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).
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.
When I listen to Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” often referred to as simply “Afternoon of a Faun,” I’m reminded of the vertiginous feeling of gazing at a 3-D computer-generated picture, one that, once you’ve allowed your eyes and brain to shift slightly, draws you inside a world you previously hadn’t been able to see. Here, now, you’ve entered a phantasmagorical place, with spiraling, descending pathways and billowing shapes that your eyes can slide down or climb up, respectively. A world where the tried-and-true rules don’t apply. I don’t know about you, but I love the feeling, the sensations. It never fails to take me on an inner journey, far from my mundane thoughts, the dreary to-do treadmill of daily life.
It’s no surprise Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun”—or “Prélude à L’Aprés-midi d’un Faune” in its original French—is one of my favorite short pieces of classical music. It’s held me in its grips from the moment I first heard its opening solo flute notes, the responding call by a horn, a harp. Debussy was not a “follow the set rules” kind of guy. He was pretty much the opposite. In his compositions, the “rules according to my tastes” deliver volumes of sensation. A warm afternoon. A time long ago, back in the days of mythical creatures. Nymphs and fauns and lush foliage and shimmering waves of summer heat. Unexpected emotions rise, within the music and the listener both. Languor, sensuality, euphoria, curiosity, an awareness of the exotic. You are flung back to your own childhood, your adolescence, all awash in new experiences, colors, sensations. You are every place you’ve always wanted to be, your heart contracting and expanding, seemingly at the same time. For ten fleeting minutes, you let the music cradle you, transport you. Afterward, it leaves you disoriented and a little dizzy. You stumble away, back to the everyday world, your everyday life, and yet forever altered from the experience.
I like to imagine how the audience must have reacted in that opening performance in Paris, 1894. This was still the Romantic era, after all, with its conventions on tonality, scales, sequences. Audiences were used to hearing Beethoven and Brahms and maybe a little Wagner if they were feeling the urge for something turbulent. Chopin, a generation earlier, had dazzled with his pianistic originality, just as Saint Saens had managed to impart a touch of the exotic into his own compositions. But Debussy? He was young, still rather green, known to chafe against the constraints the masters before him, through the years, had mandated in musical composition. He loved literature and art, and for Prélude à L’Aprés-midi d’un Faune, he’d taken, as inspiration, a poem by one of France’s greatest poets at the time, Stéphane Mallarmé, and his 1876 creation, “L’Aprés-midi d’un Faune.” The poem was a work of art, having taken the poet a decade of deep searching, pondering, revising, to come up with a finished, published product that was, in his mind, music already. (Mallarmé was part of the “symbolist” movement of poetry, that, in a nutshell, strove to evoke, to illuminate, elaborate on the human condition,) So, here’s this 1894 concert hall audience, all expectant, knowing the poem: sensuous, story-like musings of a faun—mythical half man, half goat—and his erotic pursuit of two nymphs on a warm, drowsy afternoon. The lights in the concert hall darken, the musicians ready themselves, the conductor raises his baton, and you hear… this.
Stirred you, didn’t it?
If you’re like me, you might wonder what sort of mystical alchemy was involved, that Debussy’s music can do so much more than, say, Brahms, whose music is decidedly masterful and at the top of its craft. I think It has to do with the fact that, like the symbolist poets, there was a drive to consider the vast sprawling world of inner feelings, the human condition, the resolutely ineffable. It’s interesting to note that the French poets of this time, which Debussy so admired, considered music to be the pinnacle of art — not necessarily the music you hear in a concert hall, so much as the “music” that arises from the finest of art works. Mallarmé’s reaction to Debussy’s turning his poem into “real” music is debated–some say he was pleased, and complimented Debussy on the effort. Others say he mildly resented that his poem, so full of “music” already, was now eclipsed by Debussy’s music. The guy had a point. Who hears the title “Afternoon of a Faun” and thinks, “Ah, yes, that poem! Mallarmé’s opus!”
Care for 10 interesting factoids about Debussy? Here you go!
He was born Achille (pronounced as a “shhh”)-Claude de Bussy in 1862.
In spite of an aristocratic-sounding name, he came from a poor family and was schooled at home (while his siblings were shipped out), obtaining private piano lessons more by unexpected circumstances and good fortune more than planning and good funding.
He was accepted to the Paris Conservatory of Music at the age of 10, where, over the next eleven years, they would endlessly chide him for “courting the unusual” and encourage him to deliver something “more befitting of his great talent,” which was to say, the same old thing they’d been hearing for generations.
He was the 1884 recipient of the highly prestigious Prix de Rome, which gave him a four-year residence at Rome’s Villa Medici, which he hated, and was miserable, and [barely] lasted two years before returning to his beloved Paris, where he lived for most of his life.
While he resisted much of the traditional schooling that came his way, both in music and academia, as an adult, he read voraciously and enjoyed socializing with the literati. He was a frequenter of Stéphane Mallarmé’s famous Mardis (Tuesdays) salon, the place for poets, artists and literary minds to gather in 1890’s Paris.
His musical inspiration came frequently from poetry. I’ve shared, in past blogs HERE and HERE the way this shows up in the works, “Clair de Lune” and “Beau Soir.”
Debussy had originally planned for this work to be three part: a prelude, an interlude, and a paraphrase finale. Sidetracked by work on his opera after he’d completed the Prelude, he dropped the idea of two more parts.
Wagnerian opera, and Javanese gamelan music, fascinated and engaged the young composer, each playing a part in his artistic development, leaving an imprint that would resurface in his music.
Even though Debussy’s work was considered by many to be the peak representation of musical impressionism, he himself disliked that term, and saw himself as a “modernist.”
He died during the final year of World War I, unable to have a public gravesite funeral service because of the constant aerial bombing of the French capital by the Germans.
Above all, Debussy was a composer who defined a moment—that in which the classical music world would begin to question all rules of harmony and composition. “Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art,” he once famously said. While he’s still considered by most to be a Late Romantic composer more than of the Modern school, you can see him and his style’s clear demarcation. Tchaikovsky and Brahms, Dvorák, Grieg, Liszt, all came before. Bartók, Prokofiev, Ravel, Sibelius, Shostakovich and Stravinsky all came after. Pierre Boulez famously pronounced Debussy’s “Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun” to be “the beginning of modern music.”
I find it so fitting that Debussy’s ground-breaking “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” should be utilized, eighteen years later, by another legendary, ground-breaking artist. In 1912, ballet phenomenon Vaslav Nijinsky, then with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, created his ballet, “Afternoon of a Faun.” He was the lead dancer; no one else could have done it justice. No one else could have so shocked the public, foretelling a new, modern realm of dance to come. The vitality, originality and willful disdain of long-held rules that Nijinsky brought to his art makes him seem like Debussy’s twin. And for Nijinsky, much like Debussy, the newness and overt sensuality of the opening performance in Paris shocked and disturbed some of spectators. This was not the art they’d come to know and had grown familiar with. This was new and vivid, with all sorts of new flavors and textures to consider. It didn’t just stir the soul, it stirred… other parts.
But we’ll leave this blog to Debussy. Not only does Nijinsky deserve his own blog, the National Ballet of Canada will be coming to San Francisco in April to perform “Nijinsky,” John Neumeier’s evening-length ballet about the man, his art, his madness. The Classical Girl is SO looking forward to this production. I’ll be posting a blog preview of the production in the week to come. (Editor’s note: it’s done and you can read it HERE.) In the meantime, however, I can’t resist giving you a flavor of what happens when Debussy and Nijinsky–and we mustn’t forget Stéphane Mallarmé’s poetry–put their considerable talents together for an unforgettable “Afternoon of a Faun.” The dancer is Rudolf Nureyev, another legend that some day I’ll devote a blog to. This recording is old, which, in my mind, only adds to its sensuous, evocative allure. I can feel Nijinsky’s presence all the more clearly.
All right, I have to add one more. It’s taken from the 1980 Herbert Ross film, Nijinsky. So it’s Hollywood’s version of Nijinsky premiering “Afternoon of a Faun” in Paris’ Theatre du Chatelet. It’s really good, and allows you to see certain nuances up close. But, be warned. The end of the ballet is… racy. But so was Nijinsky. Pushing those borders. And so was Debussy. All for art. Give it a look, if you dare. (Warning, this music will stay in your head ALL DAY once you’ve left this page. My apologies.)
Okay, one last thing, and this time I mean it..
Mallarmé’s 1876 masterpiece poem is damned long. But it’s lush and sensuous, and, really, you sort of do need to read the poem in order to understand what both Debussy and Nijinsky were striving to put into music, and movement, respectively. This is one of several translations that exist from the original French. If you read and find it lacking, please do share a translation you feel is better.
L’Aprés-midi d’un Faune
These nymphs, I would perpetuate them.
Their crimson flesh that hovers there, light
In the air drowsy with dense slumbers.
Did I love a dream?
My doubt, mass of ancient night, ends extreme
In many a subtle branch, that remaining the true
Woods themselves, proves, alas, that I too
Offered myself, alone, as triumph, the false ideal of roses.
or if those women you note
Reflect your fabulous senses’ desire!
Faun, illusion escapes from the blue eye,
Cold, like a fount of tears, of the most chaste:
But the other, she, all sighs, contrasts you say
Like a breeze of day warm on your fleece?
No! Through the swoon, heavy and motionless
Stifling with heat the cool morning’s struggles
No water, but that which my flute pours, murmurs
To the grove sprinkled with melodies: and the sole breeze
Out of the twin pipes, quick to breathe
Before it scatters the sound in an arid rain,
Is unstirred by any wrinkle of the horizon,
The visible breath, artificial and serene,
Of inspiration returning to heights unseen
O Sicilian shores of a marshy calm
My vanity plunders vying with the sun,
Silent beneath scintillating flowers, RELATE
‘That I was cutting hollow reeds here tamed
By talent: when, on the green gold of distant
Verdure offering its vine to the fountains,
An animal whiteness undulates to rest:
And as a slow prelude in which the pipes exist
This flight of swans, no, of Naiads cower
Inert, all things burn in the tawny hour
Not seeing by what art there fled away together
Too much of hymen desired by one who seeks there
The natural A: then I’ll wake to the primal fever
Erect, alone, beneath the ancient flood, light’s power,
Lily! And the one among you all for artlessness.
Other than this sweet nothing shown by their lip, the kiss
That softly gives assurance of treachery,
My breast, virgin of proof, reveals the mystery
Of the bite from some illustrious tooth planted;
Let that go! Such the arcane chose for confidant,
The great twin reed we play under the azure ceiling,
That turning towards itself the cheek’s quivering,
Dreams, in a long solo, so we might amuse
The beauties round about by false notes that confuse
Between itself and our credulous singing;
And create as far as love can, modulating,
The vanishing, from the common dream of pure flank
Or back followed by my shuttered glances,
Of a sonorous, empty and monotonous line.
Try then, instrument of flights, O malign
Syrinx by the lake where you await me, to flower again!
I, proud of my murmur, intend to speak at length
Of goddesses: and with idolatrous paintings
Remove again from shadow their waists’ bindings:
So that when I’ve sucked the grapes’ brightness
To banish a regret done away with by my pretence,
Laughing, I raise the emptied stem to the summer’s sky
And breathing into those luminous skins, then I,
Desiring drunkenness, gaze through them till evening.
O nymphs, let’s rise again with many memories.
‘My eye, piercing the reeds, speared each immortal
Neck that drowns its burning in the water
With a cry of rage towards the forest sky;
And the splendid bath of hair slipped by
In brightness and shuddering, O jewels!
I rush there: when, at my feet, entwine (bruised
By the languor tasted in their being-two’s evil)
Girls sleeping in each other’s arms’ sole peril:
I seize them without untangling them and run
To this bank of roses wasting in the sun
All perfume, hated by the frivolous shade
Where our frolic should be like a vanished day.
I adore you, wrath of virgins, O shy
Delight of the nude sacred burden that glides
Away to flee my fiery lip, drinking
The secret terrors of the flesh like quivering
Lightning: from the feet of the heartless one
To the heart of the timid, in a moment abandoned
By innocence wet with wild tears or less sad vapours.
‘Happy at conquering these treacherous fears
My crime’s to have parted the dishevelled tangle
Of kisses that the gods kept so well mingled:
For I’d scarcely begun to hide an ardent laugh
In one girl’s happy depths (holding back
With only a finger, so that her feathery candor
Might be tinted by the passion of her burning sister,
The little one, naïve and not even blushing)
Than from my arms, undone by vague dying,
This prey, forever ungrateful, frees itself and is gone,
Not pitying the sob with which I was still drunk.’
No matter! Others will lead me towards happiness
By the horns on my brow knotted with many a tress:
You know, my passion, how ripe and purple already
Every pomegranate bursts, murmuring with the bees:
And our blood, enamoured of what will seize it,
Flows for all the eternal swarm of desire yet.
At the hour when this wood with gold and ashes heaves
A feast’s excited among the extinguished leaves:
Etna! It’s on your slopes, visited by Venus
Setting in your lava her heels so artless,
When a sad slumber thunders where the flame burns low.
I hold the queen!
O certain punishment…
No, but the soul
Void of words, and this heavy body,
Succumb to noon’s proud silence slowly:
With no more ado, forgetting blasphemy, I
Must sleep, lying on the thirsty sand, and as I
Love, open my mouth to wine’s true constellation!
Farewell to you, both: I go to see the shadow you have become.
I love when people contact me to express their interest in classical music. And 2018 is already turning out to be a banner year for such requests. I think it’s fantastic. It’s as if all these fine minds of ours, regardless of creed, political slant or affiliation, are seeking out new vistas and perspectives, discovering something that is unequivocally beautiful, soulful, thought-provoking, and can be discussed in a ways that don’t divide us. Or at least allow for discourse like the following: “Okay, you think the elegance of the Classical Era can’t be beat, but you have to admit that my favorite, the Mainstream Romantics, allow for gorgeous emotion to arise. And we can both agree that classical music isn’t as stuffy or boring as we’d once thought!”
So this blog is devoted to all of you out there, dipping your toe into the classical music waters, not sure if you’re up for the full swim, but willing to wade around a bit. Hop in—the temperature is just right! So without further ado, here are…
10 tips for the fledgling classical music lover
Buy compilation CDs. Or borrow them from your library. Or YouTube them. There are so many opportunities to hear classical music for cheap these days, it’s amazing. Go to your local music store; I guarantee you there will be a few dozen CDs with prices $2.99 and below. Don’t regularly go to a local music store, or your town doesn’t have one? Find one. Go to it. Do it. They are great places to browse and are a slice of a disappearing Americana. That said… On Amazon, I found this: http://a.co/1hD37LK It’s a 10-disc box set of classical compilations; I own three of the CDs and I had no idea there was a ten-disc set. For a good used copy, several of which are priced around $8.00 with shipping, it’s a staggering deal. It has both the ultra-familiar pieces and unique ones, many of which are simply movements from a sonata, a symphony, a concerto. So, once you decide which one you really like, look for the longer version. And did I mention that THIS IS A REALLY GOOD BARGAIN? Seriously, check it out.
Get a classical music reference bible. I can’t tell you how often I consult mine, and what a pleasure it is. I bought mine a long time ago; it’s called Building A Classical Music Library, by Bill Parker. Some of the recordings the author suggests are likely dated now, but since classical music is rather timeless, it’s all still largely relevant. The author has a very easy-to-read style as he talks about the composers, dividing them into their respective eras. This alone has been a great reference tool for me. Before reading it, I wouldn’t have known whether Chopin, say, or Dvorak or Debussy were Early Romantic, Mainstream Romantic, or Late Romantic. (The answers: yes, yes and yes, respectively.) So, you get a fun little story about each composer, the pieces that made them famous, and recording suggestions. To buy, click on the above title or click HERE.
Go to freebie classical music events, often done at lunchtime within a city’s civic center area, or in a church with nice acoustics. And for any performance you plan to attend, do a little research in advance. Wikipedia is great for learning quickly about any composer, any piece of music. It’s easy, and will allow you to better appreciate what you’re hearing. And you’ll get to impress your friends with your knowledge.
Bookmark an HD digital or online classical music station on your devices. There are dozens, if not more. I listen to KAZU HD classical . Classical music 24/7, no commercials. On my car stereo, I just rediscovered a classical music station broadcast by a university nearby – what a win! Alas, there are fewer and fewer radio stations that broadcast classical. But in an increasingly wired world, you’ve got all of the Internet. And for offline time, you have…
Podcasts. Most include a few minutes or more of talk, followed by a music excerpt or longer work. A great way to learn and listen while driving/walking/tuning out noisy people in public. A few to check out include Classical Podcasts, Classical Classroom, BBC Radio3 (scroll down from the landing page).
Buy a season subscription to the symphony. Not just one ticket–make the investment of one season. It might feel extreme at the time, but you’ll be glad you did it. You sorta need to sit through something you wouldn’t have otherwise cherry-picked for your listening experience. (Speaking from the voice of experience here, having done both.) Granted, you’ll want the subscription series to include the works you prefer to hear. But chances are, there will be one concert you might not have otherwise attended, and that usually means three music selections new to your ears. (San Francisco Symphony allows you to switch around concerts during the season, as well, so you can cherry-pick AND have a subscription experience. I’m guessing a good number of professional orchestras work that way for their subscribers.)
Read the Amazon reviews of classical music CDs. These days, when I want to research a composer or a specific work, I first get the scoop via two sources: Wikipedia and Amazon reviews. Most of the people who leave reviews on classical music CDs at Amazon are amazingly well-educated on classical music and specifics of the work in question. Quite a few are former classical musicians, I sense. Others just really, really know classical music. I don’t always agree with their opinions, but I learn a whole lot, and that’s what matters to me.
Listen to the basic classical music favorites that are, face it, overplayed. “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”, Pachebel’s “Canon in D”. Et cetera. Then move on. Don’t stop there. Frankly, those classics are … boring. Well, let’s say this. No one becomes a classical music lover from hearing those. Listeners are sucked in by hearing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 or the first movement of the Korngold Violin Concerto, or the soundtrack of the movie Amadeus. Which is why I will make a pitch again for that most excellent CD compilation set. (http://a.co/1hD37LK)
Figure out what eras are your favorite. Examples might be Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Mainstream Romantic, Late Romantic, Modern. (That book I suggested buying makes learning this SO much easier.) Now, check out composers from that era you’ve maybe never heard of before. I myself have discovered new composers this way, like Reinhold Glière, Howard Hanson, Carl Nielsen. There’s a good chance you’ll like their stuff. It’s always worked for me.
Challenge yourself from time to time and listen to an era you’re not familiar with. (Perk: it will make you love your preferred era even more.) Once again, a symphony subscription is great for this. It’s where I first heard the work of composer Alban Berg, even though I’d thought I’d prefer the other two musical works presented. And, almost forgot to mention – read the program notes while you’re waiting for the symphony to begin. They are delicious little stories that will make you appreciate the work even more. Case in point, the Berg Violin Concerto.)
All right, there you go. Ready to start your journey? To get you pumped up, here are a few compositions or symphony/concerto excerpts I think anyone would love. If the title is hyper-linked, I’ve written about it, and clicking the link will send you to the other blog and embedded music.
It is excruciatingly hard to pick only one or two of the above suggestions to embed. And, interestingly, I’m choosing one that has grown overfamiliar to me, but was undeniably a piece of classical music that had me swooning with delight, utterly transporting me. So, here you go…
And finally, one that haunted me after hearing it in an art-house movie theater, decades ago, and I only re-discovered it by chance, two years ago. My idea of sublime.
Jean Sibelius’ tone-poem, Finlandia, wasn’t supposed to be the program headliner one recent Saturday night at the San Francisco Symphony. The main draw was the Sibelius Violin Concerto, gracefully and sensitively rendered by Latvian violinist Baiba Skride, with Finnish guest conductor Osmö Vänskä leading the orchestra. Vänskä, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra—they of the Great Lockout of 2012-14 infamy—literally staked his position on turning said orchestra into one of the country’s finest, resigning in protest in the later months of the lockout, only to be rehired the following April (good call), where he now continues, with the Minnesota Orchestra, to excel and produce world-class music. Particularly impressive are Vänskä’s Sibelius interpretations. No surprise, perhaps, as both hail from Finland and both have captured, in the music, the nuance, proud spirit and dignity of this Nordic country. And no piece conjures a sense of Finnish national pride more so than Sibelius’ Finlandia, a patriotic tone-poem, the seventh of seven tableaux written in 1899 and revised a year later. Coming in at eight-ish minutes (can be up to nine), it’s short. The first part delivers a brooding fanfare of horns, rumbling timpani, depicting menace, oppression that, indeed, was part of Finland’s history, through occupations by Sweden and then Russia, into the early 20th century. The middle part of Finlandia calls in strings and woodwinds, a gentler but no less affecting sound, before the piece really ramps into high gear. It becomes propulsive and spirited, with plenty of crashing cymbals and an increase in speed and intensity from the entire orchestra. And now, at its peak, comes the melody, slow and majestic, instantly timeless and memorable.
I’m going to use the words of my character, Rebecca, from Outside the Limelight to describe it, because she does a better job with it than I. At a party she’s attending, she mentions to a group that she’d recently analyzed a classical music excerpt by Emily Howell in a college aesthetics class. (Hint: Emily Howell is not a female composer but a computer program that composes original classical music.)
“So, you listened to some of the music?” the man asked.
“I did,” she said. “We compared it to two other excerpts, traditional compositions.”
“Bach. Jean Sibelius.”
“Good, good.” The man nodded. “So, what was your verdict?”
The Emily Howell composition had pleasantly surprised her, a flood of arpeggiated piano notes hovering around a melodic theme, like something Chopin or Scriabin might have composed. The Bach had been lovely and precise, like music meets mathematics. It was the Sibelius, however, that had stirred her with its rich textures and sonorities and, paradoxically, its simplicity. There were far less notes. The melody was not complex. But the horns’ mournful call, the way they sustained one of their notes against the melody, clinging, holding on, had been the most vivid aural depiction of love, fealty and longing she’d ever heard. It had made her throat contract, her eyes sting.
“I preferred the Sibelius,” she told the man.
“Well, it had… humanity. It was art and evoked true emotion. Next to it, the Howell seemed like just a clever, agreeable arrangements of notes.”
“What kind of emotion did it evoke?”
Across the room, she saw Anders, smiling, engrossed in what the beautiful woman across from him was saying. Her heart gave a twist.
“Longing,” she said.
“But how was this ‘longing’ portrayed in the music?” the man persisted. “I’m guessing a minor key, dissonance of two notes, followed by resolution. A solo violin, or maybe a clarinet, a French horn. Am I right?”
“You are,” she admitted.
“So. You teach this rule to the program, which will go on to analyze the scores of any music that is considered soul-stirring, and it will find patterns. It learns to add that dissonance, a little rubato to stretch it out, or the call of a horn, and voilà, you’ve got longing.”
She hated this thought. Hated it. “No,” she protested, “that doesn’t cover it. Longing didn’t come from the instruments or the notes, it came from the man, the human composing it. I’m sure of it. Longing fills a human, it permeates their world. How could a computer experience longing or shortcomings of any type? Nothing is unattainable for a computer. You can just feed it more data.” The thoughts and words tumbled out. “Creating art requires feeling pain, having a soul that’s crammed with complex emotions that have nowhere to go but into your art. A computer can cleverly simulate art. Nothing more. Otherwise, what’s the point of being human, of harboring all that pain?”
This new thought hit her, cut into her so sharply, it made her want to cry, for a half-dozen reasons, most of them hazy and undefined, but so real, so painfully real. She knew, beyond a doubt, that Sibelius had reached from deep within his own heart, his soul, to produce this work. The simple melody was anything but simple. It evoked, in a mere handful of notes, the patriotic cry of a country’s freedom.
