the finish line

Have you ever trained for a race? You know—you sign up for a big race, immediately feel giddy and you start to anticipate what it will be like when you cross that finish line. You’ll probably pat yourself on the back (metaphorically speaking, of course—unless you have a friend to help you out) and you’ll smile with pride because you’ve done something that you probably never thought you could. With two half-marathons under my belt and a third one in the works, I know that feeling all too well.

read more →There’s this hard-to-explain thrill about it all. The months of painstaking training leading up to it, waking up early to do your long runs and dreading the thought of doing speed work after a long day at work. Then race day is upon you and suddenly all you can think is “Finish strong. No matter what happens—just finish strong.”

So what does this all have to do with LACO? Well, we’re in the “just finish strong” phase of a marathon giving campaign—#LACO205. Back in September, LACOchallenged you, our family and friends, to donate every day for the length of our concert season. We asked you to keep the streak alive and any donation, no matter the size, made all the difference. Summer is now upon us and we’re nearing the end of #LACO205 but there’s still time to give. There’s still time to help us finish strong! Much like marathon training, you can’t move on to the next big training run until you’ve nailed every training session along the way. Here at LACO we can’t move on to next season until we’ve reached all of our goals for this season. There’s a certain excitement in knowing that through your support we’ve been able to keep the giving streak alive and there’s certainly a buzz about the office in knowing that we’re rounding the last corner of this marathon giving campaign.

Just like we did for every month of #LACO205, this month’s giving comes with a special LACO treat. A donation of any size made online before June 30 gets you access to a Jeffrey Kahane/John Adams podcast from LACO’s vault. In the podcast, you’ll hear a little bit about Shaker Loops which you’ll get to see in the 2014-15 season.

Give your gift online today and join us next season to see firsthand how your generosity helps LACO. Let’s rally together and finish strong!

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welcome Patty!

Every summer, LACO welcomes a new high school intern from the Constitutional Rights Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to “assuring our country’s future by investing in our youth today.” I am happy to introduce you to this summer’s intern, Patty Sanchez, who works withLACO through mid-July:

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“All my summers have given me memorable moments, but I believe this summer with the LACO family I will have the most memorable and learning experiences of my life. Although I may not call myself a musician, music has always been there for me. Music has been my way of expressing myself, it has allowed for me to be whom I am and express what I feel. Even though I played the violin for a brief time, I can say it was a very rewarding experience. It taught me that practice and hard work always pay off. Music is an important part of my life because it has helped me through stressful times.

LACO has given me one of the biggest opportunities to grow as an individual and I am forever grateful. I believe that I will learn from this experience, I will become a more responsible young adult. Having been accepted into this internship I hope to give back more than I will gain. The older I get the more I realize the importance of growing as an individual. LACO has given me a chance to show how much of a hard worker I am and how much I am willing to do in order to learn and be more responsible. There are many things I hope to gain from this internship, but most importantly I hope I will be helpful and show that I am here to do whatever it is they need. Thank you LACO, I appreciate this grand opportunity.”

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a silent tribute to los angeles

I’m still smiling from my excellent weekend – one that was capped by a sensational Sunday night performance by LACO. The occasion was the annual Silent Film Gala, where classic films are screened at Royce Hall, with LACO performing the scores live. This year’s festivities, which featured two Charlie Chaplin films (“Modern Times” and “Kid Auto Races in Venice”), were especially noteworthy, as they marked a number of milestones, including the 25th anniversary of the first Silent Film Gala, and the 125th anniversary of Chaplin’s birth. I suspected I might leave Royce Hall feeling jubilant, but I didn’t anticipate leaving with a desire to explore the city around me. But that’s what LACO concerts will do to a person: they’ll change you, and in ways you don’t expect.

read more →The Silent Film Gala is a big deal, and if you go next year (and I highly recommend that you do), get ready, because there’s about 20 minutes of introductions before the orchestra even enters the auditorium. In addition to thanking and honoring the many donors and board members who worked to put this event together (including event co-chair Hanna Kennedy, who’s been working tirelessly on Silent Film Galas since their inception), much was said this year about how the Silent Film Gala benefits and enriches the entire city. For some reason, this little morsel planted itself in my brain.

I’ll be honest and say that I got a little antsy during the pre-concert speeches. I appreciated Leonard Maltin providing cultural context regarding the films we’d be watching, but let’s get on with the show! Soon enough, the orchestra pit was filled with dozens of musicians, and conductor (and composer) Timothy Brock made his entrance.

“Kid Auto Races in Venice” is a short film that can’t be more than 15 minutes long. Brock had written an entirely new score for it that highlighted and showcased the laughs and captured the energy and spirit of the film, and it was a joy to watch (and listen to).

“Modern Times” is feature length (clocking in at just under 90 minutes), and if you’re not aware of the importance of this film, than stop what you’re doing and go read about it. (You can finish reading this blog post first.) (And after you’re done reading about it, go watch it – it’s available on YouTube and DVD.) The film is joyous to watch. It’s funny and smart, clever and nuanced, broad and specific. The musicians sounded wonderful, and with a story so engrossing, I actually forgot, at times, that they were there!

It was at some point during “Modern Times” that I was overtaken by a hunch. I suspected that Chaplin likely filmed this masterpiece all over Los Angeles. I did a little research when I got home, and my hunch was confirmed. The scenes at the harbor and shipyard were filmed at the port and in San Pedro. The department store exteriors were at Sunset and Vine in the heart of Hollywood. A sequence where the Tramp and the Gamin escape the cops was filmed in Santa Monica. The dream house where the Tramp and the Gamin imagine their perfect life was in the valley, near Universal City. And the final scene, where the Tramp and the Gamin walk towards the horizon to begin a new life, was filmed on a stretch of the Sierra Highway beyond Santa Clarita, outside a little town called Acton.

I found it fitting that during this milestone year for the Silent Film Gala, a film that embraced a variety of Los Angeles locales was chosen, because that’s exactly what LACOdoes. One of LACO’s slogans says that they “bring great music to life,” and that idea could be expanded upon to include the fact that, chances are, they also bring that great music to you, no matter where you live. Their orchestral series is performed both in Glendale and Westwood. They do an annual event in Pasadena, and smaller concert series downtown and in Santa Monica. You’re never too far from a LACO venue, just like you’re never too far from a “Modern Times” location. I’ve attendedLACO concerts at most of these venues, and I get a kick out of visiting new-to-me neighborhoods and seeing what’s around. Now, thanks to Sunday’s Silent Film Gala, I have a new goal:

I enjoy exercise, but sometimes I need external motivation to get me on my feet. One of the things I love to do is go and work out in places featured in classic films. I’ve run two 10k races through the backlots at Universal Studios, and ran the public stairways featured in classic Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy comedies. Next on the to-do list? I’m going to run down Sierra Highway, along the same stretch of road that Charlie Chaplin walked almost 80 years ago. I enjoy feeling connected to my surroundings, and if I have a good workout in a location immortalized in a classic film, well… that will be a greatday.

So thank you, LACO. Thank you for a beautiful evening. Thank you for making me think about the city around me. And thank you for inspiring me to take another healthy step. It’ll probably end up being hundreds of steps along the Sierra Highway’s shoulders, but who’s counting?

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charlie chaplin’s modern times

This year, LACO’s annual silent film screening features Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times and Kid Auto Races in Venice.

Kally Mavromatis of WelcomeToSilentMovies.com offers a bit of history into both the films and the man himself.

read more →It’s an enduring image: A man, trapped in a machine, rolling along the cogs, seemingly trapped into becoming a part of the machinery itself.

Pink Floyd may have welcomed us to the machine in the ‘70s, but Charlie Chaplin introduced it to us in the ‘30s with his film Modern Times, and it’s as remarkably relevant today as it was when it first premiered in 1936.

Modern Times is the story of the Little Tramp who, driven mad by his mind-numbing job in a factory, goes on a rampage and is taken to a hospital. Later he is mistaken for a Communist agitator and thrown in jail. Pardoned, he tries – and fails at – a variety of jobs, along the way meeting the “Gamine” (Paulette Godard). Just when all seems to be going well for the pair, they are forced to go on the run, but are confident that as long as they are together, they will be just fine.

