If you haven’t heard the British fusion band, Clean Bandit, take a moment and listen. Founded in 2009, the band has hit on an interesting blend of string quartet and electronic dance music. The group, which includes violinist Milan Neil Amin-Smith and cellist Grace Chatto, grew out of an undergraduate string quartet at Cambridge University. This article describes how Clean Bandit developed almost by accident-the result of experimentation with pre-recorded string quartet tracks.
Dust Clears was released last June:
Rather Be, released in January, debuted at number 1 on the UK Singles Chart:
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Once in a while I accidentally run across a great old recording which makes me stop and listen. While I love new releases, these old recordings offer a captivating snapshot of a unique time, place and style of playing. Recently I had this experience with an exciting compilation of George Gershwin works, which a young Michael Tilson Thomas (popularly known in hip circles as “MTT”) released in the mid-1970’s.
The recording features the original jazz band version of Rhapsody in Blue, orchestrated by Ferde Grofé for Paul Whiteman’s band. The Columbia Jazz Band accompanies George Gershwin’s 1925 piano roll. The other big piece is An American in Paris played by the New York Philharmonic. Promenade (Walking The Dog) with the Los Angeles Philharmonic is a bonus track.
But the real heart of the recording is six of Gershwin’s broadway overtures, performed by the Buffalo Philharmonic: Oh Kay!, Funny Face, Girl Crazy, Strike Up the Band, Of Thee I Sing, and Let ‘Em Eat Cake. Michael Tilson Thomas was music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic from 1971 to 1979.
Here is the Overture to Of Thee I Sing, a 1931 political satire with a book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind and lyrics by Ira Gershwin. As in most Gershwin, the music captures a brash, young, slightly innocent “American” sound. The Buffalo Philharmonic strings shimmer with lush, perfectly blended depth.
The best broadway overtures offer a contrast of tempo, rhythmic feel and mood as they showcase the show’s melodies, ending on an emotional high. In the clip below, this climax comes at 3:39. Listen to the rich weave of the inner voices in the strings and the soaring music which follows. There’s a little something extra here, which I suspect could not be duplicated easily today. It’s incredibly soulful playing. If you’re looking for a great, comprehensive Gershwin CD, this rare gem is well worth your money.
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Listening to Mozart’s symphonies, concertos and chamber music, you might get the sense that you’re hearing wordless operas. Even without a libretto, we can sense distinct characters, musical conversations and dramatic situations unfolding in the music. It’s as if the innovative and prolific composer of The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute couldn’t shut off the flood of opera arias and duets entering his mind. As a musician I have found that approaching Mozart this way makes the music come to life in exciting ways. As Tchaikovsky can be experienced through ballet and Beethoven through the symphony, Mozart’s music is rooted in opera.
[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The Marriage of Figaro[/typography]
To get a sense of Mozart’s genius as an opera composer, let’s start by listening to a few excerpts from a 1999 Metropolitan Opera production of The Marriage of Figaro. We’ll begin with the opening of Act 1. Here as Figaro takes measurements for a bridal bed and Susanna, his bride-to-be, tries on her wedding bonnet, there is a hint at the comic troubles which will ensue. The somewhat clueless Figaro is delighted with their room in the palace while Susanna is troubled by its proximity to the Count, who has been making advances towards her. Consider how the overture sets the stage for this complex comedy and true “day of madness.” How does Mozart’s music provide us with insight into the characters and dramatic situation?
In his book, The Classical Style, Charles Rosen suggests that with The Marriage of Figaro Mozart begins to break down the typical aria-recitative structure in favor of something more sophisticated and closer to sonata form. Mozart’s music not only captures the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters, but also provides a sense of the arch of the drama. Here is the climactic end of the Finale of Act 2:
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Now let’s hear the wordless but operatic duets of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in E-Flat Major, K. 364. Here is a great recording with Itzhak Perlman playing the violin, Pinchas Zukerman on viola and the Israel Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta. Let’s start with the second movement (Andante). What kind of a conversation is taking place here between the violin and viola? We don’t have anything literal to go on, but we still have an idea of what is being said.
