On the Town with Misty Copeland

Ballet star Misty Copeland heads to Broadway.
Ballet star Misty Copeland heads to Broadway.

 

Tomorrow, Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to be named a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater, will begin a two week stint on Broadway. Copeland will join the cast of the latest production of On the Town, playing the role of Ivy Smith. Here is a preview and here is Terry Teachout’s review of the production.

In the world of ballet, Misty Copeland is a ground breaker, redefining long-held views regarding the ideal body type of a star ballerina (she is muscular and five-foot-two and a half). Her celebrity status seems to be building bridges to new potential audiences. This interview provides some background on her extraordinary career.

On the Town, which originally opened on Broadway in 1944 with music by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, has roots in ballet. It was inspired by Fancy Free, the 1944 Ballet Theater collaboration between Bernstein and Jerome Robbins. At moments Bernstein’s score for Fancy Free may remind you of Stravinsky (5:07), or the bluesy sounds of Gershwin. This impetuous music is far from the blocky, squarely symmetrical phrases of traditional eighteenth and nineteenth century ballet music. Listen for all the fun, irregular, rhythmic surprises and sudden meter changes that continually catch us off guard. Sometimes the music seems to be on the verge of spinning out of control, but, miraculously, it always works itself out.

Here is Bernstein’s 1944 recording with the Ballet Theater orchestra (predecessor to the American Ballet Theater):

On the Town contains the same delirious, off balance, jazzy energy that we hear in Fancy Free. It’s an idealized snapshot of an optimistic, larger-than-life New York of dizzying vitality, and slender, exuberant skyscrapers. In this carefree dreamscape, a group of sailors are on a 24-hour shore leave during wartime 1944. Nothing seems to matter except the present.

The 1960 studio cast recording, conducted by Leonard Bernstein (excerpts below), showcases the virtuosic panache of New York theater musicians in the golden age of the Broadway pit orchestra. The show’s opening explodes with the frenetic hustle and bustle of New York, New York. Bernstein’s score is filled with subtle, but sophisticated details that you wouldn’t find in the average Broadway song. Listen to the repeating bass line of New York, New York and you’ll hear the first four notes of the melody (2:02, 3:09, and 3:59). Then there’s the downbeat defying, canonic madness of the dance music beginning at 4:45 with its irregular meter changes. Later in the excerpt, Bernstein can’t resist sneaking in allusions to Prokofiev (beginning around 7:00) and Shostakovich (9:15):

 Additional Listening

  • Three Dance Episodes from On the Town: Bernstein’s concert suite is made up of significant dance music from the show: Dance of the Great Lover (from the Dream Ballet, Act 2), Pas de Deux (from the “Lonely Town” Ballet, Act 1), Times Square: 1944 (Finale, Act 1). “I believe this is the first Broadway show ever to have as many as seven or eight dance episodes in the space of two acts; and, as a result, the essence of the whole production is contained in these dances,” wrote Bernstein.
  • Lucky to Be Me is from near the end of Act 1.
  • Some Other Timethe final song in Act 2, hints at the blues with its lowered seventh.
  • Find the 1960 studio cast recording on iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Fancy Free on iTunes, Amazon.

Appalachian Spring: Bernstein and the LA Phil

R-4004737-1412008444-8505.jpegAaron Copland’s 1944 ballet score, Appalachian Spring, has already been the subject of two Listeners’ Club posts (here and here). But let’s return to this American masterwork once more and listen to Leonard Bernstein’s 1982 Deutsche Grammophon recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. You would be hard pressed to find a more exciting and soulful interpretation of the Appalachian Spring Suite, including Copland’s own rendition and Bernstein’s slightly faster “definitive” 1961 recording with the New York Philharmonic.

Appalachian Spring begins and ends with two overlapping chords which blend into hazy pandiatonic harmony. It’s a sound which seems to emerge from the American landscape: expansive, fundamental, and eternal. Time seems suspended. But then a new, blindingly bright voice suddenly enters, jolting us out of our daydreams (3:09).

Bernstein’s performance is infused with a sense of dance, rhythmic intensity, and sparkle. We hear this towards the end, around 20:13, as Simple Gifts develops into a sparkling rhythmic motor. There are also moments of sensuous repose. Listen to the way the music takes us into new, distant territory around 17:20. A few moments later, we turn a corner and suddenly find ourselves back at the opening. But this time, there’s a sense that the opening pandiatonic chords are reawakening and trying to remember. After the final climax of the piece subsides, we’re left with a moment of veiled introspection (22:24).

These are a few of the details which place this performance a few notches above so many other excellent recordings of Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Take a few minutes and listen. Then, if you feel inspired, leave a comment in the thread below and share your own thoughts.

  • Find this recording at iTunes, Amazon
  • Hear a live performance of the complete ballet score with Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony.

Three Pieces for the Beginning of Summer

a0203-000017

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, 
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade 
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, 
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

-William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: Summer

Let’s begin with violinist Janine Jansen’s exciting approach to Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. This performance features an unusual edge-of-your seat passion and fire. The dramatic effects of Vivaldi’s music come to life in a way that makes the music feel fresh, as if it was just written:

Glazunov’s “The Seasons:” Summer

Next, let’s listen to an excerpt from Alexander Glazunov’s lushly romantic 1899 ballet score, The Seasons. At the beginning of the clip, we hear the triumphant moment when spring turns to summer. It’s soaring music that deserves to be heard more often. This recording features the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy:

Heifetz Plays “Summertime”

Jascha Heifetz’s transcription of George Gershwin’s Summertime from the opera Porgy and Bess is a timeless gem. Here is Heifetz’s recording:

Rated R: Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin

It’s one of the scariest pieces ever written. Both shockingly violent and erotic, Béla Bartók’s “pantomime grotesque” ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin, was met with “catcalls, stamping, whistling and booing” at its premiere in Cologne, Germany in November, 1926. The ensuing scandal, which whipped up the fury of Cologne’s clergy and press, among others, caused the mayor, Konrad Adenauer (later the first chancellor of post-war West Germany) to ban the work on moral grounds.

Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945)

The ballet’s plot, based on a story by Hungarian writer Melchior Lengyel, involves three thugs who exploit the seductive powers of a beautiful young woman to lure men into their den, where the victims are robbed. The thugs force the girl to stand in the window and dance provocatively. In Bartók’s score this seductive dance, musically depicted by the solo clarinet, occurs three times. The first two men who are lured into the trap are thrown out of the room when the thugs realize they have no money. Then, the exotic Mandarin enters. As the Mandarin is entertained by the girl’s dancing, the thugs rob him. In an attempt to kill the Mandarin, they smother him with a pillow and stab him, but to their horror he remains alive, unaffected by the wounds. Finally, the thugs release the Mandarin. He embraces the girl and, his longing fulfilled, he dies.

Bartók began work on the score in the summer of 1918. He offered this description in a letter to his wife:

It will be hellish music. The prelude before the curtain goes up will be very short and sound like pandemonium… the audience will be introduced to the [thieves’] den at the height of the hurly-burly of the metropolis.

This opening cacophony is unleashed with wild scales in the violins, outlining the striking interval of an augmented octave. This is music that sounds like the twentieth century, in all of its mechanized, mass-produced, dehumanizing glory, and that’s one reason it’s so frightening. We hear something similar in the relentless fugue at the end of the piece (beginning around 16:10), which growls like a nightmarish factory conveyer belt. Listen to the way the clarinet enters in a low, ugly register and then shrieks with increasing intensity (16:46) in this passage.

The musicologist József Ujfalussy offers this analysis in his biography of Bartók:

European art began to be populated by inhuman horrors and apocalyptic monsters. These were the creations of a world in which man’s imagination had been affected by political crises, wars, and the threat to life in all its forms… This exposure of latent horror and hidden danger and crime, together with an attempt to portray these evils in all their magnitude, was an expression of protest by 20th-century artists against the… obsolete ideals and inhumanity of contemporary civilization. [Bartók] does not see the Mandarin as a grotesque monster but rather as the personification of a primitive, barbaric force, and example of the ‘natural man’ to whom he was so strongly attracted.

