Category Archives: Classical Music

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

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.

Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun”

 

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.
So bright
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.

Let’s see….
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
Or plunge…’
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.

10 tips for fledgling classical music lovers

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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…
  5. 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).
  6. 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.)
  7. 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.
  8. 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)
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

  • Claude Debussy: Clair de Lune, Beau Soir, Girl with the Flaxen Hair, Afternoon of a Faun
  • Dvorák: Romance in F-minor. “Klid” (Silent Wood)
  • Mozart: anything from the film Amadeus. Get the CD. What, you’ve never seen the movie?! Get the DVD along with the CD
  • Anything by Frederic Chopin
  • Schubert’s Impromptu #3 in G-flat major
  • Violin Concertos: Brahms, Korngold, Bruch, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky
  • Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 1 (“Winter Daydreams”), Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, (“Rhenish”).
  • Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” and Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt”
  • Saint Saens: “Danse Macabre”, Symphony No. 3 “Organ Symphony”, “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso”
  • Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2

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.