Web Rabbit Hole: Igor Levit to Charlotte Selver

The web is often something I lament these days (remember when it was going to bring world peace and all the world’s intellectual riches within reach.) But there are some rabbit holes I find enjoyable to disappear down, to wit:

Inspired by Igor Levit, one of my favorite pianists of the younger generation, I was inspired to look up jazz artist Fred Hersh, as Igor played a piece of his in a great Wigmore Hall recital.

I followed the thread and found lots of great stuff including Fred’s lovely performance of his own composition, “Valentine,” and an interview, where he talks about, among other things, teaching and learning, mentioning in passing his 30 years of study with Sophia Rosoff. This was a name new to me—and a few further clicks revealed a fascinating character. She was a New York City piano teacher, trained classically, but a mentor to many jazz musicians.

Ethan Iverson is one of those musicians, and his wife Sarah Deming wrote a profile of Sophia that turned up additonal paths. She describes an afternoon at Sophia’s in which, among others, the Jazz great Barry Harris shows up. Harris, who just died at 91, was perhaps the last of that pianist of that lineage, and played a wonderful concert during at a residency of a few days when I was in college in the 80s and led weekly music workshops for most of his life.

That connection would have been enough, but it turns out that Sophia was also a student of Abby Whiteside, a piano teacher with an unusual following, in part because of Whiteside’s book Mastering the Chopin Etudes (a straightforward title for a book that tries to convey her ideas about the centrality of rhythm and the body’s expression of same in music making). Her prose, to me at least, is pretty vague, although in fairness writing with any specificity about the physical nature of playing a musical instrument is perhaps an impossible task. Had she been a great writer, she might not have been a great teacher. I first encountered her book around 15 years ago and have been puzzling it out on my own ever since. No sign of mastering the Etudes here, but she is a fascinating character to me because her views seem to go against the current of every piano lesson I’ve ever had, conventionally for piano lessons fingers are where it’s at. In Abby’s view, you don’t play the piano with your fingers, you make music with your whole body, and your fingers merely express what the entire mechanism is doing rhythmically. (Shades of another great piano pedagogue’s advice “Minimum effort, maximum sensitivity”.) Sophia is a direct connection to Abby, serving on her foundation, and kept her teaching philosophy alive—one that Barry Harris endorsed.

With this I though the journey of names and ideas would be over, but there was still one more. Charlotte Selver is a name I knew because the place my spouse and I go to vacation every year is a small island off midcoastal Maine. It has been a destination for painters (Rockwell Kent among others), but also for Charlotte Selver, a NYC educator who created a program called “Sensory Awareness,” an NYC-based human potential movement, which she brought to Maine among other places. After Abby died Sophia began to work with Sensory Awareness and became a follower of Charlotte. Why all these threads, from Igor Levit to Charlotte Selver come together is curious, but it a pleasant pastime to be able to find the links and puzzle them out.

West Side Stories at the Movies and a Golden Voice of Today

As those who follow musical theater know, Steven Spielberg’s new film of ‘West Side Story’ was recently released. Getting mixed reviews, it has also renewed interest in the first film version, from 1961, directed by Robert Wise when all those remarkable creators, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, and Stephen Sondheim were still alive.

Omicron has kept me from seeing the new version in a theater, which judging by the trailer, is the best venue. The droll and insightful Mark Kermode gives it a mostly favorable review, though others have been hard on the film and/or the original material. Adam Mars-Jones cavil does seem plausible as he points out that adding an interracial romance is “a development that drives a coach and horses through the entire plot. If interracial marriage is no big deal then what is there left of West Side Story? Not much.”

I haven’t seen much mention of Bernstein’s own recording of the score made in 1984, and derided at the time for its use of famous opera singers, then considered vanity casting for a vain self-indulgent composer-conductor. The New Republic review of the recording sneered “Upper West Side Story” in its headline. It’s now a classic (at least by my lights), not to replace the Broadway Original Cast Album but to stand beside it as a great composer’s authoritative thoughts on one of the century’s best musicals.

A doc on the making of the recording was put out at the time, and bits and pieces of it turn up on YouTube.

The doc’s most famous sequence is José Carreras struggling to handle the complexities of ‘Something’s Coming.’ But listen to Kiri Te Kanawa and Tatiana Troyanos singing “A Boy Like That & I Have a Love” for some glorious vocalism. It’s also amazing to watch the composer’s regular producer John McClure do his job. Managing all the moving parts of recording a complicated score is a big lift under any circumstance, with Bernstein it was sometimes herculean, and John was on the receiving end of his fair share snappish Lenny moments, judging by this film. Yet they made some 200 records together.


Speaking of golden age talents like Te Kanawa and Bernstein, for fans of glorious voices I recommend the New Year’s Eve concert presented by the Munich Radio Orchestra with star tenor Javier Camarena. It’s full of old chestnuts (fans of ‘Granada’ and ‘Nessun Dorma’ will not be disappointed) as well as delightful zarzuela numbers, all delivered with honeyed tone, superb diction and high notes that gave me goosebumps. The band and their conductor, Ivan Repušic, acquit themselves beautifully as well.  I don’t know how long BR-Klassik will keep it live, so if operatic tenors are your thing, check it out now.

Tenor Javier Camarena thrills with the Munich Radio Orchestra for New Year’s Eve 2021-22

Conducting Words 2: Power vs. Authority

Another excerpt from The Silent Musician: Why Conducting Matters.

Power often works through fear and can force people to act against their will, through status or physical strength. But authority functions through respect and persuades others to respond voluntarily simply through personal influence. If conductors ever have to ask musicians to watch or listen to them it is normally too late to have any effect. The cliché of tapping the stand with the baton in order to attract attention has long since become outdated, and an orchestra will never deeply engage with you purely because of a conventional hierarchy that some might assume exists. In as creative and human field as music, it is authority–not power–that is more successful in creating a genuine performance of quality. In the long run, even if it looks less impressive, control without oppression accomplishes far more. Power damages relationships, and its trappings rarely last for ever. Natural authority, one that stops short of being authoritarian, empowers others and lasts a lifetime. Those blessed with it stay in charge for longer than those whose leadership is circumstantial.

Mark Wigglesworth
Thomas Beecham–a conductor whose charm and humor endured over a long career full of wonderful performances.

Conducting Words: The Impossible Job

Just finished Mark Wigglesworth’s The Silent Musician: Why Conducting Matters, which is a sort of apologia for that sometimes maligned profession (‘the phoniest job in music’ in the words of one mid-century British critic). Conducting, as anybody who has played in an orchestra, sung in a chorus or performed in a musical or opera, emphatically does matter–something paradoxically proven when things go off the rails.

Cover of Why Conducting Matters

Wigglesworth’s personal account is candid about the job’s pleasures and difficulties, insightful and personal (rare that, as many conductors don’t disclose much, preferring perhaps to preserve the mystery). It’s a fun read for any fan of orchestral concerts and budding conductors. Many quotable bits, but I liked this from the final chapter entitled “Conducting Yourself.”

I once asked some players to write down what they looked for in a conductor. There collated response revealed a daunting job description.

Conductors need good baton technique, rehearsal technique, musicianship, knowledge, interpretive conviction, an ability to communicate, to stretch and challenge people, to make the performance better than the rehearsals, to be inspirational, have a good ear, clear thoughts, reliability, competence, rhythm, an expressive face, sense of structure, ability to accompany, style, suitability for the repertoire, originality, knowledge string bowing, an ability to collaborate, analyze and solve difficulties, explain why things need to be repeated, empower people, train people, make people listen. They must not talk, over-rehearse, under-rehearse, or be musically detached. They must have good manners, humor, respect, approachability, enthusiasm, encouragement, humility, positive spirit, patients, leadership, sincerity, audibility, creativity, and an awareness of everyone, strength, self-control, and strength, of character. They must be relaxed, self-confident, empathetic, punctual, motivating, polite, authoritative, realistic, interesting, charismatic, persevering, committed, well-dressed, and even-tempered. They must be popular with audiences, and show chastity, poverty, and obedience to the score. They must not be egocentric, intimidating, sarcastic, rude, boring, nervous, bullying, ugly, smelly, over-familiar, detached, pedantic, cynical, insecure, or blinkered. They must not change things for the sake of it, glare at mistakes, or hit the stand.

Wigglesworth closes this passage with “I am glad I have never hit the stand.”

I’ve certainly not met a conductor who checked all those boxes (although many were fun to sing for). Judging by this enjoyable intro to an English National Opera Magic Flute a few years back Wigglesworth probably meets many of these requirements. He certainly is a fine conductor and a modest one.

Matters Musical

There is such a wealth of music online now, but I’ve been taking in Igor Levit’s daily house concert, a graduate course in Beethoven, and marvelous pianism despite less than ideal recording circumstances.

And among many collaborative bits I’ve heard online recently, this performance of the opening of the CPE Bach Magnificat from Salzburg is particular hoot. (As the friend who sent it suggested, PDQ Bach’s spirit was clearly involved as well).

The Christmas Music You Need Right Now!

Three bits of music to make your holiday bright.

1. A cover of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” that makes you very curious about what he will do when he gets there. It will be fun I bet, if he plays guitar like this!

2. The Bach Double Violin Concerto swings (not a Christmas piece per se, but Bach always seems to go with the holidays). His musical also takes so well to jazz: makes you wonder about the space time continuum.

 

3. Finally, the hymn “While Shepherds Watched Their Flock by Night”–as set by Daniel Read, a Colonial American composer. It’s performed by a professional choir, but in a vernacular shape note style (of which more at a later date). 

Merry Christmas!

Choral Words: Eriks Esenvalds

The BBC Proms (the world’s biggest classical musical festival) are upon us, and all the radio broadcasts are streamed free on the BBC website.  (If you are in the UK you can watch video of some Proms or even go to them…a dream of mine.)
Lots of good programs, and a highlight so far is this premiere of a choral work for youth chorus by Latvian Eriks Esenvalds (a composer heard in DC last season) and setting this solemn text by Longfellow.

A Shadow
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I said unto myself, if I were dead,
What would befall these children?  What would be
Their fate, who now are looking up to me
For help and furtherance?  Their lives, I said,
Would be a volume wherein I have read
But the first chapters, and no longer see
To read the rest of their dear history,
So full of beauty and so full of dread.
Be comforted; the world is very old,
And generations pass, as they have passed,
A troop of shadows moving with the sun;
Thousands of times has the old tale been told;
The world belongs to those who come the last,
They will find hope and strength as we have done.

It’s part of the program for Prom 9: The World Orchestra for Peace conducted by Donald Runnicles (with a performance of the Britten “Sinfonia da Requiem”), but also is provided in a binaural mix, which gives an enhanced sense of the space in which the music was performed. An interesting track for fans of new choral music.

 

Rockport Chamber Music Festival

Took advantage of a long weekend in Massachusetts to go up to Rockport and take in the opening weekend of the annual chamber music festival held at the remarkable Shalin Liu Performance Center.

Rockport itself is one of those post-card ready beach towns on the North Shore, it is the smaller, tonier sibling to Gloucester just down the road.  Among its charms is a remarkable concert hall. It sits right on the water built inside an old building, and with windows that open up to the harbor. It has remarkable acoustics, a charming feel, and gives a sense of being in and outside at the same time (birds circling as twilight overtakes the sea).

The hall boasts a wide range of performances. But I was there for the opening of the chamber music festival, now directed by Barry Shiffman, a noted violinist. This was his first season, and he is clearly swinging for the fences with an eclectic range of concerts on the theme of r:Evolution. (Weird orthography, it’s not just for rock bands!). Osvaldo Goljov is the composer in residence, and the over the five weeks there is a wide range of his work, balanced by mainstays of the chamber repertoire. Artists are frequently musicians’ musicians rather than starry names (although Pinky Zuckerman, Dawn Upshaw, and the Emerson St. Quartet will all be bowing).  And judging by the weekend it’s going to be quite a month.

Friday night, I caught a rather overheated Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence (seems like you can overplay or underplay this piece, never get the middle ground: moments of grace & repose were a little lacking). Still the playing was at a very high level technically, and their enthusiastic way with the piece was its own justification somehow. The song cycle Ayre formed the second half–part world music, theater/dance piece, expressive poetry reading, with Golijov’s trademark variety of traditions, with everything from electronica to ancient folk tune taking their place. The instrumentalists included Boston institution Claudio Raggazi (whom I heard just a week before in a tribute to the late Mili Bermejo at Berklee). It was nice to see performers like Todd Palmer and and Andrés Diaz who have given notable performances in DC that I enjoyed back in the day.

Most of all, the evening belonged to Miriam Khalil, the singer in Ayres, described as a soprano in the program, but that’s sort of like calling Niagara Falls a water feature. She had a range in notes, and expressive scope far beyond the usual soprano, a sense of drama and motion in her voice, in her whole body that was utterly captivating. It was nearly a one-woman show, a cycle of politics, love, folklore, tragedy and ecstasy.  As somebody who previously was an admirer rather than a lover of Golijov’s music, I was won over. It takes a performer like her to tie together what can seem to be a bit too much of curation rather than inspiration. But she found the thread. Worth hearing more of on all counts.

I didn’t see Kafka and Son, the one-act play with music that followed the next day. Did catch a more conventional program, the Melrose Piano Trio, with Barry joining . Opened with Turina Piano Trio No. 22, a little naive but abundant charm;  the Mendelssohn Second Trio followed. Pianist Jon Kimura Parker dazzled in this mini concerto.  I personally can’t deal with the Brahms Piano chamber music any more. Like reading James Fennimore Cooper for me, but they have a vigorous (to the point of string breaking) performance of his first piano quartet. The sell-out crowd loved it.

The best performance for me, by a wide margin, was Sunday afternoon’s show. This kicked off with a angular arrangement of Bach’s “Erbarme Dich” from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (a moment in art that has been described as the beating heart of western musical civilization.) The performer was the arranger, Frederic Chiu, who was austere, not showy. His approach fit the theme of the concert, the musical materials themselves, spirit not rhetoric, ideas first, embodied in emotion.

He proceeded, without pause to give a skinned alive performance of Prokofiev’s 7th Piano Sonata, facing up to the rebarbative moments, of this piece of high modernism with calm authority. The piece’s percussive context provided color and shape. It’s tempting to cheat this in the direction of note spinning (there are clashing moments of music that would seem to demand superhuman virtuosity and stop there.)  Chiu found the power in the musical ideas, particularly the rhythms, taut, even explosive and without any hint of sarcasm.  Or so it was in Chiu’s hands. He seemed born to this piece, with it in his bones, and convincing you that the take no prisoners musical world of the war years was something he knew and could make us want to listen to every molecule of.

Magical performances of excerpts from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time with Tan Dun’s Elegy Snow in June sandwiched in between wrapped up the second half. Dun’s work has a political subtext, but performed with the Quartet seemed a distinctly spiritual piece,  with a stunning array of expertly scored percussion parts played with nearly fine ensemble. Palmer was back doing a clarinet solo to open, and the weekend ended with the Diaz’ cello and Chiu’s piano movement, “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus” from the Messiaen. Timelessness is evoked by the steady chords in the piano, around which the cello line curves, through, over, under, somehow inside at times. Diaz was superb, and even managed to keep his concentration when the Enternity of Jesus was interrupted by a cellphone ringing. Probably exactly what will really happen in the end days. Still a remarkable performance and a great opening for series that looks to be wonderful. If you are anywhere near, and are interested in this kind of rep, go check it out. They are up to something exciting.

 

 

 

 

Tuesday Listen: CPE Bach

One of the many Bach children, Carl Philip Emmanuel, was perhaps the greatest composer (worthy of comparison with JSB, and honored by Mozart among others).  He is best known for keyboard music full of imaginative color and flights of fancy.

Here is one of hundreds of his keyboard pieces, the evocative farewell to his Silbermann Clavichord.  (Here in a piano performance.)

Evocative–and to my ears–some elements of a modern improvisatory feel.

He also wrote lots of ornate showpieces, for the piano, then a relatively new instrument, such as the piano lesson favorite Solfeggietto in C Minor (sorry about the weird open).
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Borodin: Symphony #2

Reminded today of one of my favorite, and not very often heard, symphonies today. Borodin’s Second. A professional chemist and avocational composer who left us a small number of wonderful works.  Check out particularly the elegiac slow movement that begins at 12:21. 

Here in a performance from Amsterdam, a bit rough and ready perhaps, but still enjoyable.

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