Just Another Bernstein Monday (whoa oh ohhh)

Leonard Bernstein

His birthday was Sunday…whoa oh ohhh…

Oh, hello!  Apologies, I was lost in a reverie of rewriting that classic Bangles song. Yesterday would have been legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein’s 95th birthday.  In the words of the WQXR Blog, he still “looms large over classical music, remembered both for his extroverted conducting style and for his vibrant, culturally omnivorous off-stage persona, documented in countless interviews, TV appearances and public talks.”

My first exposures to Bernstein began, as usual, when I didn’t know it.  In ninth grade my wonderful choral music teacher took us to see West Side Story.  It was love at first note. Bernstein’s score manages to capture every emotion exuded in the star-crossed tale: love, rivalry, nationalism, loss, get-your-mambo-shoes-on.  I am in awe of the gift composers possess, and LB is certainly no exception.  EVERYONE knows at least a little something from West Side Story.  When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way.

My next exposure unaware was a couple of years later and in a far less erudite fashion. My best friend and I decided it would  behoove us (academically, natch) to memorize every lyric to R.E.M.’s raucous caveat “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”.  Come on, you know the line: “blah blah blah blah blah LEO-NARD BERN-STEIN!”  I figured that if Michael Stipe, whom I revered, was including That Name in That Song, it was worth checking into.  Thus, here I am these years later, happy to have made a rich, albeit figurative, acquaintance with The Maestro.

Here are three favorites off the top of my head for you to enjoy:

1) Bernstein conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in this clip the final movement.  He is, in a word, electrifying to watch.  It’s clear that there are actual notes running through his veins. Please ignore the soprano soloist, I find her strident and entirely irritating.

2) LB composed the score to his friend Jerome Robbins’ very first ballet, Fancy Free, in 1944.  This is a fantastic behind-the-scenes look at the NYCB production.  The music is fantastic and another example of Bernstein’s capacity for variation in his writing.

3) I picked Candide over West Side Story because, frankly, I’m guessing you’ve never heard of Candide.  Bernstein wrote the music to the operetta production of Voltaire’s satire and it opened on Broadway in 1956.  The entire show is hilarious, clever and poignant.  Here are Kristin Chenoweth (as Cunegonde) and Patti LuPone (as The Old Woman) singing the naughty “We Are Women”.  (PS- if you ever watch “Live From Lincoln Center”, the overture to Candide is playing during the opening credits.)

How I would love to go on, but as Wm. Shakespeare wrote, “Brevity is the soul of blogging.” Happy reveling, and happy birthday, Lenny!

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Le maître aux cheveux de bol

Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. How fascinating (and pithy) the quote that Sib the First chose for her post on Claude Debussy today, his 151st birthday.  Their music and approaches are so different, but if pressed in a life-or-death situation, I suppose I might say that  Debussy and Bach are my two favorite composers. Why exactly life or death might hinge on my divulging, aghast, a “favorite” is beyond me. I’m guessing that when we get more readers, some of them will be psychotic. And I’d like you to know in advance, then, that we welcome your sophisticated psychosis.

“Golliwogg’s Cake-Walk” was featured on a cassette tape much beloved by the Sibs in days of yore, but I did not truly discover Debussy until later in college. To say I was rapt would be an understatement. To this day, listening to certain of his pieces still evokes the autumn landscape from the windows of the music library where I would listen to them for hours on end while I studied. Through Debussy I discovered his talented pupil, Monsieur L’Horloger, Maurice Ravel. Yet had they fought in a lightsaber duel (it’s not so impossible, their relationship wasn’t rosy), I don’t think Ravel could have claimed to be the master (“But only a master of evil and Spanish dances, Maurice.”). Nothing compares to those vast landscapes that Claude painted, somehow blending ethereal avant-garde musical theory I can’t claim to understand (whole tones, dissonance, pentatonic whosiwhatsis) with earthy melodies of rich and variegated emotion. In short, his connections to movements in French arts at the time, like the Impressionists, are profound (naturally, CD disliked the term Impressionist). It is a fascinating period to study, up to the fin-de-siècle, the bridge between old and new.

One of the albums I contributed to wearing out in that library was Alexis Weissenberg’s album of solo keyboard works (I like how in classical music, keyboard doesn’t mean what pop stars in the 80s banged on through their permed hair and fringed, fingerless gloves). Here are the iTunes and ArkivMusic links (note the apt Renoir gracing the cover). I could not more strongly recommend this album. It has never been far from me in the 14 years since I discovered it. It now graces the playlist I leave on for my dog when I’m not home! The first three tracks still make me smile and also send a thrill down my spine. They are collectively called “Estampes” (could be translated as “prints,” but I think that’s too utilitarian a translation. “Impressions” is better for many reasons). I loved these so much I read about them in several books (part of the fun for me of living in the library to study was that there were so many avenues and boulevards down which one could profitably ambulate in procrastination), one of which had the below image (“Aux poissons d’or”) on its cover, which was said to have inspired Debussy’s “Images” piano works.

