Concertos are among the most dramatic forms of classical music, which is one reason we have so many extraordinary examples in the literature, from Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Bartok and others. Great composers can’t resist the musical and theatrical possibilities of this particular form: One person going up against an entire orchestra.
The most important fact about concertos is that audiences wait for the soloist to enter and when she stops, they wait for her to begin again. The opening introduction sets the scene, creating a sense of anticipation, that something is about to happen.
And when the soloist does enter, we know that virtuosity will be on display. Pyrotechnics will ensue. Tension will be high. Reputations will be on the line. And that makes them terrific fun for us to experience, either in the concert hall or on recordings.
But what if the soloist doesn't wait for an orchestral introduction? Mozart was the first composer to sense the dramatic possibilities of not waiting. Beethoven expanded that idea, as did others who followed.
In my next class, May 20, we will explore two unusual elements: When concertos break the rules and those extraordinary cadenzas when the orchestra stops and the soloist brings out the howitzers.
At my next class, April 29, I would like you to imagine you are a composer. Your job is to organize sounds into coherent form. Where do you look for inspiration? You might begin by looking at sources close by: Music you heard as a baby, rocking in your mother’s arms. Or in school, in church, or when your grandmother sang to you. Maybe you remember music you heard at dances, weddings or funerals, on the radio, in recordings or on soundtracks to films. And some of this music stuck with you.
It spoke to you with its rhythms and melodies — moved your heart, resonated deep inside because it said something about who you are, where you live, the work you did, the stories you heard, the joys and sorrows you read about or experienced.
We’re talking about music that has been passed down from one generation to another — folk music — an enormously rich tradition that has inspired classical composers for centuries, and continues, today.
We will hear how Bach inserted popular ditties into his sublime “Goldberg” Variations. Chopin found echoes of his Polish homeland in the Mazurka. Lou Harrison merged Indonesia’s gentle gamelan with his own beautiful melodies and Portland’s Kenji Bunch evokes the pounding rhythms of southern chain gangs in a mesmerizing symphony.
Join us, 4 p.m. Sunday, April 29, at Classic Pianos.
Here's a sample:
We covered a lot of music at my class, March 25, and I'm sorry we didn't get to everything I had prepared. The class felt a little rushed and I'm sorry we didn't spend more time discussing each performance. Next time, I'll reduce the number of performers.
Here are all 16 of the performances I had planned to share with you. We heard two singers perform the same aria so we could compare voices, personalities and musical styles, and we explored how each singer acted with his or her voice. We had to skip Nos. 9 and 10, Fritz Wunderlich and Francisco Araiza in "Dies Bildnis" from Mozart's "The Magic Flute," and Nos. 13 and 14, Gerald Finley and Dietrich Henschel singing "Batter My Heart" from "Dr. Atomic" by John Adams. And we listened to only a few moments of Nos. 15 and 16, Barbara Hannigan and Audrey Luna, in Gyorgy Ligeti's "Le Grand Macabre."
Enjoy, and I'll see you April 29 for folk-inspired music. Many composers, from Mozart, Chopin and Brahms to Bartok, Astor Piazzolla and Osvaldo Golijov, found inspiration in folk music, transforming their work while keeping it grounded in the classical tradition.
Voice of the Century, from Jussi Bjorling, Maria Callas and Leontyne Price to Peter Pears, Barbara Hannigan and Portland's Audrey Luna
I'm calling this class "Voices of the Century" because these wonderful singers are the names we think of when we admire the greatest voices of the 20th -- and 21st -- century. But instead of presenting each voice, I’ve paired them so we will hear two singers perform the same aria in order to compare their voices and artistry. Thus, we'll hear Jussi Bjorling and Franco Corelli in "Recondite armonia" from Puccini's "Tosca." And we'll relish Renata Tebaldi and Maria Callas in "Un bel di" from Puccini's, "Madama Butterfly." We'll also hear Fritz Wunderlich and Francisco Araiza, Jon Vickers and Peter Pears, Leontyne Price and Anna Netrebko, Joan Sutherland and Natalie Dessay, Gerald Finley and Dietrich Henschel and Barbara Hannigan and Portland's own Audrey Luna.
We'll talk about vocal quality, musical style, nuance, musicality and, because this is theater, their vocal character — do they “act” with their voices, do they convey character, how do they do that?
Please join us for this unusual class. 4 p.m. Sunday, March 25, Classic Pianos, 3003 SE Milwaukie and Powell Blvd.
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."
David Stabler is a teacher, 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.