Monthly Archives: September 2018

Yuja Wang, Wittgenstein and Ravel’s curious Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

 

I suppose it’s not all that curious. If you are a concert pianist and your right arm is a casualty in World War I, afterwards you have two options. One: give up your music career and calling, do something inferior and cry into your soup for the rest of your life. Two: tell yourself, “All right. Time to learn how to make my left hand do twice the work on the keyboard to produce the same sound. Create new arrangements of the music I love to play. Commission new works for the left hand alone. It can be done. It is what I will devote my life to doing.” It helps the Option Two scenario considerably if you are not a musician of the destitute persuasion, and, instead, have a generous amount of pennies (or Austrian schillings) tucked away in the family coffers. Which Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein had. Option Two, therefore, became his plan, and he succeeded marvelously.

French-Basque composer Maurice Ravel might have been approaching his own crossroads in the fall of 1929, just before Wittgenstein contacted him for a commission. We know, through hindsight, that he was nearing the end of his creative output. The year before he’d been exposed to jazz music during a U.S. concert tour. He was captivated by its richness, its diverting rhythm, and following the tour, he no longer felt compelled to create the same pictorial music he’d been doing. Instead he yearned to work with something sharper, leaner. When Paul Wittgenstein approached him with the commission request, Ravel happily accepted. At that time he was working, coincidentally, on his own Piano Concerto in G major, which he set aside temporarily. For this Concerto for the Left Hand, he decided to let that sharper, darker voice within him speak.

Maurice Ravel

Wittgenstein was a compelling figure, a powerful inspiration to anyone, even now, whose art or vocation appears doomed by sudden infirmity. Born in 1875 to a wealthy, influential Viennese family, he was the seventh of eight children, all of whom were musically gifted. The family’s considerable fortune, and likely his family name, enabled Paul to commission over a dozen works for left-hand piano. With his empty right jacket sleeve, he powered past naysayers and pitiers to make his musical future happen. Among the numerous composers he employed were Franz Schmidt, Erich Korngold, Hindemith, Richard Strauss, and later, Ravel, Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten. He wasn’t particularly easygoing; he didn’t always like the end result of the commissions. More frequently than not, he grumbled over them. In fact, with Ravel’s concerto, completed in 1930, he went beyond just grumbling.

Paul Wittgenstein

There’s an entertaining (to me) story here. In 1931, as Wittgenstein was struggling over the new commission from Ravel (“What’s with the jazz-infused rhythms and harmonies? This is classical music. And this long piano solo as my entrance? If I’d wanted to play without the orchestra, I wouldn’t have commissioned a concerto!”) and readying it for performance, Ravel himself was preparing for the premiere of his now-finished Piano Concerto in G minor. The two piano concertos were premiered at almost the same time. Pianist Marguerite Long performed the G minor Piano Concerto in Paris on January 14, 1932, with Ravel conducting the Orchestre Lamoureux. Thereafter, the two presented the concerto on a tour of twenty European cities. Meanwhile, in Vienna, Wittgenstein gave the premiere of the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D major, the very same month, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Ravel, of course, couldn’t attend the premiere since he and Long were off doing their G major Concerto thing. But when they came to Vienna to perform, three weeks later, Wittgenstein welcomed them, threw an elaborate dinner in their honor. As part of the evening’s entertainment, Wittgenstein performed the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, except with changes he himself had incorporated, which he felt made the concerto better. Not little changes, either. Big whopper ones, like taking lines from the orchestral part and planting them in his piano solo. Changing harmonies, cutting out bars of music, adding a series of dramatic arpeggios to his final cadenza.

Ravel freaked. After the performance, he angrily approached Wittgenstein. “But that’s not it at all!” he sputtered, to which Wittgenstein confidently replied that, as a pianist, he knew what he was doing, to which Ravel snapped that, as an orchestrator (not to mention the composer), he knew what he was doing. They parted that evening angrily. Eventually both of them calmed down, reached an agreement, and the Paris premiere of Piano Concerto for the Left Hand had Ravel conducting and Wittgenstein performing—presumably the version Ravel had written.

Yuja Wang, Michael Tilson Thomas, SF Symphony

It’s a masterpiece, Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, and fiendishly difficult to play well. Which brings us to last weekend, Davies Hall, San Francisco where Yuja Wang nailed it. She continues to be my favorite classical musician, bar none. She’s exciting to watch, she’s dedicated to her art, she’s a brilliant technician, and her dresses are eye candy, something to buzz about after the show. I blogged about her and the dresses HERE and I will argue that, all these years later, she is just as exciting a performer to watch, one who garners equal praise from critics and audience members alike. I love the way she can be ferocious yet precise, at turns lyrical and boldly insouciant.

The concerto starts off in the low register, with cello and bass as the only strings, more of a mood than a sound. Then we hear the even deeper contrabassoon playing a theme, soon followed by low horns. It’s brooding and dark for close to two minutes. Then the piano presents its part of the musical conversation in that two-minute solo Wittgenstein griped about. The jazz elements, now that I know to listen for them, abound. Ravel has a Debussy-esque sound I find very appealing, with its Oriental flavors. When the piano takes a second solo, around six minutes in, the music becomes dreamy, pensive.  And later there’s Ravel’s unforgettable “Bolero” that we hear traces of. Not just its notes, but its mood, the way the orchestral sound builds and builds in a delicious intensity that’s more about power than volume. But this is no “Bolero” knock-off.  There are so many original, inventive musical ideas in this nineteen-minute concerto, each one distinct, uncluttered. Yuja delivered on everything.

Lucky you – here’s a YouTube of her performing this very piece with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, June 2016, Lionel Bringuier conducting. As icing on the cake, she’s wearing yet another stunner of a dress. And something fun that I noticed here—she uses an electronic score. I sensed that was the case when I watched her perform, since it looked more like a finger swipe than a page being turned, but from my angle in the concert hall, I couldn’t be sure. Now I am.

A fabulous concerto, a sublime pianist — give both a listen if you have any opportunity to. And if geographic circumstances don’t allow, well, gotta love those CDs! HERE is the Amazon link for her Ravel piano concerto CD (with Fauré’s Ballade in F sharp thrown in too).

World Ballet Day 2018

What a day World Ballet Day was! Did you miss it? Fret not! Archived footage links are below. And to help the celebration continue, enjoy Off Balance  for FREE all week long! The award-winning Outside the Limelight is $2.99 and the brand new, just-released A Dancer’s Guide to Africa is only 99 cents today (tomorrow it will revert to its regular price).

Royal Opera House, The Royal Ballet, London
12:00-17:00 BST (UTC +1hr)
This year’s 5-hour segment is available on YouTube  HERE

The Australian Ballet, Melbourne
This year’s 5-hour segment is available on YouTube HERE

Большой театр России / Bolshoi Theatre of Russia, Bolshoi Ballet, Moscow
09:00-14:00 MSK (UTC +3hrs)
This year’s 5-hour segment is [partially] available on YouTube HERE.

Dutch National Ballet
This year’s 45-minute segment is available on YouTube HERE

Here’s the original post from September

Prepare yourself, dear readers, because World Ballet Day is here again! Save the date: Tuesday October 2nd, around the world. (Note! Oct 2nd in Australia is Mon evening, Oct 1st in North America!)

There is some good news and some bad news for 2018. The good: well, it’s obvious. There’s yet another World Ballet Day! The bad news: the San Francisco Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada won’t be participating. {{Sobs!}} But I have a hunch it’s still going to be a rollicking great day, filled with the kind of stuff we ballet fanatics can’t get enough of: watching company class at the Australia Ballet, The Bolshoi, London’s Royal Ballet and guest companies. There will be interviews, rehearsals, footage from other ballet companies around the world, more rehearsals, more interviews, and lots and lots of exposure to the professional ballet world behind the scenes, which is my favorite part of all. Really, where would be all be without World Ballet Day, now in its fifth year? A big shouted out THANK YOU, to Royal Ballet, without whose efforts there wouldn’t be this amazing event.

This year’s event will be streamed live on Facebook; simply go to the [Australian, Bolshoi, Royal] Ballet’s Facebook pages that I’ve linked above.

New info on 9/22: here are the guest companies who will be making an appearance during the event: Houston Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico, Acosta Danza, Bayerisches Stattsballett, Dutch National Ballet, Paris Opéra Ballet, Polish National Ballet, Queensland Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Northern Ballet, Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, Scottish Ballet, National Ballet of Japan, Norwegian National Ballet, Royal Swedish Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, Vienna State Ballet and West Australian Ballet. You can find times for these companies way down below. Just scroll to the end.

(For a real-time version of the above, click HERE.)

Here’s the biggest question I get asked over and over: “When does it begin and what are the times for each company? And what is the time in my time zone?” 

Stop 1 is Melbourne and the Australian Ballet. When the world-wide event kicks off at 11am in Melbourne on Tues Oct 2nd it looks like this for the rest of the time zones:

  • Moscow          4am Tues Oct 2
  • UTC/GMT*      1am Tues Oct 2
  • London            2am Tues Oct 2
  • New York        9pm Mon Oct 1
  • San Francisco 6pm Mon Oct 1

*In case you’re scratching your head, “UTC” is what Greenwich Mean Time is now called. I’m thinking it stands for “Universal Time Coordinated.”

Stop 2 is Moscow and the Bolshoi on Tues Oct 2nd. After the Australian Ballet streams its five-hour segment, this portion will begin at 9am local time, which looks like this for the rest of the time zones.

  • Melbourne      4pm
  • UTC/GMT        6am
  • London            7am
  • New York       2am
  • San Francisco  11:00pm (Oct 1st)

Stop 3 is London and the Royal Ballet. After the Bolshoi completes its five-hour segment, the Royal Ballet’s 12 noon start looks like this for the rest of the time zones:

  • UTC/GMT        11am
  • Melbourne      9pm
  • Moscow          2pm
  • New York       7am
  • San Francisco  4am

… But wait, there’s more!

Remember how we were bummed upon learning that National Ballet of Canada and San Francisco Ballet weren’t able to participate this year? The good news is, these companies are stepping up to the plate to contribute. Yay! The bad news is that you have to now figure out the times for yourself. (Remember what I said about UTC? If you’re confused as to what that looks like compared to your time zone, here’s that nifty clock comparison link HERE.)

Ballet Concierto De PR, San Juan – 10:00-10:15 AST (UTC -4hrs)
Acosta Danza, Cuba – 12:00-12:40 EDT (UTC -4hrs) (Technical difficulties – boo hoo!)
Houston Ballet, Texas – 12:30-13:30 CDT (UTC -5hrs)
Pacific Northwest Ballet , Seattle – 11:00-11:30 PDT (UTC -7hrs)
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, New York – 15:00-15:30 EDT (UTC -4hrs)
Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal – 16:00-17:00 EDT (UTC -4hrs)

To reiterate, each company’s segment will run live on their Facebook page. After the event is over, we’re being told that the archived footage will be available on YouTube. Whether that’s three minutes after the event, or three hours, or three days, we will find out on The Big Day.  Check with me here after the fact and I will share any links I find. Meanwhile, want archived footage and/or details and descriptions about past World Ballet Days? Check out my coverage of the event for 2017, 2016, 2015 and 2014 (just click on the year).

And one last bit of exciting news. Coincidentally, Oct 2nd is the release date for my newest  novel, entitled A DANCER’S GUIDE TO AFRICA. What could be more perfect? Two reasons to celebrate the day! In fact, let’s start the celebration early, shall we? My publishers have agreed to lower the price to 99 cents from now (on preorder) through World Ballet Day. Take advantage of this offer while you can, because after that day (and maybe we’ll throw in one extra day to be nice), the price will return to $4.99. And hey, check back on World Ballet Day for some news on can’t-miss-this bargains with my other two ballet novels. OUTSIDE THE LIMELIGHT and OFF BALANCE.

                                  

**Update on more times for guest companies. And once again, that clock link HERE.

The National Ballet of Japan, Tokyo – 11:00-11:15 JST (UTC +9hrs)
West Australian Ballet , Perth – 14:30-14:40 AWST (UTC +8hrs)
Queensland Ballet, Brisbane – 15:00-16:00 AEST (UTC+10hrs)
Royal New Zealand Ballet, Wellington – 15:00-16:00 NZST (UTC +12hrs)

Nasjonalballetten UNG / Norwegian National Ballet 2, Oslo – 14:00 – 14:30 CEST (UTC +2hrs)
The Royal Danish Ballet, Copenhagen – 14:15-14:45 CEST (UTC +2hrs)
Bayerisches Staatsballett, Munich – 14:30-15:00 CEST (UTC +2hrs)
Das Stuttgarter Ballettt, Stuttgart – 15:00-15:30 CEST (UTC +2hrs)
Wiener Staatsballett, Vienna – 15:15-15:45 CEST (UTC +2hrs)
Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris, Paris – 15:30-16:00 CEST (UTC +2hrs)
Het Nationale Ballet – Dutch National Ballet, Amsterdam – 16:00-16:30 CEST (UTC +2hrs)
Kungliga Svenska balettskolan/ The Royal Swedish Ballet School, Stockholm – 16:15-16:45 CEST (UTC +2hrs)
Teatr Wielki – Opera Narodowa, Warsaw – 17:00-17:30 CEST (UTC +2hrs)

Scottish Ballet, Glasgow – 11:00-11:30 BST (UTC +1hr)
Birmingham Royal Ballet – 13:00-13:30 BST (UTC +1hr)
English National Ballet, London – 14:00-14:30 BST (UTC +1hr)
Royal Academy of Dance, London – 14:30-15:00 BST (UTC +1hr)
Northern Ballet, Leeds – 16:00-16:30 BST (UTC +1hr)

Ballet Concierto De PR, San Juan – 10:00-10:15 AST (UTC -4hrs)
Acosta Danza, Cuba – 12:00-12:40 EDT (UTC -4hrs)
Houston Ballet, Texas – 12:30-13:30 CDT (UTC -5hrs)
Pacific Northwest Ballet , Seattle – 11:00-11:30 PDT (UTC -7hrs)
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, New York – 15:00-15:30 EDT (UTC -4hrs)
Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal – 16:00-17:00 EDT (UTC -4hrs)