There’s a hint of the exotic sounds of Eastern European folk music scattered throughout the score (Listen to the cellos at 1:30). In the years before writing The Miraculous Mandarin, Bartók traveled throughout the backroads of Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria, recording and notating the distinctive and ancient sounds heard in folk villages.

At moments, Bartók’s score evokes the quiet, unrelenting terror and sense of anticipation that you might feel as you watch a horror movie. Listen for moments of irony and dark humor (the comic dance at 5:14 and, later, the use of the usually elegant waltz). Close your eyes and listen closely and you may have the sense that the instruments are coming alive, each suggesting its distinct persona.

Here is Sir Georg Solti’s recording of The Miraculous Mandarin Suite, Op. 19 with the Chicago Symphony:

Additional Listening

The Color and Magic of Stravinsky’s Petrushka

Vaslav Nijinsky dancing the title role in Petrushka.
Vaslav Nijinsky danced the title role in Petrushka at the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1911.

 

Tricksters relish the disruption of the status quo, turning the Ordinary World into chaos with their quick turns of phrase and physical antics.  Although they may not change during the course of their Journeys, their world and its inhabitants are transformed by their antics.  The Trickster uses laughter [and ridicule] to make characters see the absurdity of the situation, and perhaps force a change.

-Joseph Campbell

Petrushka, a centuries-old archetypal character in Russian folk puppetry, is the quintessential trickster. He’s the Russian equivalent of the English puppet, “Punch”-a subversive jester who straddles the comic line between benevolent and aggressive. Petrushka is the clown that makes you slightly uncomfortable.

As Igor Stravinsky’s 1911 ballet began to take shape, he wrote in a letter,

…my Petrushka is turning out each day completely new and there are new disagreeable traits in his character, but he delights me because he is absolutely devoid of hypocrisy.

Throughout the ballet, Stravinsky identifies Petrushka with a distinctive and slightly menacing chord, heard first in the clarinets at this moment. The “Petrushka chord” combines two triads (C major and F-sharp major). Played together, a tritone apart, they clash with striking dissonance. The same chord can be heard in Maurice Ravel’s Jeux d’eauwritten ten years earlier in 1901.

Petrushka opens with the bustle of St. Petersburg’s Admiralty Square during the Shrovetide Fair carnival (Mardi Gras). We hear the crowd’s exuberant shouts in Stravinsky’s music, as well as the brief, cranky sounds of an organ grinder. Attention shifts to a puppet theater and a Magician, introduced by mystical and exotic sounds in the bassoon and contrabassoon (beginning around the 5:18 mark in the clip below). Three puppets (Petrushka, the Moor, and the Ballerina) come to life as the Magician touches them with a flute (6:52). Petrushka is in love with the Ballerina. Although she flirts and teases him (11:00-11:42), she only cares for the Moor. In the ballet’s Third Tableau, the imprisoned Petrushka breaks free and jealously attacks the Moor, interrupting his seduction of the Ballerina. The Moor beats Petrushka, who flees. Ultimately, the Moor catches Petrushka, fatally stabbing him as the horrified Shrovetide Fair crowd looks on. A policeman is called and the Magician holds up Petrushka’s “corpse,” showing that it is only a puppet. The crowd disperses and the Magician is left alone on the stage. Suddenly, Petrushka’s ghost appears above the puppet theater. In the ballet’s final bars, we hear the “Petrushka chord” leeringly in the muted trumpets (the passage begins at 33:05). As the immortal spirit of Petrushka has the last laugh, the terrified Magician flees. The line between the perceived illusion of the puppet show and “reality” vanishes.

Chronologically, Petrushka sits squarely between two other monumental ballet scores Stravinsky wrote for Diaghilev’s influential Ballets Russes in Paris: The Firebird (1910) and The Rite of Spring (1913). At moments, Petrushka anticipates the primordial, raw power of the Rite. But listen closely, and you’ll also hear surprising echoes of the music of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and other Russian Romantics (For example, the orchestration and sudden turn to major here and the harmony at this moment).

At times, Petrushka grabs our attention with ostinato passages which are simultaneously static and bursting with activity. For example, listen to the colorful new sonic world we enter at the opening of the Fourth Tableau. This is the moment in the ballet when the action stops briefly as we indulge in a series of dances and, in this case, a celebration of the Russian folk song. The song “Down the Petersky Road” emerges out of the bubbling anticipation of woodwinds in the Wet Nurses’ DanceFollowing the Peasant and Bear and the Dance of the Gypsies, comes the mighty Dance of the Coachmenwhich culminates in an exhilarating canon between the brass and violins.

Here is the 1947 version of Petrushka with Amsterdam’s Concertgebow Orchestra, conducted by Andris Nelsons. There’s a special “edge of your seat” electricity in this 2011 performance:

Valentine’s Day with Mandolins

The Mandolin Dance from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Ballet
The Dance with Mandolins from a Royal Ballet production of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.

 

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.

-William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

In celebration of Valentine’s Day, here is the quirky Dance with Mandolins from Act II of Sergei Prokofiev’s 1935 ballet score, Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64. Given this ballet’s multitude of powerful, dramatic music, this excerpt may seem slightly off the beaten path. But the Dance with Mandolins is so wacky, irrepressible, and fun that, in a strange way, it becomes sublime.

Growing up, I heard this music every Saturday morning during my hour-long commute to the Eastman School of Music, where I studied violin. For years, it was the unlikely opening theme for Simon Pontin’s classical radio show, Salmagundi, on WXXI-FM in Rochester, New York.

From Russia With Love

violinist Oleh Krysa
violinist Oleh Krysa

From Russia With Love is a collection of violin and piano miniatures, recorded by violinist Oleh Krysa and pianist Tatiana Tchekina. The CD focuses on Russian composers, including Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky. Here are a few spectacular excerpts from the CD:

A transcription of Masks from Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet:

The haunting waltz from Prokofiev’s ballet, Cinderella, arranged by Mikhail Fichtenholtz:

Russian Song, transcribed from Igor Stravinsky’s opera, Mavra, by Samuel Dushkin. Listen to the almost hypnotic piano line:

Samuel Dushkin’s transcription of the Russian Dance from Stravinsky’s ballet, Petrushka:

Philippe Quint’s Unedited Tchaikovsky

61Fs5yW6KyL._SL500_AA280_In September, Russian-American violinist Philippe Quint released a recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, accompanied by conductor Martin Panteleev and the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra. If you already own a thousand recordings of the Tchaikovsky, there are good reasons to also include this CD in your collection. Quint offers a distinctive and introspective performance, which emphasizes a rounded, singing tone, even in the most difficult passages of the first movement’s cadenza. He also includes Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard original final movement.

As Philippe Quint explains in this interview, Tchaikovsky originally dedicated the concerto to Leopold Auer, the legendary teacher of Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein, among others. Auer considered the third movement to be “unviolinistic” and set the concerto aside. Tchaikovsky withdrew the dedication and rededicated the work to Adolph Brodsky, who gave an ill-fated premiere in Vienna on December 4, 1881. Leopold Auer later revised the final movement and this is the version we almost always hear performed.

Listen to Quint’s performance of the first and second movements and the standard Auer version of the third movement. Then compare it with Tchaikovsky’s original version of the final movement (below). The influence of ballet seems to be just below the surface in much of Tchaikovsky’s music. Throughout ballet scores like The NutcrackerSwan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky often repeats short, symmetrical phrases. We hear a similar kind of repetition in the third movement of the Violin Concerto (1:01-1:09, for example). Auer condensed the score, cutting these repeated passages.

Arensky’s String Quartet No. 2

This recording also includes Anton Arensky’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 35 (1894). Arensky, a student of Rimsky-Korsakov and the teacher of Alexander Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninov, dedicated the Quartet to the memory of Tchaikovsky. The second movement is a series of variations on a theme from Tchaikovsky’s Legend, No. 5 from 16 Songs for Children, Op. 54. Arensky’s Quartet features the unusual combination of violin, viola and two cellos. Here are the first, second and third movements.