Conductor Sir Mark Elder shares some interesting insights on the music of Rossini in this recent masterclass at London’s Royal Opera House. Elder coaches mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly, who sings Rosina’s cavatina, “Una voce poco fa,” from Act 1, scene II of The Barber of Seville.
According to Elder, rhythm is the key element of Rossini’s music. The energy of the rhythmic motor keeps the music alive and infuses it with style. Pulse equals life. Elder shows how the combination of elegance, strength and boldness in the introduction instantly establishes Rosina’s character for the audience, before a note is sung.
“Una voce poco fa” is about subtly ruthless determination and seduction. Rosina is confined in the house of the elderly Dr. Bartolo, whom she is supposed to marry. Count Almaviva serenades her from the public square below. Rosina hears only his voice, and falls in love. The Count has disguised himself as Lindoro, a poor student. He wants to be sure that Rosina doesn’t marry him for his money. Read the full synopsis here.
Here are Rosina’s final lines:
Yes, Lindoro will be mine
I’ve swore it, I’ll win.
I let be ruled, I let be guided
I’m obedient, sweet, loving
I let be ruled, I let be guided
But if they touch where my weak spot is
I’ll be a viper and a hundred traps
before giving up I’ll make them fall
Here is a concert performance from 1997 featuring Elder and Slovak coloratura soprano Edita Gruberová:
In celebration of Thanksgiving, here is Turkey Trot, the fifth movement of Leonard Bernstein’s Divertimento. Written in 1980 for the Boston Symphony’s centennial season, Divertimento is a collection of short, witty musical vignettes, which includes a waltz in the unusual meter of 7/8 time. The final movement, “The BSO Forever”, is a tribute to John Philip Sousa and the ghosts of the orchestra’s past conductors and musicians. The piece’s motives grow out of two pitches: B (Boston) and C (centennial).
Divertimento is a piece about history and memory-the popular dance music performed by the Boston Pops through the years and Bernstein’s own association with the orchestra as a student at Tanglewood and assistant to Serge Koussevitsky. Turkey Trot also seems to contain echoes of Bernstein’s early Broadway music. Listen to What a Waste from Wonderful Town for comparison.
This month, conductor Sir Mark Elder and the Manchester, UK-based Hallé Orchestra released the latest in a series of recordings of the music of twentieth century English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). The recording includes Vaughan William’s Pastoral Symphony, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Five Variants of “Dives and Lazarus” and The Wasps Overture. You can browse through the orchestra’s extensive discography here.
The Hallé’s long association with the music of Vaughan Williams extends back to the mid-century tenure of conductor Sir John Barbirolli, a friend and champion of the composer. In 1956, Barbirolli and the orchestra gave the premiere of Vaughan Williams’ Eighth Symphony.
Written in 1910, the hazy and ethereal Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is built on an English Renaissance hymn melody. Listen to Tallis’ original music from 1567, “Why Fum’th in Fight?”here.
This music is spacial. A string orchestra is divided into three antiphonal sections (the full orchestra, a smaller group made up of the first stands of each section, and a string quartet), evoking the sections of a pipe organ. Listen to the way this piece seems to float through time, moving to unpredictable places and capturing a sense of mystery:
A Pastoral Symphony was completed in 1922. Its title doesn’t refer to the serene English countryside. Instead, the music can be heard as an elegy to the dead of World War I. Listen to the first movement here.
Overture: The Waspswas written in 1909 as incidental music for a Trinity College production of Aristophanes’ play. You may hear occasional echoes of a future Hollywood film sound in this music.
Violinist and violist Pinchas Zukerman shares some interesting thoughts about tuning in this excerpt from a masterclass. For Zukerman, tuning is more than a necessary mechanical process. It’s the merging of two contrasting elements: the bow, representing the “practical,” and the violin, representing the “emotional.” Most importantly, tuning and warming up should be approached musically.
Zukerman’s insights are a great reminder that violin playing starts in the mind. Tone production is about attitude and focused energy as the bow connects to the string and releases. “Technique is conception” was a favorite mantra of the late, legendary violinist and teacher, Zvi Zeitlin.
Here is Pinchas Zukerman performing Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3, K. 216 with the Ottawa, Canada-based National Arts Centre Orchestra:
James Erb, a beloved member of Richmond’s music community, passed away last week at the age of 88. He will be remembered as a composer, arranger, conductor and musicologist, who specialized in the works of Renaissance composer, Orlando de Lassus. In 1971, Dr. Erb founded the Richmond Symphony Chorus. He also served as director of choral activities at the University of Richmond.
Those who knew James Erb will remember his youthful energy and contagious love of music. It would have been easy to imagine him enthusiastically pulling a score off the shelf for study at 6:00 on a Saturday morning. Violinist Holly Mulcahy offers a tribute here.
Here is James Erb’s arrangement of the American folk song, Shenandoah:
What happens when a series of folk songs becomes the seed for an entire symphony? The answer can be heard in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, a piece which earned the nickname, “The Little Russian” because of its use of three Ukrainian folk melodies. (Since the Middle Ages, the Ukraine has commonly been called “Little Russia.”) This is Tchaikovsky’s most Eastern-looking symphony, the closest he came to the music of the largely self-taught, nationalist “Russian Five” composers, who attempted to develop a uniquely “Russian” musical style.
The first movement begins and ends with “Down by MotherVolga,”played by the solo horn and then the bassoon. To get an idea of the folk song and the distinct sound and style of a Russian choir, listen to this clip. In the opening, notice that Tchaikovsky repeats the melody while changing and developing the music around it. You’ll hear similar variations on an endlessly repeated melodic fragment in the final movement. This is one of the elements which makes this music feel distinctly “Russian.” Mikhail Glinka’s Kamarinskaya (1848) is an example of the same kind of folk song development. Tchaikovsky not only uses folk material, he allows it to shape the formal structure of the symphony. The result is music which moves differently than most German symphonic music, at times feeling almost circular or static.
In the middle of the movement, listen to the way the melody is fragmented and tossed around in the development section. Here, contrapuntal voices are coming at us from all directions. Even in his ballet music, Tchaikovsky occasionally plays rhythmic tricks which make it hard to tell where the downbeat lies. Around the 7:00 mark, you’ll hear something similar.
At the end of the movement, the horn voice is suddenly passed to the bassoon. Consider the way the atmosphere changes as we sink into gloom. Was this the way you expected the movement to end?
The second movement is a march which suggests toy soldiers. The second theme (13:31) uses the Ukrainian folk song, “Spin, O My Spinner”. This music was originally written for the unpublished 1869 opera, Undina. Tchaikovsky adapted music from the opera in later works and eventually destroyed the rest of the score. Listen to the way the melody is passed between instruments, starting with the distant sounds of the clarinet and bassoon. Each time the melody returns, a different layer is added (the pizzicato at 13:14 and then the swirling string lines and sparkling flutes at 15:56) until the music fades into the distance, ending as it began.
Hans Keller draws an interesting parallel between this movement and the march in Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony:
It seems significant that whereas the First [Symphony] quotes from the past, the Second quotes, as it were, from the future: the basic thought of the second movement, Andantino marziale, quasi moderato, was to grow, more than 20 years later, into the (not so called) march of the Sixth Symphony’s third movement.
As Mozart’s instrumental music often feels like imaginary, wordless operas, ballet is never far away in the music of Tchaikovsky. The exuberant grace, elegance and lightness of the third movement feels like ballet music waiting for choreography.
