A conductor waves a wand and without a word, 100 people create perfect harmony. At every moment, a conductor transmits a huge amount of information instantly and accurately to a diverse group of people with individual skills, experiences, hopes, fears, egos and mortgages. For two hours, not one word is exchanged between leader and followers. And at the end, when the conductor turns to face the auditorium, the audience will often leap to its feet, cheering and clapping.
In what other profession do we see this kind of wizardry?
At my next class, Feb. 11, we will look at how a handful of well-known conductors lead their orchestras, and what their vastly different styles say about leadership in general. Riccardo Muti dictates every note and phrase. Richard Strauss sticks closely to the score. Herbert von Karajan closes his eyes, making the musicians guess his intentions. Carlos Kleiber revels in his players' contributions and Leonard Bernstein lets them do their very best.
Here's a preview. Carlos Kleiber is one of the greatest conductors of all time. Born in Berlin in 1930, he conducted very little, "only when his freezer was empty," quipped Herbert von Karajan. But, musicians adored him because he allowed them to shine. He died in 2004. Note his enjoyment of the musicians.
In my latest class, we had a great time exploring the music of three 19th-century Americans: Stephen Foster, Louis Moreau Gottschalk and John Philip Sousa. All three were originals, creating a new kind of music that captured something uniquely American. All three became phenomenally successful. All three were entertainers who never claimed to be art composers. And all three helped commercialize music in new forms of popular art.
For all his success, Gottschalk is less known, today. He was born in New Orleans to an English businessman and a Creole mother, the first of eight children, and he showed early talent on the piano. At the age of 13, he sailed to Europe to receive “proper” classical training, but the Paris Conservatoire rejected him without even hearing him play, on the grounds of his nationality, saying, "America is a country of steam engines.” However, after Gottschalk gave a concert at the famous Paris concert hall, Salle Pleyel, Chopin remarked: "Give me your hand, my child; I predict that you will become the king of pianists." Franz Liszt also recognized Gottschalk's talent.
If you are new to Gottschalk's music, you'll enjoy some of these selections:
"La Bamboula": Written at 16, this New Orleans dance contains a cakewalk rhythm — an exaggerated style of dance based on aristocratic European styles — and glittering virtuosity. The name "Bamboula" refers to an African-Caribbean drum. The composition has a strongly rhythmic melody and unfolds in three sections (A-A-B). The introduction begins with notes like a drum beat.
"La Gallina": (“The Hen") In the middle of the 20th century, Eugene List, an American pianist, helped revive Gottschalk’s music with a series of recordings. This exuberant Cuban dance has fun with both the cakewalk and habañera rhythms, and mimics a hen's clucking. The late New York Times critic Harold Schonberg wrote that the effect is “highly Ivesian, even though Charles Ives had as yet not been born.”
"La Savane" ("The Savanna"): This is based on a slave song whose melody is similar to "Skip To My Lou”. A ballade, "La Savane" was supposedly inspired by the local story that the skeletons of runaway slaves that had perished in the swamps around the city of New Orleans had turned into oak trees. It's a set of gentle variations.
"The Banjo": Composed in 1853, this is one of Gottschalk's best-known works. His banjo imitations were so accurate, musicologists studied them to learn the sound of pre-Civil War African-American banjo playing. The melodies develop until the piece ends with a brilliant pair of variations, containing "Camptown Races." In this performance, the pianist inserts his own notes, at times.
Pianist Cypriern Katsaris, born in Marseilles, studied at the Paris Conservatoire, where, ironically, Gottschalk was not admitted because he was American. You will notice you are seeing a few examples of pianists attempting to put their own personality on this showy music.
"Souvenir de Porto (not Puerto) Rico": This is a processional piece that seems to arrive from a distance, reaches fortissimo and recedes into the distance. March rhythms mix with a habanera as it indulges in what Gottschalk says is “the full force of chromatic grapeshot and deadly octaves.” At the climax, as the procession envelopes us, listen to the rumba rhythm — 3 + 3 + 2 -- that suggests a forward lurch then a stutter. It’s sexy, fun and jazzy.
We're going deep in my next class, January 21. Originally, I wanted to give you a broad sample of American music, and we can still do that at a later date. But now, I want to explore the extraordinary work of just three 19th-century Americans who embody very different backgrounds, personalities and styles.
The music of Stephen Foster ("the father of American music") is simple, nostalgic and inward-turning, rooted in black America's sorrow and resilience. Louis Moreau Gottschalk was his opposite: a rock star of the stage and a phenomenally successful pianist who wrote swaggering, sexy music based on Creole and black music, not unlike George Gershwin. And John Philip Sousa was our March King, similar to Vienna's Waltz King, Johann Strauss. With their vigor and optimism, Sousa marches "should make a man with a wooden leg step out."
Despite their differences, all three Americans embody the spirit of their time in fascinating ways.
Join us at 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 21, Classic Pianos, 3003 SE Milwaukie Ave., Portland.
We love chamber music because it offers intimacy and the exhilaration of animated conversation. Chamber music has been called "the music of friends.” Goethe described the string quartet as "four rational people conversing.” This conversation refers to the way one instrument introduces an idea and other instruments respond to that, repeating it, embellishing it, arguing with it, shouting it down, or giving it the silent treatment.
Here are a few of the selections we heard on Nov. 19. Thanks to all who came.
Beethoven's String Quartet Op. 132 in A Minor, third movement, with the Ebene Quartet. Start at 19:50.
Schubert's String Quintet in C Major, Borodin Quartet with unidentified second cellist:
Brahms' Piano Quintet in F Minor, Scherzo, with Orion Weiss, piano; Noah Bendix-Balgley and Diana Cohen, violins;, Dimitri Murrath, viola; Robert deMaine, cello:
Arvo Part's "Spiegel im Spiegel," Leonhard Roczek, cello; Herbert Schuch, piano:
At my next class, Nov. 19, we will explore a handful of chamber music works known for their astonishing beauty. Each of these pieces speaks to my heart and I know they will speak to you, too.
For example, after nearly dying, Beethoven wrote a string quartet in profound gratitude for his recovery, asking the musicians to play a thanksgiving hymn “with the most intimate emotions.” We’ll also hear what experts consider the best piece of chamber music ever written and we will hold onto our seats for the demonic Scherzo from Brahms' Piano Quintet in F Minor. We'll also watch Martha Graham dance to “Simple Gifts,” a song that evokes the pastoral beauty of America in Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” and we’ll end with a work so hushed and remarkable, it will leave you speechless.
I can't wait to share these with you.
At my last class, Oct. 29, we learned that singing can be a direct conduit to the heart.
We listened to rich examples from Bach, Brahms and the quietly radiant "Dirait-on" by Oregon-raised Morten Lauridsen and heard how composers can express themselves using human voices in ways they can’t with purely instrumental music. Think what a different experience it would be if Beethoven had not used a chorus in his Ninth Symphony.
Here are just three examples from class. First, the powerful Prologue from the opera "Mefistofele" by Arrigo Boito. It's a relentless crescendo that builds to a thrilling climax. The San Francisco Opera performs.
A beautiful arrangement of the Scottish folk song "Loch Lomand" by the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. It takes us out of the here and now and shows what a creative arranger can do with a simple song. Listen to the harmonies, the suspensions that slowly resolve, the long phrases where the singers don’t take breaths. This arrangement turns a folk song into polished art, self-consciously slow, artfully shaped.
Morten Lauridsen's ravishing song "Dirait-on" from a song cycle "Les Chansons des Roses."
We had some fun with the idea of mavericks in classical music at our opening class, Sept. 24. Did you know the word "maverick" comes from the name of an actual person? Samuel Augustus Maverick was a 19th-century cattle rancher in Texas. When he won a herd of cattle in a poker game, he decided not to brand his new cattle, but let them loose on the range. After that, any free, unbranded steer was called a maverick and the word eventually came to mean loner, dissenter, someone who strikes out on their own.
Next class is all about choral music and the beauty of voices singing together, Oct. 29.
Here are some of the "revolutionary" pieces we heard:
Chopin Etude Op. 10, No. 1, Garrick Ohlsson, piano:
Claude Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," Danish Radio Orchestra:
George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," Gershwin, piano:
Steve Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians," Eighth Blackbird:
Thank you for coming in out of the sunshine to hear some great singing in our last class of the season. Here are the videos we saw, beginning with Franz Schubert, who wrote roughly 615 songs in his short life. This is the beautiful memory song, "Der Lindenbaum," or "The Lime Tree" from his song cycle "Winterreise."
At my class on Sunday, May 21, we will hear the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and pianist Gerald Moore perform Schubert's "Der Lindenbaum." It's a memory song, recalling the gentle rustle of a lime tree in summer as the narrator trudges through winter. We'll also hear songs by Schumann, Wolf and Bolcom, plus a bunch of arias, because we can't leave out opera. This is a class devoted to the human voice and we will hear some wonderful singing. Hope to see you there.
We heard some wonderful music for the piano at my last class, April 30. Here are links to YouTube videos showing how composers have seized on the piano's chameleon-like qualities to create impressions of a shimmering fountain, exploding fireworks, a flamenco guitar, a rippling harp, a singer breathing long lines of melody, a three-part conversation and, finally, imitating the heft of a symphony orchestra.
In 1984, the Soviet Union boycotted the LA Olympics. As a cultural symbol of musical muscle, precision and American jazz, 84 pianists played George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" at the opening ceremony.
A clavichord from 1763:
A harpsichord, popular in the Baroque era:
One of three surviving pianos built by the piano's inventor Bartolomeo Cristofori:
No one plays a singing line as well as Artur Rubinstein in the Chopin Nocturne in D-Flat Major:
A fountain, in Liszt's Jeux d'eaux a la Villa d'Este:
As a flamenco guitar:
A three-part conversation in Myra Hess' famous arrangement:
A massive symphony orchestra:
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.