every girl crazy ’bout a sharp dressed man

This evening’s concert included a surprise special treat for me! My dancer daughter was unexpectedly home and attended with me. Plus, it was delightfully warm and the terrace off the bar was a heavenly spot to sit and have a glass of wine with her before the concert began. It was a delicious way to begin an evening of beautiful music and, it turns out, beautiful musicians, as well.

I’d like to take a moment to laud the concertmaster, Margaret Batjer (beautiful person number one). She has held this position since 1998, has soloed with numerous major orchestras (the first time being at the age of 15) and is the creator of LACO’s Westside Connections chamber music series. She is a constant, strong presence at every performance I have seen and deserves a shout out. So, I SEE YOU, MARGARET!!

Guest conductor, Matthew Halls, was charming, energetic and expressive. He seemed very intelligent and precise in his interpretations of Prokofiev and Haydn and I appreciated his illumination of their similarities and where they diverged. Beautiful person number two accounted for…

Mason Bates wrote his remarkable Cello Concerto for the evening’s cellist, Joshua Roman. The concerto focused primarily on the abilities of the instrument itself, rather than a sound storyline. While not precisely my “cup of tea”, I enjoyed the integration of styles and sounds, the meshing of lyricism and percussion in the supporting orchestra. Joshua Roman is a treat: prodigal, sassy and emotive (his facial expressions!). His bowing and plucking were a visual and auditory delight. Such a natty dresser too (beautiful person number three). Big smiles and applause all around for this presentation from the audience. And in return for our love, a sweet, sweet encore for us from the adorable Mr. Roman.

Prokofiev’s first symphony was composed in 1917 while he was on holiday as an exercise in composing away from the piano (cuz I’m that productive on vacay, aren’t you?). He declared his intention was to create an original piece of music in the classical style inspired by Haydn while remaining true to his more modern sensibilities. SUCCESS! Classical in structure and form, but bitingly modern in its tonality and rife with his own devilish wit, it reminds me of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, something fiercely new packaged in the familiar symphonic proportions of Haydn. A delight.

Finally, Haydn’s the “Clock” Symphony (the Andante, with its ticking accompaniment, gives the symphony this nickname). This is my favorite of his. I feel like it was written for the crowd as well as the connoisseur. It’s filled with wonderful touches and the finale is nonstop brilliance. It moves with ease from simplicity to high drama. And those wonderful firm three chords at the end always make me smile. And the clock keeps running.

impress everyone with these five fascinating prokofiev facts!

Do you have your tickets for this weekend’s Prokofiev Classical concert? (If not, buy them here!) In addition to Prokofiev’s first symphony, called “Classical,” the program also features Haydn’s Symphony no. 101 (“The Clock”) and the Los Angeles premiere of Mason Bates’ Cello Concerto. And all ticket holders are invited to stick around for an after party featuring free drinks and appetizers! Need some icebreakers as you mix and mingle with other music aficionados? Try out these little-known facts about titular composer Sergei Prokofiev, including the famous piece he wrote in only four days, and the hobby that could also have made him a household name.

1) Prokofiev’s may perhaps be best known for “Peter and the Wolf” – an educational children’s piece he wrote in only four days. He wrote “Peter and the Wolf” as a favor to the Moscow Children’s Musical Theater, and offered to accept however much payment they could afford in their budget. Now it’s renowned the world over, but “Peter and the Wolf” got a slow start. It premiered on May 2, 1936, and, as Prokofiev himself noted, “[attendance] was poor and failed to attract much attention.”

2) “Peter and the Wolf” has the distinction of being recorded dozens of times over the past 100 years, and the list of famous names that have served as narrator is long and illustrious. Just a few of the notable narrators include: Bill Clinton, Sophia Loren, Antonio Banderas, Sharon Stone, Dame Edna Everage, Alice Cooper, Sting, Ben Kingsley, Sir John Gielgud (twice!), Eleanor Roosevelt, Alec Guinness, Boris Karloff, Mia Farrow, Sean Connery, Rob Reiner, David Bowie, and Carol Channing.
3) We have farm machinery to thank for bringing Prokofiev to the US for the first time. It was 1917 when Chicago businessman Cyrus McCormick Jr. went to Russia on business and met the 26-year-old Prokofiev. McCormick had never heard of Prokofiev, but Prokofiev was very familiar with the McCormick name, which was synonymous with farm equipment, as Prokofiev’s father managed a large farm that owned several machines that the McCormicks manufactured. McCormick ultimately recommended Prokofiev to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Prokofiev attended the American debuts of two of his works in December 1918, leading the orchestra during one piece, and playing piano during the other.

The audience loved it, giving Prokofiev an enormous ovation. The reviews suggested a major new (and strange) voice was being heard. One headline read: “Russian Genius Displays Weird Harmonies.” Another critic wrote: “The music was of such savagery, so brutally barbaric, that it seemed almost grotesque to see civilized men, in modern dress with modern instruments performing it. By the same token, it was big, sincere, true.”
4) Sergei Prokofiev was also a very accomplished chess player, and could’ve possibly played professionally. He is one of very few players that beat José Raúl Capablanca, who would go on to be world champion, in a 1914 game. Prokofiev also beat contemporary Maurice Ravel in a chess game, and you can relive their match, move by move, here.
5) Prokofiev’s death was overshadowed by a much more prominent Russian’s death. Prokofiev died, at the age of 61, on March 5, 1953 – the same day as Joseph Stalin. Hordes of mourning people filled Red Square for days, and since Prokofiev lived near the square, the crowds prevented his body from being moved for three days. A leading music periodical, in their next issue, briefly mentioned Prokofiev’s passing on page 116. The first 115 pages were dedicated to Stalin.

Lastly, while you’re driving to Alex Theatre or Royce Hall this weekend for the concert, ruminate on this Prokofiev quote on the role of the composer and the purpose of art:
“In my view, the composer, just as the poet, the sculptor or the painter, is in duty bound to serve Man, the people. He must beautify human life and defend it. He must be a citizen first and foremost, so that his art might consciously extol human life and lead man to a radiant future. Such is the immutable code of art as I see it.”

fusion and multitasking

First things first – let me just say thank you to the universe for the timing of this particular program. My husband was NOT happy to attend with me on Sunday. He had just flown in from a trip and has been battling a heaping dose of the grungy cold virus that’s going around. He loves me and knows I don’t like going by myself to events, so he came along, grumbling… until he heard the word “jazz”. The light returned to his eyes and he perked up even further upon hearing “improvisation, vibraphone and percussion”. Yay!

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Gernot Wolfgang’s (yes Wolfgang and also an Austrian) “Sinfonia Concertante for Four Winds – The D.A.R.K. Knights” is a delicious salad of jazz and lively, lyrical classicism and was written specifically for David Shostac (flute), Allan Vogel (oboe), Richard Todd (horn) and Kenneth Munday (bassoon), who all together have about three hundred and fifty seven years of musical experience (I kid, but they are heavyweights). He wrote this piece to their specific abilities and the solos of Shostac and Todd included improvisation. We were also treated to percussive improvisation, wonderful “shivery” violins, the brass bending notes, and a level of attentive alertness to one another that I have not heretofore seen in this orchestra. Don’t misunderstand me, they are always cohesive and attentive musicians, but the format of this particular composition seemed to illicit a very noticeable uptick in each individual musician’s attention to the others. It was quite enjoyable and different, and as Bill Murray said in Groundhog Day, “different is good”. I’d love to hear more of this kind of music at LACO.

Clarinet Concerto in A Major. I did not know that Mozart wrote a concerto for the clarinet! Well, not exactly the clarinet, but a fusion of the clarinet and a basset horn called (surprise surprise) a basset clarinet, a custom deal that has a range down to low C, instead of stopping at E as standard clarinets do. Joshua Ranz, who looked a bit like the instrument he played, (long, tall, thin, dressed in black) was wonderfully charming in his on stage persona and made the most of the quick passage work and contrasting slow tempos. His solo was magnificent. I believe that Mozart shows the capabilities of an instrument in what he writes for it better than almost anyone. And the clarinet is a delight, the life of the party, as the program notes state.

