The Listeners’ Club is Moving!



2016 is bringing some exciting changes to The Listeners’ Club!

The blog has outgrown its current platform, so it’s time to move up to a brand new dedicated website at The new website goes live tomorrow, January 19. Our Monday, Wednesday, Friday publication schedule will not change.

It’s really fun for me to share thoughts on my favorite music and to read your comments. Don’t forget to drop by the new site tomorrow, review a few of the over 400 archived posts, and share the new address with your friends!

See you tomorrow at our new home!


In the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, take a moment and listen to African-American contralto Marian Anderson’s legendary 1939 performance at the Lincoln Memorial.

A Rare Gem: Arno Babajanian’s Piano Trio

David Bejanyan’s colorful and controversial statue of composer Arno Babajanyan (1921-1983) in Yerevan, Armenia.
David Bejanyan’s colorful and controversial statue of composer Arno Babajanyan in Yerevan, Armenia.


We started the week with the Armenian folk-inspired sounds of the Khachaturian Violin Concerto. Now, let’s hear music of another, less well known twentieth century Armenian composer, Arno Babajanyan (1921-1983). Babajanyan was one of the Soviet Union’s premier pianists. His compositions range from a Cello Concerto written for Mstislav Rostropovich to popular songs and film scores. His music contains echoes of Armenian folk songs, as well as the sounds of his contemporaries: Khachaturian, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev.

Here is the achingly beautiful second movement of Babajanyan’s Piano Trio in F-Sharp minor (1952), performed by the Potch Trio. An extended, searching melody of lament rises from a sombre drumbeat in the piano. The timelessness of these opening piano chords vaguely suggests the numb final movement of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Following the violin’s opening statement, the cello enters and an increasingly passionate conversation unfolds. But then there is that moment near the end of the movement when we suddenly return to the quiet, sensuous melancholy of the opening.

Here is the entire piece performed by Trio Aeternus.

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  • Find the Potch Trio’s recording of Arno Babajanyan’s Piano Trio in F-Sharp minor at Naxos.
  • a recording by the New Zealand Chamber Soloists iTunes


David Bowie Meets Philip Glass

Philip Glass and David Bowie

The groundbreaking work of David Bowie, who passed away earlier this week, left a profound mark on the world of rock music. But Bowie also influenced some of the twentieth century’s most important minimalist and experimental composers, and in some cases he was influenced by their work.

In 1976, Bowie attended the European premiere of Steve Reich’s monumental Music for 18 MusiciansYou can hear the circular, pulsating, mallet-driven patterns and rhythmic groove of Music for 18 Musicians in Bowie’s Weeping Wall, an instrumental track from his Low album, released in 1977. Both works seem to go in slightly different directions, while exploring sounds that were “in the air” at the time:

Later, Reich’s early phase piece Clapping Music was combined with Bowie’s Love is Lost in James Murphy’s 2013 remix.

In 1992, Philip Glass paid homage to the work of David Bowie and Brian Eno with his “Low” Symphony No. 1, based on music from the Low album. Each of the Symphony’s three movements (Subterraneans, Some Are, and Warszawa) uses music from the album as a jumping off point for something new. Bowie and Glass discuss their collaboration here. In his program notes for the piece, Glass discusses the Low album’s influence:

 The record consisted of a number of songs and instrumentals and used techniques which were similar to procedures used by composers working in new and experimental music. As such, this record was widely appreciated by musicians working both in the field of “pop” music and in experimental music and was a landmark work of that period.

David Bowie’s Heroes album, released in 1977, inspired Glass’s Symphony No. 4 “Heroes,” completed in 1996. Let’s listen to V-2 Schneider, an instrumental track from the Heroes album. (There are highly distorted vocals, but here they function as yet another instrument). This is music which celebrates modern electronic sounds and elevates the mixing and processing of the recording studio to high art.

Now listen to Philip Glass’ take on the same music. Glass’ music is never more exhilarating (or dizzying) than when multiple conflicting rhythmic grooves pile on top of one another, often in three against two. We hear this about halfway through the excerpt. Also notice the rising and falling scales in the bass line. These delightfully irregular scales (never lining up on the “correct” note) resurface in the film score for Kundun, which Glass was writing around the same time.


Peter and the Wolf

David Bowie’s talents extended beyond music to include painting and acting. Here is his legendary 1978 narration of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The recording, released on the RCA Red Seal label, reached number 136 on the US Pop Albums chart.

