The Artistry of Nathan Milstein

Unknown-5Let’s finish out the week with a few recordings of Nathan Milstein (1904-1992), one of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary violinists. Infused with elegance, style and thoughtful musicianship, Milstein’s playing never sounds dated. These recordings demonstrate his ability to draw out the most ringing tone from the violin, using the speed and energy of the bow. The purity of his intonation and subtle, well controlled vibrato remain impressive.

Milstein, who was born in Russia and spent much of his life in the United States, was one of the last students of Leopold Auer, the legendary teacher of Mischa Elman and Jascha Heifetz. Throughout his life, he was known for constantly finding new ways to approach technical and musical problems. He never stopped experimenting and learning, and as a result, his playing remained at a high level into old age. He performed his final recital at the age of 82.

We’ll start with a 1957 recording of Antonín Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor, Op 53 with William Steinberg conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony.

  1. Allegro ma non troppo (0:00)
  2. Adagio ma non troppo (9:08)
  3. Finale. Allegro giocoso (19:48)

Here are the Adagio and Fugue from J.S. Bach’s Solo Sonata No. 1:

…and now, for dessert, here is a spectacular performance of Henri Wieniawski’s Scherzo tarantella, Op. 16:

Remembering Lorin Maazel

Lorin Maazel (1930-2014)
Lorin Maazel (1930-2014)

Conductor Lorin Maazel passed away yesterday at the age of 84. He will be remembered for his long, distinguished career and dramatic and idiosyncratic interpretations.

Maazel debuted as a conductor at the age of 9, after starting violin lessons at 5. As an 11-year-old, he received an invitation from Arturo Toscanini to conduct the NBC Symphony. His music director posts included the Cleveland Orchestra (1972-1982), Vienna State Opera (1982-1984), Pittsburgh Symphony (1988-1996), Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (1993-2002) and the New York Philharmonic (2002-2009). In 2008 he served as a cultural ambassador, leading the New York Philharmonic on a tour of North Korea. In 2009 Maazel and his wife founded the Castleton Festival, a summer program for young musicians at his Virginia estate.

Learn more about Lorin Maazel’s life in this obituary at The Guardian and this PBS Newshour interview.

These memorable quotes reflect Maazel’s views on the essential role of the arts in society:

Art rises above and beyond the issues of the day. It reunites what has been rent asunder, not along national or religious lines, but along individual, human ones. It heals, redefines goals, and strengthens the resolve to move on, to rebuild, to reconstruct. However obtuse human behavior is in other arenas, art, if not suborned, can clarify, put into perspective and re-inspire.

Our Orchestra must also continue to play its leadership role in the community and in our nation. The young look to us to provide substance in place of dross, emotional depth in place of shallow titillation.

In these confused times, the role of classical music is at the very core of the struggle to reassert cultural and ethical values that have always characterized our country and for which we have traditionally been honored and respected outside our shores.

Here is the final movement of Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony with the New York Philharmonic:

Hot Dogs, Fireworks and Violins

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In celebration of Independence Day, take a moment and listen to Noah Bendix-Balgley perform solo violin versions of God Bless America and The Star Spangled Banner at a Pittsburgh Pirates game (below). Bendix-Balgley is the 29-year-old concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony who recently accepted the same position with the Berlin Philharmonic. He will stay in Pittsburgh for at least part of this coming season. Hear a few more clips in this previous post.

If you’re in the mood for more patriotic solo violin music, here is Ruggiero Ricci’s 1995 recording of Henri Vieuxtemps’ Souvenir d’Amérique, Variations burlesques sur “Yankee Doodle” Op.17 . Vieuxtemps (1820-1881), one of the nineteenth century’s most influential violinists, wrote Yankee Doodle in New Orleans during his first American concert tour. Apparently, American audiences in the 1840s had a hard time listening to long European concert music, but when Vieuxtemps played Yankee Doodle he was met with cheers. 

For more music, revisit last year’s Sousa post and have a happy Fourth!

Next Stop, Berlin For Noah Bendix-Balgley

Noah Bendix-Balgley
Noah Bendix-Balgley

Last Friday we learned that Noah Bendix-Balgley, concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony, won an audition for the position of first concertmaster with the Berlin Philharmonic. The news shows just how global the classical music world has become. Over the last decade, English conductor Simon Rattle has brought a fresh new approach to tradition-bound Berlin. When Rattle leaves in 2018, it will be interesting to see how the organization again attempts to balance tradition with innovation.

Here is an impressive clip of Noah Bendix-Balgley playing the virtuosic concertmaster solo from Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben with the Pittsburgh Symphony. It’s hard to imagine anyone playing it better:

And here he is playing the Romanian Dances by Bela Bartok with pianist David Allen Wehr:

Bendix-Balgley plays a 1732 Bergonzi violin which he talks about here.

New Electronic Sound Worlds

composer, Mason Bates
composer Mason Bates

Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers will join the Richmond Symphony in March to perform a brand new violin concerto by Mason Bates. Born in 1977, Bates, who happens to be a Richmond native, is currently composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony. The Violin Concerto, written for Meyers, was recently premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony. Learn more about the concerto here and here.

One of the most interesting aspects of Bates’s music is the way he uses the new, electronic sounds of the twenty-first century. Composers have always been inspired by the sounds around them. In the Classical period inspiration came from the sounds of nature…bird songs and brooks. With the industrial revolution the orchestra got louder and more dissonant. In Bates’s music we hear the influence of Techno, Ambient, film scores, John Adams and more, all mixed together in a shimmering sonic stew. This is the musical vocabulary we hear around us every day.

Listen to Mason Bates’s The B-Sides for Orchestra and Electronica, written in 2009. You’ll see Bates, who has developed a second career as a dance club DJ, hunched over a laptop and drum pad in the percussion section. Also notice the use of a broom and the sound it creates. The piece is in five movements. The third movement features samples of NASA radio transmissions from the 1965 Gemini IV space flight. In the final movement, the earthy thud of a Techno beat propels us through a series of almost cinematic musical adventures. Don’t worry about what the piece is “about” on the first listening. Just enjoy the colors, rhythm and flow and see where the music takes you. Here is a live performance with Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra:

  1. Broom of the System (0:13)
  2. Aerosol Melody (Hanalei) (4:22)
  3. Gemini in the Solar Wind (8:47)
  4. Temescal Noir (14:56)
  5. Warehouse Medicine (17:43)

Now that you’ve heard The B-Sides, here is Mason Bates’s description of the piece. He has some interesting additional thoughts in this interview. Bates talks about the use of electronic sounds in the orchestra here.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Michael Gordon’s “Industry”[/typography]

Mason Bates joins a long line of composers who have been inspired by electronic sounds. Karlheinz Stockhausen influenced the development of electronic music in the twentieth century. Here is his “Studie II” (Elektronische Musik) (1954). Edgar Varese’s Poème électronique (1958) was written for the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair. American composer George Crumb’s string quartet, Black Angels (1970), uses a variety of new, amplified sounds as well as percussive instrument tapping and bow scraping.

Here is Industry (1992), a piece for solo cello by Michael Gordon (b. 1956). The use of distortion draws upon techniques associated with rock music. Listen to the way the piece gradually develops out of a repetitive opening motive:

Here is what Michael Gordon says about the piece:

[quote]When I wrote Industry in 1992, I was thinking about the Industrial Revolution, technology, how instruments are tools and how Industry has crept up on us and is all of a sudden overwhelming. I had this vision of a 100-foot cello made out of steel suspended from the sky, a cello the size of a football field, and, in the piece, the cello becomes a hugely distorted sound. I wrote this piece for Maya Beyser, and it was an incredible process. I would fax her the music and she’d play it to me over the phone. We did this maybe ten times, trying things out. She was constantly teaching me about the cello, and I was making her play things that were really awkward and dark.[/quote]

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]What do you think?[/typography]

What experience do you have as you listen to this new music? How do these sounds reflect our modern world? What impact will electronic sounds and pop influences have in the future? In an age of computers and the prospect of increasing artificial intelligence, are electronic sounds somehow less “human” or are they a natural extension of the orchestra, as Mason Bates suggests? If you feel inspired, share your thoughts in the thread below.