New York im Licht

January 31, 2008

images-1.jpg3781_175.jpg When Carnegie Hall presented its marvelous “Berlin in Lights” festival this season, lots of us were thrilled by many of the varied offerings and by the concept itself. Perhaps nothing about the series was more effective than Carnegie Hall’s going out into the field, as it were, instead of just waiting for the folks to come to it. (This is of course paradoxical for a producing organization that owes its very existence to the great Hall itself, but so be it.) I’ll never forget the production of The Rite of Spring at the United Palace Theater in Washington Heights, using uptown public-school children as dancers and the very Berlin Philharmonic as the pit band. It raised many possibilities, in the imagination, of what Carnegie Hall might do to match the excitement of that festival in the service of other cultural milieux.

It’s doubtful that they could have come up with a better idea along those lines than the one that was announced this week for next season, in which Jessye Norman will curate a wide-ranging series called “Honor! A Celebration of the African-American Cultural Legacy.” It’s a great idea, and Ms. Norman just may be exactly the right person to put it together. A daughter of the deep South, long a prominent resident of New York, she has achieved an intensively international career in which she has succeeded in interpreting artifacts of many cultures to many cultures; she’s a woman with an always-astonishing sense of style and of theater. Could Carnegie Hall have done better? (I’m trying to picture the meeting at which the idea first came up. Did everyone’s eyes light up as mine did on first hearing of it?) Jessye Norman will be facilitating the presentation of rich material that will be at least as foreign to much of its intended audience as the Weimar-era cabaret music, klezmer bands, or “The Rite of Spring” were to the average American this season.

The Berlin Philharmonic’s Stravinsky project seemed made for its uptown venue, but in fact they had done it first back home in Berlin. Might some of the coming African-American events be as successfully presented in Berlin? We owe them, after all.

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woolsey-case.jpg I had a recital to prepare in Woolsey Hall at Yale. In those days students were given only very limited access to the pipe organ, one of the most famous in the world, in that hall — even when we had a performance coming up there. Great planning and discipline, if we were wise, went into how our few hours of access would be spent.

The program included a big Dupré prelude and fugue and what I was assured was the American premiere of a Tournemire organ-mass. I was also to play Hindemith’s Sonata III, using the markings in the composer’s manuscript — preserved in the Yale Music School Library –, including registrations for this very instrument. (I recall that these included Hindemith’s favorite organ stop, the Heckelphone, for the solo of the second movement.)

Thus I was particularly annoyed during my last practice session when there arose one of the organist’s occupational hazards: Someone was lurking at the very edge of my peripheral vision and wouldn’t go away. I know it makes no sense that, while practicing in a vast public building, a performer should be annoyed by the presence of a single auditor, but so it was. And I was far from unusual among my peers for finding it so. The organist’s lore is full of methods for chasing these people off (one of which is by playing the same dull passage over and over till the person leaves in desperation), but all of those expulsion techniques are time-consuming. And time was exactly what I was short of. So my grinning and bearing were called into overdrive when the figure came closer and closer and really seemed to bear down.

I began to feel that a direct confrontation was called for, so I turned and looked the man squarely in the face. Before I could speak, he started asking questions in such a sincerely interested and noticeably intelligent manner, that I found myself answering him with, probably, no evidence of impatience. He wanted to know about the piece, which he was clearly finding to be of some fascination. So I recited for him a brief sort of program note on its composer, Max Reger, on late-Romantic organs and organ music, and on the passacaglia form that the piece involved. Some of this I could tell he already knew, and I slowly began to form a reluctance to go on with my little lecture. This was because, with a mixture of pleasure and horror, it was dawning on me that the person who stood before me, the person I had been trying to chase off, the person I had been on the verge of condescending to, was Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington.

The Best is Noise

January 30, 2008

watching-television-aa047314.jpg One of our own got to do his thing on the best kind of national television last night. If you missed Alex Ross on The Colbert Report, you can catch it online.