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Go back and listen a few times to this emotionally powerful music. Then listen to the first and third movements. How is the tone of the conversation different in these outer movements? Pay attention to the way one voice imitates another in the back and forth dialogue.
[quote]My Violin has just been restrung, and I`ve been playing on it every day. I`m telling you this only because Mama once wanted to know if I was still playing the violin. On at least 6 occasions I`ve had the honour of going on my own to church or to some other important function. In the meantime I`ve written 4 Italian symphonies footnote5 in addition to the arias, footnote6 of which I`ve already written 5 or 6, as well as a motet.[/quote]
-An excerpt from a letter Mozart wrote to his sister, dated August 4, 1770
Mozart was an excellent violinist but, as the letter above suggests, he considered the violin to be a second instrument. Mozart’s violin concertos, written when he was 19, generally seem lighter and more carefree than his piano concertos. But here in the first movement of Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219, again we hear opera. What kinds of characters would be singing this music? What dramatic situations might be involved? Listen for a dialogue between voices within the single violin line.
Here is a performance by the legendary French violinist, Arthur Grumiaux with the London Symphony and Sir Colin Davis. The recording showcases Grumiaux’s elegant style of playing and golden tone. Every note seems to ring with a bell-like purity:
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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Clarinet Concerto in A Major[/typography]
Here is Sabine Meyer playing the second movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concert in A-major, K. 622. Imagine this as an aria in one of Mozart’s operas:
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Last Friday we learned that Noah Bendix-Balgley, concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony, won an audition for the position of first concertmaster with the Berlin Philharmonic. The news shows just how global the classical music world has become. Over the last decade, English conductor Simon Rattle has brought a fresh new approach to tradition-bound Berlin. When Rattle leaves in 2018, it will be interesting to see how the organization again attempts to balance tradition with innovation.
Here is an impressive clip of Noah Bendix-Balgley playing the virtuosic concertmaster solo from Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben with the Pittsburgh Symphony. It’s hard to imagine anyone playing it better:
And here he is playing the Romanian Dances by Bela Bartok with pianist David Allen Wehr:
Bendix-Balgley plays a 1732 Bergonzi violin which he talks about here.
Violinist Holly Mulcahy has written an interesting and insightful post about finding happiness and keeping perspective while pursing a competitive career in music. Holly is the concertmaster of the Chattanooga Symphony and the author of the popular blog, Neo Classical. If you’re a young musician enduring the rigors of the audition circuit in the hopes of winning the “big job,” Holly’s post is a must read. Even if you’re not a musician, you’ll find her thoughts relevant.
Reading Holly’s post, I was reminded of this quote by Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero With a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth:
[quote]If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.[/quote]
James Jordan’s book The Musician’s Souloffers additional wisdom. The book stresses the importance of openness and vulnerability in the creative process as well as finding your center and appreciating the importance of solitude as well as community. There are many great quotes throughout the book. Here are a few:
[quote]If people are not humane, what is the use of rites? If people are not humane, what is the use of music?[/quote]
[quote]It takes courage to grow up and turn out to be who you really are.[/quote]
[quote]No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit.[/quote]
[quote]Our problems are inside our lives, yes; but our lives are lived inside fields of power, under the influence of others, in accordance with authority, subject to tyrannies. Moreover, our lives are lived inside fields of power that are our cities with their offices and cars, systems of work and mountains of trash. These too are powers impinging in our souls. When the wider world breaks down and is sick at heart, the individual suffers accordingly.[/quote]
[quote]Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.[/quote]
I spent the weekend in the orchestra pit. The Richmond Symphony accompanied Richmond Ballet in five performances of Sergei Prokofiev’s Cinderella. Written between 1940 and 1944, Prokofiev’s lushly romantic and virtuosic score captures perfectly the drama and atmosphere of the famous fairy tale story.
