Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Out with the old

Working on my book this morning I began growing nostalgic for those emperor-like, old-man conductors the likes of which we used to see. And everyone used to bow and scrape before them.

I was thinking at first specifically about Serge Koussevitzky. I love how he looked on the cover of Time! He may not have been able to get where he did without marrying into a fortune, but still. What presence he had.

Then there was this letter from George Szell so I thought about him.

The stories I have heard about him! Harry Taub who used to be the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's associate concertmaster used to play with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. He told me that once Szell was unhappy with the violin played by one of the violinists. And the violinist went out and bought a new car. And Szell made him take the car back and buy a new violin instead.


Harry Taub said that illustrated the respect Szell commanded, that not only did the violinist immediately obey him, but the car dealer took the car back without a fight.

That is something!

Now we live in this age of the young, with the New York Philharmonic being handed over to Alan Gilbert. Here, watch Alan Gilbert: A Day in Pictures.

And the Los Angeles Symphony going to Gustavo Dudamel.

No doubt they are fine musicians, these young conductors.

But I miss the mighty maestros of yore.

Monday, September 28, 2009

A pianist after hours

Here is a story about the late Alicia de Larrocha y de la Calle, whom we paid tribute to the other day, from my friend Prof. G who is a font of all kinds of very useful knowledge. That is Alicia de Larrocha up above. I keep looking for a young picture of her but it is tough to find one. So that one will have to do.

I like her sparkly top and her pearls!

But back to Prof. G and his story. "The following story is true," writes the good professor, "but I can't reveal the source."

Fine! We like stories like that!

Take it, Professor.

A concert manager who had once hosted her in his city was visiting in a small finger lakes city where she was appearing. After the typically excellent concert, he went backstage to say hello and found out that no one had made arrangements to take her to dinner, or, for that matter, to do anything for her. She was going back to her hotel room for a bite to eat, nothing more.

The manager went to the conductor and asked whether he could take her out at his expense. The conductor and resident brass said fine. So he took her to dinner at a local restaurant where there was an upright piano. Talk got around to Granados and Madame de Larrocha went to the piano and played parts of Goyescas, among other things, for about an hour and a half (it was a slow business night). Punch line: When she and the concert manager were leaving, the restaurant's owner came over and said "Listen lady, if you ever need a job playing piano, come see me."

Ha, ha!

Quoth Prof. G:

I met Madame de Larrocha once and she confirmed the story and asked me to greet the manager is I ever saw him.

Lucky Miss De Larrocha, finding herself in conversation with our Prof. G.

With him you are never bored!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Adios, Alicia

Alicia de Larrocha y de la Calle has died at 86. I just read that on Twitter. I love her full name so I am writing that instead of just plain Alicia de Larrocha. Her mother was a pianist with the beautiful name of Maria Teresa de la Calle. Hence, Alicia de Larrocha y de la Calle. The "y" means "and."

I wish we had that tradition!

I would be Mary Kunz and Rodems Goldman.

Alas, it does not have the same ring.

De Larrocha y de la Calle's death was confirmed by piano historian and record producer Gregor Benko who was described as a close family friend. It makes me think of when I was in that situation, being the go-to person when Pennario died. There is a feeling of fulfillment in that, doing that for someone you love.

These great pianists, falling like giant oaks.

I had not realized de Larrocha y de la Calle was as old as she was. Reading her obituary I also had not realized she was only 4-foot-8! I knew she was petite, but that is really petite.

Recently I have begun listening more to de Larrocha y de la Calle's interpretations of Spanish music because Pennario's Spanish albums got me into that. But I always liked her Mozart, going back to when I was growing up.

To me this is a good piece to go out with.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Dead Composers Society

Just now on Twitter someone raised that complaint you often hear, that so much of classical music is by dead composers. She is a musician whose posts I enjoy, and I had just poured my coffee and not quite gotten down to work. So I wrote (ahem):

"I think instead of worrying that the music we love is by dead composers, we should rejoice that it holds up so well."

That is what I believe!

You know what, no one fusses over that people still read books by dead people. No one thinks anything is unhealthy about a drama troupe performing a Shakespeare play for the thousandth millionth time. How did the classical music crowd get saddled with this guilt?

If people want to hear Mozart's 39th Symphony 221 years after it was written, I see that as a great thing. It shows how well Mozart conceived it and how much we share with the people who have gone before us. I see nothing wrong with that.

I cannot imagine discriminating against a composer just because he is dead.

"Well, people should listen to music by living composers." I get that all the time.

Then get living composers to write music people want to listen to, you know?

Ha, ha! There are a couple of groups out there called the Dead Composers Society. There is one in Minneapolis and one in Santa Barbara. Both groups look young and hip. Cheers to them!

One of the groups has this logo:

The thing is, we are living in a funny musical age. Performance standards and music scholarship are tremendously high and the entire history of music is at our fingertips. We can listen to anything we want, going back to the Middle Ages.

At the same time we live in this dark age of music composition. So much of what is being written is so arcane or inaccessible that it appeals only to a small niche audience. The rest of us should rejoice that faced with this situation, so much of the music of the past is so immediate and relevant!

And more readily accessible, once you get into the groove of it at least, than a Shakespeare play. A Shakespeare play you have to study and look up words. But think about a Tchaikovsky symphony. Here is a work written more than a century ago, by a Russian, for heaven's sake, and to appreciate it all you have to do is sit there. You do not need a translator and the language is not archaic and it appeals to your 21st century mind.

I do not see why that is anything to fret about.

I thank God for these dead composers.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Tough love

Last night I heard this overwhelming recital by the violinist Elmar Oliveira. That is a picture of Mr. Oliveira above. He plays the way he looks, I will tell you that!


Oliveira did the Strauss violin sonata which is a piece I love. I mean, Richard Strauss. He looks in pictures like a piece of old furniture.

Well, here is a picture of him with what almost amounts to an Afro. I have never seen this picture before, what are the odds of that?

People sometimes describe Richard Strauss as "bourgeois" and I can see why. I mean, look at him. He was quiet and German and Catholic and happily married to a wife who bossed him around all the time.

Then this music comes out of him.

I mean, this is not just normally romantic music. It is delirious and listening to it you cannot help but wonder.

You have to wonder what people thought when they heard that music back when Richard Strauss was among us. I wonder if anyone said to him: "Oh! Mr. Strauss!"

I personally would have blushed when I saw him.

Here is the movement of the Strauss sonata that got me. This is a beautiful sonata. It is the sonata Jascha Heifetz went to bat for in Israel. They did not want him to play it because of the bitterness over World War II but he played it anyway, even though the audiences would not applaud. Finally he got beat up for it. These thugs beat him up. That is a terrible thing to think about.

Leonard Pennario told me all about Heifetz and from what I understand he could be a pain but he was in his own way a man of principle.

I wish I could find a recording by Oliveira or Heifetz but this is the best I could find on YouTube. This violinist Sayaka Shoji does a good job but Oliveira, he just dug into it with so much more passion.

After lastnight maybe they will all sound like weenies.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Take this piano bench and...

Such fights these days over pianists! I am loving it. It bodes well for my book on Leonard Pennario that the world cares so passionately about classical piano.

There is this good fight going on in England over Angela Hewitt. This is from Damian Thompson's Web log at the Telegraph which I enjoy because he has that same Catholic/classical music thing going on that I do. Check out the comments! Hewitt herself jumps in.

That is Angela Hewitt up above in one of her glam gowns. She has the best dresses.

I have Angela Hewitt's new Handel and Haydn CD but I cannot weigh in just yet because I cannot get past the first track. The CD starts with this Handel Chaconne and I have just fallen in love with this piece. Because I have not heard any other versions yet I am not sure how Hewitt's compares. I have to say though that I have been enjoying it a lot.

One thing about this Chaconne, you can see what Beethoven got from Handel. I love that Beethoven variation trick where he gives you the theme, then gives you a variation with the notes twice as fast, then puts it in triplets, then in groups of four -- each time around it gains in power and it is like a train gathering speed. He does that in Opus 109, a sonata I love to play. I love playing that part. You can feel it under your fingers. He does it in the slow movement of the "Appassionata" though because it is slow the effect is different. Also in the slow movement of the "Archduke" Trio.

Anyway that is what Handel does in this Chaconne which, here it is played by Murray Perahia, in case you want to hear it. And that is the reason why I have been unable to move on to the rest of the disk. Or to judgment on Angela Hewitt.

So that is one fight, over Angela Hewitt.

There is also great squabbling surrounding Lang Lang.

In the New York Times yesterday Michael Kimmelman has at him. I feel I know Kimmelman even though I do not because he was a fellow contestant in the, ahem, Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs that I was in. We chatted briefly backstage.

Me: Are you nervous?

Kimmelman: I think we're all nervous.

In the words of Joe Wilson, you lie! Michael Kimmelman is quite the accomplished pianist and I remember at the time of the competition he had just performed Bach's Goldberg Variations for a group of his friends as a birthday present for someone. Here is a picture of Michael Kimmelman.

Not the person you want to be up against in a piano contest, that is for sure!

Anyway, yesterday in the New York Times Kimmelman blasts Lang Lang ...

... and it is a pleasure to savor.

Then in the Baltimore Sun, critic Tim Smith gets in on it and that is fun too. He also does an interview with Lang Lang. It does not sound as if Lang Lang had a lot to say but that does not surprise me, his being from China and a superstar and young. I prefer my pianists over 80, keep that in mind. Me and Annabelle Whitestone. Sorry. I could not help that!

Tim Smith, on his Web log, posts a video of Lang Lang playing Chopin's Etude in E. The performance showed in my not so humble opinion that the pianist can have a wonderful tone and shape a phrase beautifully but he is too self-conscious and he over-engineers the piece.

You know what, though, I had the same thoughts listening to the newly released Horowitz performance of the Schumann Fantasy. It was too teasing for me and it got annoying. So there I am criticizing Horowitz.

Of course I have been listening to Pennario and one thing that makes working on this book such a joy is I have come to love his warm and direct and unselfconscious approach. There is a courage in that. It is like someone looking you right in the eyes.

No one has heard any of these recordings so here is the Schumann Fantasy, part one, part two and part three. Those videos are courtesy of my friend Larry the Rene Leibowitz fan. Thank you, Larry! And here is my own inimitable stereo playing the Etude in E.

Pennario is just better. I am sorry.

Listen to me. Now I am fighting too!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Playing favorites

There is this list of Top 100 Classical Pieces that came out in the Telegraph that people have been Twittering about.

I love all those Mozart operas at the top of the list! It seems to me terrible that so many people go through life without knowing a bit of Mozart opera. As long as you read Shakespeare in school you should listen to Mozart opera too.

When I saw "Cosi fan Tutte" at the Canadian Opera Company I will never forget how it felt as if the floor had dropped out from under me.

That is one strange opera!

On the other hand I do not know if Rossini's "Cinderella" should be on anyone's must-hear list. And there it is on this list, at No. 5! It has Cecilia Bartoli but still. I am not saying Rossini is not extremely good. But if you died without hearing him that would not make me say you had not lived.

Under "Concerto," I do not agree that Solomon's Mozart remains unsurpassed. That is a heck of a statement to make, you know?

My friend Trevor Pinnock's "Messiah" made it in. Remember when I met Trevor Pinnock at the Hyatt? Ahahahahahaaa. That is a picture up above of Trevor Pinnock at the harpsichord.

Hmmmm. There is this Rossini on the list again, with a Mass. The writer of this list is in bed with Rossini! Again I do not know if I would give Rossini this priority.

As a whole the list looks biased in favor of British musicians but this is the Telegraph talking.

Wow, my morning was on track before I wandered into this list. Now look at me.

Love these lists or hate them, they are sure fun to chew on.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A load of Bull

These Twitter buddies of mine post things about music and just today BBC Music wrote: "Norwegian Airlines have pictures of Grieg, soprano Kirsten Flagstad and violinist Ole Bull on their tail fins."

That is a name I love, Ole Bull! It is far and away my favorite name in music! That is Ole Bull pictured above. And might I add that it will be a cold day in hell when American planes put any kind of cultural portraits on their tail fins. Ahahahahahaaaa.

I began reading up on Ole Bull. The Wikipedia entry on him is hilariously badly written but here is something I did not know. Ole Bull began a Norwegian colony in Pennsylvania. He began building a castle there called Nordjenskald.

Who knew?

Ole Bull's stomping grounds are memorialized as Ole Bull State Park. I Mapquested it and it is a three-hour, 32-minute drive from my house!

Here is a photo of Ole Bull State Park where there is a cabin available for rental year-round.

Ole Bull State Park has a wonderful address. It is 31 Valhalla Lane. He named part of his compound Valhalla and part of it Oleana, after his mother. It would be fun to stay at Ole Bull State Park and wait for inspiration to strike.

Here is a detail from Wikipedia I loved: "A testament to Ole Bull's fame was his funeral procession, perhaps the most spectacular in Norway's history. The ship transporting his body was guided by 15 steamers and a large number of smaller vessels."

I also learned that in Mammoth Cave there is an Ole Bull Concert Hall because the great violinist gave concerts there. Darn, I went to Mammoth Cave and I did not see the Ole Bull Concert Hall.

I will have to go back!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Erich Kunzel, backstage in Buffalo

This morning I heard that superstar pops conductor Erich Kunzel had died and I feel bad for a number of reasons. First of all I know his godson. His godson's name is Len Hoeglmeier and Len used to be the bartender at the Lafayette Tap Room in downtown Buffalo. Len was the greatest bartender and we used to go to the Tap Room for lunch just so we could sit and joke around with him. One day when I was interviewing Erich Kunzel, Len casually mentioned the maestro was his godfather.

Sure enough, he was! Kunzel came to town and Len was backstage with him at Kleinhans Music Hall, hanging out. Len gave me the best story about Erich Kunzel for the Buzz column which is the gossip, around-town column I write for The Buffalo News.

What happened was, Kunzel was standing backstage after conducting the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, and a guy walks up to him and slips a note into his hand.

Kunzel unfolds the note, with Len looking alertly over his shoulder.

And the note reads: "To the best German conductor, for the best German meats, shop at Erich Spar's European Sausage and Meats, 451 Amherst Street."

Ha, ha! A commercial break!! You cannot beat Buffalo. People here are crazy. But Spar's is a very good sausage shop and I do hope that Kunzel got to taste some of their delicacies. His wife would have liked them too. Her name was Brunhilde. I always remember that.

Kunzel's concerts had a lot of pizazz and with his flash and big crescendos, he was good at making the case for even kitschy stuff like "Time to Say Goodbye." After the concerts he would go out and you could walk up to him and say hi. He was not one of those artists who are mean to the public, which, I cannot stand those artists. Kunzel was not only nice, he was fun.

Oddly enough he was not a good interview, at least in my experience. He did not want to own up to opinions, is what I remember. You would ask him what composers he especially enjoyed and he would not go in that direction at all.

"I listen to all kinds of music." That was all he would say.

When people say that to you don't you just want to shake them? Well, maybe he was cagey about that because he conducted so many things like "Time To Say Goodbye" and he did not want the audience to get the idea at all that maybe he liked Beethoven better. Pops conductors are in a funny situation.

Now that it is time to say goodbye to Kunzel, it makes me nostalgic. They are a vanishing breed, this elegant, superstar pops conductor. I am sitting here trying to think of who will be the next Erich Kunzel.

And I cannot think of anyone.