Happy Birthday, Yo-Yo Ma

Cellist Yo Yo Ma
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma

The Listeners’ Club wishes Yo-Yo Ma, who turns 60 today, a happy birthday.

Ma is one of a handful of front-rank musicians who can be described as a cultural ambassador. Over the years, he has been at home, not only at Carnegie Hall but also on Sesame Street (watch “The Jam Session,” “The Honker Quartet,” and “Elmo’s Fiddle Lesson”), Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and at a presidential inauguration. At the age of seven he performed for President John F. Kennedy. On Monday he appeared with dancer Misty Copeland on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, setting Twitter abuzz. 

Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas

Here is Yo-Yo Ma’s recording, with pianist Emanuel Ax, of Beethoven’s complete Sonatas for Cello and Piano, first released in 1987. At times shrouded in mystery and fire, this is music which captures the soul of the cello. Beethoven was the first major composer to write sonatas in which the cello and piano are equals. The early sonatas were written in 1796. The “Late Sonatas” were written in 1815.

Listen to Volume 2 and 3 to hear the complete set of sonatas.

Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto

Here is Dmitri Shostakovich’s ferocious First Cello Concerto (written in 1959 and dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich) from a 1983 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Eugene Ormandy.

From the taunting opening, the music is imprinted with the “DSCH” motive, Shostakovich’s initials translated into their corresponding pitches in German musical notation: D, E-flat, C, B natural. (In German notation Es is E-flat and is B.), The four note “DSCH” motive defiantly appears throughout other Shostakovich scores. (See this earlier Listeners’ Club post). There are echoes of Shostakovich’s 1948 score for the film, The Young Guard, which depicts the execution of Soviet soldiers by the Nazis. The Concerto also directly quotes a dark lullaby, sung to a sick child by Death (disguised as a caretaker), in Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death.

The first movement is propelled forward by an unrelenting, and almost inhuman, bass line. Amid sardonic statements from the woodwinds, the music feels simultaneously comic and terrifying. The sombre second movement, given the simple marking, Moderato, opens as a lament, gradually building into a prolonged scream of anguish.  Here, in the Concerto’s interior, away from the sarcasm of the outer movements, we’re able to glimpse the music’s most profound and terrifying essence. The movement concludes with haunting stillness (beginning at 14:52). After descending into a lonely, prolonged cadenza (the third movement), we’re plunged into a fiery dance (the fourth movement).

The Swan

We’ll conclude with the serene beauty of The Swan from Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals:

Widor’s Toccata

Gargoyles on the facade of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Gargoyles on the facade of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

 

Let’s finish the week with the awesome power of one of the world’s largest pipe organs…the five keyboards, 109 stops, and nearly 8,000 pipes of the grand organ at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Olivier Latry is performing the virtuosic Toccata from Charles-Marie Widor’s organ Symphony No. 5 in F minor, written in 1879.

Born into a family of organ builders in Lyon, Widor became assistant to Camille Saint-Saëns at L’église de la Madeleine in Paris at the age of 24. In 1890, he succeeded César Franck as organ professor at the Paris Conservatory. His ten symphonies for solo organ are part of a French “organ symphony” tradition which began with Franck’s 1863 Grand pièce symphoniqueYou can hear Widor’s complete Fifth Symphony here.

In the most climactic moments, this instrument (or beast) growls with a stunning, guttural intensity. At the same time, in the upper register, the sound takes on a shimmering sparkle. Listen to all the layers of rhythm that thrust the piece forward, from the rapid arpeggios to the deep pedal tones. It’s an exhilarating ride that descends into muted darkness, then re-emerges and breaks out into an earth-shattering recapitulation. Following the final chord, you’ll get a sense of Notre Dame’s eight and a half second acoustical delay.

Live Concert Recording: Gingold Plays Fauré

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Over the weekend, I ran across this amazing 1966 live concert recording of Josef Gingold performing Gabriel Fauré’s First Violin Sonata. The recording’s sound quality isn’t the best. But the essence of Gingold’s soulful, sweetly vibrant tone and smooth, golden phrasing cuts through the tape hiss and audience noise. In a recent interview Joshua Bell described the tone that poured out of Gingold’s Strad as, “the most beautiful sound of any violinist, to this day, that I’ve heard.”

A student of Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931), Gingold performed in Toscanini’s NBC Symphony and served as concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. Remembered as one of the twentieth century’s most important violin teachers, Gingold served on the faculty of Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music for more than thirty years. His students included Joshua Bell, Corey Cerovsek, Leonidas Kavakos, Miriam Fried, and William Preucil. In a past Listeners’ Club post, we explored Gingold’s approach to violin playing and teaching.

Gabriel Fauré’s music often seems to float with an elegant effervescence and buoyant sense of forward motion. Musicologists have viewed Fauré as a link between Romanticism and the hazy, rule-breaking Impressionism of Claude Debussy. We hear all of this in the Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major. First performed in 1877, the piece was initially rejected by Parisian publishers who found its harmonies shockingly adventurous. Camille Saint-Saëns, who had been Fauré’s teacher, wrote:

In this Sonata you can find everything to tempt a gourmet: new forms, excellent modulations, unusual tone colors, and the use of unexpected rhythms…And a magic floats above everything, encompassing the whole work, causing the crowd of usual listeners to accept the unimagined audacity as something quite normal. With this work Monsieur Fauré takes his place among the masters.

Here is the first movement, Allegro molto. The music opens with waves of luxurious sound in the piano. The violin enters, picking up the piano’s motive and developing it. The music soars increasingly higher, culminating in a particularly luscious passage (1:08-1:17) before falling back. At moments, you may be reminded of César Franck’s Violin Sonata, also in A major, written a few years later in 1886.

In this performance Gingold is joined by pianist Walter Robert.

The second movement, Andante:

The third movement, Allegro vivo:

The fourth movement, Allegro quasi presto:

  • Find this recording, The Art of Josef Gingold at iTunesAmazon.
  • Joshua Bell talks about Gingold in this Strad Magazine interview.

Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial

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On Easter Sunday, 1939, African-American contralto Marian Anderson gave a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It is remembered as a significant event which provided a glimpse of the powerful American civil rights movement to come. Twenty four years later, in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. would stand on the same steps to deliver his iconic “I have a dream” address. As Marian Anderson performed for a multiracial crowd of over 75,000 and millions of radio listeners across the country, the foundation of a long-established segregated society was beginning to crumble.

Marian Anderson’s legendary outdoor concert was born out of adversity. Although she would come to be regarded as one of the twentieth century’s greatest singers, segregation barred her from many venues throughout the United States. When she attempted to schedule a concert in Washington, D.C, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to perform at Constitution Hall. A firestorm of controversy ensued and thousands of DAR members resigned in protest, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who wrote,

I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist … You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.

The District of Columbia Board of Education would not allow the concert to be moved to the auditorium of an all white high school. It was Eleanor Roosevelt, with the help of Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who organized the now legendary outdoor concert.

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, here is Marian Anderson’s 1939 performance of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee at the Lincoln Memorial:

Watch this documentary to learn more about Marian Anderson’s extraordinary life and groundbreaking career.

Five Great Recordings