The Top Eight, Part Three

Let the bright Seraphim rejoice!  Handelian exclamatory aside, it’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for (just go with it, okay?)…the moment I unveil the last of my Top Eight classical pieces.  Remember, they are in no particular order, lest Copland and Beethoven get into some sort of otherworldly she-loves-me-more squabble.

7.  Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958),  The Lark Ascending  First things first:  His name is not “Ralph” as in the beloved rodent hero of children’s fiction.  It is the highbrow “Rafe”, as in the beloved hero of grownup films such as The English Patient.  If pressed (and by “pressed” I mean tantalized with a free trip to Fiji) I will tell you that RVW is my favorite composer. Like a moth to a flame I am endlessly drawn to the lushly orchestrated, highly melodic, clean, bright music he penned.  I love virtually everything he composed, but The Lark Ascending is an absolute standout.  Based on English poet George Meredith’s eponymous poem, the piece features a solo violin-as-lark, the lilting arpeggios of which gracefully swoop in and out of the orchestral measures.  RVW was devoted to folk music, and the B section is an echo of just that.  I love when the violin is trilling over a triangle and the woodwinds (oboe and clarinet).  It’s amazing to me how Vaughan Williams was able to musically capture a lark in such a shockingly vivid way. The entire piece swells and recedes,  swells and recedes, ocean-like, but with a feel like velvet.  By the last few measures my ears are listening as hard as they can, just to make sure they catch every last bowing of the violin as the lark “is lost on his aerial wings”.

8.  Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) Agon (Greek, “contest”)  The music of this important Russian composer has always been difficult for me to listen to. It can be really hard, harsh and clanging, far from the golden fields of RVW or floating clouds of WAM. But because my Sibling and I want to encourage our readers for whom classical music isn’t quite so delightful, I chose Agon to challenge myself and bend my ear a bit.   (Disclaimer: there are plenty of people who do not categorize Stravinsky’s works as “classical”.) I’ve been listening to it for quite a few months and I can honestly say I now like and appreciate it.  Six months ago?  Hated it.  Hated it.  See how I’m growing?  Quick history:  Agon is a ballet choreographed by the great George Balanchine.  He and Stravinsky had a notable artistic relationship, which still shines brightly thanks to the New York City Ballet. What really knocks me out about Agon is that it’s largely written in twelve tone (a first for Igor).  Twelve tone means that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are used throughout a composition without any emphasis on one single note.  It also means that said composition isn’t in any key.  Agon is in four sections and scored for a large orchestra.  If you are able to make it halfway through, you’ll even hear castanets.  It’s not pretty.  It’s not relaxing.  At certain points it doesn’t even make sense.  But I greatly respect Stravinsky for the architectural interest he brought to the modern landscape.


Don’t Worry, Be Bach-y

Bach-analia continues! WQXR is still crushing it! Yesterday’s theme was dance in Bach’s music. As someone whose dancing abilities call to mind unfortunate fish who have lamentably found themselves on a boat deck–in all senses of the metaphor–this is not a theme which speaks to me in the physical plane. I did, however, invent an awesome dance move a couple years ago, which hopefully Sib1 (a danseuse par excellence) can demonstrate on our first vodcast. Musically, however, dance is a perfect thematic lens for Bach’s music.

As much as we’d like to see someone in a powdered wig and breeches take part in a Freddy dance-off with Shelley Long, not many of Bach’s compositions (an intimidating list) are formally dances. And I know your first question is, as mine was, “OK, but what does Bobby McFerrin, that genetically anomalous musical instrument masquerading as a human being with a four-octave range, think about that?” Fortunately, he’s answered it for us, again in the Michael Lawrence documentary.