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Oistrakh and Khachaturian: Beyond the Sabre Dance

Aram Khachaturian and David Oistrakh

When you think of twentieth century Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978), what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Probably, the frenetic Sabre Dance, once called “one of the catchiest, most familiar—perhaps most maddening—tunes to come out of the 20th century.”

Khachaturian wrote the Sabre Dance for the final act of the 1942 ballet, Gayane. It quickly, perhaps surprisingly, made the jump into the world of popular music, covered by everyone from Woody Herman and James Galway to Vanessa-Mae. Appropriately, it was once featured even in television ads for the Buffalo Sabres hockey team.

But let’s dig deeper into Khachaturian’s music and listen to another piece: the Violin Concerto in D minor, completed in 1940 and dedicated to violinist David Oistrakh. Oistrakh advised Khachaturian (his close friend) throughout the composition process, eventually substituting his own cadenza for one written by the composer. Regarding the composition process, Khachaturian said,

I worked without effort. Sometimes my thoughts and imagination outraced the hand that was covering the staff with notes. The themes came to me in such abundance that I had a hard time putting them in some order.

Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto is infused with the colorful, modal sounds of Armenian folk music. It’s “fiddle music” in the best sense, at moments reveling in a joyfully exuberant sense of improvisation. For example, listen to the dialogue between the violin and clarinet in the first movement or the improvisational bassoon line which opens the lamenting second movement. We hear the influence of the Middle East, giving this music a distinctively different vibe. (Armenia borders both Iran and Turkey). To get a sense of this, listen to two short examples of Armenian folk music, here and here. Notice the sense of repetition and the way the rhythmic emphasis shifts to unexpected beats. Something similar happens in the final movement of the Violin Concerto.

The first movement’s soaringly romantic melody, reminiscent of Borodin, returns in the final movement, adding a circular dimension to the work. In between, the second movement, Andante sostenuto, takes us to a place of haunting melancholy. Towards the end of the movement, its quiet intensity gives way to a final, desperate, full-throated lament. The movement ends with a question mark.

In 1954 David Oistrakh made a studio recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Khachaturian. But let’s listen to Oistrakh’s spectacular 1965 live concert recording with Khachaturian conducting the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra:

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  • Find David Oistrakh’s recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find the recording above on vinyl.


Remembering Pierre Boulez

Pierre Boulez (1925-2016)
Pierre Boulez (1925-2016)


The groundbreaking French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez passed away on Tuesday at his home in Baden-Baden, Germany. He was 90.

Coming of age in post-war Europe, Boulez embraced a modernist zeitgeist which turned its back on the past to imagine new sounds and musical structures. Obsessed with controlled, rational order, Boulez pushed the twelve-tone techniques of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern to their limits, developing a “total serialism.” (In twelve-tone or serial music all harmonic relationships between pitches are erased). He also played a key role in the development of controlled chance and electronic music.

Boulez developed a reputation as an enfant terrible with provocative statements such as, “All art of the past must be destroyed.” Perhaps his closest aesthetic counterpart in the architecture world was Le Corbusier, whose “vision for Paris” involved demolishing most of the city and replacing it with tall, identical “towers in a park.” Alex Ross called Boulez “the last remaining titan of the postwar avant-garde.”

To the casual listener, Boulez’ music may sound like random sounds. But it is actually highly ordered in terms of pitch and rhythm. Structures (1955) was one of his early works. Anthèmes 2, for violin and electronics was written in 1997.

Boulez the Conductor

Pierre Boulez was music director of the New York Philharmonic between 1971 and 1977, succeeding Leonard Bernstein. In contrast to Bernstein, his style was cool and cerebral. His interpretations of Mahler, among other repertoire, were extraordinary. Boulez’ 1999 Deutsche Grammophon recording of Mahler’s First Symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra remains one of my favorites:

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  • Mahler Symphony No. 1 in D major, Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony- iTunes, Amazon
  • Find other Pierre Boulez recordings- iTunes, Amazon


Mr. Noseda Goes to Washington

Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda has been named Music Director of the National Symphony.
Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda has been named Music Director of the National Symphony. (photo from the Washington Post)


The National Symphony Orchestra has announced that Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda will succeed Christoph Eschenbach as its seventh music director. Noseda has developed a reputation as one of the world’s finest opera conductors. Early in his career, he was the first foreign-born principal guest conductor of the Mariinsky Theatre. Currently, he serves as principal guest conductor of the Israel Philharmonic and music director of the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy. Between 2002 and 2011 he was music director of the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester (UK).

The National Symphony, the resident orchestra at Washington’s Kennedy Center, has yet to meet its full potential in terms of visibility on the national stage. It will be interesting to see what Noseda’s tenure brings.

Here are a few of Gianandrea Noseda’s recordings:

Overture to The Marriage of Figaro

Let’s start off with a sparkling and energetic live concert performance of Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, K. 492. This recording features Spain’s Orquestra de Cadaqués. Noseda has been the chamber orchestra’s principal conductor since 1994.

Overture to The Bartered Bride

Here is Czech composer Bedřich Smetana’s (1824-1884) overture to the comic opera, The Bartered Bride, performed by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Listen to the vibrant, hushed energy of the overture’s opening and notice the dialogue between voices. The opera is full of Bohemian folk influences. At moments you might be reminded of the music of another Czech composer, Antonín Dvořák (about twenty years Smetana’s junior).

A successful opera overture grabs our attention and draws us into the impending drama. By the final note, we should be in a different state of mind than when we entered the theater. Smetanta’s overture seems to do that, spectacularly.

Two Korngold Opera Excerpts

We’ll finish with two seldom heard opera excerpts by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). (If you want to hear more of Korngold’s music, visit past Listeners’ Club posts here and here). The first is an achingly beautiful lament: Ich soll ihn niemals, niemals mehr sehn from the 1937 three-act opera, Die Kathrin, Op. 28. Its scheduled premiere in Vienna in 1938 was cancelled by the Nazis due to Korngold’s Jewish ancestry. The second excerpt is the haunting Ich ging zu ihm from the three-act Das Wunder der Heliane, written in 1927.

Renée Fleming is accompanied by Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra:

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  • Find Gianandrea Noseda’s recordings at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Watch Noseda rehearse Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead with the Gothenburg Symphony.


The Scariest Chord in Mahler’s Second

Gilbert Kaplan (1941-2016)
Gilbert Kaplan (1941-2016)


Remembering Gilbert Kaplan

Gilbert Kaplan, the American millionaire business man, publisher, amateur conductor, and Mahler scholar passed away on New Year’s Day following a battle with cancer. He was 74.

In 1967, at the age of 26, Kaplan founded the inside Wall Street magazine, Institutional Investor. Around the same time, he became obsessed with the music of Gustav Mahler, particularly Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” (featured in this past Listeners’ Club post). Kaplan described his first encounter with the work at a Carnegie Hall concert with the American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski:

I walked into that hall one person and I walked out a different person – I felt as if a bolt of lightning had gone through me.

Following this transformative experience, Kaplan was determined to conduct the piece, although he had no experience in front of an orchestra. He took a private six month crash course in conducting, organized a New York concert, and hired the American Symphony Orchestra. He recalled,

The orchestra agreed to play on two conditions…That no tickets would be sold to the public and that no one would be permitted to review it – something that I wholeheartedly supported. When I walked out on stage that night, I was of course very nervous, but I’d made peace with it. But I looked at the audience and I saw absolute fear. It didn’t occur to me then, but it occurred to me later when I heard the explosion of applause that I was living out their private dream. Whatever triumph there was, it was a shared experience.

In the ensuing years, Kaplan went on to conduct public performances of Mahler’s Second Symphony with orchestras around the world. He recorded the work with both the London Symphony Orchestra (1998 on the RCA label) and the Vienna Philharmonic (2003 for Deutsche Grammophon). Not everyone agreed that Kaplan’s conducting met the highest professional standards. Following a 2008 appearance with the New York Philharmonic, he was roundly criticized by the orchestra’s musicians, who went as far as to call the performance a “woefully sad farce.” But his passion and the contributions he made as a scholar seem undeniable. He acquired and studied Mahler’s original autograph score and published a facsimile, exposing errors and discrepancies which had crept into previous editions. This led to a brand new Universal Edition of the score. He was a respected friend of many conductors, including Sir Georg Solti who once jokingly said,

What a pleasure it is to meet a man from Wall Street with whom I talk about music, because when I meet my colleagues all I talk about is money.


Mahler Meets Twentieth Century “Noise”

I still remember vividly my own first encounter with Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony. I was around 10 years old and my parents took me to hear David Zinman’s final performance as music director of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Following that inspirational experience, I practically wore out a record of Leonard Bernstein’s 1963 recording with the New York Philharmonic.

There’s a lot that can be said about this deeply psychological work. It opens in an abrupt, unsettling flash of sound which ushers in a snarling statement in the lower strings. Its five movements progress from a funeral march to a supreme moment of transfiguration. In the exultant final bars, the power of an already massive orchestra is augmented by chorus and pipe organ. Along the way, distant offstage horns and trumpets add a spacial dimension to the sound.

But let’s focus on one terrifying chord which occurs at the climax of the first movement (at 16:23 in the clip, below). It’s a moment of total musical breakdown, the furthest thing from the idyllic, woodsy birdsongs of the First Symphony. Prior to “the chord” we hear a ferocious, titanic battle of almost supernatural proportions. These musical titans thrash around and exchange violent knocks and blows. We hear an ascending, sweeping gesture in the brass, vaguely reminiscent of a similar gesture in Wagner’s Prelude to the third act of Lohengrin. Then, we’re pushed over the edge into a moment of pure dissonance. It’s the dotted “funeral march” rhythm which has been quietly, ominously lurking in the background from the beginning of the movement. Now it erupts throughout the entire orchestra as a hammer blow…a force which can no longer be ignored. The year was 1888, but this is a starkly twentieth century sound. For a brief moment we’re confronted with the unabashed “noise” of Stravinsky. One pitch at a time, “the chord” straightens itself out, painfully groping its way back to conventional dominant harmony to find a resolution. But its cacophony rings in our ears and stands as a sign which says “Go no further.” Perhaps the conductor Hans von Bülow had this moment in mind when he told Mahler that this first movement made Wagner’s innovative Tristan and Isolde sound “like a Haydn Symphony.” Now, let’s listen to the passage.


Here is a complete recording of Mahler’s Second Symphony. Earlier, I mentioned Leonard Bernstein’s 1963 recording with the New York Philharmonic…a recording made when Bernstein was 45 and at the beginning of his career. At the end of his career, in 1988, Leonard Bernstein returned to the New York Philharmonic with this live concert recording (on the Sony label). The performance features mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig and soprano Barbara Hendricks.

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  • Leonard Bernstein’s 1988 recording with the New York Philharmonic (featured above) iTunes, Amazon
  • Gilbert Kaplan’s recordings iTunes, Amazon


Let’s Start the New Year Right

Bing Crosby, Virginia Dale, Fred Astaire, and Marjorie Reynolds in the 1942 film, Holiday Inn.
Bing Crosby, Virginia Dale, Fred Astaire, and Marjorie Reynolds in the 1942 film, Holiday Inn.


Happy New Year!

The first day of January may be a time to sweep up the confetti and put away the party hats, but take a moment and listen to Irving Berlin’s Let’s Start the New Year Right. This suave melody, sung  by the golden-toned Bing Crosby, was written for the 1942 Paramount Pictures classic, Holiday Inn. (White Christmas became the smash hit from this film).

The attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent entrance of the United States into the Second World War occurred halfway through Holiday Inn‘s production. Berlin’s lyric suggests relief at the prospect of closing the door on the old year, while looking ahead with optimism at the possibility of something better.


A Snapshot of Music Across 400 Years

2016 will mark the following anniversaries:


completed works:

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Births: Milton Babbitt, Alberto Ginastera, composers, Robert Shaw, conductor, Yehudi Menuhin, violinist.

The Baltimore Symphony presented its first concert.[/box]


completed works:

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  • Piano Sonata No. 28, Ludwig van Beethoven
  • String Trio in B-flat Major, Stabat Mater in F minor, Litanei aug das Fest Aller Seelen, Franz Schubert
  • The Barber of Seville, Gioachino Rossini


Violinists Louis Spohr and Niccolò Paganini met in Venice. Goethe gave Schubert permission to set his poems to music.



completed works:

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completed works:

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  • Peccavi super numerum, motet for 3 voices and basso continuo, Girolamo Frescobaldi
  • Tirsi e Clori, (ballet score), Le nozze di Tetide (lost opera), Claudio Monteverdi