If anybody would like to explore more about the four "warhorses I talked about at my Oct. 16 class, here are the primary sources I used. I've also added the videos we watched.
Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1
1. I found this essay in the National Registry helpful in describing Van Cliburn's 1958 win at the Tchaikovsky Competition.
2. A good description of the Romantic concerto as a hero's journey:
Nicolas Slonimsky's justly renowned "Lexicon of Musical Invective" is an entertaining collection of misguided quotes from music critics. Their reactions to music of their time is hilarious and instructive.
3. Reviews of Cliburn with the Oregon Symphony, including my interview with the pianist in 1997.
Here's his performance immediately after winning the competition in Moscow.
Beethoven's Fifth Symphony
1. Michael Steinberg's "The Symphony" has detailed information about the composition and historcial context of the Fifth.
2. Matthew Guerrieri's new book, "The First Four Notes: Beethoven's Fifth and the Human Imagination" looks promising. It will be published Nov. 13, 2016.
3. My story in The Oregonian about the wide ripple effect Beethoven's Fifth had on the Oregon Symphony, its audiences and the country after music director Carlos Kalmar programmed it during his first season, in 2004. Since then, the orchestra has received three Grammy nominations, performed a successful concert at Carnegie Hall and increased audiences at home.
Two versions of Beethoven's Fifth: the great German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, who takes a magnificently deliberate approach -- listen to how he holds the fermatas; and John Eliot Gardiner, who takes a brisk, aggressive, approach. His first movement is 1'35" faster than Furtwangler's.
The "Hallelujah" Chorus from Handel's "Messiah"
An enlightening look at the tradition of standing for the "Hallelujah" Chorus: Michael Steinberg's "Choral Masterworks."
Two versions of the "Hallelujah" Chorus, the might Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the slimmed-down Choir of King's College, Cambridge.
Claire de Lune" by Claude Debussy
Paul Roberts, an English pianist and frequent lecturer at Portland Piano International events, is a good source about Debussy's music: "Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy."
I wrote this essay for Artslandia, Portland's arts magazine, at the start of the fall season in 2015. It's a defense of "old repertoire" and what the great composers can still offer us.
I’m going to faint.
We are standing like cattle in a holding pen at the back of Vienna’s gilded concert hall, the Musikverein. As lowly students, too broke to buy seats, we crane our necks, shoulder to shoulder, breathing air that is hot and lifeless.
But from the stage, miracles float our way. We are following Schubert down long winding paths, transfixed by the pianist Alfred Brendel — jutting chin, black curls atoss — throwing light and shade over the composer’s last three monumental sonatas.
And then a woman actually faints. It’s a little hard to tell at first. We are standing so tightly, she remains upright for a while.
But we are definitely slumping while Schubert’s beauty runs over us.
Brendel’s thundering chords and death-still tone are devastating, humbling, exhilarating. Despite the heat and slumping, Schubert/Brendel show me possibilities of spectacularness the way Nabakov’s Vasili Ivanovich describes in the short story “Cloud, Castle, Lake”:
Without reasoning, without considering, only entirely surrendering
to an attraction the truth of which consisted in its own strength, a
strength which he had never experienced before, Vasili in one
radiant second realized that here in this room with that view,
beautiful to the verge of tears, life would at last be what he had
always wished it to be…
This is Schubert’s gift: Life as we wish it to be.
Old music gets a bad rap, these days. Symphony orchestras and opera houses perform the same old stuff. Superstars play a perpetual glamour game of greatest hits. Jet streams of Vivaldi circle the globe.
The music doesn’t wear out, but our capacity for awe does.
So here’s a radical thought: Let’s reclaim it.
Ah, but how?
The old-fashioned way. Not with YouTube or an Xbox or a touchscreen, but with our hearts and imaginations.
The trick to recapturing awe is to imagine you’re hearing something new. Get past the marketing buzz and the personalities and savor as if for the first time a melody, a rhythm, a harmony. A phrase, a crescendo, a repetition. Listen for a story, a narrative.
Yes, new music nourishes us, too. Oregon composer Robert Kyr’s haunting oratorio, "A Time for Life," is a profound plea to heal the earth. It is of the moment, yet it synthesizes modern and ancient modes with tender, rapturous lyricism.
John Luther Adams astonishes audiences with his lush, 40-minute seascape, “Become Ocean,” which won last year’s Pulitzer Prize.
Portland composer Kenji Bunch riffs on Americana rhythms and textures that hurtle us out of our seats with delight.
These works feel fresh, vital, mavericky.
Our culture prizes fresh, vital, mavericky. We covet the latest gadgets and devour new books, plays, films, art and dance. We train our gaze ever forward. But, while I, too, roll my eyes at yet another Beethoven Ninth Symphony, let’s blame marketing, not Beethoven. Six seconds of “Porgi amor” still stops me cold.
Why do we need Mozart? Because he expresses extremes of life — affirmation, despair, delight, emptiness — sometimes in a single phrase. The slow movement of Piano Concerto No. 21 (“Elvira Madigan”) lulls us into a trance. The finale of the “Jupiter” Symphony surges in triumph.
We still need lulling and surging.
What fills me with awe is when a pianist such as Mitsuko Uchida plays“the thoughts within the notes,” as Jeremy Denk says, “…shading a picture in sound so finely in color and intensity, it forms a landscape in the middle distance.”
Schubert invites us to slow down, to ponder a melody reflected by a dozen different harmonies that change our perception of a tune. He is the music you will hear when you die, Uchida says. A life in all its possibilities.
In our sharp, quick, Instagram lives, we still crave mystery and miracles and these guys give them to us. Embrace them. “We are broadened, not narrowed, by our fandom,” writes Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker.
What a composer is really saying in music, Leonard Bernstein wrote, is, “Has this ever happened to you? Haven’t you experienced this same tone, insight, shock, anxiety, release?”
And when we “like” a piece of music, we are simply saying to the composer, “Yes.”
Late Beethoven — stone-deaf Beethoven — takes us inside a secret. The rise and fall of single notes in the opening of the C-Sharp Minor String Quartet feel like he is revealing something new and hard won. “An unsuspected possibility of the mind, hardly connected to anything we’ve experienced before,” writes the renowned Beethoven writer J.W.N. Sullivan in his “Beethoven: His Spiritual Journey.”
At that Schubert marathon nearly 40 years ago, Schubert gave me the moon, with its wavering reflections of mystery and light and love, as well as fear and sorrow and grief. It helped set me on a life in music and taught me how to stay upright, even when life felt like I was standing in a crowded cattle pen.
Listen anew. Listen afresh. The music deserves that.
“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner said.
Let’s believe him.
At my second class, Oct. 16, we explored four very familiar works: Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, with Van Cliburn playing in Moscow, fresh from his win at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition; two versions of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony; two versions of Handel's "Hallelujah" Chorus from "Messiah" and, to end on an intimate, meditative note, Claude Debussy's "Claire de lune."
You could feel the energy in the room during Cliburn's bravura performance, but I was still surprised when people applauded, even though I shouldn't have been. Tchaikovsky wears his heart on his sleeve, communicating great beauty and intense emotions -- conflict, nobility, triumph -- that Cliburn perfectly captures. Tchaikovsky is so unabashed at this, he frees us to feel the same things. As the pianist Stephen Hough says, we have a feeling of internal release.
The smiles and gasps in the class tell me we all felt it, yesterday.
But the concerto form also captures something deeper, something we are instinctively drawn to: a hero's journey.
A concerto soloist enters the stage filled with 80 or 90 players, and faces a hall with 1,000 or more people acting as witnesses. He or she faces severe obstacles, alone. The music begins by pitting the pianist against the entire orchestra, and the movement ends with a cadenza, where the orchestra falls silent and the soloist must forge ahead, alone in the wilderness. Moment by moment in this cadenza, the soloist navigates the challenges until, by the end, he or she soars in triumph and the orchestra rises to greet the hero.
We had a great class and I'm grateful to everyone who joined me. I hope to see you Nov. 13 for a look at "Timeless Symphonies."
I’m calling my next class “Warhorses,” but not because the music carries a military theme. In classical music, the term “warhorses” refers to works that are so popular, even people who know little about music recognize them.
Think “Bolero” or the “William Tell” Overture.
We will explore four works — not those — that span three centuries, one from the 18th century, two from the 19th and one from the 20th century.
Each piece plays on our souls in compelling ways.
For example, in 1958, when the Cold War was approaching the frigid zone, a gangly 23-year-old Texan flew to Moscow to compete in the first Tchaikovsky Competition. Of the 50 contestants, Russian audiences immediately warmed to the shy young man with the unruly hair and thunderous touch. The Russian judges were taken aback. Who was this unknown?
As Van Cliburn played through each round of the competition, his popularity grew. Tickets to hear him sold out. At the final round, he played three pieces: Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, a work by Dmitry Kabalevsky and the piece that would change his life: Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto.
As he finished the Tchaikovsky, the crowd erupted. “First prize! First prize!” they shouted and showered the stage with flowers.
What happened next has become music lore. Come find out why, as we explore Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto — once deemed unplayable — and its place in history as the first piece to fully combine the virtuoso and symphonic styles.
The other three pieces we will explore are just as powerful and fascinating.
4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16 at Classic Pianos, 3003 SE Milwaukie, next to the Aladdin Theater. $20 at the door. To register, contact Peggie Zackery, 503-546-5622; firstname.lastname@example.org
David Stabler is a pianist, writer, dad and cyclist. He's working on a novel based on his childhood years living in Africa and rode across America with his brother in 2017.