Sibelius had written the piece, initially entitled “Finland Awakes,” part of his Press Celebration Music suite, for an event, a covert political rally of sorts to protest Russia’s increasing censorship and other punitive measures against Finland, an “autonomous” region of the Empire. It was an instant hit. In 1900 he revised, making the seventh piece stand alone and renaming it Finlandia. Its popularity grew in leaps and bounds, particularly when the fledgling Helsinki Philharmonic, eighteen months old, took it with them on their first European tour. Suddenly the world knew about Sibelius, Finlandia, and Finnish national pride. The Russians, of course, hated this, and did their best to censor performances of Finlandia. Story has it, the Finns got sneaky and gave the piece alternative names at future performances, like, “Happy Feelings at the Awakening of Finnish Spring,” and “A Scandinavian Choral March. The correlating hymn, too, had become a big deal. Huge. Sibelius had taken the piece’s slower melody and made it a choral hymn — although the more popular words were written in 1941 by Veikko Antero Koskenniemi. It became the patriotic cry of a nation. It defined the voice of Finland that emerged in December, 1917, when the Finnish parliament finally declared independence from Russia. It is second in importance in Finland only to the country’s national anthem, “Maamme.” (Some still would like to see it become the national anthem.)
December 6, 2017 marks Finland’s centennial. I can think of no better way to honor such an event than to share Finlandia with the world.
This is my favorite version of the choral hymn. It makes tears rise in my throat every time I watch it (and I’m going on a dozen times at this point). That nationalism can be expressed with such beautiful song, is just one more reason why Finland impresses me to no end. (Second: tied for highest literacy rate in the world at 100%. Third: most engaged, informed, prolific classical music audience in the world. Fourth: one of the highest functioning welfare systems and lowest infant mortality rates in the world. Fifth: the best front row seat for viewing the Northern Lights.)
Want to know the words? Here you go! (And if WordPress’ auto-correct made a mess of the Finnish text, apologies to all my Finnish readers out there! Let me know and I’ll fix.)
Oi Suomi, katso, sinun päiväs koittaa Yön uhka karkoitettu on jo pois Ja aamun kiuru kirkkaudessa soittaa Kuin itse taivahan kansi sois Yön vallat aamun valkeus jo voittaa Sun päiväs koittaa, Oi synnyinmaa
Oi nouse Suomi, nosta korkealle Pääs seppelöimä suurten muistojen Oi nouse Suomi, näytit maailmalle Sä että karkoitit orjuuden Ja ettet taipunut sä sorron alle On aamus alkanut Oi Synnyinmaa
Here is the English translation, although a translation never gets quite to the heart of the piece, so I’d recommend you master the Finnish language and read it that manner. Because, hey, the Finnish language looks so intuitive and translatable, doesn’t it? Kinda like Basque. Easy-peasy!
Finland, behold, thy daylight now is dawning,
the threat of night has now been driven away.
The skylark calls across the light of morning,
the blue of heaven lets it have its way,
and now the day the powers of night is scorning:
thy daylight dawns, O Finland of ours!
Finland, arise, and raise towards the highest thy head now crowned with mighty memory. Finland, arise, for to the world thou criest
that thou hast thrown off thy slavery,
beneath oppression’s yoke thou never liest.
Thy morning’s come, O Finland of ours!
And now, I offer to you the full version (coming in at nine minutes, so a little more deliberate pacing), which also provides a film tour of Finland and its staggering natural beauty. (But warning, the cute little animals and birds kind of kill the mood of “we, the oppressed, must struggle or die trying” patriotic fervor. Now it’s more like a Nature episode. But a gorgeous one, I might add!)
PS: Happy Centennial, Finland!
PPS: Want to hear the original Press Celebration Music suite? In truth, it’s pretty cool, because, for you Sibelius fans such as myself, there’s some new music in there that hints at what he will produce further down the road. And there’s a pretty nifty slide show that depicts different historical scenes for each tableau, which are, themselves, intended as historical episodes. Further, you can hear the original 1899 first ending.
The program last Sunday at the San Francisco Symphonywas billedas “Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor, with guest conductor Roberto Abbado.” Great, enjoyable stuff. But one glance at my playbill once I was seated gave me no doubt which piece on the program would outshine the rest for me: Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D minor. Composed in a matter of weeks in 1853, it was his last major work before the madness set in. I adore this rarely-played violin concerto. If you’re a longtime reader of mine, you might remember my earlier blog about it, and the way its spooky, mystical beauty featured into my fourth novel. (You can read that blog HERE.)
The concerto is enigmatic in a variety of ways. From its earliest days, it was dismissed as fatally flawed, the product of a declining mind. And not by the public but by Schumann’s closest associates. Violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim gave the score a run-through and privately expressed his concern to Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, who all agreed they’d be acting in Schumann’s best interests to stash the unpublished, unperformed concerto deep in a drawer. (By now he’d checked himself into an insane asylum where his mental state was in rapid decline.) Best to let it sit for 100 years before letting Schumann be judged harshly for what they perceived as weak writing.
Lest we now judge them harshly, it should be pointed out that it’s not a flawless work of music. It’s more orchestral than violin concerto-oriented. It’s difficult for the player, and yet, paradoxically, not terribly virtuosic, aside from the wide-ranging arpeggios better suited for a piano/pianist than a violin/violinist. The third movement repeats simple thematic passages far too many times. But I’ll argue that it’s still a charming, spirited movement. And nothing beats the concerto’s second movement with its aching beauty, imbued with something ephemeral, mystical.
Indeed, the concerto’s presence, its resurfacing back in the 1930’s is steeped in the mystical. Joachim’s great-niece, Jelly d’Arányi, herself a brilliant violinist, claimed to have learned about the concerto’s existence only through a séance and contact with the spirit of her great-uncle and/or Schumann himself. But that’s a story in itself, which you can read in that other blog I wrote.
Let’s return to 2017 and the San Francisco Symphony, last Sunday afternoon, where German violinist Veronika Eberle delivered a gorgeous, transcendent rendition of the concerto. Wow, the rich, evocative sounds she pulled from her instrument (the 1700 “Dragonetti” Stradivarius on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation.) I loved everything about Eberle’s performance, the way she articulated and emphasized certain notes so beautifully. The sound reminded me of birdsong, the way so many different colors and textures are revealed, coaxed out of the instrument (or the bird’s throat).
Photo: Jan Northoff
That’s what makes this concerto rather tricky, in my mind. If a violinist can’t conjure all those voices–querying, tremulous, plaintive, yearning, demanding–then the concerto becomes, as its critics will argue, meandering, repetitive, overly orchestrated.
Speaking of orchestras, I must share how much fun it is to watch this concerto being performed live when you’re used to only hearing a recording. Like the Beethoven Violin Concerto, Schumann’s work features a great deal of interplay with the orchestra throughout. It was fun to watch. I was able to observe and hear an intriguing dialogue between the soloist and the principal cellist (Michael Grebanier) in the second movement, that I’d never realized existed. It was so beautiful. The entire second movement was simply transcendent.
I so appreciate that the twenty-six-year old Eberle chose to perform this concerto for her debut with the San Francisco Symphony, in lieu of one of the better known works of the violin repertoire. The kind performed over and over and over: Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, etc. Mind you, it’s not that I don’t love these concertos. It’s just that the Schumann Violin Concerto is uniquely lovely and needs to be championed. The audience on Sunday afternoon didn’t give Eberle the rousing ovation she deserved, and I wonder if it was because they didn’t know what to make of this “quieter” or admittedly different concerto. She certainly deserved it, after pouring her heart, energy and considerable talent into it. I give her top marks across the board. And kudos to the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony and guest conductor Roberto Abbado. It takes a team effort to make it all come together.
I can’t share with you what I heard on Sunday afternoon, of course, but here’s one of my favorite recordings of the Schumann Violin Concerto, performed by Gidon Kramer. Don’t miss out on the second movement; it starts at 15m30. It’s mystical.