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:

The Rise of Simone Dinnerstein

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Rising to the top of the classical music world requires a combination of talent, hard work, determination, and luck. In 2007, American pianist Simone Dinnerstein’s career was “launched into the stratosphere” with the release of her self-financed recording of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations and an appearance at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall. The recording quickly soared to the top of the Amazon classical chart and more disks followed. This CBS Sunday Morning story profiles Dinnerstein’s miraculously self-made career.

Last week, Dinnerstein released another exciting CD on the Sony Classical label. Broadway-Lafayette “celebrates the time-honored transatlantic link between France and America” with George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, and The Circle and the Child: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, a new work written for Dinnerstein by Philip Lasser. Kristjan Järvi conducts the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra. In this interview with Mike Goldberg, classical radio host at WCVE-FM in Richmond, Simone Dinnerstein talks about her newest CD. She also details her exciting “Neighborhood Classics” program in the New York City public schools.

In a world of hype and slick marketing, Simone Dinnerstein, initially working without management or a major record contract, has displayed obvious business savvy. But the ultimate source of her success may lie in her sincerity and dedication to putting the music first. Watch her introduce Bach’s Inventions to schoolchildren at P.S. 321 in New York City. Also watch this short clip from a masterclass in which she talks about drawing a singing sound out of the piano. And don’t miss this home movie of Dinnerstein’s dog listening to her practice Schubert.

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Simone Dinnerstein plays the Sarabande from J.S. Bach’s French Suite nº 5 in C major:

The Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations:

Exploring the Lullaby

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The lullaby is universal and timeless. It’s one of the clearest expressions of the deep bond between mother and young child. Its gentle, repetitive, rocking rhythm lulls infants to sleep. The simple expression of its melody evokes warmth and security. At the same time, many lullabies contain an inexplicable hint of sadness.

From Franz Schubert to George Gershwin to U2, music history is full of lullabies. Here are five of my favorites:

Schubert’s Wiegenlied, Op. 98, No. 2

We’ll begin with the simple perfection of Franz Schubert’s Wiegenlied, Op. 98, No. 2, written in November, 1816. You can read the text here. Listen to the way this performance by mezzo-soprano Janet Baker and pianist Gerald Moore fades into sleepy oblivion:

Brahms’ Wiegenlied, Op. 49, No. 4

Johannes Brahms may have written the world’s most famous lullaby. Wiegenlied, Op. 49, No.4  was dedicated to Brahms’ former lover, Bertha Faber, after the birth of her son. The melody found its way into the first movement of Brahms’ Second Symphony in a slightly altered form. You can hear it at this moment about four minutes into the movement.

Violinist Rachel Barton Pine included a transcription of the Brahms Lullaby on her 2013 Violin Lullabies album (pictured above).

The text is from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of German folk poems which inspired composers from Schumann and Mahler to Webern. Here is a performance by Anne Sofie von Otter and pianist Bengt Forsberg. Notice the gentle rocking rhythm and hypnotic repetition of the tonic in the piano line.

Julie’s Lullaby from Dvořák’s “The Jacobin”

Antonín Dvořák’s rarely performed 1889 opera, The Jacobin, is set in Bohemia around the time of the French Revolution. The aging Count Harasova is preparing to hand over power to his nephew, Adolf. Harasova has disowned his son, Bohuš who has just returned home from Paris with a French wife, Julie. The scheming Adolf has convinced Harasova that Bohuš is a dangerous revolutionary, allied with the Jacobins. By the end of the opera, Count Harasova realizes that he has been deceived and proclaims Bohuš to be his true successor.

In Act III, Scene V, Count Harasova hears Julie sing Synáčku, můj květe (“Son of mine, mine flower”)It’s a lullaby that the late Countess sang to Bohuš as a child, many years earlier. In the opening of the aria, the sound of the horn seems to take on mystical significance, as if preparing us for the dreamscape of nostalgia and memory which follows.

Julie’s Lullaby enters the same magical Bohemian folk world we hear in Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarercompleted around the same time, in 1885. As in the Mahler, Dvořák’s aria conjures up a complex and confusing mix of indescribable, but powerful emotions. Notice the way the music slips between major and minor.

Here is Eva Randova and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra:

Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque

Ferruccio Busoni’s haunting Berceuse élégiaque turns the lullaby on its head with the subtitle, “The man’s lullaby at his mother’s coffin.” Written in 1909, the first performance was given by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall on February 21, 1911 with Gustav Mahler conducting. Mahler must have felt strongly about this music because he insisted on conducting, despite a fever of 104. It was his final concert. He returned to Vienna and died three months later.

The rocking rhythm at the opening of this piece is similar to what we heard in Brahms’ Lullaby, but this is an entirely different world. In the opening, dark, murky string colors suggest the feeling of being under water.

Here is a 2010 performance by Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Ed Spanjaard:

Ravel’s Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Fauré

Maurice Ravel wrote this short lullaby in 1922 as a tribute to the 77-year-old Gabriel Fauré. The piece’s motive grew out of Fauré’s name (GABDBEE FAGDE). Behind the music’s innocence and simplicity lies a hint of something dark and ominous. But, like so much of Ravel’s music, we only catch a glimpse of the storm clouds. The piece concludes with a sense of joyful, child-like detachment. It’s like watching a young child who is completely absorbed in the imaginary world of play. The final bars evaporate into a dreamy haze.

This performance comes from a recording by violinist Chantal Juillet and pianist Pascal Rogé:

Hush, little one, and fold your hands;
The sun hath set, the moon is high;
The sea is singing to the sands,
And wakeful posies are beguiled
By many a fairy lullaby:
Hush, little child, my little child!

Dream, little one, and in your dreams
Float upward from this lowly place,–
Float out on mellow, misty streams
To lands where bideth Mary mild,
And let her kiss thy little face,
You little child, my little child!

Sleep, little one, and take thy rest,
With angels bending over thee,–
Sleep sweetly on that Father’s breast
Whom our dear Christ hath reconciled;
But stay not there,–come back to me,
O little child, my little child!

-Emily Dickinson (Sicilian Lullaby)

1921 Recording: Rachmaninov Plays Kreisler

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)

 

The legendary violinist Fritz Kreisler and Sergei Rachmaninov performed frequently together, luckily leaving behind a few recordings of their collaboration. On one occasion, as the story goes, Kreisler had a memory slip during a performance. Fumbling around the fingerboard and attempting to improvise his way out of the predicament, he inched his way towards the piano, whispering helplessly, “Where are we?” Rachmaninov answered, “In Carnegie Hall.”

As a tribute to their friendship, Rachmaninov created piano arrangements of three of Kreisler’s violin miniatures, including Liebesleid (“Love’s Sorrow”), and Liebesfreud (“Love’s Joy”). Kreisler’s original compositions are charming slices of pre-war Vienna (listen here). In Rachmaninov’s hands they become thrilling new music…variations on the original themes, infused with Rachmaninov’s distinct sound and spirit.

Here is Rachmaninov’s 1921 recording of Liebesleid. Listen for all of the unexpected harmonic twists and turns and the sparkling virtuosity of the fast passages. One of my favorite moments comes towards the end, with the sudden, darkly expressive chord at 3:36 and the embellishments which follow (3:44).

Here is Rachmaninov’s recording of Liebesfreud from 1925. Kreisler’s original piece is fairly straightforward and melodic. Rachmaninov turns it into a tour de force of motivic development:

Merry Mount at Carnegie

Carnegie HallLast Wednesday the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra presented an outstanding concert performance of Howard Hanson’s opera, Merry Mount at Carnegie Hall as part of the Spring For Music festival. In a previous post I provided some background on Hanson and the opera, which had not been heard in New York since its Metropolitan Opera premiere in 1934.

If you missed the performance and the live radio broadcast, you can listen to it here. Read reviews of the performance here and here. The New York Times review referred to Merry Mount as a “period piece”, but its topic of religious fundamentalism and repression could not be more relevant today.

A Carnegie Hall performance not only showcases the visiting orchestra on an international stage; it also generates community pride at home, as this local news clip shows. With the RPO currently in the middle of a search for a new music director, this seems like an excellent time for the community to take stock of its hometown team. The recording above demonstrates the ensemble’s extraordinary polish and musicianship.

The following notes, which appeared in the program, discuss Merry Mount and Howard Hanson’s connection to Rochester:

“Be as a lion, dread Jehovah, and tear the flesh of unbelievers.”

So begins Merry Mount, the only opera that the American composer Howard Hanson wrote. Full of Puritanical hell-fire and brimstone, the quintessentially American story centers on the conflict between religious fanatics and hedonistic, free-thinking cavaliers, exploring age-old dichotomies between piety and desire, restraint and excess, spiritual and sensual—and exposing the dire consequences of repression.

No other composer would have been as fitting a choice as Howard Hanson for the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s Spring for Music program, for no other figure has shaped the city’s musical climate so profoundly. The Nebraska native came to Rochester in 1924 to be the director at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. During his 40-year reign, Hanson molded the school into one of the most highly-rated conservatories in the world, a legacy that continues to this day. At a time when established European works dominated the classical music scene, Hanson strove to give American music a place in the concert hall, initiating a series of American composers concerts at Eastman, and later, an annual festival devoted to American music. Hanson was instrumental in elevating Eastman’s international profile throughout the middle decades of the 20th century, simultaneously turning Rochester into a center for new American music.

A celebrated composer, Hanson continued writing throughout his tenure at Eastman, and it was during this time that he created Merry Mount. Although he composed throughout the rise of the 12-tone movement, his style remained steadfastly lush, Romantic, and approachable. His gift for melody shines through in tonight’s program. Commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, Merry Mount had its stage premiere there in 1934, and met with an enthusiastic response (it still holds the Met record for curtain calls, a whopping 50). But despite the initial buzz, modern revivals and concert performances are rare.

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra is thrilled to bring Howard Hanson’s masterpiece back to the New York City stage, 80 years after its premiere and 50 years after Hanson’s retirement from Eastman. Today, Rochester remains a thriving musical hub steeped in world-class talent. The RPO and the Eastman School of Music enjoy the same synergistic relationship that was fostered during Hanson’s tenure, each contributing to a rich musical landscape that belies the city’s size.

Enriching this landscape has been a priority of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra since its founding. Committed to the importance of lifelong musical engagement, the RPO inspires audiences of all ages with a variety of offerings each season, bringing the thrill of live music to Rochester and the Finger Lakes region. Currently in the midst of an international search for its next music director, the RPO is well positioned to build upon its proud musical legacy for the next generation of concertgoers.

This concert production of Merry Mount embodies the spirit of everything that Howard Hanson helped to create and showcases everything that makes Rochester’s musical scene so special, joining young and old, current Eastman students, recent Eastman graduates, talented local singers, and the musicians of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra for a celebration of Rochester—past, present, and future.

-Kathryn Judd

The Sonic Landscapes of John Luther Adams

Composer John Luther Adams
Composer John Luther Adams

Become Ocean by John Luther Adams (b. 1953) has won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music. The large-scale work for orchestra was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony. Music critic Alex Ross attended the premier last June in Seattle. In Listen to This, Ross visits the composer’s home in Alaska. The remote Alaskan wilderness seems to be a strong influence in Adams’s music.

Music Director Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony will perform Become Ocean in New York at Carnegie Hall on May 6 as part of the Spring for Music series.

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Let’s listen to John Luther Adams’s 2007 tone poem, Dark Waves. Adams adds electronic sounds to the orchestra, creating gradually shifting sonic layers. Consider how the music is flowing. What images come to mind? Here is a live performance by the Chicago Symphony with conductor, Jaap van Zweden:

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Dark Waves suggests an almost physical sense of motion…the gradual, inevitable power of an endless series of waves cresting and breaking. For me the music is pictorial, like a slowly changing landscape. But, similar to Debussy’s La Mer, it evokes feelings rather than literal images. In the music of John Luther Adams, New Age meets Edgard Varèse and Morton Feldman.

[quote]Together, the orchestra and the electronics evoke a vast rolling sea. Waves of Perfect Fifths rise and fall, in tempo relationships of 3, 5 and 7. At the central moment, these waves crest together in a tsunami of sound encompassing all twelve chromatic tones and the full range of the orchestra.[/quote]

-John Luther Adams

Alaska

 

The Last Rose of Summer

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It’s hard to believe but Labor Day weekend is here, marking the official end of summer. Leaves are beginning to change color. The days are getting shorter and a chill is creeping into the night air, reminding us of the inevitability of what’s around the corner. Let’s bid summer a fond farewell by listening to one of the most technically demanding pieces ever written for the violin, Variations on “The Last Rose of Summer” by Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst. Ernst (1812-1865) was a violinist and composer who followed in the footsteps of Paganini, touring Europe as a rock star virtuoso and expanding the technical possibilities of the violin.

This clip is from Midori’s extraordinary 1991 Carnegie Hall debut. She played the sold out concert four days before her nineteenth birthday. The excitement and electricity in the air and the sense of occasion are palpable. This interesting New York Times piece featuring Midori came out in the days following the recital.

Notice the combination of dazzling violinistic effects employed, from double stops and left hand pizzicato to harmonics, up bow staccato and spiccato bowing. Watch closely, because there are moments when this piece seems like a magic act. Is one violin really playing all that? Listen to how many variations can spring from this beautiful melody:

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And now, for a final ode to fading summer, here is the original melody, sung by Renee Fleming: