Showing posts with label Beethoven. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Beethoven. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Music of mourning

Last night, while surfing the web, I discovered that my ex-wife died last November of ovarian cancer. Neither she nor any member of her family had informed me she was ill. We had not spoken for several years, but needless to say, I was badly shaken, and although it was late, I went to the stereo to find some kind of relief in music.

My first choice was Ralph Vaughan Williams' Pastoral Symphony. The second was Debussy's "Homage a Rameau" for solo piano. Both of these old favorites came into my head almost as soon as I became aware my ex was gone. Both are gentle, contemplative, and dignified, but with an undercurrent of strength. The fourth movement of the Vaughan Williams, especially, has a wonderful climactic moment in which a wave of sound rises swiftly, but with a satisfying motivation, and crashes over the rocks on shore.

This afternoon, before I walked to work in the snowstorm, the music was more about affirmation than sadness - Bach's Partita No. 2 for solo violin, and Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32. Bach's Chaconne is one of those works that instill a sense of awe over the human mind can conceive. The finale of the Beethoven breaks the bonds of earth. The performances were by Arthur Grumiaux and Alfred Brendel.

I don't know what I will need to turn to next.

Monday, November 25, 2013

More live music

Between one thing and another, I have fallen far behind on my blogging, but I didn’t want too much time to go by without mentioning a pair of memorable concerts I attended in the weeks before the Carter tribute at Carnegie Hall. The concerts took place on consecutive Sundays. On November 3, I drove out to Swarthmore (may the builders of I-95 roast in eternal perdition) to hear Orchestra 2001 and the Daedalus Quartet perform music by Walton, Joan Tower, and Schoenberg. The quartet played Joan Tower’s String Quartet No. 5, titled White Water, and, with baritone Randall Scarlata and pianist Charles Abramovic, Arnold Schoenberg’s 1942 “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte.” The afternoon began and ended with orchestra itself, dressed in red and black, playing William Walton’s early, sprawling “Façade,” split into two big sections, with Scarlata and the sublime Suzanne DuPlantis as narrators. Performances were uniformly excellent. The Tower was easy to follow, with broad lines and open textures, but it seemed to me more well-crafted than inspired, somewhat like the music of Walter Piston.

The greatest piece on the program was the Schoenberg, but for its sheer playfulness, the Walton made the strongest impression. It’s an eclectic piece, a sort of mixture of Pierrot Lunaire and A Soldier’s Tale, with a bit of Three-Penny Opera thrown in. Like The Rite of Spring ten years earlier, it caused a scandal at its premiere. Before the performance, James Freeman, 2001’s conductor, said the poet Edith Sitwell, who provided texts, had to sneak out of the theater, because, it was warned, she might come to some harm. Freeman said he had always envied Walton and Stravinsky for the violence and passion of those first responses, and he encouraged us to boo, if we felt like it. A few of us did, just to be polite, but we were all in much too good a mood to make a serious show of it. The performance was great fun. I told both James and Suzanne I wished the group would record it.

A week later, I had a lovely afternoon in the genial company of Mozart and Beethoven, courtesy of the Independence Sinfonia, which is fast becoming the best of Philadelphia’s small suburban orchestras. The concert was held at Or Hadash synagogue in Whitemarsh, in a boxy, wood-paneled sanctuary that conductor Jerome Rosen said was built as a music hall. The orchestra has about forty musicians, more enough to create a thrilling, knockout sound in such intimate surroundings. There was a tangibility to the music, a sense of envelopment you don’t get in the big halls,. Even with the biggest and best orchestras.

Charles Salinger was the Apollonian soloist in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A. Rosen told me afterward he was especially proud of the job the musicians did in this piece, but after the concert, my head remained full of Beethoven, if only because his music is less subtle. The concert began with the Overture to “the “Creatures of Prometheus” and ended with the Fourth Symphony. The group was tight and fluent in both. Special mention should be made of bassoonist Judy Frank, who nailed the little cadenza in the last movement of the symphony. (The conductor gave her a congratulatory OK sign from the podium.) The passage is as challenging as a fifty-two yard field goal, Rosen said. Even the most experienced player can muff it, but when it works, it’s a beautiful thing to behold.

There. I am now caught up. It is cold tonight. Time to curl up under the covers with tea and Updike’s Couples.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The home of Mozart and Beethoven

The Independence Sinfonia, a good group that is getting better, will present a concert Nov. 10 at Or Hadash in Fort Washington. On the program will be Beethoven's Creatures of Prometheus Overture and Fourth Symphony and Mozart's Clarinet Concerto. Soloist in the Mozart will be Charly Salinger. You can read my interview with him here.

Charlie called me on my cell this afternoon and asked when the article and in what paper the piece would  run.  He also said if there was anything he could ever do for me, I had only to ask.

I told him the Mozart would be enough.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Which bios d'ya read?

These days I’ve been breezing through Alan Pryce-Jones slim little study of Beethoven. The book repeats my favorite anecdote about the composer, which ends with his stunningly arrogant -- and accurate -- assertion of his own historical importance. I quote Pryce-Jones’ version in full (pp. 61-62):

In 1805, while Beethoven was staying at the Schloß Grätz with one of his earliest and kindest benefactors, Prince Lichnowsky, a French officer, among other French officers also staying at the house, was rash enough to ask Beethoven if he “also understood the violin.” This question so annoyed him that he flatly refused to play for the party, quarreled with the host, and left the house on foot, there and then, carrying the manuscript of the Appassionata sonata under his arm through heavy rain. On his arrival in Vienna he wrote to the Prince:

“What you are, you are through accident and birth. What I am, I am through my own efforts. There are princes and there will be thousands of princes more, but there is only one Beethoven.”

Yet, though this is only one example of his churlishness to Lichnowsky, their friendship was eventually restored. This particular piece of bad manners is sometimes excused by the picture of a patriot outraged by the presence of his conquerors; but since in the same year Beethoven played Gluck to a gathering of French generals who sang to his accompaniment, it does not seem a reasonable excuse
.

This account is contradicted on several points by Philippe A. Autexier, who also relates the incident in own slim (and beautifully illustrated) biography, Beethoven: The Composer as Hero. Again, I quote in full (p. 61):

One evening in October 1806, when Beethoven was staying at Prince Lichnowsky’s castle in Ostrava, his host promised his French guests the opportunity to hear Beethoven play piano. But Beethoven disappeared. He did not want to perform -- above all, not before officers in Napoleon’s army. The prince insisted. Beethoven became angry and fled the castle on foot, in the pouring rain. The next day, before returning to Vienna, he wrote Lichnowsky: “Prince! What you are, you are by chance and by birth. What I am, I am by myself. There have been, there will be, thousands of Princes. There is only one Beethoven.” Unhappily for Beethoven, however, there were few princes like Lichnowsky. The dispute that fall caused a total break. For the composer, it meant the loss of his 600 florins yearly and, most serious, of his most reliable friend, whose devotion never faltered in any circumstance.

The two versions agree on some particulars: Beethoven was staying with Prince Lichnowsky, there were French officers present, and it was raining. Everything else is open to question or interpretation: The year was 1805 or 1806. Beethoven’s departure was a patriotic act or a fit of pique over an unintended insult. The composer wrote his letter after his return to Vienna or just before, and the break it caused was either total or eventually repaired.

The letter is essentially the same in both instances, allowing for variations in translation, and for me, it has always been the best part of the story. There is only one Beethoven, and he is worth more than all the nobility combined. To say something so outrageous to a friend and a patron -- and to be right -- shows an awareness of one’s gifts and achievements few of us will ever experience, princes or not. Beethoven, whose personal and emotional life was a mess, must have felt a godlike sense of power and control while he was composing. He knew what he was, and what he was capable of.

Yet even the letter is doubtful. Wanting the original, definitive story --how naïve is that? -- I looked it up in Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, your one-stop shop for all things Ludwig, and found yet another version (p. 403), which differs in detail from both Pryce-Jones and Autexier. In this one, quoted verbatim from a mere appendix in Seyfried’s Studien, the French officers (not the prince) pestered Beethoven to play, which he refused to do because he regarded it as “menial labor,” and he stormed out only when one of them, in jest, threatened to have him arrested.

Thayer relegates the letter to a footnote with the following comment: “Authentic or not, it may well have come from the lips of Beethoven in a fit of anger.” In this telling, the titan’s manifesto is reduced to something he might have said.

Moreover, according to the footnote, the earliest mention of the letter dates from the Aug. 31, 1873, edition of the Wiener Deutscher Zeitung, which printed the recollections of a grandson of Dr. Weiser, Prince Lichnowsky’s house physician. It is therefore a second-hand recollection, told nearly seventy years after the event. Nor does the letter itself appear in my copy of Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations.

Surely, something happened that October night in 1806 (the year is confirmed by Thayer and Seyfried), but that wonderful, Nietzschean assertion of the will to power, which for me had become something of a creative ideal, remains at best a conjecture. It seems biographies are never definitive. They are rarely ever stable. I should remember that when I read any new study of Ives.

Monday, May 6, 2013

My own private concert

The Independence Sinfonia presented a program of Mozart and Beethoven Sunday afternoon. I was unable to attend, since I worked weekends, but I was invited to the final rehearsal at a shoebox of a church in Wyndmoor Pa. It was a thrill to hear Beethoven's Fifth in such a small space, even when the orchestra consists of only about 40 musicians. The reading was taut, and the musicians played straight through: the only distraction was the occasional shout of encouragement from the podium.

The conductor, Jerome Rosen, who played violin with the Cleveland Orchestra years ago, told me that the one lesson he learned from George Szell is that musicians do not play better when they're terrified.

"Anything positive you can say, you have to say," he said.

Rosen spent all of his time tweaking details of articulation and phrasing, something he said he can do only when the musicians have mastered the score. As an editor, I know what he means: there is a big difference between a writer who needs help with mechanics, and one who simply isn't getting it.

"It's so satisfying to be able to nitpick," he told the group.

 Besides the Beethoven Fifth, the program included Mozart's overture to The Magic Flute and his Sinfonia Concertante, with Rosen on violin and Xiao-Fu Zhou on viola. Zhou made it look easy. He was impassive through most of the run through, while Rosen, who told me he hasn't played violin in years, would grimace every time he made a mistake.

Several the musicians sat out the Mozart, but they were all up front for the Beethoven, leaving me alone in the pews. It was like attending my own, private concert.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Beethoven is keeping me alive

I started a new job Monday in Norristown. The hours are 3 to 11 p.m., the commute is twice as long as I am used to, and I am still not sure what exactly it is I am supposed to be doing. This week I've been going to be late and sleep late. I have a couple of free hours before heading off to the office, time I spend fluctuating between anxiety and read. It doesn't really feel like leisure time if you're counting the minutes before the long drive. For the past couple of mornings (early afternoons, really), I have been listening to Charles Rosen's recording of Beethoven's Piano Sonatas Op. 31. The second CD of this two-CD set — “The Great Middle Period Sonatas” — will follow tomorrow.

This music has been the only thing that has prevented me from either a) resigning or b) throwing myself under a truck. My gratitude to both of these immortal artists for saving my life. The sonatas and the performance together are an extraordinary affirmation.

And remember, only three more shopping days until Beethoven’s birthday.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Some people don't know what they're missing

I know, I know, it's a losing game to lament the small attendance and classical concerts, but I'm going to do it anyway. Last night I attended an unexpectedly wonderful concert: I say unexpectedly because it was a fundraiser, held in a church hall in Abington, Pa., with a volunteer pickup orchestra and two local pianists. The program consisted of a short Schubert overture and two, count 'em, of Beethoven's piano concertos -- the Third and the Fifth. Claire Belkovsky, the soloist in the the Third was fine, but Marja Kaisla, the soloist in the Fifth, was astonishing, and while the orchestra was small and had only one short rehearsal, it played beautifully and crisply, especially in the Emperor, and the sound was more than big enough to fill the modest performance space. (Winds and brass were up on the stage, strings and soloists down on the floor.) It was a night to remember, a night to write home about, if you were away from home, a night to blog about, but the attendance was only about 75, and I recognized most of the people there. They were the same ones who always come to these fundraisers, which are held to benefit the Sheldon Harris Ginsberg Memorial Scholarship Fund at Philadelphia's Settlement Music School.

I understand it was a Sunday night, and the Eagles were playing the Redskins, but I'm going to be up from this concert for the next couple of days. I just wish other music lovers in the area could understand what they missed. My thanks and congratulations to Claire, Marja, conductor Blair Bollinger, all the folks in the orchestra, and as always, to Renee Goldman (that's pronounced REE-nee), friend and former piano teacher, who organizes these things every year, in the face of public indifference, to keep her brother's memory alive.

So the next time I write an article telling you you to come to a concert, for heaven's sake, come. I feel sorry for everyone in the world who wasn't there. And I especially feel sorry for the people in Abington who could have walked over.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Two days, two concerts

I’m getting out more these days, hearing more live music than even just a year ago. Two very different but satisfying concerts back to back this weekend. I previewed both for Ticket. (See the links to your left.) Friday night, The Crossing performed contemporary choral works at Chestnut Hill Presbyterian. Last night, at Delaware Valley College, the Lenape Chamber ensemble presented more standard fare ― Prokofiev's Sonata for Two Violins, Chopin's G minor Cello Sonata, and Beethoven's first Razumovsky Quartet. The Beethoven was a fortuitous, since I've been listening to the string quartets on recordings quite a bit recently. It was wonderful to hear it live.

The concerts at Delaware Valley College take place in the school cafeteria, an unpromising location. Listeners sit in rows of plastic, molded seats set up for the occasion, and the noise of the air conditioning gets in the way during the quiet moments, but once you get over it, the acoustics are actually very good. The Beethoven, especially, was clear as a bell, and beautifully played. I was most impressed with the precision and the clean intonations in the feather-light second movement.

The Crossing concert included the world premiere of Lansing McCloskey’s “Memory of Rain,” on a Philip Levine. I was fortunate enough to sit next to the composer during the performance. He drew into himself as he listened — eyes closed, head bowed, arms folded, legs crossed. His only criticism of the performance was that the chorus was about a quartertone off from the organ, making the piece “microtonal” where it wasn’t intended to be. It didn’t matter. I liked it either way. I also liked it, I guess, because it was the one secular piece on a program swimming in Christian sadomasochism. (“I am worthless, Lord. Love me.”) Another composer, who I know is devout and whose music will be performed by the Crossing next week, told me during the reception, jocularly, that if religious isn’t annoying and offensive, then it isn’t doing its job. Well, it did its job Friday.

The other highlight of the evening, Francis Pott’s “My Song is Love Unknown” (on another religious text), stood out for its refreshing return to counterpoint. The same composer I spoke to at the reception tells me it’s a lost art among contemporary composers. Too much modern music, even the most aggressively "accessible," walks in lockstep, content to make one, single pretty sound after another. Interweaving contrapuntal lines re-introduce the element of story. They're like an argument, he said.