Sunday, March 27, 2016

Classical in Commercials: Evil Weeds meets Prince Igor

In 1868, Orlando McLean Scott founded the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company in Marysville, Ohio. That same year, half way around the world in Russia, Alexander Borodin began composing his opera, Prince Igor. Little did either of these men know that 148 years later, Mr. Scott's company would be using the music of Borodin, specifically his Polovtsian Dances (from the opera), in a commercial for Scotts Turf Builder Weed & Feed. Take a look:

Borodin was a well respected chemist as well as a composer. He was quoted as saying "Science is my work, and music is my fun." He worked on Prince Igor for 18 years but died (1887) before he completed it. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov completed the opera for him, and it was first performed in 1890.
I love hearing classical music used in contemporary media. It's fun to learn that the composer and the company founder both shared the earth at the same time.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Great Chords: Bruckner Ninth

I think I have mentioned before that Bruckner was my Dad's favorite composer. (Mahler was a very close second). I heard Bruckner's music as a very young child and he became one of my favorites as well. Bruckner composed nine symphonies, but he died before he was able to complete the has only three movements instead of the usual four. He was working on the fourth movement at the time of his death in 1896 and had completed a significant amount of work on it, but not enough for it to be finished. There have been several attempts to create a Finale from what Bruckner did leave behind, but that's not the point of this discussion here. I want to talk about one particular chord that stands out from the three completed movements of the ninth symphony. As Tom Service puts it in a wonderful article called "Sex, death, and dissonance:the strange, obsessive world of Anton Bruckner", (The Guardian, April 1, 2014) "For me, this (the 9th Symphony) is Bruckner's boldest compositional achievement. The symphony is the only one of his that's explicitly dedicated to God.In a sense, all of Bruckner's music is a tribute to his devout faith, but the 9th dares something darker, more doubting, more apocalyptic, and more ear-shatteringly aggressive and even deliberately ugly than he had attempted before. The massively loud and dissonant orchestral pile-up of a chord near the end of the third movement is a vision of a despairing abyss that the quiet music that comes after it can't possibly console."
My previous "Great Chords" entry featured the Beethoven Sixth Symphony. As I pointed out in that entry, in any song or piece of music, there occasionally is a chord that stands out...that grabs you....that turns your head. Are you familiar with Jimi Hendrix's great song Purple Haze? It kicks off with a monstrously awesome, kick-ass E7#9..sometimes called the Hendrix Chord. I don't think anyone had every used this chord in a rock n' roll song prior to the release of Are You Experienced in 1967.
Back to Bruckner. 1896. Third movement of his ninth symphony. 38 bars from the end of the movement. Here's what Martyn Becker wrote about it his article "Musings on the ninth symphony and its finale" (2014):
"The vast peak of the climax looms and hope builds: but then there is an unexpected tonal wrench sideways and the orchestral build-up rushes headlong not into a bright major resolution, but into utter catastrophe at its peak. The orchestra blares not salvation but a gigantic, fearsome negating chord that exposes seven dissonant notes from the chromatic scale, including a ‘missed octave’ of C sharp to C natural. It is violent, implacable, terrifying; and the music thunders shakenly and fearfully to a standstill." 

That's the chord I am talking F-sharp, fully diminished 7th chord. Have a listen. This excerpt starts about a minute before the chord sounds, with.a beautiful, urgent build up...but you can't miss the chord when it blares. Bruckner did not have a Fender Stratocaster with over-driving Marshall amplifier and a distortion box like Jimi Hendrix.....but then again, he didn't need it.

So Bruckner died before the symphony was published. Two of his pupils, Ferdinand Lowe and Franz Schalk created the first edition for publishing but they took the liberty of "sanitizing" the harshness of the seemed too disturbing for the they changed it to a less horrifying minor 7th chord. The world did not hear the true chord until 1932, when Alfred Orel edited the original score and published what Bruckner actually wrote.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Jascha Heifetz' First Appearance in Kansas City

"We might as well take our fiddles and break them across our knees." - Fritz Kreisler after hearing Heifetz.

Jascha Heifetz was one of the greatest violinists of all time. Born in Poland in 1901, he quickly gained fame as a prodigy and played throughout Europe. In 1914, he performed with the Berlin Philharmonic. He came to the United States in 1917 and gave his first performance at Carnegie Hall on October 27, 1917. A few months later, on February 12, 1918, he was here in Kansas City performing at the Shubert Theater (now named the Folly Theater.)
Here is the review from the Kansas City Times,  February 13, 1918.

Jascha Heifetz Makes His First Appearance In Kansas City
A Genius in Tone, He Also Excels in Chaste, Intelligent Interpretation-A Rather Personal Attitude Toward Audience.

An audience of high expectations filled the Shubert Theater yesterday afternoon, even to stage and standing space for Jascha Heifetz's first concert west of the Mississippi. News of the violinist began coming to America before he left Petrograd. Leopold Auer was said to have rated him highest of all the students who had come to him in almost fifty years of teaching-even to have seen in him such genius as is born into the world only once in a couple of centuries.
If stories of his playing created expectation of the phenomenal, some must have been disappointed, for Heifetz has nothing of the youthful prodigy about him. It would be impossible to discover anything sensational in his performance, apart from its dignified perfection and those qualities that appeal to musicians rather than to that portion of the public interested in freaks.
The violinist did not warm to his audience. So far as he was concerned, the concert was an affair of the musical verities, as they might be expected to exist between artist and composer. The audience might enjoy if it was able. As to that, Mr. Heifetz refused to assume responsibility. That is what his manner seemed to say.
But while he plays, manner is forgotten. There are long passages when his audience convinced that the difference between this violinist and others is one of tone. Surely no one in this generation has drawn a tone so luminous, so full of silver resonance. But presently tone is forgotten in the breadth and power of his playing or the deluding ease with which he accomplishes feats of bravura.
Whatsoever the exactions of a composition, they are met with taste and feeling and a commanding intelligence. There was gentle singing in the Haendel sonata and the Wieniawski concerto was full of character, its errant rhythms given a new definiteness; the finale of Paganini's embroidering flashed splendid jewels instead of its wonted glitter. When it came to the Chopin nocturne in F minor, which Auer has arranged for violin, there was the hoped-for, but hardly expected, poetry. Keat's "Ode to a Nightingale" has no deeper shadows than Heifetz has found in the nocturne. The sheer beauty and repose of his style were disclosed in this manner as in nothing else. It conveyed reasonable conviction that Mr. Heifetz will not join the already too long line of youthful violinists who have been more increasingly content, as the years have passed, to make dazzling display of technique. There is the slim and agile left hand performing feats of speed and accuracy, but not even in the technical feats is the listener permitted to forget the directing mind.
The audience may have felt a little thrown back upon itself by the artist's imperturbable manner. It was enthusiastic and gave him many recalls, but not so many as it has given other artists in the same theater. There was a certain lack of sympathy between artist and audience, but what else might be expected as between the mature women of his audience and a rollicking youth, who early yesterday jabbed a finger at each and every pushbutton on the street car as he fled laughing to the rear door?

Here is a recording of Chopin's Nocturne in E-flat performed by Jascha Heifetz: