Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A couple of great 208's.

Somehow I have failed for many years to see an obvious connection between two of my favorite, and very well known, pieces of music. 208.
J.S. Bach (1685-1750) wrote his "Hunting Cantata" in 1713. Part of this large work is a very tasty lick we now know as "Sheep May Safely Graze." Bach's works were cataloged in 1950 by Wolfgang Schmieder and are known as BWV-Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (Bach Works Catalogue). The Hunting Cantata is BWV 208.
I'm sure most all of you have heard this beautiful piece of music:



Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) was a prolific Italian composer. Among his supreme accomplishments was the composition of 555 keyboard sonatas. These works were cataloged by Ralph Kirkpatrick in 1953. He used the letter K to designate these works. I have not listened to all 555, but I am in love with K. 208 in A major. It has been recorded many times and transcribed for other instruments. Here is a keyboard version:


And here is a guitar version of the Scarlatti K. 208 that is wonderful. I think I love the guitar version the most.

Two great 208's.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Classics in Television: Curb Your Enthusiasm (Larry David) uses Strauss to great effect.


Larry David was the co-creator of the hit TV show Seinfeld.back in the early '90's. In 2000 he created and starred in another very hilarious show called Curb Your Enthusiasm which aired on HBO. It's a somewhat self-autobiographical program where Larry stars and plays himself as a comedy writer who finds every possible way to screw everything up, offend everybody, and say all the wrong things.
One of the best episodes aired in 2002 where Larry is leading a group of investors to open a restaurant in Los Angeles. He hires a chef who has peculiar outbursts. To make matters worse, the kitchen in the restaurant is out in the open. All of this plays out with Johann Strauss II's famous Overture to Die Fledermaus which premiered in 1874.
The music really has nothing to do with the action per se, but it really fits well if you ask me. Enjoy, But be warned, this is extremely funny, but has a few bad words in it.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Kansas City Symphony 3.26.17: Me, my son, and Sibelius


Kansas City Symphony Concert, March 26, 2017. I came for the Sibelius. Despite the fact that Michael Stern had assembled a wonderful program of music for this week's concert, there was one and only one piece I really wanted to hear....the Sibelius Second Symphony. 1. Carl Nielsen's Overture to Maskarade (1904-06) was a treat. I had not heard it before. 2. Einojuhani Rautavaara's Fantasia for Violin and Orchestra (2015) performed by guest soloist Anne Akiko Meyers....FABULOUS! This piece has an enormous musical arch...so emotional. It's still echoing in my head long after it ended. 3. Ravel's Tzigane for Violin and Orchestra (1924), also performed by Ms. Meyers, who once again played flawlessly and passionately. As she finished the piece, there was a sizable amount of bow hair dangling about, a casualty of the ferocity of the piece and her playing. She was just wonderful.
In 1980, I joined the Omaha Area Youth Orchestra. (in case you don't know, I play the violin.) On the program for our Winter concert was the 4th movement of the Symphony no. 2 of Jean Sibelius. At the time, I had not heard this work, and my only real listening experience of Sibelius was his famous work, Finlandia. After our first rehearsal, I was hooked. This was a piece that stood out from just about anything else I had heard. And not coincidentally, it was my Dad's favorite piece by Sibelius. In fact, it was one of his all-time favorite pieces. The night we performed it will be one that I never forget. My Mom and Dad were both in the audience. I was so happy that they were going to be able to share this great moment with me. We played so well and I experienced an out-of-body experience that I will always remember.
There are many false summits in much of Sibelius' works. His phrasing and voicing are unlike any other. You think you know where you are going, and when you have arrived, but then he shifts gears and takes you to another level...there is still a higher summit. He pulls you in and won't let you go until he is ready. The Second Symphony is masterful at this. At the crescendo of the Finale, the timpani are pounding out a D and G over and over. The violins then lead the charge into the final stretch with their D major, ascending tremolo passage....and then the trumpets enter and soar with their D-E-F#-G phrase. This is magic. We have arrived.
I steal a glance at my son Ethan sitting next to me. He's not a classical music nut like me, at least not yet anyway. And this is his first symphony concert in Helzberg Hall. I look at Maestro Stern...we are sitting in the choir loft and I have a perfect view of him...and he is singing....singing....The tempo is perfect. Every section is on fire, playing with passion and inspiration. The balance is perfect. Such an amazing orchestra. This is so intense.
I feel this huge smile come across my face....it feels silly, but I can't help it. Then I feel my throat tighten and a lump forms. And then of course the tears well up. I am, at that moment, a 15 year old boy once again playing this miraculous piece for my parents, looking at my own son who is about to go away to college, and missing my dad who passed away 11 years ago this month...there's a lot of shit going on here right?  It's all too much.
I am 52 years old, and I am in experiencing pure joy. Sibelius.
"My second symphony is a confession of the soul."

Monday, March 20, 2017

Joy Spring, Bach and Brown, Trumpets



Today is the first day of Spring. I first discovered jazz in the Spring... many years ago. This season always reminds me of my discovery and exploration of what was then a very new and exciting form of music for me. I was fully immersed in classical music at that time, but I had very recently discovered the Beatles and started down the path of rock music discovery. Jazz was right on it's heals. I played the violin in my high school orchestra. Our Music Director was a wonderful, charismatic man named Dr. Stephen Lawrence. Dr. Lawrence saw something in me that led him to believe that when the bass player for the jazz band graduated, I could step in and become the new bass player. Huh? Why me? I don't know ANYTHING about jazz. I don't play the bass. Dr. Lawrence said, "You play the violin right? Well, the bass is just like the violin...four strings, except upside down, and lower."
So my journey as a jazz bassist began in earnest. Along the way, I went to a record store (yes, VINYL 33 1/3 records) and picked out 2 records quite randomly. But as if by a miracle, both were quintessential jazz records that I still love to this day.
This all happened in early Spring of that year...1982. The records were "That Bop Thing" by Howard McGhee (1948)  and "Joy Spring" (1954) by Clifford Brown. Both were trumpet players.
"Joy Spring" will forever capture the feelings I had during that exciting time of my life. This song still feels like Spring to me.


Last year, I read an interesting essay called "Clifford Brown: The Bach of Jazz." This was published the The Art of Music Lounge: An Online Journal of Jazz and Classical Music by Lynn Rene Bayley.

https://artmusiclounge.wordpress.com/2016/03/17/clifford-brown-the-bach-of-jazz/

I will admit, I did not sense "Bach" when listening to Clifford Brown. But I could tell he was something special. But this essay really got me thinking.

Howard McGhee's record also means a great deal to me. This song also feels like Spring.



Sunday, March 5, 2017

A Trio of Trios

I "discovered" three new works that I thought you should know about. They are all piano trios. A piano trio is a composition for piano, violin, and cello. I think an apt comparison in contemporary music would be the "power trio" from the rock world...guitar, bass and drums. The Police, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Rush, and Cream are good examples of power trios. Most bands going back to the beginning of rock 'n roll were 4 or more pieces with a vocalist. The power trio offered a much more sparse sound. The voices of the instruments and the vocals were more defined and clear. This resulted in greater clarity and power of sound. The same is true for a trio in the classical genre. Piano, violin and cello together create a unique structure and balance of sound. Harmony, rhythm, phrasing and melody share a huge space for development and ideas.

The first piano trio I stumbled across was Cesar Franck's Piano Trio in F sharp minor, composed in 1840 when he was 18 years old. This was one of his first published works. He wrote 4 such trios but this one stands out to me as the most exceptional. My first "love" for a Franck composition was his very famous Symphony in D minor (1888). I first heard this as a young child...probably 6 or 7 years old. It was one of the first records my dad gave me to listen to on my little record player. It had a pretty big scratch in it, which is probably why he gave it to me, but I didn't care. This huge orchestral piece became Franck's most recognizable and famous work. His piano trios are much lesser known. It took me 52 years to find them. I hope you take to it like I did.


Soon after I discovered the Franck Piano Trio, I stumbled upon the Piano Trio in C minor by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Yes, the same Rimsky-Korsakov who gave us Scheherazade, Flight of the Bumblebee and The Russian Easter Overture. RK wrote his trio in 1897, but was not happy with it. He didn't think it was very good. He did not publish it and it remained unheard for more than 30 years after his death in 1908. His son-in-law, Maximilian Steinberg, finally brought it to light, completed it and published it. As with Cesar Franck, we have an opportunity to hear a composer known best for his orchestral works write for a very intimate ensemble, and the result is stunning. I don't understand why RK didn't think this was worthy of being heard. He obviously did not recognize how great it was. Here is the stunning third movement of the Piano Trio in C minor. When I first heard it, I could not believe it was RK...it does not sound anything like him. The opening 12 bars of this movement are incredible.


Lastly, I want to share the Piano Trio in C minor of Dimitri Shostakovich (1923). Unlike Franck and Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich was well known for his works for solo instruments and small ensembles, as well as his symphonic works. But his genius shines in the smaller setting of a trio. He was only 17 years old when he wrote this...a student at the Leningrad Conservatory....such a young age to be able to express such rich musical ideas. I found a citation in a Los Angeles Philharmonic program that said "there are plenty of hints in this piece of the late Shostakovich we all know, hints that did not please all of his instructors. One of Shostakovich's professors in the conservatory expressed his displeasure with the young composer's "obsession with the Grotesque," a comment which Shostakovich apparently took with some satisfaction." This work, despite coming from such a young person, is very complex and dynamic. It is beautiful, haunting, unnerving, and breathtaking.



Friday, February 24, 2017

Beethoven as SEEN at the KC Symphony

"A lot is going on at once allowing you to direct your attention where best you see fit in a given moment. It's like life that way." - Colin Fleming, referring to Beethoven's 8th Symphony


The program for the Kansas City Symphony last weekend (I was there Sunday Feb 16th) included Beethoven's Eighth Symphony. As is always the case at a KC Symphony concert, the sound was incredible. No surprise there. But what stood out for me was the visual nature of Beethoven's music. Just as our eye follows a basketball or tennis ball in said sporting events, one can also "follow the ball" of a Beethoven Symphony.  Unlike the previous piece on the program, a wonderful, ethereal work by young composer David Hertzberg called "for none shall gaze upon the Father and live" which requires utter silence to begin (made difficult due to Amber Alerts blowing up every one's phones and the multitude of chronic tuberculosis sufferers in attendance) the 8th blasts off without warning. Maestro Stern hopped up on the podium for the Beethoven and immediately "served" the ball to the strings...the opening fifteen note phrase. Then, with confident ground strokes and and pinpoint volleys, he guided the ball from section to section as musical themes and phrases developed and were passed around the stage. Maestro Stern really seemed to be having fun. He did not use a score and he moved all around the podium to get as close as he could to the musicians, who also seemed to be having a blast playing this amazing symphony.  In doing so, it helped the listener...or viewer I should say... see where the music "was." It really was fascinating. Another great reason classical music should be experienced in a concert hall whenever possible...especially in Kansas City!

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Artist's Profile: Guitar Great Paul Gilbert talks about Classical Music


I confess that as of a few months ago, I had never heard of Paul Gilbert. One of his videos popped up on my YouTube suggestions list and so clicked it. It was a short clip of him playing Bach on an electric guitar at a guitar clinic here in Kansas City a few years ago. I was impressed and explored more of his work, which goes back 25 years now with several pretty big time rock bands, Racer X and Mr. Big. As I have written many times, I love the intersection of musical worlds...in this case classical and rock. As I immersed myself in his interviews, tutorials and performances, it was obvious that Paul Gilbert is first, exceptionally talented, and second, a very humble, well adjusted artist...the kind of person you'd love to sit down with and have a cup of coffee and just talk about music. I was not able to coordinate a call with him, but he agreed to answer my questions via e-mail. Here you go.

1)      Did you hear classical music growing up?

PG: Yeah. My parents had a lot classical albums and listened to classical radio stations. They also had almost all the Beatles records, and lots of Rolling Stones. My dad listened to blues, a lot as well. And my mom played Carole King records quite a bit.

      2)      If so, do you remember what piece of music or composers you first connected with?

PG: At first, I didn’t like classical music at all. I immediately connected to the Beatles, and I would endlessly play air guitar along with the “Help” and “Hard Day’s Night” albums. But my younger sister started taking ballet lessons, and one day she was dancing at home to Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” and it just hit me, that this was a great melody. I got my guitar and started figuring out how to play the main parts on guitar. That opened the door.

        3)    What is it about classical music that “grabs” you the most? 

PG: I like different things about different pieces. When I first started paying attention to Bach keyboard inventions, it was just exciting to hear so many 16th notes! And they were played so cleanly. The music had an athletic appeal, but at the same time the melodic patterns were beautiful and interesting. It’s a challenge on any instrument to be able to crank out two minutes of accurate 16th notes, and learning Bach keyboard music is such a good place to work on this kind of thing.
After my initial fascination with faster playing, I also discovered pieces like Shostakovich's 5th Symphony. The first time I heard that was on my car radio. I had to pull the car over! It was some of the scariest, most dramatic, and most beautiful music I had ever heard. I wish I could play that one on guitar, but a big orchestra is really better suited to the task.

        4)      I have enjoyed seeing the videos of you on YouTube playing music of Bach, Haydn, and other classical composers on the electric guitar….very cool. This may seem like a silly question, but why are you playing classical music on electric guitar? (lol)

PG: Some of my motivation is like climbing a mountain… “Because it’s there.” I like to challenge myself to see if I can do it. And I always learn so much. The problem is that I can never remember the pieces. It’s just too much to mentally retain. Like many rock guitarists, my sight reading skills are horrible, so I have to rely on memory.

        5)      When you play Bach or Haydn, for example, is it well received?

PG: At guitar clinics, it’s fine. The audience is there to listen and learn, and not looking to “rock out” like at a concert. I’m actually doing a long medley of songs from my whole career on my current tour, and I play a couple classical sections in there. I think they work really well, but they are short, so the audience doesn’t get upset that they are not rocking out. At a rock show, I don’t think I’ve ever played a complete classical piece. Oh wait, I did attempt a Bach Cello Suite during my unaccompanied solo years ago in Japan. I got nervous about halfway through and screwed it up, but I’m glad to at least have tried it.

We also used to play ELP’s version of Aaron Copeland’s “Hoedown” with 
           Mr. Big. That had rock drums and worked really well.

        6)      I have talked to many professional musicians who have told me they don’t listen to music for enjoyment anymore…they want to get away from music since it’s what they do for a living. Do you still find time to listen to music for enjoyment? If so, is some of it classical music?

PG: I don’t listen to music as much as I used to. I have significant hearing loss, so I mainly like to listen to music when there’s not much background noise. Also, even though music is more portable now “in theory” because you can fit a zillion mp3s into a small device. There is something about music on computers that I don’t like. Maybe it’s just iTunes. I hate iTunes so much. I’ve been so frustrated just trying to do the simplest things with iTunes, that I finally decided, I will NEVER use it again for anything. It’s not easy to remove it from your computer. But I researched and got rid of it. I want it gone. Seriously, that @#$Q#$%$% program has traumatized me. Whew, sorry. I’ve got to calm myself down. But I think a lot of the reason I don’t listen to music is because of the interface on computers. I bought a turntable the other day, and LOVED the experience of it. I had sold most of my vinyl collection years ago, but I still had a few that I couldn’t part with… including J.C. Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in A. That one I played with all guitars on my “Flying Dog” album. I re-titled it “Gilberto Concerto,” and one of the sections in the middle was the inspiration for part of the Racer X instrumental “Scarified.”
Soon after I got my new turntable, I wanted to get some more records. So I went to a local record shop and bought an armful of records. As I was driving away from the store, I got the weirdest feeling. I realized, “I just paid money for music.” How odd! I’m used to ripping it from YouTube videos, and then listening to it with The Amazing Slow Downer, so I can figure out sections that I’m interested in. But that’s not listening for enjoyment. For that, I know it’s a cliché, but I prefer vinyl.

          7)      I heard Steve Vai say that he had all of Gustav Mahler’s music on his playlist. He worked with Frank Zappa of course, who was very much into classical music. Along with Vai, do other musicians you work with or whom you are friends with, also listen to classical music?

PG: Well, my wife studied classical piano since she was three years old. Once in a while she’ll tackle some Rachmaninoff. Billy Sheehan, who plays bass in Mr. Big, likes a lot of classical stuff, and has worked out pieces before. We were driving in his car the other day, and he had a classical radio station on. Yngwie Malmsteen is the rock guitarist who is probably most associated with playing with a classical style. I love a lot of his early stuff. It’s both face-melting and beautiful.

          8)      In your travels and touring, do you feel today’s younger generations are open to the idea of classical music?
PG: Sure! Everybody gets excited about those 16th notes. When you’re first learning to play an instrument, technique is something that everyone wants, and classical music is a great place to develop it.

          9)      I recently interviewed Matt Palmer, a well-known classical guitarist. As a youngster, he started out as a metal “shredder” a la Randy Rhoads, but heard a Christopher Parkening CD as a teenager and was transformed by the sounds he heard. He switched to classical guitar, went to college to study and now has PhD in classical guitar, as well as a career. How about you? …do you play classical guitar, or do you want to? You obviously have the chops to play whatever you want!

PG: When I play classical music, I’m really still using a rock “grip” on the guitar and the sort of vibrato that you hear from blues and rs. A big part of playing rock guitar is controlling the potential noise that can happen when you use a loud, overdriven guitar sound. When I play one note, I’m working hard to control the other five strings, so they don’t ring, or feedback, or create other noises. I use very specific techniques to do this, and it requires that I hold the guitar and shape my hands very differently than what you see in traditional classical guitar. These rock techniques are so important for how I play that it hard to make the jump into playing traditional classical guitar. Even if all those noises are a non-issue, I still have the fear that the guitar could start howling and making noise. So if someone puts a classical guitar in my hands, I’m still going to play it like a rock guitar. That really doesn’t do justice to the instrument, and because the strings are made of different material my usual vibrato and bending don’t work very well. Mostly, it feels like all my superpowers are gone! So I tend to stick to electric.

          10)  Have you been to a symphony concert recently?

PG: No, not for a long time. With my hearing loss, I don’t go and see live music as much as I used to. I did see a classical pianist years ago that I really enjoyed. The ad for the show was something like, “His playing will make you cry in three notes.” And of course… he did.

          11)   If you were stranded on a desert island (but could still listen to music) what 3 classical composers’ music would you want to have with you? And why?

PG: Well, Bach is the obvious one. Bach isn’t necessarily my favorite composer to listen to now, but as a musical resource, it’s just such good stuff. If I some need melodic or rhythmic patterns to work on, I can always find some good ideas by figuring out a Bach piece. For listening, I might bring Scarlatti. His keyboard music isn’t as “heavy” as Bach’s music can be. If I wanted to put something on while cooking and eating dinner, Scarlatti could be good. And there are some ferocious licks in there too. Finally, I’d pick Silvius Weiss. He played and composed for the lute, and to my ear is similar to Bach, but still has his own flavor. Also, the lute is similar to guitar, but as an acoustic instrument, I prefer that way the lute resonates.

Thank you,
Paul

*******************************************************************

Here is Paul's website if you want to learn more about him:

Here is a video of him playing Bach on electric guitar:

 And as Paul referred to in Question 6 above, here is "Scarified." I'm not sure what's up with the orange spacesuits, but the you can clearly hear the classical influences of Johann Christian Bach. And like I told you above, he is a brilliant rock guitarist.