Glenn Dicterow’s Long Goodbye

Glenn Dicterow
Glenn Dicterow

After 34 years as concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, Glenn Dicterow will be stepping down at the end of this season. A native of Southern California, Dicterow has accepted a position as professor of violin at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. The New York Philharmonic has been honoring his service throughout the season. 

As Dicterow explains, the concertmaster’s varied role goes beyond playing occasional orchestral violin solos. Within the violin section, the concertmaster determines bowings and helps to establish a uniform style of playing, based on the conductor’s musical vision. For section players, the peripheral sightline to the concertmaster is an essential part of playing cohesively. Additionally, concertmasters serve as an important link between the conductor and the orchestra. Under the best circumstances, a mysterious and instantaneous transfer of energy occurs between the conductor and the orchestra and between sections of the orchestra, resulting in chamber music on a large scale.

From my experience, the most successful concertmasters leave their egos at the door, are professional in demeanor, lead with a clear and unifying sense of rhythm, and foster an atmosphere of teamwork, mutual respect and cooperation.

Tradition and Renewal

Glenn Dicterow’s retirement comes during a period of unusually high turnover for the New York Philharmonic. A much needed renovation of Avery Fisher Hall also promises to bring significant change in the next few years. The lifeblood of any successful organization seems to be a healthy balance between tradition and renewal. Great conductors from Bernstein and Toscanini to Gustav Mahler have left their imprint on the sound of the New York Philharmonic over time. It will be exciting to see where the organization goes from here.

Dicterow Plays Brahms

While serving as concertmaster, Glenn Dicterow has remained active as a soloist and chamber musician. Through the years he has performed violin solos on movie soundtracks such as Beauty and the Beast (listen around the 0:45 second mark). Here is a live performance of Brahms’ Trio No. 1 in B Major, Op. 8. Dicterow is joined by cellist James Kreger and pianist Craig Sheppard:

Here are the secondthird and fourth movements.

Teaching Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein

In addition to composing and conducting, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was one of the greatest music educators of all time. Starting in the late 1950’s, Bernstein educated and inspired a national television audience with his New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts. Later, in 1976 came The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at HarvardHis message was consistent: classical music isn’t stuffy or hard to understand. It’s fun and it’s something everyone can enjoy.

In Teachers and Teaching, Bernstein talks about his own education from Serge Koussevitzky, Dimitri Mitropoulos and Fritz Reiner to Aaron Copland. The documentary, made in the final years of Bernstein’s life, is filled with interesting and thought-provoking anecdotes. Bernstein discusses the contrast between the warmth of Koussevitzky’s approach to conducting and the more cerebral Reiner. As a student, he was able to combine the best of both worlds.

For Bernstein, teaching and learning were closely linked:

[quote]Music…can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.[/quote]

-Leonard Bernstein

MTT’s Old Gershwin Recording

Gershwin CD

Once in a while I accidentally run across a great old recording which makes me stop and listen. While I love new releases, these old recordings offer a captivating snapshot of a unique time, place and style of playing. Recently I had this experience with an exciting compilation of George Gershwin works, which a young Michael Tilson Thomas (popularly known in hip circles as “MTT”) released in the mid-1970’s.

The recording features the original jazz band version of Rhapsody in Blue, orchestrated by Ferde Grofé for Paul Whiteman’s band. The Columbia Jazz Band accompanies George Gershwin’s 1925 piano roll. The other big piece is An American in Paris played by the New York Philharmonic. Promenade (Walking The Dog) with the Los Angeles Philharmonic is a bonus track.

But the real heart of the recording is six of Gershwin’s broadway overtures, performed by the Buffalo Philharmonic: Oh Kay!, Funny Face, Girl Crazy, Strike Up the Band, Of Thee I Sing, and Let ‘Em Eat Cake. Michael Tilson Thomas was music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic from 1971 to 1979.

Here is the Overture to Of Thee I Sing, a 1931 political satire with a book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind and lyrics by Ira Gershwin. As in most Gershwin, the music captures a brash, young, slightly innocent “American” sound. The Buffalo Philharmonic strings shimmer with lush, perfectly blended depth.

The best broadway overtures offer a contrast of tempo, rhythmic feel and mood as they showcase the show’s melodies, ending on an emotional high. In the clip below, this climax comes at 3:39. Listen to the rich weave of the inner voices in the strings and the soaring music which follows. There’s a little something extra here, which I suspect could not be duplicated easily today. It’s incredibly soulful playing. If you’re looking for a great, comprehensive Gershwin CD, this rare gem is well worth your money.

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Liszt’s Faust Symphony

Eugene Delacroix's painting, "Faust and Mephistopheles"
“Faust and Mephistopheles” by Eugene Delacroix

Forget Elvis. Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was the world’s first rock star. As a virtuoso pianist, Liszt toured Europe performing flashy and dazzling compositions such as the famous Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Following in the footsteps of Niccolò Paganini, Liszt helped to usher in the age of the romantic superstar concert artist. An atmosphere of almost supernatural ecstasy surrounded Liszt’s concerts. The hysteria of his fans, which included reports of women fainting and collecting locks of his hair, was known as Lisztomania. In 2008 the Alternative rock band Phoenix released this song and music video with references to Liszt’s rock star magnetism.

Even more significant and enduring was Franz Liszt’s contribution as one of the most innovative composers of the nineteenth century. His influence can be heard in Wagner, Mahler and beyond. He stretched tonality, creating atmospheric music which still sounds shocking and new.

Franz Liszt
Franz Liszt in 1858

Inspired by Goethe’s Faust drama, Franz Liszt wrote A Faust Symphony in Three Character Sketches in 1854. Hector Berlioz had just composed La Damnation de Faust which he dedicated to Liszt. Liszt returned the favor by dedicating his symphony to Berlioz. While Berlioz offered an operatic re-telling of the drama, Liszt’s music is a psychological exploration of the characters of Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles. Liszt developed a compositional technique known as thematic transformation in which a musical idea develops throughout the composition by undergoing various changes. Wagner used this technique in his operas, assigning each character a leitmotif. Thematic transformation also occurs throughout John Williams’s Star Wars film scores.

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

Let’s start off by listening to the first movement of the Faust Symphony. Consider how the music evokes the character of Faust, from his gloomy daydreams, to his insatiable thirst for knowledge, to his immense appetite for the pleasures of life. At times, the music may seem schizophrenic, alternating between intense excitement and quiet melancholy. Pay attention to the haunting opening motive which uses all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. What atmosphere does this opening music create? Notice how this motive returns in various guises throughout the movement (6:13, 10:40, 15:59 and 25:58 for example).

Here is a really exciting 1960 studio recording by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic:

  1. Faust 0:00
  2. Gretchen 27:29
  3. Mephistopheles 48:19
  4. Final Chorus 1:04:12

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Did the opening motive make you feel lost, as if you were wandering through a slightly unsettling dream? The symphony is in C minor, but this motive’s chromaticism makes it impossible to get a sense of any key. It anticipates the twentieth century twelve tone music of Schoenberg, Berg and others. Maybe you also heard echoes of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (0:30-0:37) or Mahler’s symphonies (the stopped horns at 13:22), or a Bernard Herrmann film score (17:06).

In the first analysis of the Faust Symphony (from 1862), Richard Pohl suggests that the motives of first movement relate to “Passion, Pride, Longing, Triumph and Love.” (See the Introduction to the Dover score).

For me there are many aspects of this seldom heard piece which I find exciting: the ferocious string passages, the sudden and transformative modulation to C major at 20:13, Liszt’s use of relatively new additions to the orchestra such as harp, trombones and tuba. There are soaring, heroic moments like 11:44 (and 24:38 in the recapitulation) where trombones add a completely new dimension to the sound. At 25:06 the prominent use of trombones also evokes the instrument’s supernatural connotations. In the final bars of the movement there is something ominous about the descending and ascending chromatic line (25:58).

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

The second movement, in A-flat major, captures the innocence of Gretchen. Gradually Faust’s themes from the first movement creep in (beginning at 36:07) and eventually merge into a love duet.  In the introduction of the Dover edition of the score, Dr. Alan Walker writes:

[quote]The gentle simplicity of both Gretchen themes belies the fact that they will later become transformed into the “Redemption” motifs in the choral setting of the “Chorus Mysticus” [the final movement].[/quote]

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

Mephistopheles, or Satan, represents “the spirit of negation”, destruction rather than creation. In the third movement Liszt does not give Mephistopheles his own motives. Instead we hear Faust’s motives from the first movement mocked, caricatured and ultimately torn apart. Only the innocent Gretchen can withstand Mephistopheles’s power. Her themes remain intact (56:38), as we heard them in the second movement.

At the end of the third movement, notice the stunning falling chromatic harmonic sequence (beginning after 1:02:07). In the final measures Liszt again uses the solemn supernatural color of the trombones (1:03:25).

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Final Chorus[/typography]

Three years after completing the first three movements, Liszt added the climactic Final Chorus for male chorus. In the final measures, the entrance of the organ creates a new, expanded and transcendent sound world. This anticipates Mahler’s use of organ in the Second and Eighth Symphonies. The text is taken from Goethe’s Faust:

[quote]Everything transitory
is only an allegory;
what could not be achieved
here comes to pass;
what no one could describe,
is here accomplished;
the Eternal Feminine
draws us aloft.[/quote]

Beethoven’s Violin Concerto

Stern Recording of BeethovenBeethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 set the standard for all violin concertos which followed, but you might not have known it at the first performance on December 23, 1806. According to legend Beethoven finished writing the solo part so late that Franz Clements, the violinist who gave the premier, was forced to sight read part of the concerto in the performance. In addition, Clements may have performed one of his own pieces in between movements, playing on one string with the violin held upside down. These antics suggest that the concert experience in Beethoven’s time may have been slightly less reverential than it is today. Many listeners in 1806 may have been overwhelmed by the scale and power of Beethoven’s shocking new music.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The Stern/Bernstein Recording[/typography]

Let’s listen to Isaac Stern’s great 1959 recording with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic. Pay attention to the way the orchestra and the solo violin interact. This dialogue between tutti (everyone) and solo is what gives a concerto its drama. In this concerto, Beethoven often gives the violin embellishing scale and arpeggio lines which float above the melody in the orchestra. The first movement grows out of five quiet timpani notes. Listen to the way these five notes come back in different forms throughout the movement.

  1. Allegro ma non troppo (0:00)
  2. Larghetto (23:44)
  3. Rondo (34:36)

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The first movement is full of surprises. The five notes in the timpani provide a motivic seed, ripe for growth and development. The violins pick up this motive (0:25) but imitate it with a completely “wrong” note. Throughout the movement, Beethoven keeps us off guard, quickly alternating between moods. Just when we get lulled into lyrical complacency, we get a ferocious surprise (listen between 0:57 and 1:41). Beethoven musically provides “two sides of the same coin,” or in this case two sides of the same melody. At 1:40 the melody is sunny, in the major. Notice the way it changes to something slightly darker and more unsettling when it shifts into minor (1:55).

In the mysterious passage following 7:33 the “wrong note” is further developed. Pay attention to the way this moment of quiet musical confusion works itself out. In the tutti section which follows (8:27-10:32), the motive, which started out as five soft timpani notes in the opening, is now transformed into insistent, repeated fortissimo octaves dominated by the trumpets and horns.

Traditionally, the cadenza appears at the end of the first movement of a concerto (19:23). This is the moment when the orchestra drops out and the violinist improvises on the motives of the movement, showing off great technical skill. Later, it became common for performers to use established cadenzas. In this recording Stern plays a cadenza written by the legendary early twentieth century violinist, Fritz Kreisler.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Additional Links[/typography]

Here is an excellent 1989 live concert performance by violinist Kyung Wha Chung and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Klauss Tennstedt:

In this clip Itzhak Perlman talks about his experience playing the concerto and what makes it so difficult:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Schnittke’s Cadenzas[/typography]

Twentieth century Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) wrote cadenzas for the Beethoven Concerto which offer a uniquely modern perspective. Interestingly, Schnittke not only uses the motives of the piece, but includes quotes from the Brahms, Shostakovich (First), and Alban Berg violin concertos. Schnittke also incorporates the timpani into the cadenza. Here is Gidon Kremer playing the cadenzas to the First Movement:

Schnittke’s cadenza for the third movement brings back motives from the first movement:

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

Share your thoughts on this remarkable piece in the thread below. What was your experience listening to the cadenzas by Schnittke? Do they enrich the piece or do they seem jarringly out of place? Do you have a personal favorite recording of the Beethoven Concerto?