Some of the good stuff got cut, though.

continued from yesterday

goldbergtitle.jpg The contribution of the Goldbergs to an equally important experiment may have been obscured by an interesting tale that has long been attached to them. Forkel, in his 1802 Über Johann Sebastian Bachs Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke, first published what was to become the familiar legend of

the former Russian ambassador to the electoral court of Saxony, Count Kaiserling, who often stopped in Leipzig and brought there with him the aforementioned Goldberg [his house musician], in order to have him given musical instruction by Bach. The Count was often ill and had sleepless nights. At such times, Goldberg, who lived in his house, had to spend the night in an antechamber, so as to play for him during his insomnia. Once the Count mentioned in Bach’s presence that he would like to have some clavier pieces for Goldberg, which should be of such a smooth and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them during his sleepless night. Bach thought himself best able to fulfill this wish by means of Variations, the writing of which he had until then considered an ungrateful task on account of the repeatedly similar harmonic foundation. But, since at this time all his works were already models of skill, these variations also became so under his hand. Yet he produced only a single work of this kind. Thereafter the Count always called them his variations. He never tired of them, and for a long time sleepless nights brought: “Dear Goldberg, do play me one of my variations.” Bach was perhaps never so rewarded for one of his works as for this one. The Count presented him with a golden goblet filled with 100 louis d’or. Nevertheless, even had the gift been a thousand times larger, their artistic value would still not have been paid for.

Read the rest of this entry »

1531031.jpg The day after this Web site began, Publishers Weekly came up with an article on the difference between writing online and writing a book.

jsbfade.gif The Italian Concerto and the “Goldberg” Aria with Variations were meant to show two different approaches to music for the keyboard. Though Bach published little in his lifetime, he did see to it that both these works were issued in his summa on keyboard technique, the four-volume Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Study). Here is the layout of the volumes:

I. Six Partitas (suites of dances), 1731
II. Italian Concerto and French Overture, 1735
III. Organ compositions: chorale-preludes, two-voice pieces, and the “St. Anne” Prelude and Fugue, 1739
IV. “Goldberg” Variations, 1741–2

The Italian Concerto is the ultimate product of one of Bach’s long-term projects: to transplant to German music the concerto style as the Italians had developed it. A major result was his many concertos that set soloists in relief against orchestra; but even more inventive were Bach’s efforts, between 1708 and 1717, to devise concertos that a keyboard player could perform without an orchestra. The seven organ examples included three that were transcribed from the composer who represented the avant-garde of concerto-making, Antonio Vivaldi. They used the smaller organ division nearer the hearers (the Rückpositiv) for the concertino solo parts, and the larger, higher-up division (Oberwerk) for the full-orchestra ripieno; thus could one player perform a whole concerto.

During the same period, Bach was experimenting with sixteen “concertos” for clavier alone, six of which were also arranged from concertos by Antonio Vivaldi. In these he went yet a step further: he removed the concerto’s usual element of spatial contrast and trusted the player to provide even that illusion by skillful use of purely keyboard resources. The naturalization of Italian orchestral techniques to the German keyboard could go no further — except by producing his own completely new “Italian” concerto. And by 1734 Bach was so fluent in the modern Italian style that he could confidently call an original work, in an engraved and published book, an Italian Concerto, when it was neither from Italy nor with orchestra. Metaphor and illusion in music can go no further.

Tomorrow: the “Goldberg” Variations

Mozart’s Birthday

January 27, 2008

What better way to celebrate than to let Susan Graham and Simon Keenlyside exemplify his art (exquisitely) from the stage of the Paris Opéra?


Duet of Dorabella and Guglielmo: “Il core vi dono” from Cosí fan tutte

theeaselconnectionlogo.jpg Newly-concocted links between music and visual arts can be tricky. Of course, when they really work they pay great dividends. I wish I could have seen/heard one such manifestation last week: The endlessly inventive young composer Huang Ruo had a premiere at the North Carolina School of the Arts, in which both the music and the “performance” of painting took place in real time. Perpetrated by the merely opportunistic, such a device could just amount to a gimmick, but in responsible hands — as in this case — it seems a promising idea.