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The third of the “Estampes,” called “Jardins sous la pluie” (Gardens in the rain) has always been my favorite. Well, maybe primus inter pares. The shift in moods, the dynamics, the unique rhythms…and thanks to my procrastination I know that Debussy ‘quoted’ a couple of phrases from French children’s songs in there. I like when I hear jazz players quoting, because it always makes me think of “Jardins sous la pluie.” Here is Monsieur Weissenberg playing the piece (the ‘video’ is just a black background…what, no goldfish swimming across it?):

I will close with another of my most dearly loved Debussy pieces. A small, singular piece written for piano called “La fille aux cheveux de lin” (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair), from Book I of his Preludes (“très calme et doucement expressif”). If you’re wondering where the title of this post came from, check out Claude’s bowl-cut in this portrait! The piece is like a moving portrait – to me, of a girl from long ago. In it I hear much melancholy, even reverence, movement and standing still. The recording I humbly offer is not on piano, but classical guitar, played by the great Christopher Parkening. It comes from another album I abused during that music library period: “The Artistry of Christopher Parkening.” He actually recorded it in 1976; the album is a compilation, but an excellent one. I think Parkening finds shades of emotion on the nylon strings unavailable to the piano. His use of harmonics toward the end is haunting and emblematic of this. He is known for his breakneck tempos, crisp technicality, and bright tone, but on this piece you will hear as emotive a picker as any of the greats with the exception of the Singular Segovia. Well, I’ve gotten lost in this post. Almost expect to extricate myself and find it’s turned autumn outside. Happy listening, and happy birthday, cher maître.

Happy Birthday, Claude!

Today marks the 151st anniversary of Claude Debussy’s birth.  Classical music historian Harold C. Schonberg describes him as “the greatest of the musical Impressionists” and I couldn’t agree more.  Each piece of his that I call to mind is just like the watery, delicate brushstrokes of a Monet painting.

Debussy was brilliant, and scoffed at his old-school predecessors.  “I am more and more convinced,” he said, “that music, by its very nature, is something that cannot be cast into a traditional and fixed form.  It is made up of colors and rhythms.  The rest is a lot of humbug invented by frigid imbeciles riding on the backs of the Masters- who, for the most part, wrote almost nothing but period music.  Bach alone had an idea of the truth.”

C’est la vérité, Monsieur!  His description of music as “colors” sings to me. “Frigid imbeciles” is also delightful.

As always, the Siblings’ intent is to make classical music inviting and relevant, so in honor of Debussy’s birthday I will highlight one of his most recognizable compositions. He began writing Suite bergamasque in 1890 and completed it somewhere around 1905. It is a four-movement suite, the third movement of which is the greatly loved “Clair de lune” (“Moonlight”).

The genius of Debussy is mind-blowing.  The piece IS moonlight.  The opening passages are charmingly shy, exquisite in such a way that your ears will not be swayed by anything else.  The chords grow in their intensity, at once delicate and sure, then dissolve into ripples up and down the keys.  Can you see the moonlight reflected in a dark, peaceful lake?

You have heard this piece if you have seen any of the following films:  Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Thirteen, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, Atonement, A Good Year, and Frankie & Johnny, among others.

“Clair de lune” has also been included in episodes of the following television shows: Everybody Loves Raymond, The Simpsons, White Collar, The Good Wife, The Muppet Show and The Twilight Zone.

Oh classical music, you lovely, sneaky thing.

For further listening, some of my favorite Debussy compositions are Children’s Corner Suite, Arabesque No. 1, and his opera Pelléas et Mélisande.

Bon anniversaire, Claude!

On Needing A Classical Woot Beer

OK, that joke may be a little inside even for us. The Sibs both babysat a pair of brothers in years gone by, the younger of whom had an adorable speech impediment even at age 5 or 6 or so, such that his r’s became w’s (it’s called a “rhotacism,” and with its long ‘o’ is not to be confused with “eroticism.” Check that, those two probably do meet up somewhere, but I won’t be the one to find out where.). Anyway, this little creature sauntered up to the counter at a swim club one fine summer morning and announced, “I NEEEEED a woot be-aw!” It was quite hilarious, and at least one of us never forgot it. Poor kid, having been exposed to the double barrels of these Sibilant Siblings, he’s probably carjacking someone right now.

Well, in adulthood (defined by Will Truman as, “I wear suits and stuff”) we can still have desperate need of a woot beer, and many other things besides. One of those, of course, is a particular piece of music, or passage within a piece of music, or a few notes within a passage of a piece of music (yes, that’s right). Today, for me, with grey skies blanketing the city and a steady drizzle on (vastly preferable to hazy humidity), I suddenly had a burning need to hear Sergei Rachmaninov’s prelude in G minor.

It is a rousing, stirring, yet supple piece of music. Here is the one and only Vladimir Horowitz playing it with verve and precision; the former is especially wonderful, as he seems to nearly break the piano! I also like Horowitz’s deliberate tempo; I have a recording of Ashkenazy playing it, which I love, but he blazes right through it. Horowitz builds the power of the piece with his pregnant pauses. As did the Pied Piper. Try listening to this and not wanting to march with some colorful, highly festooned European military unit before World War I!

The prelude is numbered 5, out of 10 in Opus 23, though it was written first. Ashkenazy’s take: “an unmistakable Russian intensity, strong lyrical melodies, and changes of character that range from sublime sweetness to passionate virtuosity.” That about encompasses it, Volodya.

And what of the man who wrote it? Schonberg’s treatment of Rachmaninov is fascinating. Among the more memorable (pun) tidbits:

His memory was not only all-encompassing; it was actually frightening. He could hear a piece of music–a symphony, say–and play it back not only the next day but the next year or the decade after that. He had the kind of musical mind that automatically absorbs sound-impressions or sight-impressions. From ear and eye to brain and fingers was an instantaneous process.

The rest of the chapter, dealing with why Rachmaninov is unfairly maligned by critics and historians, is a worthy read. I agree with his statement that Russian nationalism is present in Rachmaninov’s music. From the first listen on, I seem to hear some sort of thundering pan-Slavic melody in this prelude. Wikipedia backs me up–apparently Soviet troops were treated to a rendition by Emil Gilels during World War II, to remind them what they were fighting for (memory skills! no?). Ashkenazy also clearly agrees.

Rightly or no, sometimes it is a woot beer-level listening need.