Like any good opening number of musical, the opening number of Sondheimas hopefully sets the tone for the evening, and tells the audience what the show will be about. To some extent, at least. The first year's opening number was from Frogs and "God" from Sondheim on Sondheim, setting up the religious ceremony. Last year we opened with an instrumental of "I Never Do Anything Twice" (tongue-in-cheek) and the opening invocation from Frogs, followed by Molly Pope singing "Back in Business" from Dick Tracy - songs that said, "We're back!" This year, we opened with "Baby June and Her Newsboys," from Gypsy, performed by the Sondheimas Boy Choir - here, Sean Doherty, Matthew Lummus, Mike Walsh, and Eric Williams.Read More
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"... by touching the lives and feelings of ordinary people.” This quote from Gavin Bryars points to his mission as a composer, and is revealed through some of his new music for piano.
You won’t find much in Gavin Bryars’ new Piano Concerto that is harsh to the ears. The stereotypical avant-garde music of the 20th and 21st Centuries is far removed from the music on the new Naxos release of Bryars’ Piano Concerto (The Solway Canal), After Handel’s Vespers and Ramble on Cortona.
The British composer is perhaps best known for his pieces The Sinking of the Titanic and Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Both were written for atypical ensembles, including tape and other electronics, and were first recorded on Brian Eno’s record label in the 1970s. (They have since been revised and rerecorded). It’s telling that his early music was released on Eno’s record label; it’s not ambient music, but Bryars’ music has a familial relationship with it. Bryars’ was a student of John Cage and his compositions place him near the better known Gorecki and Pärt on the musical family tree. Here, Bryars looks to more traditional ensembles and forms on one of the finer classical music releases of the first part of 2011.
The Piano Concerto is not one that features technical flair and drama. An audience won’t instinctively leap to its feet as they would at the end of a Rachmaninov concerto. But that doesn’t make it any less intriguing or enjoyable. What you’ll hear, instead, is a nearly 30-minute piece for piano, men’s chorus and orchestra that borders between impressionistic and post-minimalist styles, full of dark, evocative sounds and subtlety. The piano serves as a mentor to the ensemble, guiding and handing off material to the orchestra, rather than forcing them to serve a more subservient role as in more traditional concerti.
The piece opens simply enough, with open 5ths played by the orchestra and piano, but soon the tonal center shifts around, never quite leaving A minor and C major, but never quite settling on it, either. Chromaticism recurs through the piece, often on the outlying edges of the score, but never intrudes enough for the piece to lose its tonal feel. The imagery of the sonnets by Scottish poet Edwin Morgan and the haunting quality of the men’s chorus are unusual in the context of a piano concerto, but suit this piece and Bryars’ compositional style well. This is an unobtrusive piece, whose beauty lies in its simplicity. It’s the first glimpse of a flower bud underneath the snow of a long winter.
The opening pieces on the album are for solo piano. After Handel’s Vespers was originally written for the harpsichord, and translates well to the piano. Ramble on Cortona is Bryars’ first work for solo piano, the dedicatee, like the Piano Concerto, being pianist van Raat. Both works acknowledge earlier music – Vespers from the 17th and 18th Centuries, Ramble from the 13th Century – but take full advantage of the piano’s sonorities and the capabilities of a contemporary composer. As Bryars has said, “one of the challenges I enjoy is writing in the light of history … I take great sustenance from the music of the past.” He has the ability to reference and incorporate earlier styles without losing his own voice.
The performances by piano soloist Ralph van Raat, the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic and the men of the Capella Amsterdam suit the music well. Raat has a touch that brings out the lyrical qualities of Bryars’ music, and the Philharmonic lingers on every note in the Piano Concerto until the last possible minute, absorbing themselves and the listener in the moments at hand.
Kudos to Naxos for this fine album, and for continuing to release new music. The label has long moved from simply being a clearinghouse of “budget classical” records made by Eastern European musicians to one of the foremost record labels for new and previously unrecorded classical music.
The above video was the opening of my senior piano recital at UW-Eau Claire, on 10 November 2003. It is a Bach Prelude and Fugue originally written for organ, published in Eight Little Preludes and Fugues, and transcribed for the piano by Dmitri Kabalevsky. I made the YouTube video (and this blog post) to celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21st, and the corresponding #BachChat discussions on Twitter.
Below are the program notes I wrote for my senior recital:
Johann Sebastian Bach wrote most of his organ music while organist at the court of the Duke of Weimar, between the years of 1708 and 1717. Is is during this time that the Prelude and Fugue in D minor, BWV 554, was most likely written. As is often the case with Bach's Preludes and Fugues, this work share similarities with the D minor Prelude and Fugue from each book of the Well-Tempered Clavier as well as the D minor Invention and Sinfonia.
The Prelude is rather gloomy, and is in ABA form. The powerful chords of the opening statement contrast rather nicely with the B section, which is marked by a near steady stream of sixteenth notes. The fugue is simple by Bach's standards; the subject and answers are very clearly organized, and there are no stretto statements. The fugue is one large crescendo, ending with the subject stated in D minor. Originally written for the organ, the transcription played today was made by the great Russian composer Dmitri Kabalevsky.
Single Petal of a Rose, by Duke Ellington:
Single Petal of a Rose was written by Duke Ellington as part of his Queen's Suite in the late 1950s. Recorded in 1959, only one was copy was pressed, and given to Queen Elizabeth II. The recording was later released to the general public. (If I'm not mistaken, it was released after Ellington's death, but I can't find any confirmation on that.)
This was originally a duet for piano and bass, but is often played by a solo pianist. (The bass part adds to the overall piece, but is basically sustained notes during the two louder sections, with the flourishes in the right hand.)
I first played this piece as a freshman in college - November of 1999, on my first collegiate jazz concert. It was sort of a test piece my jazz band director, Robert Baca, gave to his pianists. I fell in love with it almost immediately (the great feedback from my first performance of it didn't hurt, either!). And while I love Duke, his music, his band, and his playing, my personal favorite recording of this piece is that done by Sir Roland Hanna:
I wanted to make a video of this for a long time (for both my mother, and at the request of one of my former students). I got a little time in one of the classrooms on campus tonight (and last night - hence my Shostakovich video), so voila!
Once again, thanks for listening!
Tonight I recorded a short Shostakovich Prelude, Op 34 No 14, in Eb minor.
I first heard this piece in its band transcription, transcribed by H. Robert Reynolds:
I have to admit that part of me likes the band transcription better. It seems to evoke the darkness of the piece more than solo piano, and the piercing trumpets at the climax add a lot to the piece. This orchestration influenced my interpretation of the piece (but I often think of solo piano pieces in terms of "its orchestration," so that's not too much of a surprise).
Thanks for watching!