Category Archives: Classical Music

Concerts, recordings, reviews, musings, you name it. I’m a lifelong classical music fan.

Possokhov and Scarlett bring two world premieres to the SFB stage

With The Sleeping Beauty all wrapped up at the War Memorial Opera House, it’s officially the halfway point for San Francisco Ballet’s 2019 repertory season. Last season’s Unbound: A Festival of New Works (which I blogged about HERE) gave the company twelve world premieres, several of which are being repeated this season. But 2019 brings its own two world premieres, which are forthcoming, in Programs 5 and 6.

Program 5, “Lyric Voices,” which runs March 27 through April 7, features the world premiere of Yuri Possokhov’s “. . . two united in a single soul . . .” It’s choreographer-in-residence Possokhov’s 15th work created for the San Francisco Ballet, and he’s drawn from the Greek myth of Narcissus, the hunter who falls in love with his own reflection in a forest spring and wastes away, pining for unattainable love. Possokhov, whose work for the San Francisco Ballet includes The Rite of Spring, Firebird and Swimmer, utilizes thirteen dancers, including Narcissus, who explore moments of connection, reflection and refraction.

Wei Wang and Joseph Walsh rehearsing Possokhov’s “. . . two united in a single soul . . .”. (© Erik Tomasson)

The ballet’s music holds its own allure to me. Possokhov commissioned a score by Russian composer Daria Novo, who has fused arias by Handel—performed live, in rotation, by countertenors Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen and Matheus Coura—with electronic elements (audio plug-ins, libraries, sound effects) and her own music. The music, the countertenors, might sound surprisingly familiar to some. Remember that 1994 movie, Farinelli, a biographical drama about the 18th-century castrato Carlo Broschi?

Countertenors are today’s equivalent to the famous castrati (do I need to translate what makes them sing so high?) of the 17th and 18th centuries, and Possokhov cites the music from Farinelli as further inspiration for his ballet. “It’s the combination of the dancing and the singing that I love so much. I knew I wanted voice, and I’m fond of countertenors. The ballet is set nowhere; it’s just space-somewhere, somehow. And the voice is like the echo in the myth.”

“Lyric Voices” also includes two ballets returning from last year’s Unbound Festival. They are Trey McIntyre’s Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem and Christopher Wheeldon’s Bound To. Additional information about the program can be found on San Francisco Ballet’s website, in its Discover section. Dates run Wed March 27  to Sun April 7 (concurrent with Program 6). Tickets start at $32 and may be purchased via the Ticket Services Office at 415 865 2000, Monday through Friday from 10 am to 4 pm or online at www.sfballet.org.

I can’t stop thinking about the music from Farinelli –– it’s a favorite soundtrack of mine. I have a hunch Possokhov’s ballet will include the gorgeous “Lascia Ch’io Pianga” from Handel’s Rinaldo, so to get you in the mood, here you go, something for my ballet readers and classical music readers alike.

And now about the World Premiere for Program 6, Liam Scarlett’s Die Toteninsel. It, too, includes a stunning, memorable work of classical music, Rachmaninoff’s “The Isle of the Dead.” Die Toteninsel is its German translation, and is also the name of the iconic painting by Swiss Symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin (see the embed below). Rachmaninoff’s symphonic tone poem, like the painting, is stirring and spooky and amazing; it made the list for my “10 Spooky Classical Faves for Halloween” post, which you can find HERE.

English choreographer Scarlett, artist in residence at The Royal Ballet, has created other memorable works for The San Francisco Ballet: Hummingbird, Fearful Symmetries and Frankenstein. Similar to the latter, Die Toteninsel exhibits the darkness and uneasy qualities of beauty (or, paradoxically, the beautiful qualities of darkness and unease). As Caitlin Sims explains in program notes, Scarlett uses the music and its history as a jumping off point for a more abstract work exploring the deep-rooted questions about what lies beyond this life. If Scarlett’s Frankenstein was a choreographic novel, his new ballet is more a short story—in which symbolism, movement motifs, and ambiguity both color the work and give viewers room to make diverse, individual interpretations.

Liam Scarlett and Davide Occhipinti rehearsing Scarlett’s Die Toteninsel. (© Erik Tomasson)

Scarlett draws upon the music’s repetitiveness and its unique 5/8 time signature in creating movement that grows and builds, then unexpectedly echoes itself. As a central couple emerges, surging forward and sweeping back in great arcs, their movements are reflected by groups that form and dissipate as easily as waves, giving the ephemeral “a sense of weight, and passing through one another,” says Scarlett.

Give the music a listen. It’s stunning. And the image, by the way, is the famous painting.

Also featured in Program 6 are Justin Peck’s 2015 Rodeo: Four Dances and Arthur Pita’s Björk Ballet (from last year’s Unbound Festival). Additional information about the program can be found on San Francisco Ballet’s website, in its Discover section. Dates run Friday March 29  to Tuesday April 9 (concurrent with Program 5). Tickets start at $32 and may be purchased via the Ticket Services Office at 415 865 2000, Monday through Friday from 10 am to 4 pm or online at www.sfballet.org.

Green Book and Chopin’s stunning Étude

 

If you’re a moviegoer who follows the Oscars, you might have seen Green Book, a 2018 movie about an Italian-American bouncer who chauffeurs an African-American pianist on a performing tour through the deep South in the 1960s. It stars actors Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, and I can’t say enough good things about it. What drew me, of course, was the classical music angle hovering on the periphery.

The film’s title derives itself from a publication, from 1936 to 1966, called The Negro Motorist Green Book, which pointed black travelers toward establishments where they would be welcomed throughout the deeply segregated South. The movie is based on a true story (the screenwriter is Nick Vallelonga, son of Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, the chauffeur, who chronicled his father’s shared recollections), although the film condenses the events into six weeks, when in real life, their travels together, on and off, lasted a year and a half. The two men remained friends for life.

Don Shirley, the son of Jamaican immigrant parents, was born in Florida in 1927. Considered a musical prodigy, he was invited at age 9 to study theory at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music. By age 10, he could play much of the piano’s standard concert repertory. He also composed his own work. He made his professional debut at age 18 with the Boston Pops, performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor and a year later, he performed one of his compositions with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. But he would soon come to discover that opportunities for classical black musicians were few and far between. Discouraged, he abandoned the piano as a career and studied psychology at the University of Chicago, where he earned his Ph D. It was around this time that playing music returned to his life. He was advised that, while American audiences would have trouble accepting a black concert pianist, he’d be brilliant in playing  what Shirley describes in the film not as jazz, but as “pop.” Doing so, as the leader of the Don Shirley Trio, he became highly successful, managing to infuse the music with enough classical elements to make it sound posh, unique.

‘‘The silky tone and supple rhythmic flow of Mr. Shirley’s playing is just as artful and ingratiating as ever,’’ Peter G. Davis wrote in The New York Times of a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1971. ‘‘’I Can’t Get Started’ heard as a Chopin nocturne, or ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ as a Rachmaninoff etude, may strike some as a trifle odd, but these — and everything on the program, in fact — were beautifully tailored to spotlight Mr. Shirley’s easy lyrical style and bravura technique.’’

But back to the movie, Green Book. Tony and Dr. Don Shirley — whom Tony quickly takes to calling Doc, embark on the concert tour and initially all goes [relatively] smoothly. One scene appealed to the classical lover in me. Tony joins Don in a hotel lobby, where Don opens up to Tony about how he loves classical music, and finds what he had to settle for, as a musician, to be a step down. Tony’s shocked by this. He’s heard Dr. Shirley play, telling his wife that “he’s like a musical genius — as good as Liberace!” and now says to Shirley, “Anyone can sound like Beethoven. But your music, what you do—only you can do that.”

It was a heartfelt compliment, mind you. Maybe the others in the audience felt the same way, that Tony was telling him the truth. I had this moment of recoiling, worried that this might be a story theme, like “jazz and pop are relevant and good, while classical music is dry and elitist.” But Don Shirley had embraced his classical training; it was where his musical prodigy existed. So Don only smiles over Tony’s words, too polite to scorn them, but likely aware (like myself) that, no, not everyone can sound like Beethoven. Not every professional pianist can play Beethoven, or, Shirley’s favorite composer, Chopin, in a way that is so knowing of the composer’s intentions, nuances, that, when they play it, it is like conjuring up Beethoven and/or Chopin, the composer’s spirit, the music’s spirit. It’s damned hard to play complex, note-heavy music and make it sound, paradoxically, as uncomplicated and organic as water trickling through a stream (or in Beethoven’s case, water thundering down Niagara Falls). Don Shirley could play this way. But the world wasn’t interested in hearing him play classical music, not in 1960’s America.

Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as Dr. Donald Shirley in Green Book, directed by Peter Farrelly.

The movie is marvelous, plenty of humor, heart, expected (and unexpected) pathos as the two make their way further into the deep South. I’m not here to write a review, but if you’d like one, click HERE, for a good one by Jonathan Romney. But there’s a scene toward the end that I LOVED SO MUCH, I had to share it here. Following a racially spurred incident before a final performance, Doc and Tony walk out of the venue in a rage (whoops, should I have said “spoiler alert”? Um, SPOILER ALERT) and head instead to a roadside joint, which had been recommended to Don because it “served dinner to people of color.” You can visualize this great joint, the jazz playing, the soul food being served, and Tony loves the vibe of the place. He’s far more comfortable there than Don, who’s wearing a tux and can’t help the fact that he has the formal bearing of a king. It’s who he is. But the two take a seat, have a drink, some food, and Don relaxes. The female bartender, curious about Don’s posh looks and attire, asks what he does. When she hears he’s a pianist, she gestures to the piano on a small stage in the corner, currently unoccupied because the musicians are taking a break. Don hesitates, Tony prods him, and finally Don gets up and goes to the piano.

Oh, what a delicious moment. He sits, adjusts the bench, and softly plays eight notes, a simple melody. Dum dum du-dum DA dum dum DA. Repeats it more softly, with chords.

You can tell the other customers listening are bemused, thinking, okayyyyy, that’s the best he can do? But if you know Chopin, or saw the movie, maybe you know what’s coming. I felt the awareness like an incipient ache, a split second of “OmigodIKnowWhat’sComingNeeeeeext” and then, the crashing, stunning, unforgettable, searing cascade of notes that is Chopin’s Étude Op. 25, No 11 in A minor. (Subtitled “Winter Wind,” which is SO perfect.)

I think it’s time for you to hear it.

What I found so unforgettable was how, as Don played, you could feel his rage—but wait, that’s the wrong word. More like an energized sorrow, a lifetime’s lament, that this music by Chopin, this really kick-ass, hard-to-play music, was what stirred his soul, not the mainstream jazz he and his trio performed. Or maybe it was the pent-up frustration of dealing with the indignities of being a black man in the 1960’s, in the deep South, seen for his skin color and not his musical talent. Regardless, it was amazing. I love, love, loved this scene, this movie.

The Academy Awards are on Sunday, Feb 24th, and Green Book received multiple nominations, including for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay and, the most exciting category: Best Picture. I’m not sure how well this much-beloved film (to me) will stand up against the others. In the aforementioned/linked review above, Jonathan Romney says:  “Green Book is a road trip into another era, in more ways than one. It’s a quietly mischievous comedy-drama about race, unimpeachably well-meaning in an old-fashioned way—but something of a benign dinosaur in the age of Get OutBlacKkKlansman, and Sorry to Bother You.“ He brings up a good point. But me, I’ll be rooting for this wonderful film on Sunday night. If you haven’t gotten a chance to see it yet, run out and do so ASAP.

PS: Kudos and credit go to film composer and music mentor Kris Bowers, as well, whose hands and whose sound appear in the film. Curious about how much of a part he played in the movie? Click HERE for a great article by Pollstart.

Mystery revealed: Schubert’s Impromptu No. 3 in G-flat

Tell me if this has ever happened to you: you’re out and about when you hear a brief passage of gorgeous classical music, which never gets identified, and it goes on to haunt you.

Here was mine: I was in an art-house cinema years back, sitting in the semidarkness with my husband, waiting for the movie to begin. Back in those civilized days, they didn’t bombard you with commercials or junky “shows” before the film; you got to bask in music. This piece, a classical piano recording, was just stunning, dreamy and lyrical. All my thoughts fell away; even my breath stilled, in order to capture every note. “Who is this composer?” I asked my husband in a hushed voice. He shrugged.

“Schubert,” a man two rows behind us called out. I thanked him, murmured it to myself to mentally file it away, and as the piece ended, the lights dimmed, and the movie previews began.

I thought longingly of that piece on and off for the next several months. This was back in the old days, no iTunes, no internet to surf, no Google, Spotify, Amazon. To procure new music you—gasp!— had to go into a record store and hunt for it. It didn’t help that I couldn’t describe it well. (“It’s… very pretty. Haunting. And short.”) I sifted through Schubert’s music to see if I could find it, but we’re talking about a very prolific composer. In his all-too-brief life, Schubert wrote over 1000 pieces of music, 600 of them lieder or “songs”—short, lyrical, vocal compositions that, along with his waltzes (particularly the Austrian Ländler) brought Schubert great fame. (In his native Vienna, where he spent his entire life, these pieces became so popular, they comprised the core of social evenings, called “Schubertiads,” in the salons of the wealthy, where people would gather to sing and dance to Schubert’s music.)

But the mystery music was neither lieder nor waltz.

I searched on. I taste-tested. I bought compilation CDs. I bought a trio of Schubert CDs. No luck.

“Are you sure he said Schubert?” one of my classical music friends asked when I shared my frustrating search for this piece of music. “Was it maybe Schumann? Because that mystical, haunting feeling can be found in a lot of Schumann’s music.”

So I commenced a search through the Schumann repertoire. Bought those compilation CDs. I got to know his symphonies and concertos, some of which, indeed, carried a sense of the otherworldly (which I blogged about HERE). I read a biography on him that was as compelling as a novel. I fell in love with his music. But I never found the composition that haunted me.

The Great Search continued for, believe it or not, a decade. Granted, it didn’t occupy my every thought, but it was always there, in the back of my mind, this mysteriously beautiful piece that either Schumann or Schubert had composed. Every time I went into a music store, I’d grill whomever best knew classical music. I discovered more and more delightful pieces through obscure compilation CDs that I’d buy, which, actually, went a long way in expanding my classical music preferences.

And then one day I heard it again.

I was in the car, driving. And this is probably something other classical music lovers can relate to, as well. You hear it on the radio, and you sit in your car, still as a mouse, having arrived at your destination, but determined NOT to leave the car until the piece ends, at which time the radio announcer will state in that silken broadcaster’s voice that which you just heard, and if ANYTHING gets in the way of your hearing the title or the composer’s name, you will FREAK OUT.

“And that was Franz Schubert (“Aha!” you scream inside) and his Impromptu No. 3 in G-flat major,” the broadcaster purrs, and as he continues talking, you’re frantically grabbing for a pen and paper to scribble that down, and finally, you’ve got it. The name of the song that has haunted you for well over a decade.

It was another few years before I actually bought a recording of the Impromptu No. 3. Yes, I could have bought a CD of the 4 Impromptu collection for $16.99. Call me cheap — I spent most of my pennies back then on budget compilation CDs. For some reason, this astonishingly beautiful piece isn’t as well-known as other short classical compositions. It’s rare to find it on a compilation CD. Strange, since Schubert had such a keen sense of melody. Possibly because he himself began his music studies as a singer, and lieder truly was his claim to considerable fame during his lifetime. (The majority of his other music was published posthumously, where it found even greater popularity.) Thank goodness for the advent of iTunes, where I could buy a single piece of music, simply by typing in the name and clicking “buy.” Schubert’s Impromptu No. 3 is now mine to listen to, whenever I want.

Oh, the emotional images it stirs within me. A whiff of my childhood, dusk on a wintery Sunday, when the younger, chilled me has gone inside and Mom’s got a roast cooking in the oven, filling the air with an intoxicating aroma and a sense of security. An adult version: arriving home after a long day out in the world, but you’re home now, changed out of constraining clothes into something loose and roomy, and someone has just handed you a glass of red wine and told you not to worry, dinner will happen when it happens. In the music, I also catch a prescient glimpse of old age: the sweet ache of walking through a quiet house and seeing all the family photos, each with their own story, each story over, now, consigned to memory. Life lived, life passing.

Your turn to give Schubert’s Impromptu No. 3 a listen. Here are two different interpretations. First one is Vladimir Horowitz and the second one is Inon Barnatan.


And

Which do you prefer? Horowitz’s fingers are so flat against the keys, it’s crazy to watch. But shut your eyes and feel the way he channels a story. The guy is a master, a once-in-a-generation kind of talent. It’s slower than Barnatan’s; I can’t decide if that leaches some of the intensity from it for me. Pianist Inon Barnatan (whose recording is the one I bought through iTunes) creates such a marvelous mood with his articulation, the way he crescendoes and decrescendos — really, it renders me a little breathless, with awe, with pleasure. It’s just so many delicious aural sensations, packed into six minutes.

Schubert composed the Impromptu No. 3, part of a set of 4 Impromptus, in the two-year period before he died in 1828. He’d found tremendous success in the popularity of his short works, but surely he felt the sorrow of putting so much of his energy into longer works — operas that he could never find a publisher, patron or venue to champion, which had been his lifelong wish. His health was lousy (he contracted what was likely syphilis in his early twenties and spent a good deal of time in hospitals) and he struggled with depression. Readers who already are familiar with Schubert’s work might know that he wrote “Winterreise” during this time. I have to say, when I read the description, a “heartrending diary of the Winter Journey of a rejected lover, whose unquenchable pain leads him to quiet madness and a longing for death” — well, I took a pass. It’s a song cycle of 24 pieces, so if you’re a reader who likes [dark] lieder, HERE is a link. More cheerful and more recognizable is Schubert’s Quintet in A major, popularly known as the “Trout” quintet. I’m a longtime fan of the Rosamunde Overture.  I am currently listening to his lovely Piano Quintet in C major, which I prefer over the Quintet in A, actually. You will recognize the middle “Adagio” movement here — it’s been used in several movies and commercials. There’s his Quartet No. 14 in D minor, “Death and the Maiden,” that’s a must-listen, its first two movements in particular. His symphonies. His “Ave Maria.” (Maria Callas’ rendition HERE is simply stunning.) And more, and more.

Have you been haunted by a piece of classical music in a similar fashion? Do share! They are such fun stories to hear, and what fascinates me is how different each classical music lover’s tastes are. Beethoven, Liszt, Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Wagner, Dvorák, Britten, Schumann, Brahms, Barber, Debussy, Hindemith—the list goes on and on, of composers who’ve written something either stunning or stark (or both) that speaks to the soul in a way nothing else can.

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).

Khachaturian’s Sizzling Piano Concerto

Nothing in the classical music repertoire says “summertime” more to me than Aram Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto. I discovered this Soviet era gem three summers ago and my first thought, (after “WOW!”) was, How did this elude me up to now? Blame it on the fact that it’s rarely performed in concert halls these days. But make no doubt, it’s a sizzler. It’s decisive, flamboyant, arrives and departs in a pyrotechnic dazzle. Its first and third movements are a textured, color-filled feast for the ears. Its second movement melts your heart. Does the concerto lack a certain nuance found in other composers’ piano concertos, as some will argue? I’ll throw my analogy back at you: does the height of summer lack nuance? Hell, yeah! Nuance belongs to fresh, early May mornings and golden, late September afternoons. Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto belongs right here, with the heat, the direct, can’t-escape-it sunlight, the sultry evenings luring you outdoors to regard the massive, star-studded sky, where you think, “Wow.”

 

Khachaturian was born in 1903 to ethnic Armenian parents in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia, where he was also raised. He was self-taught on the piano in his youth, and only later did he receive formal training, in Moscow. I’ve always grouped him in my mind with two other well-known Soviet era composers, Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. But a little background research on him revealed quite a different kind of Soviet. The other two composers frequently railed against the constraints of the Soviet regime, its stronghold on the arts. Khachaturian, on the other hand, embraced Communism and its ideology. Age fourteen at the start of the Russian Revolution, which soon established Soviet rule in Armenia (1920) and Georgia (1921), he took to it all with a teen boy’s fervor, signing on to join the propaganda tours via trains that traveled up and down the newly created Soviet corridor and pounded out ideological speeches and songs. The powerful connection between music and message exploded within him and he decided to embark on a musical career. Although he’d enrolled in the study of biology at a Moscow university, he nonetheless applied to the Gnessin School of Music, where he was accepted as a student of the cello. Music and composition became all that mattered in his world, and when the Moscow university expelled him from the biology program, he likely only thought, “Whew.” Thereafter, he moved on to the Moscow Conservatory, intent on creating music that “expressed the Soviet people’s joy and pride in their great and mighty country.”

“Wait,” you’re probably saying. “He’s an Armenian composer. Or is he a Soviet composer? Or Georgian—wasn’t he native to there?” Good point. Because, to complicate things further, although he is known as Armenia’s greatest composer, and is one of that nation’s greatest cultural heroes, he never set foot into Armenia until the period of the propaganda train tours, in his late teens. And he didn’t make an official visit to Armenia until 1939, three years after he composed his Piano Concerto. But make no doubt about it—he saw himself as an Armenian composer first. See, this was during the Armenian diaspora, and he and his family were part of an Armenian enclave in Tbilisi. Actually, all of it was part of a region called Transcaucasia, that included Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. In a 1952 article entitled “My Idea of the Folk Element in Music,” Khachaturian wrote the following:

“I grew up in an atmosphere rich in folk music: popular festivities, rites, joyous and sad events in the life of the people always accompanied by music, the vivid tunes of Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian songs and dances performed by folk bards and musicians – such were the impressions that became deeply engraved on my memory, that determined my musical thinking.”

The Soviet regime adored Khachaturian, his work, his powerful commitment to his Armenian heritage and Communism both. In him they found the perfect vehicle to demonstrate how the Soviet nations outside Russia were equally valued, and delivered an equally strong message that matched theirs. Which was hugely important for a composer during this time. (just ask the less obliging Shostakovich.) In Joseph Stalin’s own words, a composer in Soviet society had to be “an engineer of the human soul by writing music that communicates directly with the common man and instills in listeners loyalty to the ideals of Communism, love for the Soviet Union, and pride in the working class.”

Khachaturian’s piano concerto was composed in 1936, while he was a post-grad student at the Moscow Conservatory, under the tutelage of the great pedagogue, Nikolai Myaskovsky, who encouraged Khachaturian’s use of folk music and ethnic flavors in his compositions. It premiered in 1937. With its driving rhythms, distinct flavors, accessibility and charm, it was an instant success. Khachaturian garnered high Soviet honors and his career instantly took off. He would continue in his highly successful, highly public career, to give the Soviet regime what they wanted, and they would continue to reward him for it. Between 1936 and 1946, Khachaturian wrote a set of three concerti for the piano trio of Lev Oborin (piano), David Oistrakh (violin), and Sviatoslav Knushevitsky (cello).

Give the first movement a listen, and we’ll talk more afterwards. it features pianist Alicia de Larrocha with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Rafael Frückbeck de Burgos conducting, who  all balance nicely the bombastic with the thoughtful. And there’s a treat in store: this is one of the few recordings that, in the second movement, utilizes the flexatone, a strange little steel instrument invented in Britain in 1922, which produces a sound like what you’d get if you mixed a musical saw with a poorly-tuned (and played) glockenspiel. (Stop scratching your head in confusion and just go LISTEN. And if you can explain it better, in the comments section below, I will give you a prize. Pinky swear.)


What did you think? Even though I’m a strings person and would normally gravitate first to the violin concerto, or its cello counterpart, it’s this Piano Concerto that has stolen my heart. I’m so intrigued by to those delicious, slightly dissonant chords — Khachaturian loved incorporating intervals of the second. He also embraced the Oriental music idiom, which surely pairs well with Armenian folk music.

And that second movement — oh wow, it never fails to cast a spell on me. It creates such a vivid inner state, the way the full moon on a warm summer’s night makes you feel like you’ve stumbled into another realm. Lying in the grass, looking up at the stars, everything tight in you eases and the world of imagination and possibility unfurls before you like a grand, endless, magic carpet. Story has it, it’s based on a Transcaucasus melody. A bass clarinet introduces and ends the movement. A new instrument for me; I’d been so sure it was a double bassoon, so deep and gorgeously brooding, but nope. Here, the bass clarinet is utilizing its full range—an octave below the more common soprano clarinet. It lends the movement its unique sound (the bass clarinet is more common in concert bands than in classical orchestration), along with that flexatone. Most recordings don’t use the flexatone, and instead let the violins carry the melody, which is a shame. Once you’ve heard a recording with the flexatone, without it, the strings seem to muddy what was mystical and wonderfully spooky. And the piano dialogues differently with a solo instrument. But, with or without flexatone, the movement is just stunning. Lush, spacious and so viscerally satisfying. And again, there’s that dissonance in the chords that works so deliciously. Remember what I said above about Khachaturian’s love of incorporating intervals of the second” ? That’s what you’re hearing.

Here is the second movement on its own. Very much worth a listen even though it doesn’t have the flexatone. The soloist is Aram Avetyan, it’s the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Eduard Topchjan.

Khachaturian has got a rollicking good violin concerto too, and a cello concerto that doesn’t strike me as mind-blowing as the piano concerto, but let me know if you disagree. Khachaturian was more prolific than a lot of people realize, probably because, as a Soviet composer, much of his work found a home only in the (former) USSR. He composed quite a few film scores, which I hadn’t realized. In later years, he composed another set of three concertos — actually, concerto rhapsodies, which are a “single-movement, multi-sectioned concept balanced between cadenza and fantasy.” My ballet readers will know and love more than one Khachaturian composition, maybe not even realizing who the composer was for the Bolshoi’s ballet, Spartacus, and its gorgeous, romantic Adagio pas de deux. And the sweeping “Masquerade Suite.” And the Soviet ballet, Gayaneh.

Here are links to some of the things he composed (some of which might surprise you):

  • The Sabre Dance. You’ve heard it. Trust me. Head’s up: if Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumblebee” kind of annoys you and/or gives you a headache, well, brace yourself. This one’s worse. https://youtu.be/gqg3l3r_DRI
  • The 1942 ballet, Gayaneh https://youtu.be/_JlGS1m1PL4
  • From the above ballet, this stunning violin adagio: https://youtu.be/K6ZBSdjzKfk It’s featured in Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and also heavily borrowed from by James Horner for his soundtrack to Aliens.
  • Violin Concerto (features violin legend David Oistrakh, and Khachaturian himself composing) https://youtu.be/TeKZAbFj83I
  • Cello Concerto https://youtu.be/HbkWS8wXqMg
  • Spartacus Ballet, the Bolshoi production, the Adagio pas de deux. (A MUST CLICK for any ballet dancer reader – the music plus movement will utterly transport you.) https://youtu.be/gVX0BoXc_Jk 
  • Adagio from Spartacus for music purists https://youtu.be/LZLMKkEGFRo This one is all sound, no ballet, and I think its sound says it all. A more nuanced listening experience than the above.
  • Here is my absolute fave, “Masquerade Suite.” The ballet dancer in me was instantly smitten upon hearing this, decades ago. The love has never abated. In fact, let’s embed so all can enjoy.