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 is Oct 2nd!

Prepare yourself, dear readers, because World Ballet Day is almost here again! Save the date: Tuesday October 2nd, around the world.

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 and London’s Royal Ballet. 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 World Ballet Day page, or the [Australian, Bolshoi, Royal] Ballet’s Facebook page. (I will provide links as the event approaches.) And this just in [on 9/22]: here are the guest companies who will be making an appearance during the twelve-hour 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.

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. If the world-wide event kicks off at 12 noon* in Melbourne on Tues Oct 2nd (which for those of us in the Americas is actually Mon evening, Oct 1, so head’s up) it looks like this for the rest of the time zones:

  • Moscow          5am Tues Oct 2
  • London            3am Tues Oct 2 (maybe 2am)
  • New York       10pm Mon Oct 1 (maybe 9pm)
  • San Francisco 7pm Mon Oct 1 (maybe 6pm)

*Note that some websites are reporting that the event starts an hour earlier. I’m not sure about this, so I will triple-check and update

Stop 2 is Moscow and the Bolshoi on Tues Oct 2nd. Assuming the Australian Ballet streams a five-hour segment, this portion would begin at 10am local time, which looks like this for the rest of the time zones, all of which, happily, now all fall on the same day, Tuesday.

  • Melbourne      5pm
  • London            8am
  • New York       3am
  • San Francisco  12:00am

Stop 3 is London and the Royal Ballet. Assuming the Bolshoi had a four-hour segment like last year, the Royal Ballet’s 12 noon start looks like this for the rest of the time zones:

  • Melbourne      9pm
  • Moscow          2pm
  • New York       7am
  • San Francisco  4am

The Royal Ballet’s segment will hopefully run 5 hours, which would end coverage at 5pm local time, which looks like this for the rest of the time zones (and I’m crossing my fingers that more coverage gets added on!):

  • Melbourne      2am Wed Oct 3rd
  • Moscow          7pm
  • New York       12 noon
  • San Francisco  9am

There’s always the opportunity to watch archived material if you miss the original. Check with me here after the fact and I will share those links. 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.