This article posted today, April 21, 2020, on my ChoralNet blog.
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I have read the New York Times every morning for much of my adult life, although lately there have been mornings when I have put this activity off until later in the day…there just hasn’t been much good news. It’s difficult to find articles that aren’t directly or indirectly related to our current shared situation.
It has been raining here for weeks. The rivers are overflowing their banks, school districts all over the region canceled classes yesterday because of flooding, and all of us who work downtown are watching the water rise anxiously.
It is difficult to escape a sense a déjà vu as memories of the 2010 flood that devastated our city resurface and fears that history could repeat itself arise.
As I drove into town this morning to produce our annual concerto competition, I found myself thinking about all of the music about rain that has been a part of my life.
In 1735, when Sebastian was 50 years old, he published his second volume of keyboard works, Clavier-Übung II (“Keyboard Practice II”). It contains two pieces for double-manual harpsichord: Concerto nach Italienischen Gusto (Concerto in the Italian taste, now known at the Italian Concerto, BWV 971), and Ouvertüre nach Französischer Art (Overture in the French Style, or simply the French Overture, BWV 831).
That Sebastian chose to pair these two works in the same publication paid homage to the old tradition (by his time) for composers to seek a harmonious way (or perhaps take sides) between the perceived opposition of French and Italian musical styles – an argument that had been carried on in European musical circles for centuries. This discussion is a part of Sebastian’s œuvre too, and was influenced by the work of his contemporary François Couperin (1668-1733) and his “les Goûts réunis” or “reunited tastes”, which was published in 1724. Although Sebastian and Couperin never met, they corresponded with each other. The subjects of their letters has long been a tantalizing mystery to Bach scholars, as the letters were subsequently used as lids for jam pots and thus destroyed. Since Couperin had died two years before Clavier-Übung II was published, it is possible that in his own way, Sebastian also intended the volume as an homage to Couperin himself – or as a rebuttal or commentary on the various merits of each style .
When Deutsche Grammophon released a box set of Martha Argerich’s complete recordings for their label in September 2015, I coveted it immediately, eventually succumbing to temptation and purchasing it for my CD library. This summer I made a project of slowly listening to all 48 CDs in order of release, savoring each recording and listening to many of them several times. OK, most of them.
Just in case you’re not a classical pianist, or slept through the last fifty years, Martha Argerich is widely regarded as one of our greatest living pianists, and certainly as one of the most important classical artists of the post-WWII era.
Which makes this stupendous collection – a wide-ranging survey of all of her recordings for Deutsche Grammophon and Philips spanning 55 years from 1959 to 2014 – perhaps the single greatest collection of recorded classical piano music in history. It’s astounding.
The most remarkable pianist of her generation – Russian-born Olga Scheps, who was raised and resides in Germany – has continued this year to develop her repertoire and career in surprising directions. I first wrote about Olga nearly a year ago, upon the release of Vocalise, her fifth CD for Sony. That article – Meet Olga Scheps – includes biographical notes, links to some videos of her performances, and an overview of her discography.
The last year has been busy for Olga – in addition to her concertizing, she has just released another disc – so I decided to write a review of some of her recent activities, and about her new recording, Satie.
Modest Mussorgsky (1839 – 1881) was a Russian composer best known today for a few celebrated works, including Night on Bald Mountain – a musical depiction of a “witches sabbath” most often played on Halloween programs and other programs depicting musical grotesqueries – and Boris Gudunov, an opera based on a drama by Pushkin: the butt of one of the first classical music jokes music majors learn in undergraduate school:
Q: Why did Mussorgsky only write one opera?
A: Because one Boris Gudunov.
His most beloved composition today is Pictures at an Exhibition, which was originally written as a large suite for solo piano but is best known to the listening public as a large-scale symphonic work in its orchestration by the French composer Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937).
One night when I was a child – this would have been sometime in the 1970s – I was in bed but had not yet fallen asleep when my mother came to my room and got me to come see something important that was about to be shown on television.
This was back when all television was broadcast: before streaming, before cable, before Blu-Ray, DVD, VHS, or Beta. There were 3 commercial networks and PBS had only been broadcasting for a few years – so if something came on TV and it was important or interesting, you had to set aside time to watch it then or you would miss it, with no chance to see it again. In those days, many people organized their lives and made plans around the scheduled broadcasts of programs or events they wanted to see.
So I shuffled down the hall to my parents’ bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed in my pajamas, peering up at the small black-and white TV set that sat on a shelf high on the wall. (What seemed to my young eyes and ears like) a dowdily dressed old black woman in coke-bottle glasses stood in front of a piano trio and proceeded to astound me with the most outlandish and virtuosic singing I had ever heard. At first she sang what seemed to my limited experience to be a pretty conventional rendition (of a song I did not know – in my memory she sang How High the Moon and A-Tisket, A-Tasket in this broadcast but I don’t know if that’s accurate as I’ve been unable to locate a video on the internet that syncs with my memory of this moment) but then she closed her eyes and started to make strange movements with the hand not holding the microphone as she sang what become obvious to me was not the song but just something wild she was making up, singing nonsense. My mother told me this was called scat singing. I thought that scat was another word for poop but I didn’t say anything, I just sat there mesmerized, listening intently until it was over. I’d never heard anything like it.
It was Ella Fitzgerald of course. My father said something about Ella being the greatest jazz singer in the world, and it was clear to me (they got me out of bed to see this, after all) that to my parents – who seemed to regard this television event with the same weighty regard they had given to astronauts landing on the moon or President Nixon resigning from office – this crazy old lady was something special – anyway, she was on TV, and that was important in it’s own right. I went to bed when it was over, but sitting in my parents room that night watching Ella sing on TV made a strong impression on me, and I never forgot it.
It is my first “jazz” memory.
Olga Scheps seems poised to take on the world. A young pianist with extraordinary powers of expression, Olga has been enchanting audiences throughout Europe for several years but seems to be little known in the United States, or in the general English-speaking world. From what I have been able to learn, she has only appeared once in the U.S. – two performances of Liszt’s Concerto No. 2 with the San Antonio Symphony in 2012 – but from the pace of her concertizing and recording for the last few years, it seems like it will just be a matter of time before she begins to make similar strong impressions on music lovers on this side of the Atlantic. In 2015 alone so far Olga has performed either solo recitals or as concerto soloist with orchestras throughout Germany where she lives, in Spain, Wales, and Japan, and made debuts in Israel and Sweden. She records exclusively for Sony and has produced five CDs in the last six years – four solo recital discs and a luminous, touching recording of both Chopin concerti with Matthias Foremny and the Stuttgart Kammerorchester released in 2014. Her latest recording – Vocalise – was released in Germany on July 17.
Olga’s repertoire is a balanced combination of the very familiar (read: warhorses) and the seldom performed, and she brings to everything she plays a deeply considered emotional sensitivity to the impulses that drive the music. Although it is clear that she has the technical prowess and sheer muscle to pull off the grandest effects called for in the many masterpieces in her repertoire, it is the beautiful clarity of her approach to playing the piano and her attention to subtle details of expression which I find most remarkable.
This is the story of how Anna joined the Nashville Symphony.
It’s a bit of a convoluted tale – like many stories, some unexpected things happened, one thing led to another, and once you start trying to find all the threads in the fabric you realize that the real beginnings probably go back a lot further than you originally thought.
Anna is a ten year old double-manual Franco-Flemish harpsichord.
Keith turns seventy today. For those reading this who are not familiar with him, Keith Jarrett is an American treasure, and one of the most important musicians alive today. He is among the most accomplished improvising musicians in history and we are fortunate that we live in the age of recording technology: we have a voluminous record of his career spanning nearly five decades that catalogs his development as an artist, as well as many of his experiments and side-projects. In addition to his stature now as senior jazz statesman, Keith is also an accomplished performer of classical music, with many recordings of Bach and Mozart, etc. as well as music of 20th century composers (including himself) to his credit.
I realize that beginning a post with superlatives is contentious, but considering Keith and his life as a musician, it seems fitting to me – he has been nothing if not controversial. Through his entire career Keith has very much followed his own path, refusing to compromise on his ideals even to his own detriment. Looking back on his career as he enters his eighth decade, I am not familiar with any other pianist who has accomplished such profound music-making as both jazz and classical artist. I am aware of no other musician of any genre or instrument who has filled concert halls consistently for decades with audiences who come to hear completely improvised solo concerts, led several acclaimed jazz ensembles including the longest lived (more than 30 years) and most respected piano trio still performing today, and devoted a substantial amount of time (more than a decade) and energy to recording and performing classical music, as a soloist and concerto performer, and as a composer. There is nobody else who has done this, nor done it so well, nor for so long.