Classical Music Has Long Been at Home on Sesame Street

Isaac Stern with Elmo
Isaac Stern plays a duet with Elmo

In August came the surprise announcement that the popular children’s television program Sesame Street will be moving to HBO. (Reruns will still appear on PBS). The show’s nonprofit producers reached a five-year agreement with HBO. For 45 years Sesame Street has been freely available to the community on Public Broadcasting.

Sesame Street‘s controversial move has raised broader questions about the commodification and privatization of the arts and education at the expense of the public realm. The effect on future programming remains to be seen. But a quick glance back shows that classical music has long been at home on Sesame Street, perhaps giving some children their only exposure to the art form.

Here is a sampling of some of the prominent musicians who have appeared on Sesame Street over the years. Many of these skits involve wacky and unsophisticated comedy. (When Isaac Stern asked for “an A” as a tuning note, he was presented with the letter A). The muppets seem to be asking the questions children might ask if they were there.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

The Kronos Quartet

Renée Fleming

Gustavo Dudamel

Wynton Marsalis

Lang Lang

Yo-Yo Ma

Seiji Ozawa

Itzhak Perlman

Kleinhans Music Hall Turns 75

Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo
Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo, New York

 

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the opening of Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo, New York.

Home of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Kleinhans is considered one of the world’s most acoustically perfect concert halls. It’s also one of Buffalo’s most significant architectural landmarks. Located in a leafy residential neighborhood just north of the city’s downtown, it anchors majestic Symphony Circle, part of Frederick Law Olmsted’s extensive parkway system which runs throughout the city. The Main Auditorium, featuring rich primavera flexwood walls and striking recessed lighting, has a seating capacity of around 2,800. A smaller multi-purpose hall seats 800. The lobby is a smoothly curving 40-by-185 foot Winona travertine arc.

The history of Kleinhans is a story of community-minded public investment. In the 1930s, Edward and Mary Seaton Kleinhans, who made their fortune from a high-end men’s clothing store which opened in Buffalo in 1893, specified that their estate be used “to erect a suitable music hall…for the use, enjoyment and benefit of the people of the City of Buffalo.” Additional funding came from the Works Progress Administration. The Buffalo Philharmonic and conductor Franco Autori performed the opening concert on October 12, 1940.

Kleinhans’ sleek, timeless design was created by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen and his son, Eero Saarinen (who went on to design the iconic Gateway Arch in Saint Louis and the TWA Terminal at JFK Airport, along with some of the twentieth century’s most enduring furniture). Buffalo architects F.J. and William Kidd were also involved. Eliel Saarinen’s objective was to create “an architectural atmosphere…so as to tune the performers and the public alike into a proper mood of performance and receptiveness, respectively.”

Megan Prokes, a member of the Buffalo Philharmonic first violin section, shares a uniquely personal perspective on what it’s like to go to work at Kleinhans Music Hall:

Kleinhans Music Hall has always been an important part of my life in music. My parents moved to Buffalo not long before I was born, my father having acquired a job with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Both of my parents are professional musicians, so it was only natural that as my younger sister and I grew up, we spent a lot of time at Kleinhans. My earliest memories of the hall are snapshots; the cacophony of instrumentalists warming up onstage before tuning, the broad staircases up to the balcony, the seemingly endless tunnels backstage and downstairs that lead to the music library, the musician locker areas, and out into the lobby through almost-hidden doors. Though it may sound strange, my most vivid and longest-held memory of Kleinhans is the scent of it, which has never changed. Familiar and comforting, I’d know blindfolded exactly where I was within a few seconds of entering the building.

When I think back on my childhood and early adulthood in Buffalo, and about my progress as a violinist, I see it mirrored in my relationship with Kleinhans. When I was little my mother would take my sister and me to the Discovery Concert series and I would look for my father, watch him as he came onstage. As I got older and more serious about music and the violin, I began to attend Classics concerts. I would sit impatiently, waiting for soloists like Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Gil Shaham and many others to take the stage and teach me about passion, technique, dedication, and artistry. Backstage at every age, I would look forward to saying hello to all of my parents’ friends, my heroes, those who had taken their love of music and their instrument and made it their life. They always inquired after what I was working on, making me feel like a part of their world.
 
Now, as an adult and a three-season member of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra myself, I look forward to working and performing in Kleinhans every day. The acoustics are everything that everyone says; rich, warm, well-balanced. While some say there’s no such thing as a “best seat in the house”, my favorite place to sit is front and center of the balcony. However, it is the entirety of what Kleinhans means to me, the representation of music and family, that makes it so special. My passion has become my lifestyle, my heroes have become my colleagues, and Kleinhans has become my second home.
 
interior view
interior view

 

BPO History Through Recordings

The 75th anniversary of Kleinhans Music Hall provides a great opportunity to celebrate the rich musical tradition of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and to consider the ways an orchestra’s sound and style of playing are shaped by its hall. From the beginning, new innovative programming seems to have been one of the orchestra’s hallmarks.

Here is the orchestra’s first recording, made in 1946 at a newly-opened Kleinhans. In this excerpt, William Steinberg conducts Shostakovich’s Symphony 7 “Leningrad,” which at that time was a five-year-old work. Steinberg served as the BPO’s music director between 1945 and 1952:

Austrian conductor and violinist Josef Krips was music director between 1954 and 1963. In this live concert performance at Kleinhans on November 19, 1957, Krips leads the BPO in Mahler’s First Symphony:

American composer, pianist, and conductor Lukas Foss brought new, highly adventurous music to the Kleinhans stage during his tenure as music director between 1963 and 1971. His first concert with the BPO included the orchestra’s debut performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Buffalo audiences were less than enthusiastic about Foss’ avant-garde programming, but he continued to push the envelop, saying, “To take refuge in the past is to play safe. Safety lurks wherever we turn. Show me dangerous music.”

Foss’ GEOD, written in 1969, features amplification and strange collage techniques which might remind you of sounds The Beatles were creating around the same time. The music floats through a mysterious, gradually changing landscape. As fragments of folk songs emerge and disappear, the spirit of Charles Ives seems to be lurking in the background.

Michael Tilson Thomas, music director between 1971 and 1979, continued Buffalo’s tradition of innovative programming. Here is Sun Treader by American composer Carl Ruggles (1876-1971):

Current Music Director JoAnn Falletta has extended the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s discography with numerous releases on the Naxos label. One of her most interesting projects has lifted the music of Marcel Tyberg, a composer who perished at Auschwitz, out of obscurity. Falletta tells the amazing story of how Tyberg’s scores survived and ended up in Buffalo.

Here is Marcel Tyberg’s Symphony No. 3 in D minor:

Perlman Turns 70

violinist Itzhak Perlman
violinist Itzhak Perlman

 

A belated happy birthday to Itzhak Perlman who turned 70 on Monday.

Perlman rose to prominence during the second half of the twentieth century, displaying musical warmth, technical panache, and an unusually thick, singing tone, rich in overtones. He is one of only a handful of front rank musicians who have also achieved celebrity status. In 1964, at the age of 18, he captured public attention with an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. He went on to perform on Sesame Street, on the soundtrack of the movie Schindler’s List, and at President Obama’s first inauguration. Here is a clip from a 1980s performance at the White House, and here is another from 2012. Warm, fun-loving and unpretentious, he is the perfect ambassador for classical music. In recent years, he has focused more on teaching (watch masterclass clips here and here) and conducting.

Here is Perlman playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic.

Perlman’s recording of the complete Brahms Violin Sonatas with Daniel Barenboim is still one of my favorites:

Here is Pablo Sarasate’s Zapateado with pianist Samuel Sanders:

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.

