In Memoriam: Bernard Haitink

This week’s music is dedicated to the memory of the great Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink, who passed away a few hours ago at the age of 92. Haitink was the last of the great “record conductors” (conductors who recorded in the age of the record label), with over 400 records to his name. He was the conductor of the world-renowned Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam for nearly thirty years, as well as a guest conductor with every major orchestra in the world. He will be missed around the globe.

T

Kaufmann Sings Puccini

Hello all,

We are taking a break from our American Composers series to listen to the sensational tenor Jonas Kaufmann sing the famous Nessun Dorma aria from Puccini’s opera “Turandot.” I had the opportunity to hear Kaufmann in recital with pianist Helmut Deutsch this past week and thought this would be a way to share a bit of that experience with all of you.

Kaufmann, who is widely regarded as the world’s greatest living tenor, began his career in the German opera realm and debuted with the Met in Verdi’s La Traviata. Since then, he has toured the world and recorded with Deutsche Gramophone and other top-level studios. His voice has the delicacy and warmth typical of a tenor, but it also has the depth and power of a baritone. Kaufmann credits this aspect of his voice to the baritone Michael Rhodes, under whom he studied for several years in the 1990s.

The words “nessun dorma” are translated as “none shall sleep.” In the opera, Princess Turandot says to her subjects that “no one shall sleep tonight” until they find out who her lover is. She doesn’t want to know his name because she is interested in him; she wants to know his name so she can have him killed. Apparently Princess Turandot was quite interested in remaining single. At this point, the hero of the story (the tenor) breaks into the aria that you will hear today, saying that while no one will sleep tonight, he will win the Princess’ hand in the morning. Sure enough, after a sleepless and bloodthirsty night, the Princess comes to him and says that she has found love with him.

This opera is more than just a sappy and somewhat morbid love story. It is also a powerful piece of cultural commentary. Puccini wrote it in 1920 after the upheaval of World War I. This was a time in which many people were questioning whether love and beauty still existed. He sought to answer this question through the opera Turandot, which depicts love and hope eventually shining through the darkness and brutality of Princess Turandot’s cruel kingdom. By the end of his life, this paradox had become a theme in nearly every single one of Puccini’s operas.

Enjoy!

T

American Composers #2 – Aaron Copland

Hello all,

This week’s music is “Hoedown,” one of the four dances from American composer Aaron Copland’s ballet Rodeo. I was very pleased to find a video of the composer himself conducting this piece.

Aaron Copland, nicknamed “The Dean of American Composers,” is one of America’s most well-known musical minds. He composed, conducted, and taught throughout his 90-year life, which spanned almost the entirety of the twentieth century. While he wrote many excellent classical works, such as his Third Symphony and his Sonata for Violin and Piano, it is his other works—works he referred to as his “vernacular” works—that have become iconic in the American soundscape. These include his ballet Appalachian Spring, his legendary symphonic composition Fanfare for the Common Man, and his cowboy ballets (Billy the Kid and Rodeo). If any composer has captured the American spirit in music, it is Copland.

Rodeo was the second of Copland’s cowboy ballets. It was, in his view, a recasting of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew—but with cowboys. Rodeo follows a lovesick cowgirl’s attempts to capture the attention of the lead cowboy at Burnt Ranch. Copland wrote four dance episodes for the ballet, and “Hoedown” caps off the set with a wonderfully American “yee haw”-style ending. “Hoedown” has since been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as one of America’s most significant pieces of music.  

Enjoy!

T

American Composers #1 – Edward MacDowell

Hello all,

This week’s music begins a new series on American composers. To kick things off, we will be starting with Edward MacDowell’s Piano Concerto No. 2, performed by Andre Watts with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. (My apologies for the short excerpt video, it’s the only tolerably decent video I could find. Hopefully this piques your interest and inspires you to go listen to the concerto in full :).

MacDowell is one of the most celebrated composers in American history. A Renaissance man, he was also a talented poet, painter, forester, and architect. His compositions quickly gained international acclaim. He was one of the first seven people to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

His second piano concerto is by far his most well-known work. MacDowell himself played the premiere of the concerto in 1894, and the performance was so successful that he was immediately hired to start the music department at Columbia University. However, university life was not for him, and he resigned soon after starting the program and returned to his farm in Peterborough, New Hampshire. There is now a world famous artist colony called the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough.

The second concerto begins with the dazzling runs and thundering chords you will hear in the video above. I had a chance to play in an orchestra during a performance of this concerto, and the adrenaline rush of these opening bars is like nothing else. Watts does a phenomenal job of creating two voices – one soft and hesitant, the other powerful and aggressive.

Enjoy!

T

Danny Boy

Hello all,

As I will be heading to Ireland for vacation tomorrow, I thought it would be appropriate to share a performance of an Irish song by the classical flutist Sir James Galway. Galway, nicknamed “The Man with the Golden Flute,” is from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and is widely regarded as the greatest flute player in history. He regularly tours the globe, performing in the greatest concert halls in the world and completing commissions from today’s most well-known composers. (Lord of the Rings fans can also hear his playing in all three of the LOTR movies!)

In today’s performance, Galway plays “Danny Boy,” an Irish tune based on a ballad written by lawyer and songwriter Frederic Weatherly. (Weatherly, ironically, was a Brit who never stepped foot in Ireland.) The song emerged when Weatherly’s ballad was set to the Irish tune of “Londonderry Air.” Londonderry is a town in Northern Ireland that has seen many years of violence as a result of the conflict between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Enjoy, and I will be back in two weeks!

T

The Lark Ascending

Hello all,

This week’s music is The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughn Williams, performed by violinist Hilary Hahn.

The Lark Ascending was inspired by an 1880 George Meredith poem about a skylark in flight. The violin line dips and soars, imitating the path of the bird. The orchestra seems to represent the shifting breeze on which the bird floats. It is a visual picture, created in sound. Vaughn Williams referred to it as his “pastoral romance.”

I think perhaps the best thing I can offer you is the words of the poem on which this piece is based. Therefore, without further ado:

He rises and begins to round,

He drops the silver chain of sound,

Of many links without a break,

In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.

For singing till his heaven fills,

Tis love of earth that he instills,

And ever winging up and up,

Our valley is his golden cup

And he the wine which overflows

to lift us with him as he goes.

Till lost on his aerial rings

In light, and then the fancy sings.

Enjoy!

T

A Hymn to the Viola

Hello all,

This week’s music is the String Quartet No. 13 by Dmitri Shostakovich, performed by the world-famous Borodin Quartet.

It is common knowledge in the musical world that the viola usually gets the short end of the stick. There are entire websites dedicated to “viola jokes” (I’ve tried many of them out on my sister, a violist), and most symphonies include the viola only as an accompaniment voice. So it is therefore somewhat shocking to find a string quartet being referred to as “a hymn to the viola.” That is the nickname that has come to be associated with Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 13.

We hear the viola right away. The quartet opens with a searing viola solo that reaches to the upper registers of the instrument in a series of 12-tone pitches. This solo sets the tone for the entire work and ushers the other instruments in, one by one, until the solo voice is absorbed in a foreboding, intense texture.

The viola takes the lead again in the third movement, so the middle movement, a scherzo, is the only opportunity for the other instruments to shine. However, instead of giving them soaring solo lines like he gave the viola, Shostakovich has them tapping their bows on the wood of their instruments. Listen for the almost metallic sound of this technique in the middle movement.

I’ll be honest: this is not a relaxing piece of music. It has been described as “harrowing,” “frightening,” and the kind of piece in which “even the most resilient emotional temperament could hardly fail to be at least uncomfortably disturbed.” Most commentators believe this aspect of the work reflects the severe ideological conflicts that Shostakovich was periodically embedded in with the Soviet authorities. Regardless of their cause, however, they make it all the more amazing when, at the very end of the piece, Shostakovich provides us with a very different atmosphere, one that—in my opinion—could be interpreted as symbolizing hope.

Enjoy!

T

Beach Quintet

Hello all,

This week’s music is the second movement of Amy Beach’s piano quintet in F-sharp minor, performed by a group of music performance fellows at the Tanglewood Music Center in Tanglewood, Massachusetts. (Fun fact: I played Brahms’ piano quintet with the first violinist in this ensemble at the Apple Hill Chamber Music Festival in 2009).  

Amy Beach was born in Henniker, New Hampshire in 1867. Unlike most composers, she was almost entirely self-taught. She came to fame in a crop of American composers that included George Chadwick, Arthur Foote, and the legendary Edward MacDowell, whose name is associated with the MacDowell Artist Colony (also in my beautiful home state of New Hampshire :).

Like most American composers of this era, Beach’s writing is quintessentially Romantic, with early strains of late romantic and even pseudo-harmonic characteristics. Her piano quintet is a perfect example of this. In the second movement, which you will hear today, she blends soaring piano solos with delicate textures in the strings, punctuated by what can only be described as Charles Ives-esque harmonic undertones.

Listen for the absolutely stunning return of the cello solo at 6:40. In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful melodies ever written by an American composer!

Enjoy,

T

Late Beethoven – Part 2: Grosse Fugue

Hello all,

This week’s music brings us to the close of our series on the three periods in Beethoven’s music. As you know, we have been learning about each of these periods through Beethoven’s string quartets. Today we will conclude with the monumental Grosse Fugue, a single-movement work for string quartet that pushed chamber music to its outermost limits. It is for this reason that the Grosse Fugue was sent into space on the Voyager spacecraft as one of the greatest achievements of humanity.

There is perhaps no better way to end our series on the three periods of Beethoven’s music than with the Grosse Fugue. It represents Beethoven’s most daring experimentation phase, in which he takes the conventional forms of musical structure and stretches them as far as they will go. In the Grosse Fugue, Beethoven pushes the four instruments to the brink, waiting until they are on the edge of the cliff before pulling them back. It is the ultimate adrenaline rush, the ultimate risk-taking adventure. It has a jaggedness that we aren’t using to hearing in Classical Era repertoire. It varies between lyric whispers and explosive octave runs in which the four instruments are tangled in combat as they tumble through the air. Yet it’s external chaos belies the perfectly ordered fugal structure that Beethoven underlays the entire work with.

The renowned twentieth-century composer Igor Stravinsky famously said that the Grosse Fugue would forever be considered a contemporary composition. He was right. It is the pinnacle of Beethoven’s generational genius.

Enjoy!

T

Late Beethoven – Part 1

Hello all,

This week’s music is Beethoven’s string quartet No. 12 in E-flat major.

None of the three periods within Beethoven’s music made a complete break from the period that came before it. They were natural evolutions from the musical ideas Beethoven had previously explored. This is particularly true of the third period, which ran from 1817 until his death in 1827. This aspect of Beethoven’s work showcases the full flowering of his inventive capacity, complete with all the structural complexities of the heroic period and emotional tension resulting from his near-complete deafness. This maturation, combined with the personal struggles of his later life, makes the music of this late period immensely satisfying to listen to. It is humorous, yet meditative, anguished, yet peaceful, jarring, yet mysterious. It is the string quartet in its most complete form.

That is not to say, of course, that Beethoven did not begin to experiment quite often with musical ideas that would later become mainstays of the Romantic era. He certainly did. For instance, you will hear lyrical violin lines that resemble Mendelssohn more than the Haydn-esque style Beethoven began with. You’ll also hear jarring, shocking moments of explosive power, juxtaposed with serene, almost operatic serenades between the cello and the violins. In short, Beethoven’s late period exemplifies the beginning of the transition to a Romantic era that would create a musical home for Brahms, Wagner, Strauss, Liszt, and many more.

Enjoy!

T