“Everything in moderation” is a maxim that I generally try to apply to my own life as often as possible. There are exceptions that I allow for, such as chocolate-covered pretzels, sports, and Oxycontin, but for the most part I find that moderation is indeed a functionally useful life tool. Sometimes, though, life presents a grand opportunity to tell moderation to go fuck itself and bask in the warming glow of too much of a good thing. Last weekend Sandy and I embarked on a two-city musical odyssey between Missouri’s two major cities that was a study in contrasts in a lot of ways except one: there was a shitload of good music to be heard. Continue reading
Juanjo Mena will be succeeding one of my favorite conductors, Gianandrea Noseda, as the Chief Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic beginning with the 2011-2012 season. His was a name I had seen on the internets, but his was not a conductor whose work I had seen or heard. Judging by the exciting performance he led with the Kansas City Symphony this past weekend (and by the fact that he will be conducting the orchestra affiliated with a broadcasting organization based out of a town called Media City UK), it is likely I will hear from him again. Continue reading
Let me begin this post with a deliberately provocative statement: You know, when I look back on the 20th century, I feel like there were some highs and some lows. Whew. I said it. From the ups (civil rights for African-Americans, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Michael Bolton singing “When a Man Loves a Woman”) to the downs (Nazism, the Great Depression, the films of Dennis Quaid), the 1900’s were not for the faint of heart. The role of the artist in this tumultuous context took on an entirely new dimension, and art and politics intersected in a way that we will almost assuredly never see again (sorry Sean Penn!). Artists reflected their time and place in amazing ways, from the poetry of Anna Akhmatova to the art of Diego Rivera, from the novels of Kurt Vonnegut to the music of N.W.A. In the realm of classical music, the most famous example of this is surely Dmitri Shostakovich, whose roller-coaster ride with Stalin is well known. But perhaps no composer exemplified the turbulence of the century more than Bernhard Alois Zimmermann. Continue reading
While visiting my family in Tacoma, WA this past week, we went with my mother and some of her friends to a concert with the University of Puget Sound Orchestra (one of my mother’s friends is on the faculty there). The program featured the winner of the school’s concerto competition, Daniel Bahr, in a performance of Liszt’s Piano Concerto no. 2 and the Symphony no. 40 by Mozart. Christophe Chagnard, he of the Northwest Sinfonietta, was the conductor. Continue reading
The dedicatee of some of the greatest music in the repertoire (both Shostakovich Concertos, the Khatchaturian Concerto, and two Sonatas by Prokofiev), Oistrakh is widely considered the finest violin master in the history of Russia.
The Undisputed King of Bach, Milstein had a 72-year performing career (his debut came in the Glazunov Concerto…with the composer conducting), playing well into his 80′s. His memoir, From Russia to the West, also shows that he ran in an unbelievably cool circle of friends.
The concerto by Johannes Brahms is one of the hallmarks of the violin repertoire. Written for the legendary Joseph Joachim, it is a technically demanding showcase for the soloist, but it is also as musically rich as anything Brahms ever composed. Continue reading
When I was in grad school I did a theoretical analysis of the Symphony no. 11 by Dmitri Shostakovich, after being introduced to the piece by my conducting teacher. I became fascinated with and consumed by the piece because it is as intense as music gets and it has a theatricality (did I just make up that word?) that is unlike anything I have ever heard. As the cliche goes, a movie simply wouldn’t be as good if there were no music to underline the emotions at work, which is true. But now imagine music that is so vivid and so dynamic that were you to attempt to actually express the music in the form of a film, you would probably erase the power of the imagery at work in the score. That is the 11th.
Subtitled ‘The Year 1905′, it tells the story of the “Bloody Sunday” of 9 January 1905, when Russian troops massacred somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000 unarmed, peaceful demonstrators outside the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The first movement, Winter Palace, sets the scene…cold, wintry, still, uneasy, charged. For 15 minutes, you are held completely gripped in this scene, waiting. It’s absolutely amazing. The second movement, 9 January, is a musical depiction of the massacre, complete with some trademark Shostakovich snare drumming, frantic strings and woodwinds, overpowering brass. It is completely relentless music, never losing intensity for 20 minutes, including a fugato that builds to one of the great climaxes in the repertoire. The third movement, In Memoriam, is exactly what it sounds like…a memorial to the victims. It is tremendously tragic, moving, and powerful. It all builds to the fourth movement, The Alarm, a ”look-the-fuck-out” message from the people to the Tsar that is a driving, forceful barrage, only interrupted by an extended, beautiful English Horn solo that precedes one of the coolest endings in all of music, with loud-ass chimes, 5/4 bars, D major chords, and repeated snare drum figures. If anyone has ever seen the movie “The Limey” you’ll recognize the following line that I always seem to conjure when hearing this movement:
You tell them I’m coming. Tell them I’m FUCKING COMING!