For me, the particular appeal of Mozart’s Concerto in D Minor, is that it‘s only one of two written in a minor key, and the most overtly dark, dramatic and impassioned. Dramatic Mozart – wonderful! Still elegant and crisp, but somewhat stormy between the orchestra and piano, lovingly played by Maestro Kahane, the multitasker. Poor, poor Jeffrey. If only he were talented… conducting the orchestra, while playing the piano in one of Mozart’s most esteemed concertos (Beethoven kept it in his repertoire). It was so great to see him communicating with the orchestra in this layered way, creating a musical dialogue in which he not only directs the orchestra as a whole entity, but interacts with them, speaking essentially the same language, appropriating and embellishing their themes, enhancing both them and enriching the solo piano personality.
So, will you allow me a short rant? Thanks. It drives me bananas when audience members leap up after the last piece and bolt for the door so as to be first in line to get out of the parking garage. How much time do you really think you’re saving? It seems so dismissive of the orchestra. And you MISS things. On Sunday, if you bolted, you missed Jeff Kahane come back and play an encore (a diverting version of “America the Beautiful”). The scamperers who hadn’t made it completely out the door when he came back on found themselves hurrying back down the aisle and flinging themselves into the first available empty seats. It just seems wrong to me. I have never waited more than ten minutes in that parking lot after the show. Give the orchestra their due. Stay and clap for them, wait to hear the encore (it’s such a treat). They just gave their all to us for almost two hours, give them another 20 minutes of your time, please. End of rant.

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reflecting on 44 years with LACO

There aren’t many people who can say they’ve been with LACO since the early days, but Allan Vogel is one of them. He joined LACO in 1972, just a few years after LACO’s inaugural performance, and became principal oboe in 1974 – a position he’s held every since. Now, after 44 years with LACO, Allan is prepping for his retirement at this end of this season. Don’t fret! There are still chances to see Allan perform on our stage, including Baroque Conversations 3 at Zipper Concert Hall on Thursday. We asked Allan to reflect on his career and experiences, and, in this interview, he recalls how he came to join LACO, how he avoided embarrassment at the White House, and shares what he’ll miss most.

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LACO: You fell in love with oboe while in high school. What was it about that particular instrument that caught your ear?

Allan Vogel: I love the sound of the instrument. I went to the New York High School for Music and Art, as a voice major, and studied piano too. And I remember walking into the auditorium while the Bach Cantata 140 was being played. It has three oboes, and hearing them sparked something in my adolescent self, and it made me fall in love with the instrument. It took me a year or two to get to play the oboe, and I was really pent up during that time. When I finally started to play the oboe, I played it like crazy and have ever since.

You’ve been with LACO since 1972. How did this come about? Do you remember your initial audition?

Well, it’s an interesting story. I had just come to Los Angeles from New Haven, where I was a student at Yale. I was invited to play at Cafe Figaro, and I played a little recital on a Sunday morning. A contractor from LACO was there, and shortly after I was invited to join the group. Rules were different back then. Auditions now are a very organized kind of thing. In those days it was more of a freelance environment. I started as the second oboe, and at one point I was fired as second oboe – not by the music director, but by the first oboist – and then I was hired back as first oboe and he was fired, and we remained friends the whole time!

What have been some of the exciting changes you’ve witnessed as LACO has grown and evolved over the decades? 

When I started, under [then Music Diector] Neville Marriner, LACO was very small. Two weeks in the fall and two weeks in the spring. And then the seasons developed more and more. We played in the pit for the LA Opera. I never thought I’d play so much opera, but I did. We’ve done tours, and whether it’s to New York or in Europe, they were always exciting.

I’ve worked with five different music directors [Neville Marriner, Gerald Schwarz, Iona Brown, Christof Perick, and Jeffrey Kahane], and each have put their stamp on the orchestra. Jeffrey, of course, is the current music director, and I very much like his stamp. There’s always something very special in the atmosphere of this orchestra, and it comes from the high technical excellence of the musicians, and also a hunger in the community for an orchestra like ours. LACO is very special, and very much like an extended family.

What’s your favorite memory from playing during a state dinner at the White House in 2000?

I remember meeting President Clinton and Hillary. All the musicians had the opportunity to meet them, and it was a lot of fun. The performance was part of a two-day trip on the east coast, and the day before, my tuxedo got damaged. There was a tear in the vest. I was going to wear it on the second day anyway, but I was reminded that we were going to the White House. So I went and rented a tuxedo for the performance, and I’m glad I did, because when I met the President, he put his hand on my shoulder, right where the tear would’ve been!

Let’s talk about your retirement – we’re sad to see you go! Why retire now?

I just celebrated by 72nd birthday, so that’s one thing. Another is… well, I’ve been so obsessed with oboe for so long. It’s an extremely consuming kind of instrument – as much as any other. We oboists jokingly say we all have a ‘Type O personality.’ I’ve done so much with my oboe career, and I could keep doing it, but it seems like the right time to leave some time for other things.

Are you retiring from all aspects of your musical career? Will you continue to teach or record, for example?

I will still teach, and I want to play more piano, explore more of Bach’s works. I haven’t reflected much about the future, because I still have to focus on what I have to play now! I’m still fascinated by the instrument, and it’s my nature to practice daily. I just want to see how things evolve. A little change in my life wouldn’t be bad.

I’ve been teaching at Cal Arts for 45 years, at USC for 20, and at the Colburn School for 10, and I’ve had so many great students. I feel very fulfilled in the students I’ve had and still have. Four or five of my students went on to play for LACO! I’ve benefited in my career from lots of teachers that kept teaching as they got older, so why shouldn’t I keep doing it? I’ll teach and play better if I’m not driving all over the place!

What will you miss most about LACO?

I would say the music making, and my various colleagues, and this includes both current members and the ones that left before me. I was once the youngest member in the orchestra, and now I’m certainly one of the oldest. I’ll miss the audience, as well. We have a wonderful audience that we can really feel a connection with. In fact, I look forward to being in the audience, and hearing what they hear. You don’t hear the proper balance when you’re onstage, because some of the musicians aren’t facing you. I’d like to be in the audience and hear the first violins better!

Any advice for the new LACO principal oboe? They’ll have big shoes to fill!

I would recommend practicing a lot, as I do! But this is unneeded advice – whoever gets the position will surely be practicing a lot already.

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what’s in a cadenza?

One of the most exciting things in music is improvisation. It’s the musical equivalent of watching a tightrope walker go out to do a routine without a net. Some stylistic periods in music valued improvisation, while some valued virtuosity that was not necessarily improvised. The Classical period (approximately 1750 to the early years of the 19th century) put a premium on clean performances, concise rhythm, and clear forms, but not necessarily improvisation. Demonstrations of this skill still impressed audiences, of course. In the Classical period, one of the best places to hear a bit of improvisation was in a concerto. Most of the solo part of a concerto is meticulously written out, but there is one moment where the soloist is alone in the spotlight: the cadenza.

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The cadenza was traditionally an extended improvised section that appeared at a predetermined time at the end of a concerto’s first movement—although it could appear anywhere. If a composer was playing his own piece, as Mozart did with his piano concertos, the cadenza gave him a chance to show off his improvisational skills on top of his compositional skills. If he wasn’t the intended soloist, a composer might have also written out a cadenza to be played by someone else. In his career, Mozart often dashed off these pieces so quickly he barely wrote out his own parts at all, choosing to fill in the blanks after the premiere had passed and the deadline had ceased to loom. These days, the soloists who play Mozart’s concertos often stick closely to the written music—including cadenzas, although that’s not at all a strict rule. In the 20th century, pianist Friedrich Wührer composed cadenzas to three of Mozart’s Piano Concertos, so clearly the field of what to do at the moment of the cadenza is still wide open. LACO’s own Jeffrey Kahane has played and conducted all of Mozart’s Piano Concertos, so if you’re looking for an expert on what to do for the Classical cadenza, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone more qualified than him.

The tradition of the cadenza stretches out to the period before Mozart—the Baroque—and of course continues today. J.S. Bach wrote a scintillating cadenza for the harpsichord in his Fifth Brandenburg Concerto. Beethoven often wrote his own cadenzas to previously existing pieces, even notating his own cadenza for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 (on our program). And it should be noted that Beethoven wasn’t really interested in other soloists adding their own personal touches to his work; in his “Emperor” Concerto, Beethoven makes his own written-out cadenza a demand, not a request. There are vocal cadenzas in the 19th-century operas of Rossini and Bellini. There are two cadenzas in the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto, No. 1. Johannes Brahms, who was not a virtuoso violinist, allowed his friend Joseph Joachim—friend and dedicatee—to write the cadenza for his Violin Concerto. The cadenza provides an opportunity for a composer to write something fun and exciting outside of the structure of the main piece, but also gives the soloist a moment to shine all alone. When the composer and soloist were one and the same, like Mozart was or Beethoven (early in his career), this was advantageous. The cadenza was a way to show off not just the creative endurance to write a long-form piece like a concerto, but also to showcase your own daring, your improvisational skills, your resourcefulness, inventiveness. It was the tightrope without a net. There’s still a bit of that thrill in live performance, whether improvised or not. That’s why we still play this music in live concerts, hundreds of years after it was created: to recapture that thrill of being “in the moment.”

LACO’s upcoming concert features two concertos by Mozart, one for Clarinet and one for Piano (No. 20). As I mentioned, Jeffrey Kahane will be leading Piano Concerto No. 20 from the solo instrument, and our very own Joshua Ranz will be the soloist for Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. LACO’s latest also features the world premiere of a new work, Gernot Wolfgang’s Sinfonia Concertante for Four Winds. Wolfgang is a native Austrian like his program-mate, Mozart. This upcoming concert will be a great opportunity to hear music that is established, admired, and classic, and—with the premiere of Gernot Wolfgang’s Sinfonia— something entirely new. The performances ahead are bound to be a wonderful reminder of the excitement of live performance and the pure joy of the musical experience.

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sinfonia concertante for four winds – “The D.A.R.K. Knights”

Early in 2015 LACO offered me a commission to write a Sinfonia Concertante that would feature the long-serving LACO principal wind players David Shostac (flute), Allan Vogel (oboe), Richard Todd (horn) and Kenneth Munday (bassoon). Naturally I accepted and was thrilled about the opportunity, especially since I would be writing for fabulous soloists with whose playing and instrumental sounds I had become familiar over the years!

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After a few days of ruminating on how to approach the composition I decided to take the Sinfonia Concertante concept one step further and additionally highlight the four soloists by giving each of them a mini concerto within the piece. The composition’s full title was the result of serendipity – I’ll let you figure out what it means!

Once I started writing it quickly became clear that the piece would be in one movement, and that the Sinfonia Concertante sections would take care of establishing its main thematic material and general harmonic environment. Also, these would be the more energetic parts of the composition and they would bookmark the four mini concertos, which in turn would represent the more lyrical aspects of the piece. I liked the idea of introducing the soloists via a main theme that would be played in unison by all of them, each in a different octave.

Then, out of the blue, a “fifth element” revealed itself. I had never included a drum set in my concert pieces before, but instantly felt that this would be the right occasion to do so. As it turned out, the drums fulfill several distinct functions within the composition – to support motoric string section rhythms, to independently generate grooves behind atmospheric orchestral textures, and also to venture into the world of free jazz by complimenting some passages with improvised, and not necessarily synchronized gestures.

But back to our four soloists. In the outer, Sinfonia Concertante segments they are featured in above-mentioned thematic multi-octave unison passages, in duos (flute-oboe and horn-bassoon), as well as in brief individual solos. Acknowledging the jazz background of flutist David Shostac and hornist Richard Todd, they both have the opportunity of improvising some of their solos, if they choose to do so (written-out alternate solos are notated in the score).

In the four lyrical mini-concertos I wanted to create unique, personal sonic environments for each of the soloists. The principal source of inspiration for these was each musician’s distinct instrumental sound. Musically, the mini-concertos are related to each other through an introductory chord progression established by the strings, and through textural orchestral material already introduced during the opening Sinfonia Concertante segment.

It is always a treat for a composer to be able to write for excellent soloists whom you have heard perform many times, and whom you know on a personal level. Also, having previously worked with LACO and attended many of the orchestra’s concerts, I am familiar with the unique, refined sound of the ensemble as a whole. Now I can imagine maybe a little bit how Haydn must have felt.

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the circle of life: time is a flat circle or what goes around, comes around…

Last night’s program at Royce Hall was an interesting one for me. I heard sublime music. The listening experience was delightful. I do not know why every performance by this wonderful orchestra isn’t completely sold out. They are A MAZ ING. Los Angelenos need to get a clue…

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Faure’s Pavane ebbs and flows in a series of lovely harmonic and melodic climaxes. For me, it’s reminiscent of Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’. It brings to mind a person remembering earlier days of adventure and travel (it has a hint of the exotic in it). It also reminds me of the lyric from Billy Joel’s ‘Piano Man’, “Son, can you play me a memory, I’m not really sure how it goes, but it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete when I wore a younger man’s clothes.” It is sad and sweet. And short, an amuse-bouche, but for the ears (amuse-les oreilles?).

Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 2 follows on this theme in terms of returning to one’s past. This piece is impressive to me in its construction and was expertly executed, but I am not as moved by this style of music and so the story of this piece is more interesting to me than the piece itself. Schoenberg began work on this Symphony in 1906, put it away and brought it out again a few times and finally let it rest, unfinished in 1916. He returned to complete the work 33 years later subsequent to a request from conductor Fritz Stiedry, who asked him for an orchestral piece for his New Friends of Music Orchestra in New York. Schoenberg wrote to Stiedry, “For a month I have been working on the Second Chamber Symphony. I spend most of the time trying to find out ‘What was the author getting at here? Indeed, my style has greatly deepened meanwhile, and I find it hard to reconcile what I then rightly wrote, trusting my sense of form and not thinking too much, with my current extensive demands in respect of ‘visible’ logic. Today that is one of the major difficulties, for it also affects the material.” I don’t know if his return to this piece was sentimental, but it is interesting to observe the return to tonality in his later years. Small and unrelated bit of trivia for y’all: Arnold had triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13).

In my opinion, Ravel’s Ma Mere l’Oye was the musical high point of the evening. Ravel’s music is often described as exquisite, and this orchestral version of Mother Goose is certainly that. It‘s full of subtle details and wildly varying combinations of sounds. I am pretty sure I heard every sound that each of the instruments is capable of making in this one piece! There was screeching and plucking and tapping and delicacy and the lowest of the lows to the highest of the highs. It is unique and authentic and, I believe, reveals something of Ravel’s basic nature: playful, seeking, articulate and adventurous. Again, another reflection on the theme of remembrance, childhood and things past.

In comparison with his 7th and 9th, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93 is much lighter and good humored. It continued the night’s trend of remembrance of things past, retreating to a classical style as he did in his even-numbered symphonies. It is buoyant and witty (the first and last measures of the 1st movement are the same), the minuet contains false downbeats and his “little Symphony in F” concludes with a long and charismatic coda. Because Beethoven, right?

