The Road Not Taken

images-4The past and the present collide in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. The 1971 Broadway musical centers around the final reunion of former chorus dancers of “Weismann’s Follies,” a fictitious revue suggesting the real-life Ziegfeld’s Follies. The two aging couples, Buddy and Sally and Benjamin and Phyllis, have returned to reminisce before the crumbling, old theater in which the Follies once played is demolished. Amid disappointment and unhappy marriages, a sense of lament pervades the story. The ghosts of their younger selves, played by separate actors, occupy the stage around them. Follies is a show about memory, the passage of time, regret, and the fleeting optimism of youth.

The Road You Didn’t Take examines the philosophy expressed in Robert Frost’s famous poemThe Road Not Taken, from a different angle. In Sondheim’s song, Ben brushes aside thoughts of what might have been (“You take one road, You try one door. There isn’t time for anymore. One’s life consists of either/or”):

But listen carefully and you might sense irony lurking under the surface. As Sondheim explains,

It is a man saying, “oh, I never look back on the past, it just wouldn’t be worth it.” And he’s doing it to con himself as well as the lady he’s with [Sally, whom he has not seen in years]. In point of fact, he’s ripped to shreds by the past.

The stabbing “wrong” notes and the restless Steve Reich-like vamp, which leaves little time for true reflection, offer clues to Ben’s unsuccessful self delusion. The Road You Didn’t Take is full of sudden, unexpected key changes and wide melodic leaps. Rather than contemplating a new direction, we suddenly find ourselves thrust onto a new road. Harmonically, the song occasionally hints at the hazy, impressionist language of Ravel (0:15).

Another Follies song which is filled with irony and self-delusion is In Buddy’s Eyes. Sally describes the love she and Buddy feel for one another. Meanwhile, their marriage is disintegrating.

The previous example was sung by George Hearn. This one features Barbara Cook:

Recommended Recording: Szymanowski and Shostakovich Sonatas

Szymanowski and Shostakovich Violin SonatasCanadian violinist Frédéric Bednarz and pianist Natsuki Hiratsuka have released an exciting new recording featuring sonatas for violin and piano by two giants of twentieth century music: Karol Szymanowski and Dmitri Shostakovich.

Polish composer and pianist Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) is sometimes overlooked, but his music occupies an important position between Late Romanticism and the French Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel. Written in 1904, Szymanowski’s Violin Sonata Op. 9, grabs your attention with a powerfully brilliant opening. This recording captures a sense of strength and heroism as well as the more ethereal side of the music (as in the second movement). At times there are echoes of Chopin in the piano writing.

Written in 1968, Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 134 was one of Shostakovich’s last works. The atmosphere of the music, sometimes eerie, other times sarcastic or ferocious, comes across beautifully in this performance. The sonata was written for David Oistrakh in celebration of his 60th birthday. Oistrakh explained:

Dmitri had been wanting to write a new, second concerto for me as a present for my 60th birthday. However, there was an error of one year in his timing. The concerto was ready for my 59th birthday. Shortly afterwards, Dmitri seemed to think that, having made a mistake, he ought to correct it. That is how he came to write the Sonata … I had not been expecting it, though I had long been hoping that he would write a violin sonata.

You can find this recording on iTunes and here. Read more in this review from last month’s Strad Magazine.

LA Phil Isn’t Rattled by Earthquake

LA PhilIt was a concert musicians and patrons likely won’t forget for a while. Charles Dutoit and the Los Angeles Philharmonic were six minutes into Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé on the evening of March 28 when a 5.1-magnitude earthquake rumbled under downtown Los Angeles, jolting the ten year old Walt Disney Concert Hall. Dutoit and the orchestra continued to play through the minute-long event.

Last Friday, the Los Angeles Philharmonic released this amazing audio along with a marketing message reflecting the strong institutional pride of the organization.

If that short, “drop the needle” sample inspired you to hear more, here is a recording of Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony playing Daphnis and Chloé. Maurice Ravel’s colorful, glistening ballet suite is one of the most significant pieces of the twentieth century.

Ravel’s Bolero

Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies, Claude Monet 1899

French impressionist composer Maurice Ravel might have been surprised to know that Bolero, which premiered as a ballet score in 1928, would endure as one of the most popular pieces of twentieth century music.  Ravel was a master of orchestration and he considered this piece to be “an experiment in a very special and limited direction” and “orchestral tissue without music.”  Orchestration refers to the combination of instruments that a composer chooses to use.  If you’re interested in learning more about this aspect of composition, watch Leonard Bernstein’s What is Orchestration? from the Young People’s Concerts (Part 1, 2, 3 and 4 where he talks about how Bolero is put together).

In the early decades of the century, amid a rapidly changing world, composers such as Ravel and Claude Debussy began looking beyond the long dominant Germanic musical tradition, instead finding inspiration in Eastern music and the arrival of Jazz. The result was music that unfolded in a shockingly different way and often resembled the hazy, dreamlike qualities of impressionist painting.

When you sit down to listen, invest about twenty minutes and give the music your full attention.  The piece starts incredibly softly with a snare drum tapping out the rhythm that forms the bedrock of the whole piece.  Listen to the reverberant pizzicatos in the violas and cellos, and later in the harp that forms the next rhythmic layer.  A bolero is a slow Spanish dance with three beats per measure; you will hear this feeling of three in the pizzicato.

Listen to Ravel’s simple but suave melody.  First it appears in single instruments, like the flute and clarinet.  Then Ravel begins mixing instruments and timbres together like a painter mixing colors.  Notice how each instrument has its own unique color and distinctive personality.  Listen to the way a combination of two or more instruments creates a sound that is completely new and unexpected.  Here is a list of all the instruments used at each given moment in Bolero.

As the music unfolds, notice that while the tempo and melody remain the same, there is a gradual transformation taking place.  What’s happening and how is Ravel achieving it?  Is the music altering your perception of time in any way?  Does Ravel have a surprise up his sleeve at the end of the piece and can you tell what it is?

Enjoy the music and, if you feel inspired, leave a comment with your thoughts.

Bolero…Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

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