The Singing Composer

June 27, 2010

I once heard a famous composer express the conviction that all composers are frustrated singers. No friend to such blanket claims in general, I nevertheless began to form an interesting list in my mind; so I ventured: “It might support your suggestion to recall how many recent composers have been excellently sympathetic pianists in performance with singers: you, Britten, Poulenc, Barber, Bernstein, Hoiby, Bolcom, Musto.” Those were, I believe, the names that I suggested. For some reason, the composer sneered and said, “I don’t see your point.”

Well, I — and he — could have gone further. Samuel Barber, the centenary of whose birth we observe this year and who wrote magnificent songs, was not only a notable accompanist but was able to sing his own songs beautifully:

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Foxy Comic Opera

December 14, 2009

Long before I had any professional contact with it, I was a huge fan of John Musto’s comic opera Volpone, so it was very cheering news that Wolf Trap Opera’s recording of it is Grammy-nominated as Best Opera Recording. Since it was not only Wolf Trap’s first opera commission — to which they’ve already devoted two separate productions — but their first commercial recording as well, it looks as though they know how to pick — and be — winners.

The jaunty music in this ninety-second video is what was played for the curtain calls:

small_Tsujii As noted here before (and by Anne Midgette elsewhere), the Thirteenth Van Cliburn International Competition has taken a fresh approach to its presentation of contemporary works. In the event, many of the competitors have told interviewers that they chose a work from the four possibilities based on what they thought they could learn in time. And who can blame them? John Musto‘s difficult “Improvisation and Fugue” thus was played by only one of the semi-finalists, Nobuyuki Tsujii. But that twenty-year-old not only took a gold medal but won the large cash award for the best performance of a contemporary piece for his crystalline interpretation of the Musto work. That he learned it in a short time and played it with confidence is a great tribute to him, and his winning shows the good judgment of the jury. He had been a clear audience favorite throughout.

The young Japanese pianist did not choose the Musto as his only challenging work by any means. He played hours of major works (including, among many other things, the Hammerklavier Sonata, a Schumann quintet, and concertos by Chopin and Rachmaninoff). He has been blind from birth.

The new work, which was commissioned by the Stecher and Horowitz Foundation for their own Fourth New York International Piano Competition held last summer, where it enjoyed some brilliant performances, can be heard in Nobuyuki Tsujii’s prize-winning version on Cliburn TV (at Semifinal Archive for May 31), and played by the winner of the Stecher and Horowtiz competition, Allen Yueh, here. You will want to compare the two quite distinct interpretations.

UPDATE: Nobu’s performance is now also on YouTube.