Showdown: Oistrakh vs. Milstein

The Contestants:

David Oistrakh

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.

Nathan Milstein

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 Rep:

Johannes Brahms

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

10 Best: Symphonies no. 4

When I first thought about a countdown of the best symphonies numbered four, I sort of assumed it would flow roughly as naturally as the countdown of symphonies numbered five.  I was wrong.  What an unbelievably crowded field.  Normally I would be inclined to use the “honorable mention” as an excuse to list something that may not immediately leap to mind (as in the Don Gillis Symphony no. 5 ½ on the previous list).  But when I made my little chart, there was no room for half-assed attempts at getting Mozart 40 or Haydn 94 or 104, or The Poem of Ecstasy on the list, which kind of blows my mind.  Obviously the pool of possibilities swells with the inclusion of Brahms and Schumann, but wait until this thing is done and you see who got left off altogether.  Without further hyperbole…  Continue reading

Two new categories

Just wanted to alert readers here (hi, members of my extended family!) of two new features I intend to get going in this space in the coming weeks.  The first is a charming little game called Showdown, whereby we arbitrarily fight a mythical battle between two musical figures.  They could be composers, conductors, performers, writers, whatever.  Not unlike the 10 Best lists, they are subjective, frivolous, and an incredible waste of time.  But they are also an incredibly effective way to think about, say, Handel and Mendelssohn, when trying to determine who is better/cooler/more bad-ass.  In an ideal world, there would be some feedback, because that’s the entire point of a smackdown in the Oxford dictionary definition.  You think I sold Gilels short in his battle with Joshua Bell?  Say so.

The second new feature that I want to have here is something I call “5-7 questions with a smart person.”  In this scenario, I find someone I consider smart.  I e-mail them some questions.  They are thought-provoking, powerful, transcendent questions that will reveal stunning revelations into the recipient’s psyche.  Or they might be things like “what’s the coolest concert you ever went to?”  Whatever.  Don’t worry about it.  Just keep your fingers crossed that you are (or maybe keep your fingers crossed that you aren’t) one of the smart people I’m targeting.  I’m pointing my right index and middle fingers at my eyes.  Now I’m pointing that same index finger at my computer screen.  You are on the other side of that computer screen.  See what I did there?

Stay tuned!

Something cool you might have missed: October by Dmitri Shostakovich


Bolshevism hurray!

In light of recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, continuing events in Bahrain, and upcoming events likely to take place in the Middle East and North Africa, I submit that revolution is in the air.  With apologies to the 18th century revolutions in France and America, the Abbasids, Haiti, the Boxer Rebellion, and Pancho Villa, no one does revolution quite like the Russians.  The trail from the Decembrists to the massacre of 1905 to the Bolsheviks and the birth of the Soviet Union is an amazing story.  The fact that it all peaked with a paranoid psychopath at the top of the pyramid purging 30 million of his own people shouldn’t mask the joy of 1917.  BTW, if you ever need context for just how bad a guy Hitler was, always remember that the paranoid psychopath who purged 30 million of his own people was our ally in WWII.  THANKS FOR THE LAUGH WHILE SHAKING MY HEAD SLOWLY, COMPLETELY TRUE STATEMENT!

Seriously, though, 1917 was awesome if you had grown tired of Tsarism (judging by the fact that Tsar Nicholas’ entire family was murdered in a basement while they thought they were getting a portrait taken, I would say some people were tired of Tsarism).  I imagine it’s what the good people of Egypt are feeling right now: an unbridled optimism in their future, destiny in their own hands!  How can this not end well?!  The subject of the October Revolution occupied a giant space in Soviet art, literature, and music.  No one filled that giant space more than Dmitri Shostakovich. Continue reading

The sad sound of indifference

DSO Logo

Symphony Wars - Episode VIII: And Now They Hate You

The Detroit Symphony saga carries on, with this weekend’s performances of Haydn and Dvorak cancelled.  The orchestra’s musicians have rejected the latest proposal from management, as explained in this article by Free Press music critic Mark Stryker, who I will refer to as “Lieutenant” from this point forward because I love the movie Airplane.  I tackled the subject of the DSO strike a while back in a piece of hard-hitting journalism that rivaled anything John Tesh did when he hosted Entertainment Tonight, and the response was passionate.  Passion can be applied almost anywhere, though, and if the reactions from Lieutenant Stryker’s story are any indication, the readers of the Detroit Free Press are passionate about not giving a shit about the Detroit Symphony. Continue reading

Something cool you might have missed: Winter Storm Waltz by Julius Fucik

Julius Fucik

Chuck Norris’ beard? Fucik that shit!

Julius Fucik is what happens when you cross Johann Strauss, John Philip Sousa and this weatherman’s reaction to thunder during a snowstorm.  Many people are familiar with the Sousa portion of the comparison: Fucik wrote quite possibly the most famous march in the history of the universe (Entrance of the Gladiators, aka Thunder and Blazes, aka that song you hear every time you have the nightmare with the clown carrying a pick-axe), and another march (Florentiner) that gets played pretty regularly.  He studied composition with Dvorak, was a gifted bassoon player (he even wrote a piece featuring bassoon called “The Old Grumbler”), and founded his own music publishing company.  He was a military bandmaster, composer, arranger, and possessed one of the all-time great mustaches. Continue reading