Tuesday, June 29, 2010

From Yara to Yannick

On my Leonard Pennario Web log today I got thinking of musicians who changed their names. It is fun to horse around and list them.

It is a little sad when a performer feels he has to change his or her name. On the other hand it is understandable. There was a time in American music when if you were not Eastern European you were nobody. At least you had to try twice as hard to be taken seriously. Also face it, your name matters. You have to market yourself and a name is a big part of your marketing. I do not mind having this name Goldman, I will tell you that! Mary Kunz Goldman sounds a lot better than plain old Mary Kunz.

Let us return to the subject of musicians who had to Eastern European-ize their names:

Yara Bernette, born plain old Bernette Epstein.

Ms. Bernette served with Pennario on the jury of the Van Cliburn Competition, is why she is on my radar.

There is famously Olga Samaroff, pictured at the top of this post, born with the awkward, comical name of Lucy Hickenlooper.

And what got me started on this was the cellist Zara Nelsova, born Sarah Nelson. Here she is with Pennario on the program I was studying.

Most of the people doing the name changing seem to be women. Apparently they felt they needed that extra oomph. The men in general seem to have gone with what they were handed.

However when I was a kid at UB, we had the pianist Yvar Mikhashoff ...

... born Ronald Mackay, in Troy, N.Y.

Zara, Yara, Olga and Yvar! This is interesting: They all went for these four-letter names, so their names would be exotic but at the same time have a nice, easy ring to them. They wanted people to be able to remember their names and say them easily.

As opposed to another example I could name, and will. This is not Eastern European but one recent musician to glam up his name is the new conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, whose name I can never remember because it is so complicated. Let me look it up. It is Yannick Nezet-Seguin!

Apparently when he was born he was plain vanilla Yannick Seguin but he added his mother's maiden name and became Yannick Nezet-Seguin. That is the Catherine Zeta-Jones trick. Zeta was her grandmother's last name so instead of plain old Kate Jones she fashioned that long movie-star name.

All this name changing is really an old tradition going back to when Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart became Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven signed himself Luigi van Beethoven.

What's in a name?

A lot!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Shut up and play

It has been too long since we had a round of Shut Up and Play. Happily, just now I stumbled onto this Web site and found a dandy.

“I feel a deep attachment to Chopin’s Waltzes,” says pianist Alice Sara Ott. “They reflect the whole arc of his composing life, and they also reflect his split personality – between Polish and French – and his lifelong search for identity. I feel split in a similar way, between Japanese and German. Only in music do I feel completely at home.”

Aw, for Pete's sake.

Shut up and play.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Man of mystery

Yesterday's Web logger, the Palm Beach Post's Greg Stepanich, also mentioned a Mozart portrait I could not call immediately to mind. The artist's name is Edlinger. I went and found it on the Internet and that is it up above.

Ha, ha! What did I write yesterday about no matter what they tell us about Mozart's appearance he remains to many an erotic figure? That picture above does not make him look so good, I have to say that.

Like the photo of Konstanze we chewed on yesterday, this picture may or may not be authentic.

But as in the case of the Konstanze picture, it does look like him to me. The Palm Beach Post guy, whose mind tends to wander like mine, points out that the touch of gray in Mozart's hair suggests he has not been taking good care of himself. He does look older than 34.

You can brief yourself on the portrait's background here.

Meanwhile, what does everyone think?


Or not Mozart?

To me it looks like this portrait.

So I say yes.


Last night I was studying the Konstanze photo again before I went to bed. Here it is again for easy reference. You can click on the picture to make it bigger.

And I had one more thought. Whether or not it is she, it is one of the oldest photos discovered in Bavaria. And I like the look on the face of the old lady on the left, the maybe-Konstanze. She looks as if she is embracing the new technology.She looks eager to get her picture taken. I think that would be Konstanze, don't you? She was always up for anything.

Anyway, two pictures.

You decide.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The old lady on the left

This is old news, but I only just now found it. I was wandering around the Internet, and I found this photograph supposedly of Mozart's widow, Konstanze. The picture was found in some town in Bavaria.

Stanzi-Marini, as Mozart used to call her, is the one at the far left.

The BBC News ran the photo when the find was announced, back in 2006.

It is funny, all the portraits we are used to seeing of Konstanze date from when she was younger, and she is wreathed in such enchantment in our eyes. She was married to Mozart! And biographers can say whatever they want about Mozart, about how he was short and he had a big nose, whatever -- he will always be seen as this kind of erotic figure. From what I observe there are two composers who seem to get all the girls even now that they have been dead a million years. Mozart is one and Chopin is the other.

So Konstanze is this object of wonder and envy and, sometimes, derision. And now here she is, just an old German woman. She looks like my great-grandmother who my mother tells me used to sit in a corner of the kitchen praying the Rosary in German. That is all my mother remembers her grandmother doing.

A Web log in the Palm Beach Post that was on top of things back then more than I was -- well, I was not keeping a Web log then -- touched on something I have felt too, how there is something magical about a photograph. It gives you this immediacy you do not get from portraits. I feel thrilled when I see photos of Schumann, or Brahms. Now here is this ancient daguerreotype that ties us with Mozart's era. Part of the magic is that it makes you realize that era was not so long ago.

The Web logger, Greg Stepanich, also chronicles the controversy surrounding the photo. Some people think it is really Konstanze and some do not.

I will say this, it looks like Konstanze to me.

Pretty cool.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The unsung Schumann

Yesterday was the birthday of Robert Schumann, and it was his 200th. I am not the first person to point out, but point it out I must, that Schumann has been shoved aside this year in favor of Frederic Chopin, born the same year and also turning 200.

Why is that? Why is Chopin getting all the glory?

I think Chopin is more popular that Schumann, who can be kind of introverted and complicated. Not that Chopin is not complicated but I think for many people he is easier to get a handle on.

Also Chopin has that Polish thing going on. Let us not be naive: Being Polish is chic and being German is not.

Also portraits of Chopin tend to be romantic ...

... while Schumann ...

... was not exactly photogenic, or whatever you would call it when you are talking about paintings as well as photographs. Again we have to be honest here.

When I think of Schumann pieces that I love I think of his songs. Off the top of my head I am going to horse with naming my top five.

1.) "Widmung" ("Dedication"), the opening song of his song cycle "Myrthen." I love the ardor of the song and its ending quote from Schubert's "Ave Maria," giving it that reverent twist. Can you say that, "reverent twist"? Well, I just did. It is a very, very popular song. Here it is with Elly Ameling and here is Lang Lang playing the flowery Liszt arrangement.

2.) I love "Frauenliebe und -Leben." Got to get that hyphen in there! And one song I love is the song about the wedding, when she goes down the aisle. He really nails it, the excitement, the scariness, the to-do -- and then all of a sudden at the end of the song it all smooths out and you hear a hint of a wedding march and that's it, down the aisle you go. It is time to jump and you jump.

3.) Oh, there are so many of these Schumann songs I love. I am getting nowhere. "Mignon," I will mention that one, here sung by Anne Murray. "Kennst du das Land?" I think they mention that Goethe poem in "Little Women." Schumann knew how women thought. He was good at getting into the mind of a woman. Mozart was good at that too.

4.) I love the Kerner lieder, this set of songs Schumann wrote to poetry by Justinus Kerner. They are all great -- "Erstes Grun," about the first green of spring, is famous. But I like this lesser-heard number, "Wer machte dich so krank." "Who did that to you?" the song is asking. It is so intimate. It is in this set.

5.)  "Die Rose." I like how sensuous this song is. Schumann could do sensuous.

I could think of many more. I wish I could sit here all day, staring into space and thinking of songs that I love.

That would be a very Robert Schumann thing to do!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Teacher's dream

The other day on my Leonard Pennario Web log I wrote about a terrific garage sale find. It was a copy of his historic "Pictures at an Exhibition," signed by his teacher, Laura Kelsey.

That is a picture of the two of them together in a rare and ancient clip. Miss Kelsey must have been in heaven. A student like Pennario is like hitting the jackpot. You just cannot believe it.

Here is the album Laura Kelsey signed.

Pennario spent his childhood in Buffalo and throughout his life he kept up his ties to our town. So once in a while a treasure like this turns up. Sometimes sources turn up at garage sales too! My friend Joey Giambra, the retired police detective, found Pennario's goddaughter at a garage sale. He heard Pennario's name mentioned and made inquiries and now this woman is in the book.

Laura Kelsey was legend in Buffalo. A lot of distinguished people studied with her when they were kids, either at the Community Music School or her studio on Norwood Avenue. Pennario thought she was an excellent teacher and so do other people who studied with her and have contacted me since I have been working on this book.

I am kind of proud of Pennario for coming from out-of-the-way Buffalo where no one had New York connections. It seems to me that pianists' reputations sometimes ride a little too much on who their teachers were. You read, over and over and over: "He studied with so-and-so who studied with so-and-so who studied with so-and-so who studied with so-and-so who studied with Beethoven."

Hence, the reasoning goes, this pianist is Beethoven's artistic heir.

It is a romantic way of thinking but there is some flaw in that logic, you know?

It does not necessarily mean this pianist is the best of the best. It does mean that he or she was put on the fast track from the word go. Sure, the pianist was extremely talented, but he was also lucky. In other words: Let's hear the music, and then we will judge.

Pennario started out on the Lower West Side in off-the-beaten-track Buffalo, with Miss Laura Kelsey.

I like that about him.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

'Beautiful music'

The other night we went to finals of the Joann Falletta International Guitar Concerto Competition and heard three guitar concertos, one after another. The first was the concerto by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and then there was the famous Rodrigo "Concierto de Aranjuez" and then Rodrigo's "Fantasia para un Gentilhombre."

The Associated Press picked up my story, which ran today in The Buffalo News. The lede was Howard's idea! He said, "The Tsar of the Guitar got the cigar!" And we were laughing about that. The Tsar of the Guitar is the nickname of the winner, a Russian named Artyom Dervoed.

Ha, ha! I love how thanks to the Associated Press, the whole world gets a dose of my opinion, which was that my personal choice had been the Serbian guitarist, Nemanja Ostojic. But really, all the players were wonderful.

I was thinking about how well I am getting to know this music. Ah, the Castelnuovo-Tedesco, yes, I know this piece.

Just the fact that a lot of us here in Buffalo can rattle off mellifluous strings of syllables like "Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco" and "Fantasia para un Gentilhombre" says something in itself.

The same thought occurred to the guitarist Michael Andriaccio who was on the jury. He got up at the end of the night and spoke for a couple of minutes. In most parts of the world, he said, people get to hear only one guitar concerto, maybe, once every four or five years. Here we get to hear about a dozen every two years, when this competition is held. We get to know this music up close and personal.

The "Fantasia para un Gentilhombre" ("Fantasy for a gentleman") is a beauty. The way Rodrigo presents these Renaissance melodies reminds me of Respighi's "Ancient Airs and Dances." Above is a picture of Joaquin Rodrigo. He looks very gentlemanly!

Here is an atmospheric picture of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, perhaps dreaming up his guitar concerto.

I wish there were a place in Buffalo where we could go and sit outside of a fine soft evening and listen to classical guitar and sip wine (or beer, as the case may be).

A few years ago a guitarist named Antonio Chiodo used to come down from Toronto and play at the Left Bank. They had an outdoor wine bar and it was fun to listen to Antonio play standards and light classics. You felt as if you were in a movie. Once I requested "Once I Loved," a song I love by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Chiodo nodded his approval, and played it.

When I thanked him afterward he just shook his head.

"Beautiful music," he said.

And perfect for a summer night.

Friday, June 4, 2010

An old song resung

Last weekend at an estate sale I scored a book of Stephen Foster songs, for voice and piano. That is it pictured above! I bought it over the protests of my mother who said we have the old book lying around somewhere. I said, it would not hurt to have two copies.

When I was little this was the same book my dad and I used to play out of. I would play the Stephen Foster songs and he would sing them. Wow, on the Internet this book is going for $50! I paid $2. I did not do too badly! And mine is a first edition too. I just checked.

I have a deep and nerdy and politically incorrect love for Stephen Foster.

Sighing like the night winds and howling like the rain
Waiting for the loved one who comes not again

Lyrics like this, I eat them up! Those lines are from "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair," especially beautiful when sung by Thomas Hampson.

Deems Taylor points out in his beautifully written notes for my old book that "Jeanie" has to have been the only song to make it to the Hit Parade over 150 years after it was originally published. Apparently it was a big hit in the early 1940s.

My dad also had an old Capitol record of Stephen Foster songs sung by the Roger Wagner Chorale and for some reason it was traditional for us to play that record on Easter. Everyone else on Easter is listening to "Messiah" and there we were listening to Stephen Foster. A while ago I scored that record at a garage sale and I listen to it a lot. I just played it last week when I had a few people over. We were sitting around having drinks and listening to my Stephen Foster record.

A few politically incorrect songs of Stephen Foster:

1. "Old Black Joe." Difficult to find on YouTube but here is a cute version by Jerry Lee Lewis. Deems Taylor writes that of Stephen Foster's last 100 songs this one was the only hit.

2. "My Old Kentucky Home." Because of the beginning, among other things. Rosa Ponselle does not fudge it.

3. "Louisiana Belle." My dad used to love to sing this one. I cannot find it anywhere.

4. "Oh Lemuel." Oh, I cannot find this one either. Does not surprise me. It is all about going down to the cotton fields. Oh, wait! I found someone singing it without crediting Stephen Foster for writing it. She only fudges a few of the words.

Oh my goodness. This is priceless. Here is a Venezuelan choir singing the Roger Wagner Chorale arrangement of "Oh Lemuel." With their accents. How darling. The way they sing the word "cotton." "Go down to the cotton fields/Go down, I say..."

I remember reading in the Wall Street Journal some years ago that campfire songs -- including such big Stephen Foster numbers as "Oh! Susanna" and "Camptown Races" -- are disappearing from the public consciousness, possibly because of their political incorrectness, also because, well, kids learn less than they used to. That is too bad. Everyone should be able to hum those tunes. They are classics!

And they really bring the 19th century to life.