The opening of the final movement gives us the feeling of music composing itself. We start with three notes and a simple I-V-I chord progression…then add another note…and suddenly the motive takes shape. It’s similar to what Beethoven does in the opening of the First Symphony’s final movement. In this case, the melody is related to a folk song called, “The Crane.” As the final movement unfolds, listen to the colorful, constantly changing variations which take place around this melody. The music seems to celebrate and pay homage to this simple Ukrainian folk melody. One of my favorite moments comes at 28:20, where the harmony descends around the circle of fifths. As the melodic line rises, it’s met with the low brass descending. The passage reminds me of this similarly exhilarating moment of contrary motion in the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.
Tchaikovsky is a composer who pushes us to the limit and then, miraculously, takes us even farther. That’s what happens in the final movement’s development section. Just before the development begins, at what should be the moment of highest climax, the music suddenly seems to spin out of control with a series of “wrong” pitches in seemingly random registers and octaves (28:48). Listen to the way these bell-tone-like pitches are picked up in the low brass, becoming the foundation of a development section which combines the movement’s first and second themes.
Tchaikovsky finished the “Little Russian” Symphony in 1872 and revised it several times over the following ten years. You can get a sense of the original version here.
This recording from 1990 features Yuri Temirkanov and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra:
A few days ago, I was excited to run across this rare, old recording of J.S. Bach’s Sonata No. 1 for solo violin, performed by my former teacher, Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa. A student of David Oistrakh, Krysa currently teaches at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. He was awarded first prize at the 1963 Paganini Competition. Between 1977 and 1990, he served as first violinist of the Beethoven Quartet, founded at the Moscow Conservatory. He has maintained an international solo career.
Although this recording does not appear to be commercially available, you can find Oleh Krysa’s extensive discography here and here.
The violin must sing! And the violin can sing with the help of the right hand. No matter whether you are playing cantilena or passages, the technique must “sound,” it must be melodious and always esthetically meaningful.
-Oleh Krysa (from an interview in “The Way They Play,” Book 14, by Samuel Applebaum and Mark Zilberquit)
Advertising is about illusion. It manipulates the most irrational recesses of our minds, circumventing thoughtfulness and judgment. Facts and reason are no match for advertising, which plays on emotion, desire and the ephemeral. Madison Avenue can cleverly make any product, person, or idea seem desirable or undesirable, and its reach extends into mainstream news and political campaigns. Are we citizens or brand consumers?
In a new Lexus ad, classical music becomes a symbol for everything which is old, stuffy, boring, and uncool. The ad doesn’t portray “real” classical music, but its image, or signifier. Interestingly, all of the music heard in the ad sounds like virtual orchestra technology. It’s digitally manipulated to sound annoyingly out of tune, whiny and grating. Both the “classical” music and the synthesized drums which conclude the commercial are sterile and soulless.
It’s possible to view the ad as a good natured spoof on the multitude of cliched car commercials which use classical music in an equally stereotypical way, appealing to an image of class, age, and affluence. But even taking satire into account, disturbingly divisive messages remain: “This music is boring and annoying.” “Classical music is for old people. Rock music is for young people.”
Of course, the term “classical music” itself can be viewed as an offensively arbitrary marketing label. When we say “classical,” we’re really talking about all enduring music. Bach, Bartok and The Beatles all fit that description.
Divisiveness is at the heart of corporate advertising. The indoctrination of children from an early age into mass consumerism has been well-documented. As standardized testing has pushed the arts to the periphery of the school day, corporate media has subtly told children what is “cool” and what isn’t. All of this is enough to make you wonder if corporate culture is subconsciously afraid of the arts. Perhaps the ultimate reality embodied in the arts is enough to shatter illusion and remind us that we’re more than brain dead consumers.
This clever remake was made in response to the original ad.
The Lexus ad uses the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21. Here is the real thing, played by Murray Perahia. The serene opening of Mozart’s Andante (14:01) is deceiving. It lulls us into complacency. But keep listening and you’ll hear a subtle turn towards something darker with the hint of melancholy around 14:45. Amazingly, we slip back into the atmosphere of the opening as if nothing happened, but the seed of that moment of dissonance has been planted and returns throughout the movement. Listen to all of the surprising turns Mozart’s music has in store for us: