Category Archives: Classical Music

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

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.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s magic “Scheherazade”

Warning: do not attempt to drive or operate heavy machinery while listening to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade for the first time. Said composition is known to have caused feelings of extreme uplift, a dreamlike state, mild disorientation and a disassociation with the mundane. Use with caution, not to exceed ten listens per day, unless ordered by your doctor.

Where to start? Shut your eyes as you listen to Scheherazade and the mind fills with vivid images: a turbulent ocean, eighteenth-century clipper ships with billowing sails, sailors and dashing sea captains saving the day. Musical colors and textures alert you, seduce you: the booming, ominous tones from the brass section (a tyrannizing Sultan) and the sweetest, most delicate violin presence possible (the lovely Scheherazade). These two voices help tell the story throughout the composition — which, although your ears want to tell you otherwise, is not a symphony, but a symphonic suite.

Allow me to share a teaser, before we delve into details about Rimsky-Korsakov and the story behind Scheherazade. Now, you might look at the title of the embed below and say, “Wait. That’s National Ballet of Canada performing John Neumeier’s Nijinsky. We’re here to learn all about Scheherazade and its composer, right?” Trust me here. It all connects in the end (in a way my ballet readers will love).

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade is a bit like the 2010 film, Inception. It’s a story inside a story, or more precisely, the medieval Arabic collection of stories (1001 Nights, also called Arabian Nights in English). It’s about a storyteller who tells the Sultan a story a night for 1001 nights and thus saves not just her life, but the lives of all the young women in the kingdom. See, the medieval Sultan, a rather difficult, vengeful dictator type, had decided, following his first wife’s infidelity and subsequent beheading, to marry a new virgin each day after beheading the previous day’s wife, to guarantee no further such infidelity (and bruised ego). Scheherazade, a young, intelligent, resourceful type, actually volunteered for the job. She was clever, and understood the power behind good storytelling. On her wedding night, she started her story and got the Sultan all wide-eyed and absorbed. As dawn broke in the eastern sky, she made sure to pause her story at a cliffhanging point. The Sultan begged her to continue, but she only smiled coyly and said, “Tonight.” The Sultan, so intrigued, decided not to behead her, so as to hear the story’s end. Of course once Scheherazade finished her story that night, she started a new one right up, which once again reached a cliffhanger plot point at dawn. And so on, for 1001 nights.

Now on to the composer, who had an unerring ability to take music and create a powerful sense of story with it, through it. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was born in 1844 to parents who’d surely thought they were done with parenting. His father, Andrey, was sixty and his mother, Sophia, was forty-two. Their only other child, a son named Voin, was 22, already established in a career as an officer in the Imperial Russian Navy. Andrey and Sophia probably looked at the gurgling little Nikolai and thought, “Yikes. What now?” Fortunately, Voin was charmed by the little fellow and agreed to be his godfather, a position he took quite seriously, becoming more of a third parent than a sibling. Since Voin’s career kept him away, often at sea, letter writing became common and frequent among the Rimsky-Korsakov family, all of which were diligently saved. Wonderful for us now, because facts and minutia are there in letters, archived, for us to glean countless details about young Nikolai’s young life. It’s not often we of the 21st century are privy to this intimate and thorough a glimpse of a composer’s early life. Music, we learn, was to only be a hobby for the young Nikolai. Everyone wanted him to follow in Voin’s (as well as his uncle’s and great-grandfather’s) footsteps, have a career in the navy. Nikolai, starry-eyed with admiration for his older brother, was happy to comply. Which meant leaving his doting parents behind in 1856 at age twelve for the Naval College in St. Petersburg. There, he coped with discomfort, homesickness, worked diligently, and followed Voin’s every directive.

Once Nikolai’s progress was deemed satisfying, with good grades and responsible behavior, he was given permission to indulge in piano lessons, which he’d started back home. Nikolai had an ear for music, a natural talent. Unfortunately his first tutor was a cellist, rather uninspired in both teaching and playing piano. When, in the spring of 1859, the tutor admitted to Voin that Nikolai had grown better than he on the piano, Voin found his brother a new tutor: Fyodor Kanille (also spelled Théodore Canillé), a talented pianist and teacher, who instantly recognized his new student’s gift. He and Nikolai thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company, the lessons, the boy growing ever more enraptured by music, the piano, even fledgling attempts at composition. But when his grades began to suffer, Voin stepped in and said, “Whoa, whoa, too much interest in music. Stick to your naval studies. That’s your career, and we expect you to make top grades in your studies. Music is not your future.” He canceled the music lessons, and Nikolai, bereft, being the obedient boy he was, complied. Fortunately, the grades went back up and months later, Voin cautiously agreed to lessons again.

One notable thing during Nikolai’s time with Uninspired Cellist tutor guy was that in the fall of 1857, one of Voin’s friends took Nikolai to see professional opera for the first time. A mere day later, the friend took him to a second, even more elaborate production. A fierce love for opera, this place where classical music meets story, took hold in Nikolai, a love for music and story that would power his future, his music-making, for the rest of his life.

Time to hear the music in question. You have a choice here. The first embed is one of Russia’s top conductors, Valery Gergiev, leading the Vienna Philharmonic (think: smooth, nuanced, old-world sound, performed by a whole lot of white men). The pace speeds along at a fast clip in a performance lasting 42 minutes. The first and third movements are amazing. Do NOT miss.

The next one is its musical opposite. It’s the Gimnazija Kranj Symphony Orchestra, apparently a youth orchestra, in Ljubljana. Slovenia. A really, really good performance. Ah, youth. Such beautiful faces and expressions (Gergiev is a tiny bit creepy to watch, I have to be honest, as much as I admire the man — and all those white male faces in the orchestra start to blur together). This version below, conducted by Nejd Bečan is quite slow (too slow?) and stretches to 51 minutes. The solo violinist here, Matjaž Bogataj, is divine.

There is so much more to share about Rimsky-Korsakov: his early career, both as a composer and a naval officer; meeting a quartet of fellow composers with whom he’d share a lifelong bond; his life with his soon-to-be wife, Nadezhda. My brain is whirring and I want to jam everything onto this document which, trust me, will not serve in your best interests. Instead I’ll go the other route, with the tried-and-true “10 interesting facts.” So, without further ado…

10 Interesting Facts About Rimsky-Korsakov

  1. He had no formal conservatory training, but in spite of that, at age 27, he was hired as a professor of musical composition, harmony and orchestration at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1871. Never one to look for a free ride, he educated himself thoroughly, for years, until he became a master of Western methods, incorporating them into his work.
  2. He was a member of “The Five” or “The Mighty Five”, a group of Russian composers (Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, César Cui), who, in a nutshell, rejected the compositions of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, etc, in favor of “Russian” classical music (largely composed by them), thus influencing the classical music that came out of Russia, imbued with nationalist identity and rich with folkloric elements.
  3. Nikolai’s brother Voin was, for quite some time, the better-known Rimsky-Korsakov, a respected navigator and explorer. There is a small archipelago in the Sea of Japan named after him. He died at age 49.
  4. His wife, Nadezhda, was very accomplished on the piano and played a far more important role in Nikolai’s life than history will likely ever give her credit for. Think Clara and Robert Schumann, minus the insanity.
  5. He maintained a career as naval officer and managed to compose and spend social, music-centric evenings with The Five. In 1873, the Imperial Navy wisely created the civilian post of Inspector of Naval Bands for him. This kept him on the Navy payroll but allowed him to resign his commission and stay put. He continued to serve in this position until late 1883.
  6. He was prolific in his composing and produced 11 symphonic works (which included Scheherazade, “Capriccio Espagnol” and 3 symphonies), 15 operas, 3 concertos, 79 Romances. He was prolific in the fathering department, too. Seven kids.
  7. He composed the “Flight of the Bumblebee,” originally for his opera, The Tale of Tsar Saltan. Its piano version is famous. Don’t ask for a link. It’s too busy and gives me a headache.
  8. He put countless hours into refining his fellow “Mighty Five” composers’ music posthumously, such as Borodin’s Prince Igor opera and Mussorgsky’s opera, Khovanschina, even to the extent that it deeply cut into his own creative time.
  9. His 1887 “Capriccio Espagnol” and, a year later, the dazzling Scheherazade, came after a lengthy absence of composing, a self-described period of low creativity (see #8). Which goes to show that sometimes writer’s block can be a blessing in disguise, because when you return, boy, do you return.
  10. By having a naval career, visiting exotic ports of call, not to mention harboring a lifelong love of the sea, he was able to skillfully recreate all of it musically, resulting in harmonies, textures and sounds infrequently heard in Western classical music up to that point. All of which is resplendently depicted in Scheherazade.

And now that earlier teaser to ballet dancers, about how National Ballet of Canada and Vaslav Nijinsky tie in to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Michel (or Mikhail) Fokine choreographed his own Scheherazade for the Ballets Russes, using Rimsky-Korsakov’s music, which premiered in Paris on June 10, 1910, at the Théâtre National de l’Opera. It’s the prologue of 1001 Nights, so it depicts the unfaithful first wife. Vaslav Nijinsky, as the Golden Slave, surely stole the show in a role that would dazzle all of Europe and cement Nijinsky’s place as one of the world’s most exciting male dancers. If you love watching ballet set to expressive music, you simply must, MUST check out this link. Or maybe you shouldn’t. Because once you glimpse the perfection of this Mariinsky Ballet performance by Svetlana Zakharova and Farukh Ruzimatov (forward to the part where the concubines bribe the eunuch-in-charge to unlock the door that frees the slaves, which starts around 11 mn), you will forever long to feel that same sweet ache that watching this will instill in your deepest bones. So… I’m sorry. And… you’re welcome.  (PS: the creator of the video hilariously spelled the title “Scherezade”. This is a typo.)

Diablo Ballet is 24 years strong

Diablo Ballet has done it again, and the company has never looked better. Wait. Didn’t I say that last year? But it’s true—last Thursday’s anniversary gala performance seemed to be presenting Diablo Ballet at its strongest, its most versatile. The roster currently features ten dancers; in past years it’s been nine, and the addition of one allowed for this very cool quintet of couples ending the night’s performance in the Swan Lake Suite. But that’s jumping ahead. Let me back up.

Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Performing Arts was the venue for the company’s 24th Anniversary Performance last week. An annual tradition, it’s like ballet’s version of a small-plate dining experience. No intermissions, instead a few minutes’ pause between every work. The dance pieces themselves are never overlong and leave one hungering for more, which soon follows. A welcome speech from artistic director Lauren Jonas, a charming slideshow chronicling the company’s community outreach PEEK program, accompanied by live music (Minor F Quartet from Oakland School for the Arts), and the audience was then treated to five works and one short film. Satisfying fare, indeed.

Jackie McConnell and Christian Squires in The Blue Boy. Photo by Bilha Sperling

Trey McIntyre’s “The Blue Boy,” is set to the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which is so elegant and beautiful, it adds a velvet veneer to the sharp, articulated passages in this classically-based work. The title refers to the famous 18th century Gainsborough portrait (you’ve seen it before, trust me). Christian Squires met every challenge McIntyre’s fast-moving choreography flung his way. Amanda Farris joined him, lyrical and with lovely soft landings. Jackie McConnell was a strong player, too, as the trio danced their way through partnered lifts, turns and playful quirks.

After Rosselyn Ramirez’ impassioned solo in Salvador Aiello’s Solas, a piece that spoke of loss, rage, sorrow, aided by Jack Carpenter’s moody lighting, Sonya Delwaide’s Trait d’union took to the stage. Set to Gabriel Fauré’s “Élégie,” the choreography is inventive and distinctive, with elegant lines. In the opener, Felipe Leon’s tilt, nearly falling into Alex McCleery, commenced the piece with great, creative energy. Arms were flung out, movements expansive. At one point, Leon leapt, caught midair by McCleery. Very impressive, as was the duo’s chemistry, their absorbed interaction. Here, too, Jackie McConnell was a strong third member to this pas de trois. Andres Vera’s cello and Robert Mollicone’s piano added a nuanced depth to the equation. Delwaide’s choreography finds that sweet spot I so love, of classical-meets-contemporary. (I blogged about her 2015 Serenade Pour Cords de Corps HERE.)

Alex McCleery, Jackie McConnell and Felipe Leon – Trait d’union. Photo by Bilha Sperling

Resident choreographer and Post:Ballet artistic director Robert Dekkers’ work always fascinates, and “Sixes and Seven” is no exception. It’s set to Philip Glass’s music—a choral piece with overlapping speech—and featured solo work by Christian Squires, who impresses me more each time I watch him dance. His total commitment to the role, the perfect timing of pauses, taps, spins, were fascinating to watch. The idiomatic term, “at sixes and sevens” can be translated as “in a state of disarray and confusion.” Was this Dekkers’ intent? (Certainly the music, with the quirky voice overlay, contributed.) You be the judge. Following is an excerpt from an earlier performance that features Squires and a second dancer, Jessica Collado. Susan Roemer’s costume (yes, they are wearing something) makes its own stunning statement (which would be: wow, what beautiful bodies – and ditto for Squires in his performance last week).

Sixes and Seven (excerpts, 2014) from Post:Ballet on Vimeo.

The night’s performance ended on a high note with selections from Swan Lake — the White Swan pas de deux; the Black Swan pas de deux and variations, staged by company régisseur, Joanna Berman. Larissa Kogut and Michael Wells impressively performed the White Swan pas de deux, no easy feat. It’s amazing, the breadth of talent and versatility this company has. Partnered pirouettes were solid, lifts were assured. Kogut provided all the appropriate Odette nuances, the demure expression, the arm flutters, the tiny head quirks, the foot beating sur le cou de pied during a partnered promenade. Wells was there for her through every step and lift.

Larissa Kogut and Michael Wells – White Swan Pas de Deux Photo by Bilha Sperling

Jordan Nicole Tilton (San Francisco Ballet fans will remember her as Jordan Hammond) is a welcome addition to the Diablo roster this season, and paired beautifully with another former San Francisco Ballet dancer, Raymond Tilton. The couple (offstage, too; they are married) danced the role with the strength and theatricality it required. This is a deceptively challenging pas de deux, ramped up a notch from its White Swan equivalent, with its more aggressive pirouettes, leaps, lifts, and sometimes the couple struggled. But as if to right an earlier mistimed passage, they finished the pas de deux strongly, nailing the last iconic pose of the adagio, which thrilled the audience.

Jordan Tilton and Raymond Tilton – Black Swan Pas de Deux. Photo by Bilha Sperling

Berman’s adapted staging turns the Black Swan pas de deux coda into an ensemble variation, which worked great and brought all ten company dancers onstage. Christian Squires knocked out a set of turns à la seconde, whipping around expertly, filling that craving anyone in the audience might have had for the thirty-two-fouetté series. Individual dancers and couples shot onstage, spun, leapt, and dashed off to Tchaikovsky’s propulsive score. The closing tableau, five sets of dance couples in matching black tutu and costumes, felt so charming, so right for this talented, versatile boutique company.

In an era characterized by struggling arts organizations, Diablo Ballet has continued to deliver for twenty-four years. Credit for this goes to artistic director Lauren Jonas, not just for her hard work and dedication, but her ability to motivate others: not just the dancers but the administrative and executive staff; the Board of Directors; the community, which includes people of all ages. (The company has a teen board – how smart and cool is that?) It’s a fine example of what works in the arts these days, and I hope other companies, small and large, take note.

**

*About that short film, a now-annual treat. This year’s world premiere is called Spiritus. Produced and directed by Walter Yamazaki, as in previous years, and likewise, a commissioned score by Justin Levitt. Last year’s was the award-winning Libera. Check out this stunning trailer.