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 Mercurial Romanticism of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 73

MI0000979737Listening to Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 73 forces us to live in and enjoy the moment. The three short “Fantasy Pieces,” written in just over two days in February, 1849, are filled with abrupt, slightly schizophrenic, changes in mood. Moments of deep introspection, followed by bursts of euphoria, remind us of Florestan and Eusebius, the split personalities which inhabit much of Schumann’s music. In the Fantasy Pieces, each delightful and unexpected harmonic shift whisks us off to a new, distant world of expression. (Listen to the chord at 1:40 in the first clip, below, for example). These stream of consciousness “songs without words” develop through obsessively repeated musical fragments which toss and turn as they search for an ultimate resolution. The recurring opening motive in the last movement grabs our attention and then pauses, leaving us hanging. Listen for the moment towards the end where we get a sudden, sly resolution (9:58).

Schumann originally wrote this music for the clarinet, but his version for cello is equally interesting. In both versions there’s a strong sense of musical conversation between the piano and the other instruments. At moments (such as the passionate dialogue between the cello and piano at 6:50) you may be reminded of the musical link between Schumann and Brahms.

Here is cellist Mischa Maisky and pianist Martha Argerich:

…and here is the version for clarinet, featuring Martin Fröst and Jonathan Biss. Consider the ways the piece changes with each instrument.

Listen to the second and third movements.

  • Find the Mischa Maisky/Martha Argerich recording at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find the Martin Fröst/Jonathan Biss recording at Amazon.

Cellist Zuill Bailey in Williamsburg

Cellist Zuill Bailey
Cellist Zuill Bailey (photo from zuillbailey.com)

It’s always a thrill to perform with top-level guest soloists. They feed the collective soul of the orchestra and often elevate concerts into highly memorable events.

American cellist Zuill Bailey brought that kind of electricity to the final concerts of the Williamsburg (Virginia) Symphonia season Monday and Tuesday evening. Bailey performed Robert Schumann’s restless and sometimes thorny Cello Concerto with soulfulness and ease. During rehearsals and performances, I was impressed with the singing tone he drew from his 1693 Matteo Gofriller cello, previously owned by Mischa Schneider of the Budapest String Quartet. At moments in the second movement of the Schumann, the music became a barely audible whisper. Before performing the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s First Solo Cello Suite as an encore, Bailey reminded the audience that in 1693, the year his instrument was made, Williamsburg’s College of William and Mary was founded and Bach was 8 years old.

In addition to an international career as a soloist and chamber musician, Zuill Bailey serves on the faculty of the University of Texas at El Paso. He is Artistic Director of the Northwest Bach Festival in Spokane, Washington. You may have seen (and heard) him on the popular HBO series, Oz, where his instrument’s endpin became a murder weapon. Explore Zuill Bailey’s extensive discography here and on iTunes.

Here is the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Suite for Solo Cello, No. 1. 

Here is a piece that blends chamber music and the concerto: Beethoven’s “Triple Concerto” for Violin, Cello and Piano. Violinst Giora Schmidt and pianist Navah Perlman join Bailey. Itzhak Perlman is conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra:

On Sunday tourists at colonial Williamsburg were treated to an impromptu concert outside the Kimball Theatre on Merchant’s Square:

Cellist Zuill Bailey gives an impromptu performance of solo Bach in Williamsburg, Virginia on May 3.
Cellist Zuill Bailey gives an impromptu performance of solo Bach in Williamsburg, Virginia on May 3.

Sounds of Nepal

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News of the devastating earthquake in Nepal has captured global attention this week. On Monday, Drew McManus, author of the popular orchestra business blog, Adaptistrationpublished a post encouraging donations to the Unatti Foundation, a non-profit organization serving orphaned and underprivileged children in Nepal. In 2010, McManus and cellist Lynn Harrell traveled to Nepal and worked at the Unatti Home, just east of Kathmandu.

Let’s listen to some music from this ancient and isolated land, surrounded by the Himalayas. Ful ko Thunga is performed by the Nepalese folk band, Kutumba, which uses traditional instruments including the Bamboo Flute, Sarangi (a string instrument), Madal (a hand drum), Tungna, Dhol, and Jhyamta. This is music that emerges out of a drone and develops slowly through repeating patterns and a strong rhythmic groove.

The Gurung people live in the foothills of the Annapurna mountains, a range of the Himalayas in Nepal. Their villages, tightly clustered like medieval towns, dot the slopes, surrounded by cascades of terraced fields…The people with whom I lived sometimes mentioned that though their lives were full of toil and hardship, they were fortunate to live in a place with ramrod haw a-pani, literally “good wind and water,” which in Nepali means a wholesome or pleasant climate. This phrase evokes not just a sense of good weather, but of a landscape that is kind and bountiful and creates propitious conditions for life. Although people in the village spoke of how loss and misfortune were inevitable in existence, a view shared by most Buddhists, what they stressed above all was the importance of living with grace, kindness, and generosity in the midst of suffering, and of cultivating appreciation and equanimity (a good climate, as it were) in one’s being, regardless of circumstances. The climate in the village was largely one of graciousness and good-humer, with the sorrows of life making its joys more poignant and amplifying the value of human connection.

-Ernestine McHugh, Love and Honor in the Himalayas: Coming to Know Another Culture

Frank Huang Headed to New York

violinist Frank Huang
violinist Frank Huang

On Wednesday, the New York Philharmonic announced that violinist Frank Huang will become its new concertmaster, succeeding Glenn Dicterow who stepped down last June after 34 seasons.

The 36-year-old Huang is currently concertmaster of the Houston Symphony. He has held that position since 2010. Before joining the Houston Symphony, he briefly served as first violinist of the Ying Quartet and professor of violin and chamber music at the Eastman School of Music. He was a student of Donald Weilerstein at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Frank Huang was born in China. When he was 7 years old, his family relocated from Beijing to the Houston suburbs.

Frank Huang’s solo career was launched after he won first prize in the 2000 Hannover International Violin Competition and the 2003 Walter W. Naumburg Foundation’s Violin Competition. A 2003 recording released on the Naxos label features this performance of Franz Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie.

Here is Huang performing the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 11 for Houston Public Radio’s The Front RowHe is joined by cellist Sophie Shao and pianist Adam Golka.

Passion and Fire: Brahms’ Second Cello Sonata

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In the Cello Sonata, passion rules, fiery to the point of vehemence, now defiantly challenging, now painfully lamenting…How boldly the first Allegro theme begins, how stormily the Allegro flows! It is true that the passion subsides into quiet mourning in the Adagio and fades away, reconciled, in the finale. But the beating pulse of the earlier sections still reverberates, and pathos remains the determining psychological characteristic of the whole.

That’s how critic Eduard Hanslick described Johannes Brahms’ Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major, Op. 99, following the work’s premier in 1886. Hanslick was nineteenth century Vienna’s most powerful music critic and an ardent champion of Brahms’ music. He presided over a politically charged environment in which Vienna was divided into two passionate musical camps: those who supported Brahms versus those who supported Wagner. Hugo Wolf, a devout Wagnerian wrote his own review of the Second Cello Sonata in the Wiener Salonblatt:

What is music, today, what is harmony, what is melody, what is rhythm, what is form, if this tohuwabohu [total chaos] is seriously accepted as music? If, however, Herr Dr Johannes Brahms is set on mystifying his worshippers with this newest work, if he is out to have some fun with their brainless veneration, then that is something else again, and we admire in Herr Brahms the greatest charlatan of this century and of all centuries to come.

Today, it’s the enduring greatness of the music that matters, not the politics. Brahms wrote the Second Cello Sonata near Lake Thun in Switzerland during the summer of 1886. It was a productive summer which also saw the completion of the Violin Sonata in A major, Op. 100 and the Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 101. The Second Cello Sonata was dedicated to Robert Hausmann, who would later premier Brahms’ Double Concerto with violinist Joseph Joachim.

From the opening of the first movement, Brahms’ trademark asymmetrical phrases and other elements of rhythmic complexity keep us feeling off balance. The music evolves and takes shape through intensely concentrated motivic development. There’s also a heroic sense of struggle between the cello and piano. A less than skilled cellist once played this piece with Brahms and complained that she couldn’t hear herself over the thick piano scoring. “You were lucky.” was Brahms’ sarcastic response.

Here is an electrifying live concert recording of Brahms’ Second Cello Sonata featuring American cellist Daniel Gaisford and the late Brazilian pianist and 1985 Van Cliburn Competition Gold Medalist José Feghali:

  1. Allegro vivace 0:00
  2. Adagio affettuoso 9:59
  3. Allegro passionato 17:48
  4. Allegro molto 25:11

Something of Life: Jeffrey Zeigler’s New Album

jz_digitalcoversqCellist Jeffrey Zeigler’s debut solo album, Something of Life, came out last month. The recording, produced on the Innova label, features dynamic contemporary music by Paola Prestini, John Zorn, Philip Glass, Gity Razaz, Glenn Kotche, and Felipe Pérez Santiago. Zeigler recently left the Kronos Quartet after eight seasons to focus on a solo career, teaching, and family.

Paola Prestini’s Listen, Quiet, first performed in 2010, is a multimedia work which blends percussion, amplified cello, and electronic sounds with film and other visual elements. The composer offers the following description of the piece at her website:

“Listen, Quiet” explores the way I feel about water in my life: it nurtures, heals, separates. The work is based on recorded private conversations that struggle with live performance. The piece was inspired by the third panel in “Going Forth By Day” a multi-channel work by Bill Viola. In this specific video panel, water accumulates throughout the thirty minute cycle, and eventually, washes out an entire home, its memories, delusions, stories. The work is divided in two halves.

Listen: I had recorded an artist’s voice this past summer who was dealing with a great deal of pain, thinking that this work would eventually ease her pain, and illuminate her vicious cycle. The work assigns roles to each player: the cellist narrates, the percussionist is the perpetrator and symbolizes the indifference, at times, of life; the manipulated voices recount her story, and the natural elements eventually wash away her voices, leaving only sounds of nature. Perhaps easing the pain, perhaps narrating that these stories are in fact, the everyday, and they are cyclical.

Quiet: is a hymn to voices from my childhood, of my mother. They tell a story of magic, and of the memories that shaped us both.

This work includes staging, video design, a glass sculpture, and sound design.

In Listen, Quiet, the cello provides a mournful and sometimes anguished voice. At times it suggests the passionate, spontaneous intensity of a rock electric guitar (listen around 7:10). Repeated percussion patterns in the first section of the piece give way to a three note ostinato bass line in the second section:

John Zorn’s Babel suggests the edgy, ferocious rhythmic drive of Heavy metal. Listen to the harmony suggested by a rich array of overtones:

The recording also includes Gity Razaz’s Shadow LinesPhilip Glass’ Orbit (which gives a nod to solo Bach), Glenn Kotche’s Something of Lifeand Felipe Pérez Santiago’s Glaub

Jeffrey Zeigler’s Something of Life album showcases some of the exciting, brand new music which is emerging from the New York avant-garde scene. This is music which combines electronic and acoustic elements to reflect the unique sound of the twenty-first century. It will be fun to see how Zeigler’s future recordings follow up on this debut CD.

Trio Wanderer’s Fauré Recording

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Recently, I’ve been listening to Trio Wanderer’s exceptional 2010 recording of Gabriel Fauré’s Piano Quartets. The members of the all-French trio (violinist Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian, cellist Raphaël Pidoux and pianist Vincent Coq) first performed together as students at the Conservatoire de Paris in the early 1990s. Their background includes studies with the Amadeus Quartet and with Menahem Pressler of the Beaux Arts Trio. Here, they’re joined by violist Antoine Tamestit. The buoyant, suave sense of French style, a wide array of rich tonal colors, and remarkable clarity and balance make this recording stand out.

The soul of the music also comes to life on this disk. Trio Wanderer’s performance captures the sparkling, mercurial spirit of Fauré’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 15 (below). This music has the same unexpected harmonic twists and turns we hear in Fauré’s famous Sicilienne et BerceuseIt floats along, evolving and changing shape, like wispy clouds against an otherwise clear blue sky. It’s filled with musical conversations (listen around 0:36 and 1:22). Glistening splashes of color emerge from the piano’s arpeggios and running passages. From the opening bars, there’s an unrelenting sense of forward motion. But listen carefully and you’ll catch rare and fleeting moments of simplicity and repose (for example, at 3:44 and at the end of the first movement at 8:57).

Notice the subtle change in color and atmosphere in the middle of the Scherzo (12:06). Here, we seem to enter a darker, veiled, nocturnal world. Then, there’s the haunting moment at the end of the Adagio when, just as the movement seems to be winding down, we discover that it has more to say (20:43). A final statement of lament follows.

Throughout the final movement, notice the way the forward motion is interrupted occasionally by a harmonic “brick wall” (22:34, 26:22). Each time, we bounce back quickly. But listen for the moment at the end of the movement where the motion completely stops…

  1. Allegro molto moderato (0:00)
  2. Scherzo. Allegro vivo (9:25)
  3. Adagio (14:52)
  4. Finale. Allegro molto (22:06)