Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero is reinvigorating an old tradition: She performs all of the standard repertoire, yet she’s equally dedicated to improvising and performing her own compositions. She infuses her concerts with a refreshing sense of excitement and spontaneity, frequently improvising on melodies volunteered by the audience. The subjects of her improvisations have run the gamut from the theme from Harry Potter and “Happy Birthday” to J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variationsand Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, improvisation and a blurring of the line between composer and performer were common. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt were all masters of improvisation. It was only in the twentieth century (with isolated exceptions like Sergei Rachmaninov) that a gulf grew between those who created and interpreted music.
In June, Gabriela Montero released a recording of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, as well as her own composition, Ex Patria, and three improvisations. On the CD, she’s joined by conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto and the YOA Orchestra of the Americas, an orchestra made up of 18-30-year-old musicians from countries throughout the Western Hemisphere. Recently, Montero talked about the recording with Richmond Public Radio’s Mike Goldberg. You can hear her thoughtful and dramatic interpretation here:
Ex Patria grew out of the human rights struggle in Montero’s native Venezuela. In a recent interview, she described the piece this way:
Ex Patria I wrote in 2011 to honor the 19,336 victims of homicide that year in Venezuela. Now, to put it in perspective, that number — 19,336 — that was in 2011. Last year, there were 25,000 murders in Venezuela. So, Ex Patria was meant to be a vehicle to express all of this. I wanted people to feel what we feel as a society, a collapsed society. There is no law, there is no justice. Ninety-five percent of crimes go unresolved or unpunished. And I not only wanted to speak of numbers with my audiences but also to write a piece that would emotionally convey the message that they would be attached to. So when they left the concert hall or listened to the recording, it would be in them, it would be an experience that they could identify with. It’s very violent but also very beautiful. And it’s really a photograph of Venezuela in the last 16 years.
The three improvisations which round out this CD draw together elements from the preceding music. Montero describes the first improvisation as Baroque in nature, the second evokes Rachmaninov, and the third is an aural snapshot of Venezuela.
What do you do when you drive around a sharp curve and suddenly see the road coming to a dead end in front of you? The obvious answer is to turn around and find another route forward.
Around 1920, Igor Stravinsky and other composers confronted a similar challenge. Romanticism had hit a wall. The colonialist expansion of nineteenth century Europe was disintegrating in the post-battlefield daze of an apocalyptic World War. In the almost hundred years between Beethoven’s Eroica and Wagner’s epic 15-hour-long Ring Cycle, music had progressed in one general direction: bigger, louder and longer. Now it had finally reached its limit. A new Zeitgeist was in the air.
Neoclassicism, a label which Stravinsky despised, represented a return to the cool, pared-down structural efficiency of music before the Romantic era. Detached, dry and witty, this music blends Classical and Baroque form with the distinct sound of the twentieth century. Prokofiev (the “Classical” Symphony), Poulenc, Milhaud, and others moved in a similar direction.
Composers have been known to say some outlandish and highly debatable things about music. This quote from Stravinsky’s 1936 autobiography may fall into that category, but it’s still thought-provoking and suggests a decidedly anti-Romantic philosophy of music:
For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention – in short, an aspect which, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being.
By the 1950’s, Stravinsky would move on to the twelve-tone serialism pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg (listen to Stravinsky’s Agon). But for now, let’s stay with three fun examples of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period…music which looks back in order to move forward:
Pulcinella was a 1920 ballet commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev with sets and costumes designed by Pablo Picasso. Stravinsky’s score is based on music which was attributed to the Italian Baroque composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). Later it was discovered that some of the music was written by contemporaries of Pergolesi. Here is what Stravinsky said about Pulcinella:
Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look, of course—the first of many love affairs in that direction—but it was a look in the mirror, too.
Take a moment and listen to the music as it was originally written. Then listen to the way Stravinsky uses these Baroque blueprints to create completely new music.
This is Christopher Hogwood conducting the Orquesta de Cámara Basel:
At times the Pulcinella Suite seems like a caricature of the music on which it was based. It’s filled with sudden surprising dissonances, little rhythmic jabs and strange new voices, like the conversation between the trombone and the double bass (15:27). Every time I play Pulcinella, I’m amazed by those moments when the music seems to briefly suspend time (for example 10:32 at the end of the Tarantella and in the last bars of the Finale). Then there’s the drama of the Minuetto, which slowly builds anticipation, setting up the exuberant joy of the Finale.
Here is a clip of Stravinsky rehearsing the Pulcinella Suite with the Toronto Symphony in 1967. Also listen to Ilya Kaler performing a version for violin and piano.
Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D major was written in 1931 for Polish-American violinist Samuel Dushkin. All of the movements open with the same distinctive chord, each time presented in a slightly different configuration. Like a Baroque concerto, a single atmosphere and tempo permeates each movement. There is also an interactive dialogue between the violin, groups of instruments and the full orchestra which suggests a traditional Concerto grosso (here is some Vivaldi for comparison). You’ll hear walking bass lines (in the first and last movements listen to the tuba and trombone lines comically rising and falling), sequences, contrapuntal lines and other details which seem to be holding up a giant sign saying, “I’m a Baroque Concerto.”
Concerto in E-flat “Dumbarton Oaks” was commissioned in 1937 for the thirtieth wedding anniversary of Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss. It was named after the couple’s estate in Washington D.C. Listen to the dialogue between instruments and enjoy the sense of rhythmic groove. There’s something fresh and almost innocent about the opening of this piece.
Here is Robert Craft conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke’s:
You may be familiar with classic recordings of George Frideric Handel’s Violin Sonatas by Isaac Stern, Nathan Milstein, Henryk Szeryng and Szymon Goldberg. For the most part, they’re all Romantic performances, emphasizing a large, singing tone and lots of vibrato. For a slightly different take, add to the list an excellent 2003 Baroque recording by violinist Hiro Kurosaki and harpsichordist William Christie.
No one knows if Handel actually wrote all seven of the sonatas on this disk. A few are suspected to be the work of other composers, now long forgotten. The D-major sonata (HWV 371), one of Handel’s last works, and youthful G-major sonata (HWV 358) are authentic. Dr. Suzuki included the F major and D major sonatas in Book 6 and the A major sonata in Book 7.
Born in Japan, Hiro Kurosaki now lives in Austria and teaches at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. He plays a 1690 Giovanni Battista Rogeri violin on this recording, an instrument made during Handel’s lifetime. Kurosaki and Christie claim that their interpretation was influenced by Handel’s opera writing. Listen to this excerpt from the 1724 opera, Giulio Cesare, for a comparison.
Think about the way your favorite piece begins. From the ferocious opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which form the DNA for the entire symphony that follows, to the quiet, mysterious tremolos of Bruckner’s symphonies, to the attention grabbing (and audience quieting) opening fanfares of Rossini’s opera overtures, the way a piece starts tells us a lot about what will follow. As you jump, grudgingly tip toe or stride boldly into 2014, listen to three pieces with uniquely interesting openings:
[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4[/typography]
It’s hard to imagine a more powerful or majestic opening than the beginning of J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D Major, BWV 1069. The first movement is a popular Baroque musical form known as a French overture in which slow, stately music is contrasted with a faster section. This is an opening which demands that you listen. It emphatically celebrates D major, building tension and expectation as it develops. The other movements are rooted in Baroque dances. As you listen enjoy the way the music flows. This would have been popular music in Bach’s time-joyful, sparkling and fun:
Menuet I/II 13:31
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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The Symphony that Starts With a Question[/typography]
You may hear the influence of Beethoven’s teacher, Franz Joseph Haydn in Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21. At the same time, the young Beethoven’s individual voice is evident. This symphony begins with a question. Listen to the first chord. It seems to be saying, “Where am I?” Can you tell where the music is going next? The chord resolves, but we still feel lost. When and how does the music confidently move forward?
Beethoven starts the last movement with a similar musical joke up his sleeve. After a dramatic opening octave played by the entire orchestra, the music seems as if it isn’t sure what to do next. Beethoven gives us a tentative series of notes…then tries again, adding another…then another…a scale is forming…Then he says, “Oh yes, now I know!” What follows is one of the most enjoyable musical romps ever conceived:
Adagio molto – Allegro con brio 0:00
Andante cantabile con moto 8:26
Menuetto: Allegro molto e vivace 14:50
Finale: Adagio – Allegro molto e vivace 16:15
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Our final “musical beginning” may be the most famous of all. Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus spake Zarathustra) in 1896. The tone poem was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical treatise. The opening depicts a musical sunrise. We not only hear but feel the pitch C, first as a deep, quietly ominous rumble in organ, basses, and contrabassoon and then expanding to other pitches built on the harmonic series (natural overtones). C, the purest key, with no sharps or flats is fixed in our ears, representing nature throughout Zarathustra.B with its five sharps (as far away from C as you can get, in terms of key relationships) represents the aspirations of man. The rest of the piece is a battle between C and B. Listen carefully at the end. Can you tell which key triumphs?
Here is a great recording by George Solti and the Chicago Symphony:
Did you hear the conflict at the end between B major in the highest instruments and C in the lowest? Nature has the last word, but in the end there is no satisfying resolution. In fact with Zarathustra, Strauss wrote a piece which ends in two keys at the same time. It’s a shocking and almost frightening ending, especially at a time (the late nineteenth century) when tonal relationships were beginning to slip away. In the twentieth century, after being pushed to the breaking point by composers such as Wagner, Strauss and Mahler, tonality would dissolve into the twelve tone rows of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and others. In twelve tone music there would be no hierarchical relationship between pitches.
Leonard Bernstein made a reference to the end of Zarathustra in the final chords of West Side Story. In contrast to Zarathustra, in West Side Story light wins out over darkness in the form of a major triad.
Conductor Marin Alsop offers additional thoughts about Zarathustra’s powerful opening here. Program notes for the entire piece are here.
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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]What’s Your Favorite Musical Beginning?[/typography]
Now it’s your turn. Do you have a favorite “musical beginning?” Tell us about it in the comment thread below.
[quote]Life without music would be a mistake. -Friedrich Nietzsche[/quote]
Here is a great period performance of Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerto grosso in G minor, Op. 6, No. 8 by Accademia deli Astrusi. This piece was first performed on Christmas, 1690 and bears the inscription”Made for the night of Christmas.” The concerto is made up of six short movements which alternate in tempo between fast and slow. The final movement is a serene Pastorale which suggests the nativity scene.
The drama of a concerto grosso (big concerto) lies in the contrast between solo voices and the full ensemble. Corelli loved using suspensions, holding out notes which sound “wrong” and then resolve. Listen to the complex interplay between instruments. Also notice the use of ornamentation on the repeats.
Sometimes great creative ideas flow from constraints. J.S. Bach (1685-1750) wrote six unaccompanied cello suites and six solo sonatas and partitas for violin. This music delivers seemingly limitless musical expression with the simplest and most economic means. Bach’s ability to create complex and inventive counterpoint and harmony using a single solo instrument is amazing. The suites are a collection of Baroque dances which were popular in Bach’s time. Gavottes, bourrées, allemandes and courantes are now long forgotten dance forms, but the music remains timeless.
Here is Yo-Yo Ma playing all six cello suites:
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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Bourrées from Suite No. 3[/typography]
Dr. Suzuki included violin and viola transcriptions of these Bourrées in Book 3. You can read about the history of the bourrée here. Here is Rostropovich playing the original version for cello. Consider how the second bourrée (starting around 1:57) contrasts in character with the first: