By George, happy birthday!

Thanks to some wonderful selections today from WQXR (no, we are not remunerated for promoting the station: dreams take time to build), I found out that it is the 115th anniversary of George Gershwin’s birth.  Happy birthday, o American Master, from your jazzy, foot-stompin’ fans at Sibling Revelry. Here is a picture of the man lookin’ pretty dapper, and QXR’s tribute to his keyboard works:

George Gershwin in his youth on a ship's deck

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/gershwin/

Sib1 gave me a Gershwin CD many moons ago (when CDs were still a thing): an excellent recording of all the Gershwin classics like “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris.” In some ways, Gershwin (“Shwin” to those in the know) embodies some of the values we hold dear as appreciators of the fine arts (well, some of them. Others we grumble about, Walter Matthau-like). His translation of American roots and rhythms into the classical setting both renews and strengthens the art form. He’s a standout American in an art whose history is almost blindingly European (der, it was invented there). AND, he’s one of seemingly few classical composers who collaborated so memorably and effectively with his SIBLING: brother Ira Gershwin, who probably slept over.

Plus, talking about Shwin gives us a chance to plug the incomparable Gene Kelly, whose gleeful, silky, muscular, form-perfect dancing fills us with wonder and delight. Here he is in “An American in Paris,” in which the eponymous work has a starring role (music & lyrics by Sib2 and Sib1, Gershwin edition):

Is there not something so languorous, thick & muddy Bayou blues-y, about that main melody? Surrounded, of course, by much else of European origin. Kind of like an American in Paris.

And really, just for kicks at this point, there is a connection between The Shwin-Bone and Monsieur Horloger: Ravel traveled to the US in the early 20th century, where he met Gershwin and listened to a lot of jazz that he would then incorporate in his subsequent works. Like a Frenchman in New York.

Happy birthday, George!

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!

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.

tumblr_mhfvgaARx11qc6wuio1_r1_500

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!

The Reveling Sibs & Too Much Birthday

Well, as some of our multitude of followers (“There are dozens of us! DOZENS!”) may or may not know, the half of Sibling Revelry which is approximately 759 days older than the other half recently celebrated a birthday. To which all of her velveteen-pantalooned friends in the classical world gave a hearty and resounding “Huzzah!”

Troy

According to our probably infallible source, Sarah of the Janes shares a general birthday time period with such notable classical composers (and part-time professional wrestlers) as:

  • Deodat “I’d Deo Dat” de Severac!
  • Mauro Giuseppe Sergio Pantaleo “Rudy” Giuliani!
  • Andre Georges Louis “The Onslaught” Onslow!
  • And, last but not least…Wolfgang…..Amadeus……MOZART!!!!! (well, Junior. Known to his friends as Indiana or Indy.)

Now, the pipe-wielding thug descendants of the Hill Sisters may descend on us in a rage for this, but here are a couple classical and, yes, classy ways to render “Happy Birthday”! Many happy returns to my partner in unpopular publishing!

First, a moody, stirring version with theme and variation from the Kremlin’s chamber orchestra (their first album was Straight Outta Red Square):

Then Victor Borge doin’ his thing, running through a panoply of composers with impressions and pratfalls:

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”.

Thile:

Fleck:

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!

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.

138 Years Young

I wonder what the weather was like on this day in March when Maurice Ravel (1875) was ushered into this world.  Fortunately there were no Ritalin-deficient meteorologists to stress his mother with tales of impending Snowquesters, treacherous driving conditions and a potential shortage of bread (horreur!) at the local grocery.  I suppose the bearer of the would-be composer simply took it all in stride.  (As we all should…but I digress.)

I very much enjoy Ravel’s music, and on his birthday I extend a sincere merci bien to him for composing “Pavane For A Dead Princess” (Pavane pour une infante defunte) in particular.  A pavane was a slow processional dance done in the royal courts of Europe. Ravel’s Pavane paid homage to his Basque lineage.  I like this violin-piano recording because it’s a touch rough around the edges, which to me enhances the solemn color. Ravel was a meticulous composer and the Pavane is a lovely example.

There’s much more I could say about M. Ravel, but brevity is the soul of blogging, so I will say adieu with these Random Fascinating Facts.  I am a big fan of Random Fascinating Facts.

~Boléro was originally titled Fandango.

~Five years after a head injury, Ravel underwent experimental (!) brain surgery.

~He was influenced by American jazz.

~He and Claude Débussy had an interesting friendship/mentorship.  In 30 Rock terms they could be described as Devon Banks and Jack Donaghy.

Happy 138th birthday, Maurice!