She loved Toscanini’s performance of the Ninth and couldn’t bear to think of anyone heavily revising this piece.

I reread Slatkin’s notes on the performance He was critical of Mahler's revision of the Ninth even though he had used it in the past. He said, "Mahler did not change the notes, but he completely altered the orchestration" by adding a lot more instruments. Slatkin went on to say that he had heard the symphony conducted by Robert Shaw, and he loved that version. Shaw told him that he was following the path of Toscanini, with whom he had worked on the Ninth. (That's probably the Toscanini version my friend knows and loves.) Those performances had brisk tempi, and Slatkin said that they were full of "vitality and concentration." Slatkin said that his performance this week is "more in line with performances of the Ninth as heard in the 1950's and 60's, with a few nods towards today's scholarship. Woodwinds will be doubled, notes not available to Beethoven will be added, and tempi will be brisk." He described what he is striving for this way: "...the spirit of brotherhood as celebrated by the choral finale must come through unmistakably and unreservedly."

I told my friend that I had serious doubts about anyone rewriting Beethoven’s music because the original is so good, and she agreed. Then we started talking about Handel’s Messiah, which we both have performed numerous times, she as a singer and me as a violinist. We have heard that work performed with all kinds of orchestras – big, small, period style, with changes in the instrumentation – and we have liked them all. Why do we feel such resistance to changing the orchestration of Beethoven’s Ninth?

I wish I could get my hands on Toscanini’s recordings. I have two CDs of the Ninth, one conducted by Karajan and the other by Bernstein. The Bernstein performance, which was given just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is my favorite of the two, but I have no idea whether there were revisions by Mahler or anyone else in either of these two recordings.

I feel sure that Slatkin was successful in achieving his goals for the Symphony, especially the choral movement. I loved the whole performance.

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