The menace, the threat, and the promise of this music was indeed fulfilled twelve years and one symphony later, in the 1917 revolution. The 11th is one of the great masterpieces of the symphonic repertoire…an absolute must-hear. The performance linked here is one of the best performances of this work I’ve heard…truly inspiring in its energy, scope, and power. Langree is not someone I was familiar with prior to this concert, but I will be seeking out more of his work based on this performance. I dare say that it is on a par with the great Russian masters’ readings that I discovered this music through…high praise. The Pittsburgh Symphony, as per usual, kicks serious ass.
The rest of the concert consisted of Mozart. The Masonic Funeral Music opened the concert, in another fine performance. A brief note from Dr. Bernhard Paumgartner, founding member of the Salzburg Festival and eminent Mozart biographer:
The Masonic Funeral Music holds a place all its own among Mozart’s works, not only for its form and homogeneity, for the ingenious choice of the instruments and their exquisite technical treatment, but also through the unique grouping of a solemn march around the fundamental element of a gregorian chorale. Mozart very accurately penned the Cantus Firmus on a separate leaf in order to avoid errors in the elaboration. According to Heimsoeth the first five bars of this melody (bar 25-29) are identical with the first Psalm tone with the first Difference after the Cologne Antiphonary. What follows is a local compilation of several Psalm tones for the ‘Miserere mei Deus’ — a Penitential psalm such as is frequently used for funerals in several places.
This music reminds me in all the good ways about the dark parts of Don Giovanni and the amazing musical atmospheres Mozart can create. While I don’t think it’s fair to say this music is neglected, it is fair to say that it should be performed more, because it is a fantastic work. A great way to set the tone for this concert.
Garrick Ohlsson joined the fray for a nicely crafted performance of the Piano Concerto no. 27. The music isn’t flashy, it isn’t always bright, but it shows a composer who has completely mastered every single aspect of writing a piano concerto. Unlike a lot of Mozart’s music, which was popular enough to be premiered on concerts featuring nothing but Mozart’s music, by this time his popularity had waned sufficiently to the point that it was premiered, at least according to legend, by Mozart on a concert featuring clarinettist Joseph Bahr (although it appears that it may actually have been premiered by one of Mozart’s students 3 months earlier). Regardless, the music stands up to anything else Mozart wrote. The performance here is worth hearing for Ohlsson’s sensitive playing, particularly the third movement, which sounds nicely (and, dare I say, “correctly”) understated, IMO.
Now, the technical info. It was recorded from WQED’s stream and converted to three 256K mp3 files and put into one RAR file. Download available from RapidShare here:
These concerts took place 6 & 8 June 2008 in Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh. Do enjoy this wonderful concert…it is absolutely worth every second.
Or concerti to the informed, pedantic wordsmith.
This week I played a concert featuring the Dvorak Cello Concerto, played fabulously by a gentleman named Matt Johnson, a member of the Kansas City Symphony. Very musical, sweet tone, good approach to the piece…I enjoyed it immensely. It got me thinking to myself…
What if I were to combine my love for music with my love for ranking things and compiling lists in an entirely subjective fashion? We needn’t wonder what that would look like any longer, because I intend to start right now with a look at the 10 Best Concertos.
When I was a young, inexperienced horn player, I would often complain that the concert halls were constantly filled with solo appearances by violin, cello, and piano. My reasoning was simple: they’re flashier instruments than horn, trumpet, oboe, or flute. It wasn’t very long that I discovered the truth: the music written for the big 3 solo instruments is light years better than most everything else. There are some exceptions, but overwhelmingly the music is of vastly superior quality.
My ranking system is based on many complicated factors, ranging from how I feel about these works to how I feel about these works in relation to one another to how I feel when I perform or listen to these works. Bearing that sophisticated criteria in mind:
Carl Maria von Weber–Concertino for Horn and Orchestra
Because it has to be listed somewhere, I’m making an honorary no. 11. If you don’t know this piece, look into it. Terribly difficult for the soloist (IMO much more so than other examples like the Gliere or Strauss 2nd), but genuinely one of the most delightful pieces of music regardless of period, style, or genre. And as if charm weren’t enough, Weber uses multiphonics in the cadenza, where by the hornist plays a pitch and hums a note at the same time to create chords…only about 120 years ahead of its time.
Recommended recording: Hermann Baumann, Masur/Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
Purportedly an introspective look at the feelings Elgar was dealing with while confronting the post WWI scene and his own mortality, it certainly is a burdensome work in many respects, but in all good ways. At times heavy, at times lighter than an insect, at all times filled with Elgar’s mastery of texture and orchestration, and a great solo part. A glass case of emotions…anybody?
Recommended recording: Jacqueline du Pre, Barbirolli/London Symphony
Robert Schumann–Piano Concerto
It’s hard to imagine a more arresting beginning to a piece of music…huge chord, awesome descending line in the solo piano, gorgeous oboe melody (when is an oboe melody not gorgeous?). Quite literally a perfectly constructed piece, perfectly paced, and with a perfect balance between solo and orchestra. Why is it ranked 9th? I don’t know.
Recommended recording: Sviatoslav Richter, Matacic/Monte Carlo National Orchestra
Samuel Barber–Violin Concerto
The 2nd movement is in the running for best movement on this list (what was that about gorgeous oboe melodies?), but the whole concerto is bad ass. Like most everyone else, I find the 3rd movement a little disjointed in comparison to everything before it, but it’s also about the most exciting 4 minute moto perpetuo you’ll ever hear.
Recommended recording: Elmar Oliveira, Slatkin/St. Louis Symphony
Alexander Arutiunian–Trumpet Concerto
Insane? Yes. But it is my favorite wind concerto, bar none. Written for the unrivaled king of Russian trumpet players, Timofei Dokschitzer, it has everything you’d want: flash, drama, huge trumpet sound, some really sweet legatos, and an awesome cadenza. It doesn’t hurt that the beginning grabs you by the throat and holds on for the entire 20 minutes. Look into this, stat.
Recommended recording: Timofei Dokschitzer, Rozhdestvensky/Bolshoi Theater Orchestra
Pitor Ilyich Tschaikovsky–Violin Concerto
Dismissed as too difficult by a few soloists, Adolph Brodsky (yes, THE Adolph Brodsky) premiered the piece with Hans Richter in 1881. Eduard Hanslick thought it sucked, but he thought Wagner sucked too, so he’s kind of an idiot on occasion. Turns out they were right about it being difficult, but it’s also awesome. A good friend once compared this piece to a blonde porn star with huge, probably fake boobs, and I like that comparison (not so crazy about blondes or huge, fake boobs, but whatever). Flashy, yes, but popular with good reason.
Recommended recording: David Oistrakh, Rozhdestvensky/Moscow Radio Symphony (DVD)
Dmitri Shostakovich–Piano Concerto no. 1
Written early in his career, before his friends all got killed and Stalin was mean to him (as a wise man once told me). Which only proves that he could write heart-wrenching and satirical music regardless of the political circumstances. ALMOST a double concerto, but at any rate featuring a prominent trumpet part. The last movement quotes Haydn, marking a meeting of two of the all-time satirists in music history. This piece is gold.
Recommended recording: Mikhail Rudy, Jansons/Berlin Philharmonic/Ole Edvard Antonsen
Sergei Rachmaninov–Piano Concerto no. 2
Popular with Hollywood, appearing in almost a dozen films, including the dreaful Spider-Man 3. Written after Rachmaninov had overcome writer’s block and a little bit of clincial depression for good measure. The 1st movement might belie that a little bit, but the 3rd movement is quite simply one of the most alluring movements in all of music, with a theme as eminently whistlable as the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, the standard for classical whistling.
Recommended recording: Jeno Jando, Lehel/Budapest Symphony
Johannes Brahms–Violin Concerto
On the subject of pieces being perfect… Like so much of what Brahms wrote, this is perfect. Great orchestral introduction, the greatest solo entrance in the repertoire, and a huge movement constructed with a complete mastery of form. Beautiful 2nd movement (with a gorgeous oboe melody!), and a gypsy-ish 3rd movement which I almost always associate with There Will Be Blood now (I’M FINISHED!). I feel guilty not ranking this #1, and I’m not entirely sure I’m comfortable not doing so, but my gut is huge and tells me otherwise…
Recommended recording: Nathan Milstein, Steinberg/Pittsburgh Symphony
Antonin Dvorak–Cello Concerto
A piece to be admired for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is conviction. Written for the composer’s cello-playing friend Hanus Wihan (with some input from Victor Herbert, the Babes in Toyland dude!), Dvorak emphatically rejected the suggestions made by his friend after the premiere (most notably for a cadenza in the 3rd movement). Good call, because it’s an amazing piece as is. Tuneful, grand, folksy, everything you love about Dvorak.
Recommended recording: Mstislav Rostropovich, Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic
Jean Sibelius–Violin Concerto
An incredible journey. The 1st movement sounds absolutely 1000% like what I imagine Finland to look like…desolate, peaceful, turbulent, icy. It’s a really haunting movement all around, and yet it has that borderline cartoonish 2nd section with the bouncy flute melody. But that’s why we love Sibelius. Beautiful 2nd movement. The 3rd movement has more energy in 7 minutes than some composers mustered in their entire careers. And the last 2 minutes of the concerto are almost certainly the music that will usher in the return of Jesus, assuming he takes the form of Lemminkäinen somehow. They sound brutally unplayable, and yet also the baddest ass shit ever in the hands of a master.
Recommended recording: Jascha Heifetz, Hendl/Chicago Symphony
Let the record show that I acknowledge: the Haydn Cello Concerti, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, the Beethoven Violin Concerto and, frankly, all 5 piano concerti, 2 dozen Mozart concerti for various instruments, the Grieg Piano Concerto, the rest of the Rachmaninov piano concerti, the Berg Violin Concerto, the Shostakovich and Prokofiev violin and cello concerti (or Sinfonia Concertante in Prokofiev’s case), a lot of Bach and Vivaldi, the Brahms Double, and the Ravel G major. Also let the record show that Schelomo isn’t a concerto, which is how I’ll be able to sleep tonight.
See you next time I randomly list 10 things I the order of my choosing!