An Inside Look at Violin Making in Cremona

IT_13_MAIN_Cremona_S.Abbondio_Chiostro_particolare

Early last month, CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker’s excellent 60 Minutes piece, The City of Music, profiled the long history of violin making in Cremona. The small Italian city has produced some of the world’s finest violins, including instruments by Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) and luthier families such as Amati (active between 1537 and 1740), Guarneri, and Bergonzi.

Itzhak Perlman talks about the characteristics of his Strad and plays briefly. He describes his mental image of the sound and its sense of “sparkle.” Violinists Cho Liang Lin, Salvatore Accardo, and Anastasiya Petryshak also appear.

With one hundred and fifty shops, Cremona is still an epicenter of fine violin making. Whitaker offers an inside look at violin making and restoration, including the selection of wood which is based on resonance.

Watch the 60 Minutes report and then listen to Perlman’s Strad in action as he plays Fritz Kreisler’s Preludium and Allegro.

Songs My Mother Taught Me

Ives Songs My Mother Taught MeIn celebration of Mother’s Day, here are two settings of Songs My Mother Taught Me by the Czech poet Adolf Heyduk. You may be familiar with Antonin Dvořák’s famous song, written in 1880 as part of the cycle, Gypsy Songs, Op. 55. Fritz Kreisler later transcribed it for violin. Here you can hear it played by Itzhak Perlman and then sung by American tenor Richard Crooks. 

The poem deals with the flow of time, continuity and memory:

Songs my mother taught me, In the days long vanished;
Seldom from her eyelids were the teardrops banished.
Now I teach my children, each melodious measure.
Oft the tears are flowing, oft they flow from my memory’s treasure.

About fifteen years after Dvořák, Charles Ives, an ocean away in New England, created his own setting. Here it is sung by mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani:

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Like so much of Ives’ music, this song enters hazy, dreamlike territory. At 1:29 the music drifts off into silence (“from my memory’s treasure“). When the A section returns at the end of the song, notice that Ives adds a crucial new chord (2:08) which wasn’t there the first time. Also listen for the ghostly echo of the final piano note.

To hear more music by Charles Ives visit my previous posts, A Charles Ives Thanksgiving and The Unanswered Question.

Brahms Recordings, Old and New

Brahms recordingLast year, Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos recorded the Brahms Violin Concerto. On March 31, Kavakos and pianist Yuja Wang followed up with a new recording of the three Violin Sonatas by Johannes Brahms. Here is an excerpt of Kavakos playing the stormy Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108.

This CD is another exciting addition to an already vast collection of classic and recent recordings of this music, including performances by Stefan Jackiw, Anne-Sophie MutterJosef Suk and Arthur Grumiaux. I also highly recommend a lesser- known gem: the 1996 recording of Oleh Krysa and Tatiana Tchekina.

The “Rain” Sonata

Let’s listen to Brahms’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major, Op. 78, played by Itzhak Perlman and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy. Brahms wrote this sonata for a friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, who also received the Violin Concerto dedication. It was composed in the southern Austrian resort town of Pörtschach am Wörthersee during the summers of 1878 and 1879. The last movement grew out of Brahms’s earlier song, Regenlied (“Rain Song”) from 8 Lieder and Songs, Op. 59. Take a moment and listen to the song and read the text. Do the repeated notes in the piano suggest gently falling raindrops?

In an earlier post we heard how skillfully Brahms develops small and seemingly insignificant musical cells. There is a similar sense of development as this sonata unfolds. Listen for common motives and themes which run throughout the three movements, unifying the piece. The first movement is in 6/4 time. Pay attention to the way the music is flowing. Does Brahms occasionally play rhythmic games which make you lose track of the downbeat?

  1. 00:00 Vivace ma non troppo
  2. 10:45 Adagio
  3. 18:47 Allegro molto moderato

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The second theme of the Adagio is a solemn funeral march (12:44). Consider how this theme contrasts with what came before. One of my favorite moments is when the theme suddenly slips into major when it returns at 16:44.

In the opening of the final movement, notice the dotted rhythm motive from the first movement, first repeated in the bass and then in the higher voices of the piano. Following the quiet agitation of the final movement, were you expecting such a peaceful conclusion in the coda (25:23)?

Now it’s your turn…

In the Listeners’ Club, your voice is important. In the thread below, tell us what you heard in the music. Which recording of the Brahms sonatas is your favorite and why?

Mozart’s Wordless Operas

MozartListening to Mozart’s symphonies, concertos and chamber music, you might get the sense that you’re hearing wordless operas. Even without a libretto, we can sense distinct characters, musical conversations and dramatic situations unfolding in the music. It’s as if the innovative and prolific composer of The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute couldn’t shut off the flood of opera arias and duets entering his mind. As a musician I have found that approaching Mozart this way makes the music come to life in exciting ways. As Tchaikovsky can be experienced through ballet and Beethoven through the symphony, Mozart’s music is rooted in opera.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The Marriage of Figaro[/typography]

To get a sense of Mozart’s genius as an opera composer, let’s start by listening to a few excerpts from a 1999 Metropolitan Opera production of The Marriage of Figaro. We’ll begin with the opening of Act 1. Here as Figaro takes measurements for a bridal bed and Susanna, his bride-to-be, tries on her wedding bonnet, there is a hint at the comic troubles which will ensue. The somewhat clueless Figaro is delighted with their room in the palace while Susanna is troubled by its proximity to the Count, who has been making advances towards her. Consider how the overture sets the stage for this complex comedy and true “day of madness.” How does Mozart’s music provide us with insight into the characters and dramatic situation?

In his book, The Classical Style, Charles Rosen suggests that with The Marriage of Figaro Mozart begins to break down the typical aria-recitative structure in favor of something more sophisticated and closer to sonata form. Mozart’s music not only captures the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters, but also provides a sense of the arch of the drama. Here is the climactic end of the Finale of Act 2:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Sinfonia Concertante[/typography]

Now let’s hear the wordless but operatic duets of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in E-Flat Major, K. 364. Here is a great recording with Itzhak Perlman playing the violin, Pinchas Zukerman on viola and the Israel Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta. Let’s start with the second movement (Andante). What kind of a conversation is taking place here between the violin and viola? We don’t have anything literal to go on, but we still have an idea of what is being said.

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Go back and listen a few times to this emotionally powerful music. Then listen to the first and third movements. How is the tone of the conversation different in these outer movements? Pay attention to the way one voice imitates another in the back and forth dialogue.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Violin Concerto No. 5[/typography]

[quote]My Violin has just been restrung, and I`ve been playing on it every day. I`m telling you this only because Mama once wanted to know if I was still playing the violin. On at least 6 occasions I`ve had the honour of going on my own to church or to some other important function. In the meantime I`ve written 4 Italian symphonies footnote5 in addition to the arias, footnote6 of which I`ve already written 5 or 6, as well as a motet.[/quote]

-An excerpt from a letter Mozart wrote to his sister, dated August 4, 1770 

Mozart was an excellent violinist but, as the letter above suggests, he considered the violin to be a second instrument. Mozart’s violin concertos, written when he was 19, generally seem lighter and more carefree than his piano concertos. But here in the first movement of Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219, again we hear opera. What kinds of characters would be singing this music? What dramatic situations might be involved? Listen for a dialogue between voices within the single violin line.

Here is a performance by the legendary French violinist, Arthur Grumiaux with the London Symphony and Sir Colin Davis. The recording showcases Grumiaux’s elegant style of playing and golden tone. Every note seems to ring with a bell-like purity:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Clarinet Concerto in A Major[/typography]

Here is Sabine Meyer playing the second movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concert in A-major, K. 622. Imagine this as an aria in one of Mozart’s operas:

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