In Bachy McFerrin’s view, Bach’s music has an inherent “danceability.” And when he breaks into his inimitable style of “singing” classical music, it’s hard not to know exactly what he means. There’s no thudding bass, no drum kit to let you know that the time is propitious for a bump and grind and grope or two. Thank every star in every heaven, there is not a pumping fist in sight. So it’s not a “root” thing, if you know what I mean. I think it’s the rhythm of the lines themselves, like when we used to write metered poetry, that provide that get-up-and-put-your-powdered-wig-on-and-go momentum. But it’s not just that. The neat thing is that those rhythmic lines are simultaneously carrying the melody, unlike most drum and bass you hear in (cultured gasp!) popular music. And that melody happens to be just one more example of Bach’s endless, fluid lines that effortlessly whirl and surge around the scale like the Man on the Flying Trapeze. It is unique. Again, I think this is part of why Bach “makes sense” to bluegrass players. Without further ado, the Man Wonder:

One commenter on that YouTube clip helpfully supplied what piece B. McF. is singing: it’s Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor. Here is Itzhak Perlman, one of my sib’s favorite fiddlers, be it on a roof or at Lincoln Center, playing the entire thing. You’ll notice Bobby McDanceability only sang the first and third movements. Those are the fist-pumping ones. It’s a concerto and the middle part is boring. Oops, I mean andante. But form mattered in those days!

[Sorry, I can’t figure out how to embed that video. Dailymotion, you’re no YouTube!] Here’s the link.

Happy listening and ongoing enjoyment of Herr Bach’s birthday!

A Prell-Yood: Wherefore Art Thou Bach?

Good morning, Sib2 here 24:00 late and $1.00 short. Depending on the calendar you use (a decision everyone has to make upon awaking, each and every day), yesterday could have marked the birthday of my favorite composer (or at the very least, primus inter pares), Johann Sebastian Bach. My elder genetic compatriot beat me to the punch, but her post was a magnificent hodgepodge of many things that we love: Bach, WQXR, Chris Thile, yellow socks, bad punnery. ‘Twas marvy. By the way, don’t think for a second his general dishevellery isn’t strategically calculated to win the hearts and minds of the fairer gender. I mean, he’s no Jesse (“It’s James, actually, but everybody always calls me Jesse.”), but that’s not a fair measuring stick.

My digression syndrome is in full swing today, I see. Anyhoozlebees, I’m not going to delve very far into the calendar thing. It has vaguely to do with Catholicism. Bach’s birthday is somewhere around now, and if that was good enough for Jackson, and good enough for Lee, then hot damn, Alabam’, it’s good enough for me.

To the extent the birthday of a classical composer can be “crushed,” WQXR is crushing what SibRev is calling Bach-analia. Bach 360°, a campaign to broadcast every note the great one ever wrote (Every. Note. Are you impressed yet?), complete with Bach-o-meter? A Bach pun generator? “My hat, what a picnic,” as one of the Narnia characters says. I think it’s from The Magician’s Nephew. WQXR also amply reminds we citizens of the U.S. of frickin’ A. that New York is unreservedly, unequivocally our capital of classical music. Far from the lovely Avery Fisher Hall, some renegade musicians are takin’ classical to the streets: Bach in the Subways! There’s even a Google Map with Bach-headed place markers:

Also, a sort of outdoor photobooth with a Bach wig. Totally sweet.

Now, why all this ballyhoo for one composer? Besides Mozart and his various eponymous festivals around the world, I can’t think of another composer so celebrated. Sadly, there’s no Satie-palooza or Schu-Mania. OK, there really needs to be a Schu-Mania (which, in his case, would be mania in both the modern and, dare I say, classical sense). To mix epochs, Bach appears to still be undergoing a Renaissance of sorts, as musicians outside the rigidly defined “classical” genre discover his genius and introduce it to disparate audiences through their own work. OK, disparate may be too stark: I’m unaware of Timberlake banging out something from The Well-Tempered Clavier in one of his little hats. I’m thinking in particular of the bluegrass/newgrass scene, a bottle that Sib1, the Regional Manager of Sibling Revelry, uncorked yesterday.

In 2010, filmmaker (from the English, “one who creates films and speaks about them in ways guaranteed to cause normal humans to roll their eyes as far back in their heads as possible.”) Michael Lawrence created a documentary called BACH & Friends, in which he interviewed a Bach-load of contemporary virtuosi in both the classical and non-classical worlds. The “wherefore art thou Bach” conversation could get quite technical and detailed. But that’s one reason why I like the following clips so much: they are very earthy descriptions of what moves these two geniuses I adore about Bach’s music. I love that Béla Fleck in particular seems to point to an ineffable quality in great music generally. Sometimes electron-microscopic inspection makes the magic disappear. But there is something in Bach that I think gets at some fundaments of music and what moves us about it, and I may try in subsequent posts to write about that as respectfully as possible. I also think that Bach’s genius is particularly apprehensible (I may have made that word up), whereas many classical composers’ works can be harder to grasp. But I can’t promise any of that commentary will be better than the below, particularly Thile’s “that clarity of intent” quip or Fleck’s apprehension of “inevitability”.



By the way, the piece Béla plays is on the Flecktones’ “Live Art” double album, second to last track.

To close, why is this post titled “Prell-Yood”? One of the things that my dear old fish and I have always loved about the inimitable Jeff Spurgeon is his masterful elocution. Accordingly, he pronounces “prelude” thusly, as opposed to the common “PRAY-lood.” May we all attain such lofty heights of the American vernacular.

Happy birthday, dear Johann!

Rejoice, readers dear, for today marks the 328th anniversary of Baroque master Johann Sebastian Bach’s birth!  A self-taught virtuoso, prodigious organist, brilliant composer, Konzertmeister, Kapellmeister, embracer of lutes and herald of harpsichords (the list goes on and on), Bach’s masterful legacy is arguably the greatest of all classical composers.

Even if you do not consider yourself to be a listener of classical music, Bach has undoubtedly crossed your path (see my Sibling’s post “Sloganeering and Bach’s Butter” for proof).  Enjoy Halloween?  You’ve likely heard his Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Attended a wedding?  The fourth movement from the cantata Wachet auf (“Sleepers wake”) is a beloved processional.

My first exposure to Bach was, surprise surprise, during childhood.  I had a cassette tape about the life of Benjamin Franklin.  The story opened with a background of the “Allegro” of Brandenburg Concerto No. 5.  The permanency of those early musical memories will always amaze me- to this day, whenever I hear that movement I instantly think about Benjamin Franklin.  And a key, and some lightning.  But I digress…

Lest I succumb to the temptation of a long and winding post, I will leave you to have a listen to two of my favorite Bach compositions:  firstly, the “Prelude” to Partita No. 3 for Violin (originally transcribed for the lute).  Here is insanely brilliant musician Chris Thile (our jaw-dropping admiration for and enjoyment of him and Punch Brothers knows no bounds) playing it on his mandolin.

On a strictly girly note, I love how disheveled he looks, as though he’s been up all night wrestling with the passages.

Secondly, here is classical guitar master Christopher Parkening performing “Sheep may safely graze”, which is the 4th movement of Bach’s Hunting Cantata.  If you are having the type of day that is begging for green pastures and still waters, indulge in these few moments and I guarantee you just that (figuratively speaking).

Finally, major kudos to WQXR as they commence their 10-day-straight run of the entirety of Bach’s 1,100 works!  They’re even running a Bach-o-meter!  Isn’t classical music divine?

Happy birthday, Johann!

Long Live The Queen

Spring, glorious spring!  The vernal equinox graced us this morning at 7:02, a cheerful harbinger of things to come.  I began to think about a perfect little piece to share with you on this special day, something that evokes the feeling of renewed energy that befalls all of us when the daylight lingers a bit longer.

You’re thinking about “Spring” from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, aren’t you?

HA!  Let me instead introduce you to G.F. Handel’s  Arrival of the Queen of Sheba (from “Solomon”). This bright, lyrical symphony from the Baroque composer’s hand exudes energy.  The strings are quick and precise, the oboes jaunty, and the rapid crescendoes-decrescendoes pull you along as in a current, the undercurrent of which is the harpsichord.  There is no better reveille.  I realize the Queen of Sheba was preparing to partake of Solomon’s great wisdom and wealth, but had she been doing so on a fine first day of spring I think her head may very well have been turned.

Happy Spring from the Siblings!

Sloganeering and Bach’s Butter

Earlier this year, SJ contacted me via textual transmission (we love you, Michael Sheen) and we began chatting about possible slogans for the blog. She suggested “Classical, But Not Classy.” To which I riposted, “Classical Up Your Assical” and “We Put The Ass In Classical.” Had I the heart to Google it, I’m certain none of these three would be found to be original to our peculiar little brainwaves (try “Sibling Revelry” in quotes…that will assuredly be discussed in these quarters). But I like them anyway, especially as they remind me of this gem from Tenacious D (for which I apologize in advance to my co-conspirator for the proliferation of F (major) bombs):

We here at SibRev are gearing up for the Master’s birthday on the 31st: the Kapellmeister, the careful accountant, the midnight scribe, the prolific progenitor, the mathematical artiste et philosophe, Johann Sebastian Bach! The first bit that Kyle plays in the clip above is indeed JSB. In fact, it’s a well-known lute piece that has become a staple for classical guitar, the Bourrée from his Lute Suite in E Minor. This is distinct from the short-lived Beurrée in E Minor, which involved the tricky task of playing intricate phrases on a buttered lute.

Here is the sheet music. Look at how those lines mirror each other! The chord changes are so seamless and yet so full of movement. I thank thee, Bach, I thank thee.

All of the heroes of the classical guitar have played this piece. Here is the great John Williams, with the added bonus of a picture that Tenacious D would surely approve of:

Lastly, here is a neat video showing the piece played on the instrument for which it was originally intended, the lute (no, Sting didn’t invent that):

Happy listening to the shiny golden god, Herr Bach!

Frasier Crane, meet Maurice Ravel

Who can tell what lurks in the hearts and minds of rhythm sections? Here we get a sneak peek at their thought process during Monsieur Watchmaker’s disavowed Boléro.

I personally love the comment at 14:30. I’m pretty sure that’s the brassy, magnificent section I mentioned!

I hear this is true.

[This comes to us by way of Kurt Nemes, our blog’s first official non-mandatory follower!]

Lest we all look down the aquiline slope of our various probosces at percussionists, however, I’ll note that according to Frasier Crane, the percussion section is the engine of the orchestra , driving it forward (skip to 1:45, though the whole clip is worth a watch!). Naturally, Niles begs to differ.

The Top Eight, Part Two

O spring, where art thou?  It is a gray blanket of a day, readers, so humor me by reading (and listening to!) the next installment of my Top Eight.  Bach just may be my lifesaver today.  The wintergreen kind.

4.  Edward Elgar (1857-1934), Enigma Variations, variation IX, “Nimrod”  I will just come right out and say that this is the first piece of classical music that made me sob in public.  Many moons ago I was at the venerable Eastman School of Music, preparing to perform with the All-Eastern Chorus.  It was one of the most formative of my choral experiences and I met many gifted singers and educators that week.  That aside, we choristers were clustered in the performance hall one night to hear the All-Eastern Orchestra’s concert.  I had never heard of Elgar, much less this oddly named variation.  It was like a tidal wave.  It begins so quietly you can barely hear it, and before you know it you are swept away in what I think is the most stirring adagio you will ever hear.  Maybe it was the tympani in the last few measures, maybe it was the sheer sweeping romance of it, but I sat there in my seat crying as one brokenhearted.  In the years since, hearing it makes me so grateful for this kind of music, these compositions that so perfectly elucidate emotions without a single word being spoken.

5.  J.S. Bach (1685-1750), Goldberg Variations  Notes famed pianist Murray Perahia, “Indeed its simplicity belies the complexity in this most moving of musical apotheoses”.  Let me taint Mr. Perahia’s elocution by stating that I have an aversion to clutter, visual and aural (such a fancy word!). It makes my head hurt.  Thankfully Bach’s Goldberg Variations are as uncluttered as you can get and therefore save me from such a fate.  Bookended by the oft-recognized “Aria”, I love the precision and alacrity of each variation, their energy and their striking- albeit deceptive- simplicity. If the Design Within Reach catalog had a soundtrack, the Variations would be it.  If you are unfamiliar with the Baroque time period, the Goldberg Variations are a wonderful place to start.  They are also a prime example of Bach’s mastery of contrapunto.  Murray Perahia’s Sony Classical recording is my favorite.  Glenn Gould is favored by my Sibling.

6.  W.A. Mozart (1756-1791) Piano Concerto No. 21 (“Andante”) When I was a child I listened to music nearly every night at bedtime.  I had a cassette called “A Child’s Look At Mozart” and my Sibling and I loved it.  It told the story of two impish beings aptly named Eine and Kleine (my first foray into classical music humor) and their encounter with Mozart’s sister Nannerl.  She takes them on a magical journey through Mozart’s life, punctuated with excerpts from his most famous works. (Oddly the “Dies irae” from his Requiem did not make the cut.  I suppose the producers did not want to terrify children away from a love of classical.)  To this day I adore the second movement of this concerto because it instantly transports me back to childhood, listening from my pillow as Eine and Kleine float on a cloud over Salzburg.  It is quintessential Mozart- lush, bright and elastic.  It is also quintessential cloud-floating music.  If you have a really, really good ear you will notice that it begins in one key (F major), jumps to another (A flat major),  and another (F minor) and ends back in F major.  If you have a really, really slightly-above-average ear, as I do, it will be years before you notice.

Introductory Ravel-ry

A very belated but no less enthusiastic hello! This is the other half of the Sibling Revelry dynamic duo writing–the smaller but no less enthusiastic one in our official portrait. For which sitting, my lovely sister and I were remembering, I was cunningly bribed with a whole fruit bar. The technique still works to this day.

I am very excited about this blog and deeply grateful to my talented sister for doing basically (= 100%) everything to get us off and running. Or, as she so delightfully quipped today, “Offenbach and running.” I’m afraid you can expect much more of such classical punnery from these quarters. And that is certainly one of the founding principles of this blog: to share our love of classical music in all the quirky forms it takes and odd connections it makes (the title of this post, I realized, was halfway to the title of a Community episode. Don’t forget, the Greendale Music Department is flat ba-roque!) with whomever may choose to be reading. So far, it’s a select crowd indeed (fine by us, I think). I’ll note that our dear mother was the blog’s official first commenter: not at all surprising for anyone lucky enough to have benefited from the love and wisdom of such an engaging, energetic, can-do impresario extraordinaire and belle bon vivant! In other words, hi Mom.

As my Schwestli blogged, last week marked the 138th birthday of Maurice Ravel. I thought I’d start my sure-to-be-illustrious career here with some of my own thoughts on and experience of him. Of course, I’m very late in doing so; such tardiness may be an affront to a man whom Stravinsky once described as “a Swiss watchmaker.” Since I started thinking about it last week, I’ve been trying to remember when I first heard Ravel. I’ve tentatively settled on the fall of 1999. A string quartet came to my college and played the sublime Quartet in F Major. As I write I am listening to it (Cleveland Quartet), and am still so drawn into its intricate layers and melodies lo these many years later.

I can recall sitting in that small, very darkened auditorium, enraptured by what I was hearing. I had–and still have–visions of night in Paris, particularly during the fourth movement, Vif et Agité, and the Assez Vif second (hit that gas pedal, pizzicato!). Wisps of fog around the lampposts lining the quais…it’s not so much of a stretch, is it? He is “classified” as an Impressionist, after all. Yet I don’t sense the sweeping tableaux of Monet or Renoir here. That’s more Debussy, in my mind. The images the melody of the first two movements conjures for me can easily contain couples, parties, society. But there’s a sense of distance, too. Ravel has never particularly struck me as a composer whose work was of a highly idiosyncratic, deeply personal nature–acute expressions of a anomalous personage, as with so many other composers I gravitate towards. But it’s fine by me. I dearly love it. An Impressionist overall, maybe, but one of its less easily categorized adherents: perhaps Degas, or bridging the way towards the post-Impressionists and Symbolists like Seurat and Cézanne.

After that initial encounter in 1999, I studied abroad in France the first half of the next year, and Ravel was an ever-increasing feature of my musical landscape (fortified by many discussions with my roommate, whose musical ability and knowledge was and remains light years beyond mine). It was there I picked up a copy of Karajan conducting the Boléro. I was disappointed to learn Ravel later roundly dismissed the work. Sorry buddy, a hundred thousand symphonies can’t be wrong. Could anything equal its long, slow, inexorable construction? The steady drip eventually transforming into a riotous, clashing stream? That modulation towards the end led by the brass that bowls me over every time? It’s funny that artists seem so often to disregard the works that came so easily.

