Friday, March 5, 2021

The Tallis tune that sparked a fantasy


 Of course I love Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Fantasy on a Theme of Thomas Tallis"... who doesn't? But I never really thought about it. It is this ethereal music and whenever I have heard it I have concentrated on it, cleared away other distractions, paused to enjoy. But I never wondered where it came from, what melody inspired him.

I am sure this is not a state secret. CD notes I am sure explain it, and I probably have an LP or two in the house that tell you everything you need to know and then some, as we say here in Buffalo. 

But now I am kind of glad I did not find out that way. It is more fun to find it out backwards!

And I found out one day singing in the choir. We were working up some of the tunes Tallis wrote for Archbishop Parker's Psalter. Archbishop Parker was the Archbishop of Canterbury. And I am not being disrespectful writing "tune." I am being accurate. We were on the third tune and that was how it was identified, "Third Tune."

All of a sudden I heard this theme, this gently rocking melody you hear in the "Fantasy on a Theme of Thomas Tallis." Now I am going to sound jaded but I have to admit: my thought as I sang on was: I have heard this before. Someone ripped off Thomas Tallis.

Ha, ha! I could not explore the thought much because the lyrics took all my attention. It is not easy to sing the greatest hits of 1587. The words do not come naturally -- "Why fum'th in sight, the Gentiles' plight" begins this number, and it goes from there. It took until the next verse for it to come into focus .... a British composer, a British piece... Oh my goodness, "Fantasy on a Theme of Thomas Tallis"!

This was the theme!

Or the tune, to put it more accurately. It is the third in the set in the above video because that is what it is. And you will notice they are here performed by the Tallis Scholars. One day that will be me. I will be a Tallis scholar.

Until then I will rejoice in this bit of knowledge.

In this fantasy. In this .... tune.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Nightmare in the Library

 I have been wanting to get my Music Critic web log going again but it is hard to break a long silence, you know? You are always looking for something of Great Import.

Well. Yesterday I was working on my other blog and I found this post I had never published.

I had written it up several years ago one day and I kind of remember it, the way I remember everything I write. I think I published it for about two minutes and then pulled it down. I thought it would sound too negative or something. I thought it would hurt Andre Previn's feelings. He was -- is -- still among us. 

Isn't it odd, the last post I wrote, a few weeks ago, was about Andre Previn. Hmm. Well, back to this old post. In any case I thought better of it, for whatever reason.

Not now.

Now I just think it is funny!

Anyway, without further ado as we say in the music biz, here it is. I titled it "Nightmare in the Library." Take it away, Mary:

I was at the downtown library with my friend Melinda and she was checking out videos. So one thing I do when I have a few minutes to kill is, I go to the music section and wander around. As I wander I scan the shelves and periodically I pull out this book or that and check to see if Leonard Pennario is in it.

He almost never is. I do not hold my breath. It is a funny thing about Pennario, he is so forgotten and overlooked and under-appreciated. I have a kind of joke going with myself about that. I mean, when I pull out these books I never expect to find him in them. Once I was startled to find an interesting few paragraphs about him in a book about child prodigies. That will actually make it into my book. But I am so used to disappointment.

Yesterday I happened to see this moldy old biography of pianist and conductor Andre Previn.

I stopped. Pennario had made this record with Previn in the early '60s. It was Previn's first record and the record company set him up with Pennario to record Rachmaninoff's First and Fourth Piano Concertos. Record companies used to like to have new conductors record with Pennario because Pennario was so reliably great, plus he was such a pro. He would give the conductor no problems and make the conductor look good and the record would be beautiful and sell well.

Perhaps Previn would mention this episode, considering it was his first record and all. Were it not his first record I would figure he would not bother mentioning it because, as I said, no one mentions Pennario. But it was his first record. Anyway, I took the book off the shelf and opened it to check.

To my astonishment there he was, in the index. "Pennario, Leonard."

Wow! This was nice. I was getting over my cold and I still had that kind of wobbly feeling you get before you are quite healthy again. I needed a pick me-upper. I turned to the page. And you know what, I could not believe what I found.

This book was so snotty! 

The writer, who, I did not notice his name, sort of sniffed that Previn's first two records had been with pianists Leonard Pennario and Lorin Hollander. Annoyingly the book lumped them together, as if there were no difference. Then the writer went and described the Pennario recording sessions as "uneventful."

I mean, I am sorry that Pennario did not need his own special stool, you know?

Sorry that he was not drunk or zoned out on pills or wearing a big heavy overcoat or threatening to quit the concert stage. Sorry that he simply walked out and played incredibly. Sorry that he was courteous and easy to work with and did not give Previn a hard time or look like a bum or do anything else that would have given him worth in a journalist's eyes.

Well, maybe I had imagined the negative overtone. Perhaps this stupid writer had not realized that "uneventful" had a negative timbre. But no! The writer went on to quote Previn as saying that he did not think either of those first two records was any good. Previn said, "They showed that I could conduct and that soloists enjoyed working with me."

The nerve. The nerve!! The ego!! The nerve!!

Here by the grace of God you are teamed up with this magnificent musician, and that is what you have to say. Thanks a heap, Andre. Thanks a heap.

Here is a picture of Andre Previn who threw Leonard Pennario under the bus.

I do not normally rant like this but once in a while I allow myself the luxury. This is the kind of stuff I am up against.

The writer also dismissed the record as "standard repertoire." Actually, you know what, it was not. This record was, in its way, historic. This was the record that made Pennario the first pianist after Rachmaninoff to record all four concertos, in addition to the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Because the Second and the Third Concertos and the Rhapsody have always been big hits, but no, the First and the Fourth were not in the standard repertoire. They were not performed very often. They are beginning to gain ground now but even now, they are off the beaten track.

Oh, what am I carrying on for. Previn, Schmevin.

I have real work to do.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Julie Andrews, Andre Previn, and one wild Firestone album

Today I put up my Christmas tree and I am going to kick off an exploration of Christmas music.

Our pick today is Julie Andrews and Andre Previn teaming up for a Firestone classic!

Christmas is really a magical time of year when you listen to anything from the 1950s and '60s. This album, I know it inside out, from when I was a little kid. My brothers and sisters and I listened to it ALL THE TIME over the holiday season. This, and other Firestone records. They are all great. But I want to zero in today on this one.

Of course as kids we loved Julie Andrews. And we loved this record. I listened to it today as I assembled my, ahem, Kmart artificial tree, and put lights on it. It all came back to me. "Joy to the... joy to the .... Joy to the ... joy to the..." sang the Firestone Chorus at the beginning of "Joy To The World." We used to laugh ourselves silly over that.

 And we used to love Julie Andrews doing her number on "Deck the Halls" with harpsichord backing her up, and who knows what else.

These arrangements by Andre Previn!

That is what I am appreciating now!

As a kid, I do remember we liked this album. But his arrangements were over our head. Now I listen to them and I see what he is doing, and I love them. I know a little bit about Previn because Leonard Pennario worked with him. They did a great album of Rachmaninoff concertos. Here is the cover.

A couple of nice looking gentlemen there.

What do you know, that album dates to 1965, the same year as this Firestone album. That was a good year for Previn!

You can tell just by listening to his Christmas creations that Previn loved the heck out of Richard Strauss, who at the time was only recently deceased. He lifted stuff from "Rosenkavalier" for half the album. You hear the Presentation of the Rose in "Away in a Manger." And later you hear the famous waltzes. It might have been in "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" but I did not take notes, I was too tangled up in my Christmas lights. The point is, he does it so well. You would think it would be annoying but it is not.

He also gives you a lot of Handel. Even as kids we could recognize that. And he just throws in a lot of surprises and boldness and fun. As Julie Andrews is singing "Jingle Bells," the orchestra just breaks out in squalls all over the place. It is like unpredictable wild Buffalo weather. "Jingle Bells" ends the album. Julie Andrews soars up to some incredible high note on the last "sleigh." And then the orchestra blasts in with this big honk.

So much fun! Too sophisticated for kids maybe, but great for grown-ups, people into jazz and Handel and Richard Strauss. Previn is a great jazz pianist and we will have to get to that another day.

For now, grab this album and put it on your stereo, whether you are isolated or not. What a great mid-century creation it is.

It is a classic!

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Beethoven turns 250

 Today being Beethoven's 250th birthday, people are calling on me to make a statement.

 What do you say on such a momentous occasion?

Two hundred fifty years!!

Maybe what I will say as a statement is, I can name a few of the Beethoven creations that I love the best. I do love a lot of them. I have always had a kind of funny relationship with Beethoven. All my life I have loved Mozart -- Mozart is my top guy, but then I got more into piano, and I began playing Beethoven sonatas, and I could not stop. I just love them so much. And it brought me closer to Beethoven.

It is funny, thinking of Beethoven vs. Mozart. I read this beautiful book on Mozart several years ago by the British musicologist Paul Johnson. He spent some time dwelling on this topic, Mozart vs. Beethoven, which I liked about him. He said that they would go through history together, both magnifying the other.

That is true, I think!

They were so different. But I do not think you would have had Beethoven without Mozart. Imagine Beethoven going through life always up against this superman. I wrote about that once. It had to have made him who he was. Not Haydn, not Cherubini, not even Handel. Mozart. Imagine having to follow that act. Lucky you, Beethoven, to have been born when you were, on Dec. 16, 1770.

Things Beethoven wrote that I love:

The slow movement of the "Archduke" Trio.

The "Eroica Variations." They are better than the Diabelli variations, I think because they have a better theme to start with. The theme matters. I was lucky enough to learn to play these.

The Sonata in E, Op. 109. This was Leonard Pennario's favorite Beethoven sonata and it is mine too. That last movement! But the whole thing, really, is great. I love the first movement. There are moments that just get to me. There is this measure that sounds like jingling sleigh bells -- just haunting.

The "Appassionata" sonata, especially the slow movement. The second variation gets me. It sounds like a guitar accompaniment.

Of course the slow movements of the "Emperor" concerto and the Allegretto from the Seventh Symphony. My dad said how he loved that Allegretto when he was a kid. I did too, and you know what, it grows up with you. You never have to shove it under the bed in shame the way you would have to shove away some pop album or other.

Of course I love the finale of the Ninth Symphony. My friend Margaret at church, she and I have a joke about it. At moments of stress we will say, "Freude schoener Gotterfunken, Tochter aus Jerusalem." As I write this there is a note from Margaret in my email inbox with that in the subject line. But really, I love it, how can you not.

Back to my list. The slow movement of the last string quartet. I got to know the quartets pretty intimately while working for The Buffalo News and covering the Slee Beethoven Quartet Cycle. I got the scores and I studied them. And I love a lot of them. Some of them sound kind of studied and overengineered to me, to tell you the truth. But that must be me, not Beethoven. That last quartet is breathtaking. And the Razumovsky quartets with their Russian folk tunes, I love those. I love Russian music.

The song "The Flea." What, you don't know that? You should!

Lots of other piano sonatas. I should write a book, you know?

I think over the next week I will go out of my way to listen to Beethoven, celebrate his 250th.

He is looking good for his age!

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Dreaming of Brahms

I have been joking with my friends about this dream I had about one of my favorite musicians of all time, Johannes Brahms.

For better or worse this was the older, bearded Brahms ... 


... not the young version that Howard, the guy I married, always says somewhat snarkily looks like Clint Eastwood. That is the Clint Eastwood Brahms at the top of this post. I used him as click bait.

Anyway, I approached this older, bearded Brahms, and I asked him, "Herr Doktor Brahms, do you like to go out and hear live music?"

Herr Doktor Brahms said ja, jawohl.

I said, "Because my friends and I, we like to go out and hear music. If this Covid craziness ever ends and we are allowed to go out and hear live music again, would you like to go with us?"

And he said he would!

So I was really happy about that.

Of course then I awoke, and ... no Johannes Brahms, no plans to go out with him to hear live music.

I consoled myself by finding on YouTube that wonderful little recording we have of Brahms speaking.



Then he plays the piano. But you know what, I have never really heard the piano part. I just keep rewinding the speaking part. 

One day maybe I will get to the piano. But meanwhile, I listened to Brahms speak a few times. He says something to the effect of this is Herr Doktor Brahms, Johannes Brahms. I used to think it was in English but it is not.

It is so cool, the things you can find on YouTube.

So cool!

Friday, October 2, 2020

Introducing The Mozart Bookshelf

I got on AbeBooks and I ordered this novel about Mozart. It is called "Sacred and Profane" and it is by an author called David Weiss. I remembered this book from when I was a teenager. I know I read it though I have forgotten most of the details.

"Sacred and Profane" is a terrible title because it does not make you think of Mozart. You could write pretty much any book and call it "Sacred and Profane." Perhaps I will title my biography of Leonard Pennario that! On the other hand look, I remembered it after all these years. So what do I know.

I paid something like $5 for "Sacred and Profane" on AbeBooks shipping included. I am excited about getting it. When I was a kid I got it out of the library. I am sure the library has de-accessioned it long ago.

After a few decades at it, I have amassed a pretty good collection of books about Mozart. I have a few children's books and an ancient copy of the biography of Mozart by Edward Holmes, who I recently learned was a friend of John Keats. Get out, who was a friend of John Keats? But Holmes was. I put it together and figured out they knew each other through Vincent Novello, who with his wife Mary wrote "A Mozart Pilgrimage."

I have that book too. The library de-accessioned it, surprise, surprise. But that book is another story for another day!

I also own several novels about Mozart. All of them are kind of weird -- the authors do not seem to get Mozart, they don't get the Catholic Church, they don't get music, they just don't get it. You know what I should do? I should start writing about all the Mozart books I have. I will title my miniseries "The Mozart Bookshelf." 

Haha.. I should actually call it "The Mozart Bookcase," or, "The Spare Room That Has Been Eaten Up By All My Mozart Stuff." That would be more accurate!

 Back to "Sacred and Profane." I just looked it up on Amazon and cannot believe the reviews. Five stars, from reader after reader!

One gentleman who describes himself as a musician and a Mozartian writes, "It's one of the greatest books I ever read!"

It looks as if it has been reprinted several times.

Well, there goes this plan I had. I was thinking that in the week or so before this book gets here, I should write my own novel about Mozart. Just a mini-novel, see how it goes. I know enough about him, that is for sure.

But now I wonder what is the point.

I am looking too forward to this one!

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Opera-tunity knocks: This week at the Met

"Don Giovanni" at the Met this week.
I want to go back to watching the MetOpera's opera stream.

Remember, I was going great guns with it back in April, when we were in the depths of the lockdown. I quickly fell behind with it because I got hooked on Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" and began watching it over and looking for different versions. Then there was Wagner week and I caught a few of the Wagner operas as I recall. And then .... and then ...

And then I guess what happened to me was like what happened to everyone else as we went through the Coronavirus craziness. The weeks began passing faster and faster and running into each other and now suddenly it is months later and I have not watched one single other Metropolitan Opera opera.

But now I do believe I will start again. I was just looking at what is coming up.

In the next week -- the week beginning August 2 we are talking -- they have two Mozart operas coming up, "The Magic Flute" and "Don Giovanni." There is also a "Madame Butterfly" with Roberto Alagna and a "Parsifal" with Siegfried Jerusalem.

"Parsifal" is a little heavy for me though Leonard Pennario liked it a lot. I might watch it to try to see what he saw.

There is an illustrated synopsis for "The Magic Flute." Cute!

There is also an interesting essay about "Don Giovanni" which I have been enjoying picking over. There is a trend these days, say I, to see Don Giovanni as not a bad man but as a rather attractive rebel, a man who insists on his own happiness. I am saying it is a trend because when I saw the opera in Toronto a few years ago, they took that tack.

I admire this essay for acknowledging the Catholic background to the opera, and the literal nature of hell. The director, Michael Grandage, suggests that literal interpretation is something quaint, something the public in general might have trouble understanding. I do not have that trouble, I will tell you that. I believe hell exists. But Grandage has a point, I do not think a lot of people would agree with me. It is nice that he would even explore this topic because Mozart's Catholicism informs so much of his work and few musicologists acknowledge that.

What else is on tap this week? Handel's "Agrippina." They keep giving us this Handel in modern dress and pointing out political parallels to modern times ....

...  I don't know, not to use the language of Don Giovanni but are people seduced by this? Have these operas drawn audiences and gained fans? They seem to me tough to swallow.

But anyway ....

A lot to look forward to this week, if I get back into the opera saddle!