Here is what Prokofiev said about the score:
[quote]What I wished to express above all in the music of Cinderella was the poetic love of Cinderella and the Prince, the birth and flowering of that love, the obstacles in its path, and finally the dream fulfilled. The fairytale offered a number of fascinating problems for me as a composer – the atmosphere of magic surrounding the Fairy Godmother, the twelve fantastic dwarves that pop out of the clock as it strikes twelve and dance chechotka reminding Cinderella that she must return home; the swift change of scene as the Prince journeys far and wide in search of Cinderella; the poetry of nature personified by the four fairies symbolizing the four seasons…[/quote]
Cinderella is full of quirky and slightly sarcastic melodies which play with our expectations. Prokofiev loves to give us little musical curve balls in the form of “wrong” notes and sudden harmonic twists. More than once he veers off into a completely unrelated key. Here are some highlights from the score:
[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Going to the Ball[/typography]
In this first excerpt, can you hear Cinderella’s sense of breathless excitement and anticipation? How does Prokofiev’s music capture this mood? After 1:08 notice the way the music alternates between a feeling of two (walking) and a feeling of three (an elegant waltz).
[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Cinderella’s Waltz and Midnight[/typography]
Here is the end of the second act. Following the famous waltz, the clock strikes midnight (2:49). Listen to the way the music captures the drama of this critical moment in the story:
Do you remember the theme you heard at the end of the last excerpt? This theme is first introduced at the beginning of the ballet. Representing the love between Cinderella and the Prince, it functions as musical foreshadowing. At the end of the ballet, as Cinderella dances with the prince, the theme returns. Prokofiev creates a feeling of depth and soaring expansiveness in the orchestration. Listen to the wide range between the lowest and highest instruments right up to the final chords as the curtain falls:
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In celebration of Valentine’s Day, here is Joshua Bell and Broadway singer and actress Kristin Chenoweth performing Rodgers and Hart’s ballad, My Funny Valentine. The song was originally written for the 1937 musical, Babes in Arms. It has become a jazz and pop standard with notable performances by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and others.
The melody by Richard Rodgers is unusual for a Broadway ballad. Set in an atmospheric minor key, it conveys a beautiful sense of melancholy. Listen to the way it gradually reaches higher, slipping back and forth between minor and major.
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My Funny Valentine lyrics by Lorenz Hart:
[quote]My funny valentine
Sweet comic valentine
You make me smile with my heart
Your looks are laughable
Yet you’re my favourite work of art
Is your figure less than Greek
Is your mouth a little weak
When you open it to speak
Are you smart?
But don’t change a hair for me
Not if you care for me
Stay little valentine stay
Each day is valentines day [/quote]
Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962 ) is remembered as one of the twentieth century’s most important violinists. Born in Vienna, he fled to France during the Second World War and later became a naturalized American citizen. Even through scratchy old recordings we can get a sense of his sweet, sensuous tone, musical warmth and elegant phrasing. His intense, expressive vibrato, used on almost every note, was revolutionary.
Kreisler’s contribution as a composer for the violin is also significant. He performed these pieces as encores at the end of concerts. Some of his music, written in the style of past composers and attributed to them as newly discovered works, were part of an elaborate hoax. (An example is Sicilienne & Rigaudon). Other gems such as Liebesleid (Love’s Sorrow) and Liebesfreud (Love’s Joy) represent the last vestiges of pre-war Vienna, a world he watched disappear.
Here are a few of his recordings. Notice that the style of the day included expressive portamento (connecting certain notes with slides) reminiscent of a singer:
This clip features two performances of Liebesleid. The first was recorded in Berlin on February 14, 1930. The second, featuring orchestra accompaniment, was recorded at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music in 1942.
Finally, here is Caprice Viennois from a 1942 recording:
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