I dare say Ravel will be a leading character on the Sibling Revelry sitcom. For one thing, WQXR, as close as it gets to our patron saint, plays Le Tombeau de Couperin with great regularity, so he’s never far from us. For another, I seem to continually find intricate little Swiss watches made by Monsieur Ravel, with Pavane pour une Infante Défunte being the latest (I heard it one day on my local classical station (no comparison to QXR the Great and Magnificent! Jeff “Geoff” Spurgeon, we salute thee both now and forevermore! (Salinger fans may recognize this late-blooming bouquet of parentheses–be assured we have planted quite a garden full)) and listened, riveted again to the spot, until I could hear who and what it was). Here is the version I have, which happens to be Ravel himself playing. In addition (to pile unmercifully on), this period in history and art has been a source of fascination for me since high school, and that has only deepened since. Lastly, I have also loved Debussy from a young age (expect posts on the tape that introduced us two to Golliwog), and their personal and musical relationship is a worthy subject. From Schonberg’s excellent and authoritative “Lives of the Great Composers”: “their differences were vaster than the things they had in common.”

Happy birthday, Maurice. Welcome to our morning, dear reader(s). And hi again, Mom.

The Top Eight, Part One

What a long and non-strange trip it’s been, hunting and gathering my Top Eight. Scouring and refining the mental lists I’ve kept over the years was also surprisingly difficult, considering that there are so many classical pieces that I love.  I didn’t want to be “obvious”. I didn’t want to be “boring”.  Yet I also felt pressure, however self-imposed, to sound well rounded with my choices.  I tried, I really did…but readers, you will not find any John Cage compositions on my list.  Nonetheless, I hope you will enjoy reading about the music that resonates with me (my favorites are not listed in any particular order).  I’ll publish it in three separate posts, ’cause I know you’ll all be waiting with baited breath. 

1.  Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), Nocturne in A flat  When I was sixteen I read for the first time what would become, and remain, my favorite book.  Leon Uris’s Mila 18 opens on a Warsaw flat, with “drops of late summer rain splattering against the high windows which ran from the floor to the ceiling.”  On a bedside table an old radio sits, and from it Paderewski’s fingers ripple through the lilting and melancholy notes of the A flat nocturne. It would be a few years before I got my hands on a recording, but once I did…whew. Good stuff.  All these years later I like to play Chopin’s nocturnes when it rains, because they’re the perfect pair.  I will always especially love the A flat and how it made my favorite book resonate on an even deeper level.  On an amusing note, my Sibling bought for me the Schirmer book of Chopin’s nocturnes, and I was giddily confident that I would be able to play through the A flat.  After all, Rubinstein made it sound like a piece of cake. It’s been a couple of years and I can say with giddy confidence that I play the first two measures really, really well.

2.  Aaron Copland (1900-1990), Rodeo- Four Dances (“Hoedown”)  A friend, who is an accomplished musician in his own right, once commented to me that Copland “made America sound so plain”.  I was so stunned that I wanted to whack him over the head with this movement.  Plain?  Seriously???  Copland’s ode to the American Southwest is actually the score to a ballet, with Hoedown being the final, exuberant movement.  The energy is incredible!  I never tire of hearing it: the way the strings are humming along before they burst up an octave, the horns’ counterpoint, the undercurrent of cellos, the unabashed square-dancin’ cowboyishness of the whole thing, and the triangle.  Yes, the triangle.  It is my absolute favorite instrument in this movement. When the theme reaches the peak of its crescendo, there’s the triangle gleaming on top of all the other instruments.  I daresay Hoedown wouldn’t be the same without the favorite instrument of professional percussionists and second-graders alike.

3.  Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), 7th Symphony, second movement (“Allegretto”) What I love about this movement is how quiet, fluid and deliberate it is. The A section knocks me silent every time I hear it.  Many of you have probably seen The King’s Speech.  The 7th/2nd was the star of that movie.  When I heard the first notes in the background as King George VI begins speaking, I nearly leaped off of the sofa.  It was a brilliant choice of accompaniment.  Words really do fail me when it comes to attempts at describing the beauty of this movement.  I will always be in awe of Beethoven’s genius.