Modern Times is Chaplin’s first foray into social and political commentary. By the time he began production in 1934, he was deeply dismayed by the depths to which the Depression had left scores of people unemployed, accelerated by the dehumanizing increase in industrialization.

In mining these dark themes for comedy, Chaplin chose to use his “everyman” character, the Tramp, who struggles to find his place in this modern world.

It’s a world we could easily recognize today: Layoffs. Strikes. Increasing mechanization. Income inequality. Yet in the face of so much change, turbulence and turmoil, by the end of the film the Tramp manages to maintain a ray of optimism: The final intertitle is of Chaplin’s Tramp, telling the Gamine, “Buck up – never say die! We’ll get along.”

Modern Times can be taken not only as a commentary on modernization, but as an elegy to a lost world, as well.

Not only does it bid farewell to a lost art – silent filmmaking – but it bids farewell to a world that saw the creation of the Tramp, Chaplin’s enduring persona, and to the character itself.

By the time Modern Times was completed in 1936, the silent era was long over. The first all-talking picture, “Lights of New York,” had premiered in 1928 and by 1930 even stars such as Greta Garbo had made the transition.

But for Chaplin, the talkies presented a unique challenge. His type of comedy, he felt, was best expressed through pantomime, the “language” of silent film. It allowed his character to be understood by everyone, without relying on words or dialogue, and thus was more universal in nature.

Chaplin fought long and hard against using all synchronous dialogue in his films, but by the time he was ready to make Modern Times he was ready to experiment with this new medium.

Originally intending Modern Times to be a talkie, Chaplin initially wrote dialogue for his characters and even recorded some test scenes.

But unsatisfied with the outcome, he opted to stick to what he knew best: pantomime. However, there are numerous examples of the use of synchronous sound throughout the film including sound effects, which Chaplin enjoyed creating and were made part of the overall music score.

More famous, however, is a scene in which the Tramp, hired as a waiter, is pressed into service for a missing tenor and asked to sing Léo Daniderff’s comical song Je cherche après Titine; Chaplin’s own voice is heard singing a mish-mash of French and Italian to great comic effect.

Despite its limited use of sound, Modern Times is in many ways the last major silent film. It carries on the tradition of using intertitles to convey what the actors can’t, and was shot in silent film’s traditional 18 frames per second; when played at “sound speed” of 24 frames per second it only emphasizes the frenetic nature of Chaplin’s slapstick comedy.

If Modern Times is the Tramp’s Omega, then “Kid Auto Races in Venice” is its Alpha.

While the Tramp character was “born” in a Mabel Normand short, Mabel’s Strange PredicamentKid Auto Races in Venice is the first of Chaplin’s films to feature the Tramp in a starring role. It’s a 6-minute short with a thin plot: The Tramp continually finds himself in front of a movie camera that is filming a soap box derby race, much to the dismay of the cameraman and the racers.

Modern Times was a critical and commercial success, and Chaplin would go on to create talking pictures, but without the Tramp. In many ways, Modern Times serves as a bittersweet farewell to a character, a way of life and a style of filmmaking that gave way to…modern times.

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a whole lotta pianos

Man, if you love pianos, than the Alex Theatre was the place to be this past Saturday. LACO’s program for theBach & Mozart: Double Concertos concert featured not one pianist, not two pianists, and not three pianists. It hadfour pianists! They ranged in age from 12 to significantly older than 12, and they were backed by the orchestra in a glorious array on concertos from the masters of classical music. Plus, there was a program switcharoo that really kept me on my toes!

read more →Let’s address the switcheroo first and get it over with. I had time to peruse the program notes before the concert began, and my ears perked up, Scooby-Doo style, when I read this sentence: “[Gyorgy] Ligeti’s Piano Concerto is scored for a small orchestra with some non-traditional instruments, including slide whistle, alto ocarina (a small, egg-shaped flute) and harmonica.” Get out! Slide whistle?The same slide whistle that’s used at the circus when a clown’s pants fall down will be gracing the LACO stage? In theory, yes. In actuality, no. And that’s because at some point after the program book was published months ago, there was a program change, and the Ligeti Piano Concerto was booted off the list and replaced by a concerto by Beethoven.

I don’t know when it happened, and I don’t know why it happened, but it was a bummer for me, since the program already featured two old-timey concertos (ones by Bach and Mozart), and it would have been nice to hear a more modern take (the Ligeti concerto was written in the ’80s). You know who else was bummed? The slide whistle player, who, for all we know, was elated for a chance to graduate from kids’ birthday party gigs to the major leagues, only to get a call saying not to come. “We’re not playing the Ligeti anymore,” the slide whistle player might have been told, “and that jerk Beethoven didn’t include any slide whistle in his concerto.”

Enough talk about what wasn’t played on Saturday. Let’s focus on what was played. The evening began with Bach’s lovely and lively Concerto No. 2 in C major for Two Pianos, and those two pianos were played by Music Director Jeffrey Kahane and 12-year-old guest Ray Ushikubo. Yep, you read that right, 12 years old. The kid’s clearly a star, and if I had any thoughts that he was out of his league playing with all these grown-ups, those thoughts dissipated in 2 seconds. The concerto has a never-ending piano part, and Kahane and Ushikubo traded off playing it, passing it back and forth like tennis players. You could close your eyes and not know who was playing what, even in the second movement, which is basically a piano duet, with the orchestra not playing a single note.

Next up was Mozart’s Concerto No. 10 in E-flat major for Two Pianos, with Mr. Kahane being joined by the second guest pianist of the evening, Joanne Pearce Martin. My favorite movement of this piece was the third one, which had the catchiest hook of the evening (to use a phrase common in current popular music). Mr. Kahane pulled double duty during this piece, standing up when he could and conducting the orchestra before sitting back down and tackling his next piano section.

The only non-concerto piece in the program was a selection of 3 Ligeti Etudes, a solo piece played by guest pianist Jeremy Denk right after intermission. I’m usually grateful that a modern piece was included, as I do like variety, but these kinda stuck out like a sore thumb, because 1) everything else was a concerto, and 2) nothing else was solo. Mr. Denk’s introduction of the Etudes provided some much appreciated context, but I found myself awaiting the next concerto.

That next concerto was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, with Mr. Denk tackling the piano part, and Mr. Kahane conducting everyone else. Mr. Denk proved to be my favorite pianist of the evening to watch, because he was very animated and invested. I must confess, though, that I held a bit of a grudge during this piece, as it was this Concerto that knocked the modern Ligeti concerto off the program. My mind wandered and I kept thinking of the slide whistle player, cold and alone, strolling through the streets, with nowhere to play his instrument. Maybe LACOcould make things right and include a slide whistle solo piece among next season’s offerings. It’s not too late to make that change, is it? Have the program book been printed?

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beethoven the pianist

LACO’s upcoming concert features “double concertos” by Mozart and Bach and a selection of Etudes for Piano by György Ligeti. The finale of the evening will be Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, played by the incomparable Jeremy Denk and the talented musicians of LACO. Beethoven’s piano music is fascinating to me because I know he wrote most of it to show off his own talent as a pianist. To closely study these concertos, sonatas, and piano trios is to understand Beethoven the performer. And one cannot help but feel a little melancholy in looking at these pieces because we know that Beethoven had to give up his performing career sooner than he wanted to because of his hearing loss.

read more →Beethoven (1770-1827) lived almost to the age of 57. His made his first public appearance as a pianist at the age of seven, although his father—wanting to tout his very own musical prodigy—advertised him as a six-year-old. Music was his career from these early days, and he grew in fits and starts as a performer and a composer through a difficult childhood and early adulthood. He studied with local teachers and some relatives as well. Around the time Beethoven was about ten years old, he became the assistant to the new court organist in Bonn, Christian Gottlob Neefe. In a write-up in the Magazin der Musik in 1783 Beethoven is described as:

“a boy of eleven years and a most promising talent. He plays the piano very skillfully and with power, reads at sight very well….[Neefe] is now training him in composition and for his encouragement has nine variations for the piano, written by him on a march, engraved at Mannheim. This youthful genius is deserving of help to enable him to travel. He would surely become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart if he were to continue as he has begun.”

When Beethoven was 18, he took it upon himself to become the head of the family when his mother’s death and his father’s subsequent alcoholism caused a shift in family dynamics. Beethoven petitioned for half of his father’s salary (his father was let go from his singing job) to support his younger brothers. In return, Beethoven sometimes played viola in the court and theater orchestras. This experience would be invaluable to him as a composer. His orchestral works show sensitivity to the roles of the instruments in the orchestra, something he witnessed firsthand from the string section.

Beethoven left Bonn behind for Vienna in 1792. He studied with Haydn for a time, but more importantly he was intent on establishing himself as a pianist and composer in the new city. His connections from Bonn helped him greatly in these endeavors. Also, the members of the Viennese aristocracy who recognized Beethoven’s talent were more than happy to provide him with accommodations and commissions. Beethoven excelled at displays of virtuosity in the salons and private performances held in the houses of these aristocrats. By 1795, he was showing off his talents in public concerts, playing his own piano trios, piano sonatas, and his first piano concertos.

Beethoven was about 26 when he began have troubles with his hearing. He continued to play throughout these struggles, and to compose as well. By 1801 he was finally ready to share the news of his infirmity, which he had kept secret for some time, with his close friends and his brothers. The enormity of this problem caused a crisis for Beethoven, who wondered what effect his encroaching deafness would have on both his professional life and his personal relationships. To his old friend, Franz Gerhard Wegeler, he wrote the following in a letter:

“For almost two years I have ceased to attend any social functions, just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf. If I had any other profession it would be easier, but in my profession it is a terrible handicap. As for my enemies, of whom I have a fair number, what would they say?”

Beethoven’s skills would have to shift, and he would eventually concern himself entirely with composing because he could not continue as a performer. By 1814, when Beethoven was in his forties, he was almost totally deaf. It was in April of this year that Beethoven last appeared in public as a soloist. The concert was a benefit for the military, and it was organized by Ignaz Schuppanzigh, violinist and friend of Beethoven. Beethoven’s last public performance was of the Archduke Trio, op. 97. Louis Spohr, the composer and violinist, gave an ungenerous account of the rehearsals, saying, “on account of [Beethoven’s] deafness there was scarcely anything of the virtuosity of the artist which had formerly been so greatly admired.” In truth, Spohr hadn’t heard Beethoven play in his prime and had no firsthand experience of this virtuosity. Friend and fellow pianist Ignaz Moscheles was far kinder, explaining that the piece was wonderful and new, and that the playing, although not as clear and precise as it could have been, still contained “traces of the grand style of playing which I had long recognized in his compositions.”

In addition to writing the large-scale works of his middle and late periods, Beethoven attempted to compose one final Piano Concerto, a sixth. We think he began sketches for it in 1814 or 1815. About seventy pages of music exist for the first movement, but the scoring peters out, and Beethoven left this work unfinished. Perhaps it was put on the back-burner as Beethoven knew he could not himself perform it. In 1987, Nicholas Cook reconstructed the work and provided a completion for this movement.

We can look at Beethoven’s deafness and consequent retirement from performance as a tragedy. It is possible, however, that we can think of this circumstance as nudging Beethoven into his maturity as a composer. One wonders what his output would have been like had he been able to play into his fifties. On the occasion of hearing Piano Concerto No. 1, it is an opportunity to look back at Beethoven at the beginning of his career in Vienna: full of hope, full of talent, and showing unlimited potential. No doubt his career didn’t end up as he planned, but his legacy as one of the greatest composers that ever lived was already in place before his death in 1827. That’s no small feat, considering that some of the most important composers in music history died in obscurity. Catch a glimpse of the young Beethoven in Piano Concerto No. 1, and see that limitless potential for yourself.

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roll the dice

What is aleatoric music? Before today, I had never heard of it; but, I don’t think I’m alone. As I write this blog, spell check is alerting me of a misspelling and has “no suggestions.”

aleatoric ˌā-lē-ə-ˈtȯr-ik, ˈtär music

Music in which some element of the composition is left to chance, and/or some primary element of a composed work’s realization is left to the determination of its performer(s). The term is most often associated with procedures in which the chance element involves a relatively limited number of possibilities. Wikipedia

read more →In other words, roll the dice and see what happens.

Sounds like a disaster, right? Wrong! There are many successful examples of aleatoric music in classical music and otherwise. Let’s run through some of the top contributors:

Henry Cowell Experimental classical music, Aleatoric music

Mircea Florian Psychedelic folk, New Wave, Avant-garde jazz

Leo Brouwer Folk music, Film score, Atonal music

Also, in this category is 20th-century Polish composer Lutosławski, who was inspired deeply by the aleatoric methods of American composer John Cage. In this month’s #LACO205 podcast, music director Jeffrey Kahane and composer-in-residence Andrew Norman compare the aleatoric methods of John Cage and Lutosławski. The podcast concludes with a live rendering of aleatoric music featuring Kahane and Norman on piano performing a 25 second composition by Norman.

The #LACO205 podcast is not to be missed and available only for a limited time. Make a $25 #LACO205 online contribution during the month of May to receive this exclusive podcast.

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an excellent bunch of showoffs

Many people think classical music is antiquated, and only for older people. I mean, sure, technically a lot of the stuff played at LACO is really old music. And sure, looking around at the Alex theater you see a lot of…distinguished hair. But, for those who attended the April 26th LACO performance, what they got was in some ways a celebration of youth; a concert that showed all the classical haters out there that you don’t have to be old to rock a concerto.

read more →The evening began with the premier of 33-year-old Hannah Lash’s This Ease. The piece was commissioned as part of LACO’s cleverly named Sound Investment program. Sound Investment is an annual event that allows LACO donors to give aspiring up and coming composers the opportunity to create a brand new piece of music. Before the concert began, Lash came out and briefly described her creative process. She imagined she was working in a terrarium full of conceptual animals, which gave her feelings of nostalgia and sadness. Based on this description, I hoped the orchestra would come out dressed in cool, imaginary animal costumes. They did not.

Slight tangent: I was glad to see that Jeffery Kahane was back as conductor. He’s been noticeably absent lately. Where the heck has that guy been? For awhile I was worried that he was either kidnapped or being wooed by a rival Orchestra. Luckily, JK was back this evening, and no rescue mission and/or orchestral retaliation was necessary.

Anyways, back to This Ease. The piece began as a twinkly, Alice In Wonderland sort of reverie; but, it quickly took on a foreboding, and sometimes scary tone. For me, it conjured the image of landing on a seemingly remote tropical island and finding ostensibly friendly natives. As they show you their cool tree houses and hand shucked canoes, you start to get the sinking suspicion that they actually might be cannibals… Slowly but surely, the piece ratcheted up its piercing strings to highly creepy levels. In my imaginary scenario, this is when you happen upon a pile of skulls on your way to the bathroom.

Next up was the night’s titular performance, Chopin’s concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21. Chopin actually wrote this piece when he was 20 years old as a way to showcase his abilities on the piano (what a showoff). Luckily, LACO brought in a fantastic guest showoff to play the piece: 26-year-old piano wizard (or witch – the cool kind not like the evil kind or anything) Natasha Paremski. She came out in a stunning blue dress and tiara. I thought about tiaras a lot during the performance and concluded that very, VERY few people can pull them off. Natasha is one of those select few. Her performance was so expressive, and the piano parts required her to go from stormy and intense, to cautious sounding tingles. It must be noted that she had NO sheet music and performed this complicated composition off the top of her head (showoff)!

The end of Concerto No. 2 was my favorite part because it felt like the orchestral equivalent of a Taaaaa Daaaaaa! After a lightening fast, almost playful piano solo, the rest of the orchestra heralds a triumphant end. Natasha came back for an encore, playing what I think was the 3rd movement of the second piano concerto by Sergei Prokofiev. She didn’t have a microphone so it was a little hard to hear exactly what it was. And as a complete Prokofiev newbie, I couldn’t tell you what it was based off of the music alone. My my classical ear is still maturing, but I think that develops along with the… distinguished hair. This undetermined Prokofiev movement was another incredibly complicated piece of music. It was more frantic than Chopin, and Natasha nailed it once again.

Finally the night ended with Haydn’s Symphony No. 102 in B-flat major. This piece doesn’t fit perfectly into my theme of youthfulness because it didn’t feature any young, hot-shot soloists, or new-fangled up and coming composers. But the piece did have a youthful exuberance that I believe is common in many classical pieces. However, No. 102 felt somewhat more regal than the other pieces performed throughout the night, which makes sense because I read in the program that Haydn wrote a lot of his music specifically for a prince. During one part I wrote down “this is totally horse music” (I thought it would be the perfect music to ride a horse to). It was a treat.

Overall, April 26th’s LACO concert was unique, intricate and of course, youthful. Based on the talents displayed by the performers of all ages it feels like classical music is in excellent hands going forward.

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anticipating the anticipation

LACO’s annual Sound Investment premiere concert is quickly becoming one of my favorites of the year. This year, the official name of the concert was “Chopin: Piano Concerto,” but I didn’t show up for Chopin, I showed up for Sound Investment premiere. I’m glad I heard the Chopin, and I’ll get to that piece a little later, but I’ll start with the Sound Investment premiere. Did I mention it was a premiere?

read more →Sound Investment is LACO’s commissioning club. It’s been around for 13 years, but this is only my second year participating. In a nutshell, you make a donation to join the club, and all those donations get compiled and are given to a promising, exciting young composer, who then writes a brand-spanking-new piece of music. It provides a very rare opportunity for any Joe Sixpack (or Untrained Ear, like myself) to help bring a new piece of orchestral music into the world, and during the course of the season, investors get invited to a few events to see how the work is coming along. Learn more about Sound Investment and join the club!

This year’s Sound Investment composer was Hannah Lash, and she introduced her piece, This Ease, by saying that it was not influenced by any sort of outside event or emotion. I’m a creative sort, and that struck me as intriguing, and actually probably very difficult to pull off. Kudos to Ms. Lash for retreating into a creative space, again and again over the course of a year, and never letting anything seep in to color or affect this piece of music!

I ended up feeling one resounding thing as I listened toThis Ease: anticipation. There’s a moment in many adventure movies – think The Goonies or Indiana Jones – where an object of desire (some sort of treasure, medallion, or jewel, for example) is revealed for the first time. The music is humming with anticipation: bright sounds that reflect the grandeur and importance of the object, with unsettling elements weaving their way through the background, like musical foreshadowing that hints of the danger, mystery, and power that the object can bring.

This Ease sounded like an 18-20 minute experiment in that moment. The piece evolved and grew, but it never lost that sense of anticipation. It was full of complex sounds and stunning instrument combinations, and was enjoyable, and, at moments, breathtaking to listen to. In a way, though, I felt unsatisfied, because that anticipation never grew into anything. There was no sense of conclusion. Imagine being handed a wrapped present and spending 20 minutes looking at it, smelling it, shaking it, turning it over in your hands, imagining the multitude of things it could contain, but never being able to open it. That’s how I felt at the end of This Ease. It was an exciting exploration, and beautiful too, but anticlimactic.

Chopin, on the other hand, knew how to write a climax. His Piano Concert No. 2 ended with a exhilarating flourish, delivered by the impressive LACO musicians and an incredibly dynamic guest soloist, Natasha Paremski. The solo passages throughout all three movements were endlessly impressive. Ms. Paremski’s fingers danced up and down the keyboard for the duration of the piece, and her encore, which was the 3rd movement of some Prokofiev piece (I couldn’t quite hear her from my seat), was downright dizzying. The Chopin provided me some unintentional chuckles, too. While Jeffrey Kahane conducted the entire evening, he was blocked entirely by the raised piano lid during the Chopin, and there were stretches that I forgot he was even there, until I would see, during his grander gestures, a single outstretched arm, baton in hand, enthusiastically leading the musicians. Ah, piano lids!

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chopin and haydn share the stage

LACO’s upcoming concert features a Piano Concerto written at the beginning of Chopin’s career and a symphony composed near the end of Haydn’s career. In some ways, their professional lives were the inverse of each other. Chopin started out writing symphonic works to introduce himself to the musical public, and eventually all but gave up public performance in his later years. On the other hand, Haydn spent 30 years working for a single family and didn’t really have the opportunity to work in the public sphere until he was in his late forties.

read more →Haydn was born in 1732, Chopin in 1810. Haydn’s piece on the program—Symphony No. 102—dates from 1794. Haydn was sixty-two years old when the piece premiered in early 1795. Chopin was just nineteen years old when he composed the Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1829. (This piece was actually his first work in the genre, but the two works were published in reverse order.) Haydn’s symphony is the work of a mature composer writing for a modern, sophisticated audience. Chopin’s Piano Concerto was premiered at a concert at Warsaw’s National Theater in 1830, and the hometown crowd was immediately smitten with the composer’s use of national dance rhythms and folksongs. Let’s take a closer look at the contexts of these two works.

It was at the beginning of January 1779 that Haydn was finally permitted to write music for people other than his patron. After this date, Haydn undertook two journeys to London and composed a dozen symphonies for this audience. These are among his most famous pieces, and many of them have nicknames you might recognize: “Surprise,” “Clock,” and “Military.” Haydn was fortunate enough to live three decades after being freed from his contract, and he made excellent use of that time, composing piano trios, string quartets, and other instrumental works. It is in this wonderful, fruitful time in Haydn’s life that Symphony No. 102 was written. The London audience was enthusiastic about Haydn’s work, and he had a creative resurgence at a time when other composers might have thought about winding down.

In his final years, which were spent in Vienna, Haydn concentrated on vocal music, including six masses and the oratorio, The Creation. One of his late masses is a favorite of mine, the Missa in tempore belli (Mass in time of war), which is also known as the “Paukenmesse” or the Kettledrum mass. I sang it with the College Choir when I was an undergraduate at Hunter College, and I think the Agnus Dei from that mass is still one of the prettiest pieces I’ve ever heard. The Creation is a stunning work as well, and must be heard to be believed. Who would have thought Haydn’s career would end so spectacularly? I’m sure he himself was pleasantly surprised by his successful second act.

Chopin was not so lucky to enjoy a long life. He struggled with health issues for years and finally succumbed to pulmonary tuberculosis in October of 1849, a few months shy of his fortieth birthday. Both Piano Concertos, however, date from two decades earlier, at a time when Chopin’s professional career was just at its beginning. At nineteen years old, Chopin was finishing up his education at the Warsaw Conservatory, and looking for ways to travel abroad and play his music for new audiences. He was able to take short trips to Berlin and Vienna, and on those journeys, he found that audiences were especially charmed by works with Polish characteristics. When he got back to Warsaw after these trips, he set out to write a piano concerto, likely knowing it was the best way to show off both his compositional skill and his talent as a performer. In both of his piano concertos, Chopin chose to base the final movements on Polish dance forms.

One might be forgiven if one thought that Chopin’s career would consist of more of these types of pieces and their subsequent performances, but that’s not how things went. His unpredictable health and the physical strain of public performance encouraged Chopin to focus on teaching and composing. In fact, his orchestral works after the two piano concertos were few and far between. And you know what? That’s all right by me, because he spent the lion’s share of his career writing the most beautiful, most sublime music for his beloved instrument, the piano. In fact, there isn’t a work in his entire output that doesn’t feature the piano. It was truly and in so many ways, his voice.

I’m very interested to hear Haydn’s 102nd Symphony and Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 side by side. It will be an interesting juxtaposition: one work from a composer just starting out, and the other from an established and successful composer in the prime of his creative life. Also, let’s not forget that Haydn’s work comes from 1794, just after the wave of Classicism had crested, and was beginning to move towards the first glimpses of Romanticism. Chopin’s work comes from early in this Romantic period, hinting at the chromatic style, rhythmic freedom, and improvisatory flavor that would color his mature work. It should be an interesting evening with these two men, one who died in 1809 and the other who was born just ten months later, destined never to meet, except on the concert stage.

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