Sunday, November 4, 2012
So much time has passed since my last blog. So much has happened since… My last one talked about the works I was going to play at the Museum of Art on January 29th. That program was recorded, and the CD is about to be released by Centaur Records.
Soon after that recital, in talking with my friend, the conductor Domenico Boyagian, we decided to collaborate on a project to record the Grieg Piano Concerto. We picked the venue (the Museum of Art, again), talked to Ted Good of Steinway, who gave us a superb instrument, enlisted the services of Thomas Knab, a fantastic sound engineer, and scheduled two public performances of the Concerto, with the Ohio Philharmonic Orchestra. Those live performances are the basis for the CD that is about to be released.
In the meantime, teaching at CIM was in full swing, and I was playing recitals in Oregon, Spain and South Africa, and concerto performances in California (Prokofiev Third with the Stockton Symphony), and Florida (Rachmaninoff Second with the Pensacola Symphony), as well as Texas (Grieg with the Longview Symphony). The South Africa trip at the end of March was a fantastic one, and a perfect prelude to my South African tour of August. I went to Stellenbosch, to be part of the Piano Symposium organized by Nina Schumann and Luis Magalhaes. I had a blast. It was well worth the interminable flights.
The Liszt Society Festival in Eugene, OR was also a wonderful experience. I met or saw again colleagues and friends who I respect and admire, such as John Perry, Luiz de Moura Castro, Alexandre Dossin, Gila Goldstein, and many others. I also had a wonderful time playing my recital on a New York Steinway that did not seem to be the instrument of choice at the University of Oregon Music School, but I loved it and am happy I chose it.
I also had many trips to beautiful Santo Domingo throughout the winter and into late spring/early summer, to teach masterclasses there. That is always I place I love to go to, especially for the dear friends I have there.
I returned to San Jose, CA at the beginning of June to preside the jury of the International Russian Music Piano Competition. Dan and Irina Morgan, as well as Julie and Alex Poklewski, always do a magnificent job at organizing that event, aided of course by wonderful board members and volunteers. They have all become great friends of mine and Emanuela's, as well as fantastic "uncles and aunts" to my daughter. Eleanor's birthday falls during the competition, and the fact that we were together on that day made the whole experience even more special.
The summer festival season was now upon me, and I traveled to Italy, and more precisely to one of the most beautiful places on earth: the Amalfi Coast. The Amalfi Coast Music Festival was unforgettable. I arrived quite tired, after all that activity and not a day of rest. The weather was scorching hot, air conditioning insufficient, or not available. I'm Italian, so that was nothing I didn't expect. What I did not expect was how the beauty of the surroundings would make me feel regenerated, even while working hard. July in Amalfi, radiant, splendid, sweet, unforgettable, gave me emotions I will not forget as long as I live.
Those emotions and feelings carried over to the next engagement, a workshop in Napoli. I have been returning to Napoli every year in the third week of July. Never have I loved it more.
At the end of the workshop, I played a recital in Nancy, France. Place Stanislas is simply incredible.
Then came my South African tour, which lasted over 3 weeks. I played the Grieg Concerto several times with the Johannesburg Philharmonic, Rachmaninoff Third with the Cape Town Philharmonic, several recitals in Jo'burg, Pretoria, Bloemfontein, and Knysna, as well as numerous masterclasses all over the country. I met so many wonderful people. I'm happy I will return there at the end of June 2013.
By the time I played my last engagement in South Africa, I had barely time to fly back to Italy, and drive 6 hours from Rome to Taranto, for my brother's wedding. It was a wonderful ceremony and reception.
Summer was now over! Fly back to the States, start teaching right away, mix that with more traveling and performing: four concerts with the West Virginia Symphony, then Rachmaninoff Third with the National Symphony of the Dominican Republic, then Hong Kong, Macau, back to the US to play Mendelssohn First with the Winston-Salem Symphony, then a quick trip to Japan, and here we are!
Two more trips in November, one to Santo Domingo to teach, and another to Rio de Janeiro to judge a great piano competition, from November 25th through December 8th. Then, perhaps, finally, a few days to catch my breath?
Thursday, January 26, 2012
I will play a recital in Cleveland, on January 29th, and here are my program notes:
I will play a recital in Cleveland, on January 29th, and here are my program notes:
Carl Czerny (1791-1857)
Variations on a theme by Rode, Op.33 "La Ricordanza" (1822)
Carl Czerny is mostly remembered today for his Études and exercises. However, his catalogue of compositions lists 861 Opus numbers, many of which are brilliant concert pieces. It appears that Czerny chose the theme by violinist Pierre Rode after hearing the great soprano Angelica Catalani perform her own variations on the same theme. The title "La Ricordanza" The Reminiscence, seems to indicate that Czerny composed this delightful set while reminiscing about that fabulous performance. Elegant, charming, extremely virtuosic in some of its passagework, this set makes for a wonderful concert piece.
Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837)
Sonata No. 5, Op.81 in F# minor (1819)
Johann Nepomuk Hummel is the greatest composer of that period of transition between the Classical and the Romantic eras. He studied with Mozart for two years, living under the same roof with the great Wolfgang Amadeus during the last two years of the great Master's life. Subsequently, Hummel studied with, or came under the influence of great composers such as Clementi, Dussek, Salieri, and Haydn, who became his mentor, and whom he addressed as "my beloved Papa". While studying with Haydn, Hummel became friends with Beethoven, whose respect he earned and maintained. Following Beethoven's wishes, Hummel improvised at Beethoven's memorial concert. At this event, he met and became friends with Franz Schubert, who dedicated his last three sonatas to Hummel (unfortunately, by the time of their publication, both Schubert and Hummel were dead, so the publisher changed the dedication to Robert Schumann instead). While Kapellmeister at Weimar, Hummel formed a close friendship with Goethe and Schiller, who both worked for the Weimar Theater. Hummel turned Weimar into a European musical capital, attracting the best musicians of his day to perform or be in residence there. As a teacher, Hummel represents one of the most influential figures of the 19th century. He taught Carl Czerny, Ferdinand Hiller, Sigismond Thalberg, Adolf Von Henselt, and Felix Mendelssohn. Franz Liszt's father refused to pay the high tuition fee Hummel charged, so Franz ended up studying with Czerny (Liszt eventually became himself Kapellmeister at Weimar). The Sonata Op.81 (1819) is a great example of the incredible virtuosic piano writing, prodigious sense of form and proportions, melodic and harmonic inventiveness of Hummel. The second movement of this Sonata, much like the Hummel Concerti in A minor and B minor, makes it abundantly clear that Frederic Chopin knew and admired Hummel's works, and was greatly influenced by them. The two became friends, and Hummel was a great mentor to the young Chopin.
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Variations on a theme of Corelli, Op.42 (1931)
In 1931, while visiting Switzerland, Rachmaninoff bought a piece of land to build a new Ivanovka, as his summer residence in Russia was called. The villa, on Lake Lucerne, would be called "Senar" (SErgei and NAtalia Rachmaninoff).
While waiting for its completion, Rachmaninoff composed the Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op.42. It took him only three weeks to finish it. This would turn out to be his only original solo piano piece composed after leaving Russia.
Rachmaninoff seems to have been unaware that the theme was not by Arcangelo Corelli, but rather a Portuguese popular melody called "La Folia", the existence of which is first documented in treatises and compositions dating from the 16th Century. Lully, Corelli, Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi, J.S. Bach and Franz Liszt all used this theme to compose their own variations. The Spanish Rhapsody by Franz Liszt, based on the same theme, had been part of Rachmaninoff's repertoire since 1919, and that is probably how Rachmaninoff came in contact with it.
The op. 42 is dedicated to the great violinist Fritz Kreisler, Rachmaninoff's friend and colleague. This encourages the thought that Kreisler might have even enticed Rachmaninoff to compose the Variations. It does not seem like a big stretch to think that "Les Folies d'Espagne", Arcangelo Corelli's violin sonata based on "La Folia", might have been the object of a conversation, or even a private reading by the two great musicians.
Rachmaninoff's style at this stage had evolved considerably, allowing the composer to express the full range of his emotions with an economy of means already manifested in the revision of the Second Sonata, as well as the Fourth Concerto, and without his earlier redundancy. One can't help but notice a similarity and a contrast with the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Op. 43, composed in 1934. The "slow movement" in Op. 42, constituted by Variations 14 and 15, is in D Flat Major, just like the famous Variation 18 in Op. 43. However, in the Op.42, the two Variations do not turn into a vehicle for the Composer's lyrical vein. They have a rather introspective, dreamy character, not very impassioned and almost diametrically opposite to Variation 18 of the Rhapsody.
The Coda of this work is an absolute gem, finally resorting to chromaticism to intensify the emotional outpouring, just before releasing the built-up tension through a final, wistful statement of the theme.
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
From "Années de Pèlerinage, Première Année, Suisse" (1855)
Au bord d'une source
The first volume of "Années de Pèlerinage", Years of Pilgrimage, is subtitled "Suisse", Switzerland. It was published in 1855, but eight out of the nine movements had already appeared about twenty years earlier, under the title "Album d'un Voyageur", having been composed while Liszt was in Switzerland with countess Marie d'Agoult, with whom he had eloped. Liszt re-worked all the movements, and added one, "Orage".
"Vallée d'Obermann" is inspired by Étienne de Senancour's novel, "Obermann". Liszt musically describes the philosophical meditations, the existential doubts, the torment of unanswerable questions that Obermann goes through while living in a solitary refuge in the Swiss Alps. The Valley of Obermann is as much a spiritual as a physical place. Through his struggle, Obermann longs for spiritual peace, love, harmony, hope, and eternity. Liszt masterfully renders this longing by a transfiguration of the initial, desolate theme, and by a crescendo that reaches an ecstatic climax.
"Au bord dune source", Beside a Spring, is a splendid example of "water music". It flows quietly and calmly, with occasional big splashes, but its apparent calmness disguises enormous technical challenges to the performer.
"Orage" is a musical description of a violent storm in the Swiss Alps, thus creating a violent contrast with the peaceful water music that precedes it.
Friday, November 4, 2011
In the last few years, I have been telling my students (and audiences at my recitals) that I believe the Second Ballade by Liszt to be inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. A few people have asked why I believe such a thing, when no sources prove it. Furthermore, an oral tradition, perpetuated by the great Claudio Arrau--who apparently learned it from his teacher Martin Krause, who was one of Liszt's pupils, seems to establish a link between the Ballade and another myth, that of Hero and Leander. While that is possible, I doubt it.
The Second Ballade was composed in 1853 and published in 1854. In those same years, Liszt composed his 8th Symphonic Poem, titled “Orpheus” (this is actually known as the Symphonic Poem n. 4, but that numeration does not follow the chronological order of composition). In 1854, Liszt conducted the Weimar premiere of Gluck's opera “Orfeo ed Euridice”, and replaced Gluck's original overture with his own Symphonic Poem.
I think the Second Ballade truly fits the Orpheus and Eurydice story like a glove, and I cannot help but think that it is this myth that was very much on Liszt's mind when he wrote the Ballade. So much so, that I think every moment of the piece can be directly linked to the unfolding of the story:
-The repetition of the same material at the beginning, first in B minor [bars 1-34], then in B flat minor [35-69], physically accompanying Orpheus‘ descent into the Underworld;
-The murky river Styx represented by the left hand chromatic figuration;
-The sublime “love theme”, sung by Orpheus accompanying himself on his lyre [24-34, and 59-69];
-A three-headed dog named Cerberus, ghosts, spirits, vultures, other threatening creatures [70 and following] all being tamed by Orpheus’ song [“Allegretto”, bars 143 and following]. In his journey to meet the King and Queen of Hades, Orpheus is confronted by numerous scary creatures at various times, but continues undeterred;
-Orpheus pleading to Pluto and Persephone, King and Queen of the Underworld [“Appassionato”, bars 225 and following]. This is the same theme we hear earlier, at bars 135 and following (‘a piacere, cantando”), softer and more hesitant, as if Orpheus first rehearses what he is going to say to the King and Queen, whispering it to himself;
-The transfiguration of the disconsolate opening theme into a glorious B Major, after his wish is granted [“Allegro Moderato”, bars 254 and following];
-The ascending arpeggios, and later scales, representing the ecstatic journey back to the world of the living, both hands moving upwards, both Orpheus and Eurydice so close to the goal, the music building up to what could have been such a triumphant finale;
-The crushing blow of the diminished seventh chord that suddenly interrupts this ecstatic journey, representing the very moment in which Orpheus turns and looks at his wife, contravening the one condition set by Pluto and Persephone [bar 297];
-Orpheus chasing Eurydice as she vanishes before his eyes [bars 298-299];
-The contrary-motion alternate octaves, Orpheus and Eurydice being separated so precipitously and forever [bars 300-301];
-The return of the “love theme”, this time presented in a very frantic manner, as Orpheus realizes that his beloved is lost forever [302-310];
-Resignation [bars 311 to the end], but still Orpheus' longing, his yearning for Eurydice can be felt by the way the music resists the arrival of the final B Major chord through a series of G#s in the top voice, and chromaticism in the inner voices. The last note of the piece, an F# played over a tied chord, sounds like the ultimate gesture of resignation, Orpheus lowering his head and accepting his cruel fate.
Monday, July 11, 2011
Friday, April 29, 2011
I was teaching the other day, and my student MoonKi played the Chopin 3rd Scherzo for me. I love the piece, and was listening to her play it when something struck me. A possible thematic connection between the 3rd a 4th scherzo?
I've played all of Chopin's Scherzi many times, and I've also performed all 4 in the second half of some of my recitals. I had never noticed this connection!
Example 1 (click to enlarge)
Example 2 (click to enlarge)
The descending double-octaves of the third scherzo (example 1) are a mirror image of the ascending chords of the fourth (example 2). As soon as the 3rd scherzo modulates to E Major, look at the five indicated notes (Example one, first line, bars 10, 11, 12, 13, and the first bar of line 2) : it's the opening theme of the Fourth Scherzo!
I don't know if it was intentional, but it is hard for me to believe it wasn't. I think Chopin started out the 4th scherzo as a transfigured version of the 3rd and moved on from there. Two works sounding as different as can be, and yet very closely connected.