All of this beautiful music was brought to us through a marvelous collaboration between the orchestra and their guest conductor, Matthew Pintscher. Maestro Pintscher is a busy guy. He’s director of Ensemble Intercontemporain, is formally associated with the BBC Scottish Symphony and the Danish National Symphony and is the newly appointed principal conductor of the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra. He also teaches composition at the Juilliard School in New York. He’s really good. LACO is really good and they were really good together. The sound he draws from the orchestra is clean and precise, like a fine point pen, but it’s also full and emotionally lush. He gave them his full attention and they gave him theirs. Shades of things to come? We shall have to wait and see. As I said, he’s a very busy guy.

The only thing I missed in this performance was Maestro Kahane’s commentary. Being a musical “newbie”, I really enjoy his contextualization of the pieces. The “signposts” he provides during his comments, help me draw more from the performances and I come away feeling enriched in my understanding of the music and curious to know more. I look forward to hearing more from him when he returns next month.

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five facts about fauré

He may not get top billing at LACO’s ravel & beethoven concert this weekend – that honor, oddly enough, goes to Ravel and Beethoven – but Gabriel Fauré will still be an integral part of the program, with his Pavane, Op. 50 kicking off an evening of beautiful music. (Get your tickets here!) While Fauré (1845-1924) may not be a household name, he’s considered a highly influential French composer, and an important bridge between the music of the 19th and 20th centuries. Here are five more facts about George Fauré to whet your appetite before the concert this weekend:

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1) He Wasn’t A Child Prodigy. Fauré was born in a small village in southern France, into a family that wasn’t very musical. He loved music from a very early age, although he admits that, at the beginning, he wasn’t very talented: “I grew up, a rather quiet, well-behaved child, in an area of great beauty. But the only thing I remember really clearly is the harmonium in that little chapel. Every time I could get away I ran there…I played atrociously…but I do remember that I was happy.”

2) How Organists Cut Loose. Fauré spent decades working at churches as an organist or choirmaster, and supplementing his income by giving piano lessons. In 1871, he was working at the Église Saint-Sulpice in Paris, alongside organist Charles-Marie Widor. Fauré and Widor would occasionally have some fun during the services – they would simultaneously improvise, each playing one of the church’s two organs, and try to throw each other off by suddenly changing keys.

3) He Only Composed For A Few Months A Year. Because of the weekly demands of his church work and private students, Fauré didn’t have the time to work on his own compositions. So he composed during this summer breaks. The one opera he wrote, called “Pénélope,” took him five summers.

4) Fidelity Wasn’t a Strong Suit. Fauré was married to Marie Fremiet, and they had two sons. But the marriage was strained, and he and Marie had different interests. They grew apart over time, eventually communicating only by mail. Fauré had a succession of mistresses, including Emma Bardac (who, at the time, was married to a banker; she would later marry Claude Debussy). Fauré’s well-known Dolly Suite for two pianos was dedicated to Bardac’s young daughter, leading some to believe that Faure was actually the girl’s father.

5) A Famous Teacher and a Famous Student. Fauré studied under Camille Saint-Saëns as a teenager, and considered him to be a lifelong friend and mentor. One of Fauré’s students in the early 1890s was another man who became a famous composer: Maurice Ravel.

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ravel, the composer

There are many personal anecdotes about composers and artists with loud voices, raucous laughs, controversial opinions or hot tempers. Big personalities tend to stick in the memory. For a composer like Ravel, however, personality is overshadowed by music, which isn’t a bad thing, of course. It just means that he left the drama to his music, although he still stirred up controversy now and then (whether he meant to or not). Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye appears on LACO’s upcoming concert. He wrote it as a piano duet for children, but later orchestrated it for a chamber ensemble.

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Ravel was born in the Basque region of France, very close to the border of Spain. Ravel’s father taught him all about engineering and music, and his mother sang him folk songs that influenced his compositional style. Another great influence was the Paris Exposition that took place in 1889. Ravel was fourteen at the time, and he heard works by Rimsky-Korsakov, a member of the Russian nationalists, The Mighty Five. Claude Debussy also attended the Paris Exposition, where he heard the Javanese gamelan, an important influence in his developing style. Of course, he was a bit older than Ravel, but the two became acquaintances in the 1890s.

Ravel was accepted into the Conservatoire de Paris in late 1889. He grew very much as an artist there, but did not conform well to the conservative ways of the institution. Ravel had a unique learning style, having been mostly educated by his father (we don’t have records of formal schooling in his youth). Because he was not the kind of student favored by the Conservatoire at the time, he was encouraged to leave in 1895. He left, choosing to focus on writing music in his own way. While out of school, he met Erik Satie and found Satie’s musical philosophy very influential on his own style. In 1897, Ravel returned to the Conservatoire and met Gabriel Fauré, who would become his teacher and a great source of support. Ravel never quite fit in at the Conservatoire, but his relationship with Fauré remained strong. Ravel seemed unbothered by most people’s opinions, and was unperturbed by unfavorable reviews.

After 1900, Ravel got involved with a group of other artists. They formed a club and called themselves Les Apaches. It was what we might call an artistic collective today, with writers, composers, and visual artists all working with each other, cross-pollinating each other’s work, and offering support and encouragement. Les Apaches were very supportive of the work of Debussy, who was not a member, but represented to them an individuality of spirit that spoke to their ideals. Les Apaches formed an enthusiastic faction in the audience of Debussy’s controversial opera, Pelléas et Mélisande. Ravel reportedly attended all fourteen performances.

Ravel and Debussy began to get categorized together as Impressionist composers. The term itself was meant in a derogatory way when it was coined. Debussy did not like the descriptor, and although Ravel did not mind it, he also felt it was not a fair label for his music. Ravel was more preoccupied with forms and structures, while Debussy’s compositional style was more open and free. The friendship between the two composers, always cool, ended in the early years of the twentieth century, for a few different reasons. Their relationship was not helped by the desire of the public, who seemed to think they must choose an allegiance to one or the other.

Years earlier, Debussy had won one of composition’s most coveted prizes, the Prix de Rome. Ravel also set his sights on winning, but came up short all five times he entered the competition. The closest he came to winning was second place (on his second attempt). In his final attempt, in 1905, 30 year old Ravel entered a piece, which was eliminated in the first round. This early dismissal caused a scandal, nicknamed L’affaire Ravel. Even critics who weren’t fans of Ravel’s music thought the first round elimination was unfair, especially when the facts emerged of whose music made it through; a professor on the jury, Charles Lenepveu, taught at the Conservatoire, and the finalists for the Prize all happened to be his students. L’affaire Ravel encouraged sweeping reforms at the Conservatoire. Lenepveu and Théodore Dubois (director of the school and definitely not a fan of Ravel) retired under pressure. Dubois’ replacement? Ravel supporter and teacher Gabriel Fauré—whose Pavane also appears on LACO’s upcoming concert.

Throughout all of the controversy, Ravel kept writing. He was exacting in his work, so he did not produce a large number of pieces. But the work he did complete was beautifully and finely crafted. He was brilliant at orchestrating piano music, his own and that of others, and he was preoccupied with this in the early part of the 1900s. It was in 1910 that Ravel composed his piano piece Ma mère l’oye (“Mother Goose”), and it was a year later that he orchestrated this work.

There is, of course, more to Ravel’s story, but here’s where we’ll leave him for now. He lived for another twenty-five years after Ma mère l’oye, and composed for 20 of those years. His influences grew and his style developed, but there are still many mysteries about his personal life. Even when he became famous, he shook off the adulation, reasoning that neither praise nor bad reviews meant much. He was the picture of calm indifference. Perhaps this is a trait that many artists and composers would like to have—especially when reviews are unfavorable—but it doesn’t make for good press. Perhaps we feel a little distant emotionally from Ravel the man. Anger, passion, frustration—we can see ourselves in that. We can’t see ourselves in his ability to take criticism and praise with the same neutral expression. He saved all of his emotion for his music, and perhaps this is where we feel closest to him.

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if it’s baroque, don’t fix it

I love the Baroque Era in music and art. It’s always exquisitely rendered, with a staggering amount of complexity. It’s beautiful and satisfying and diverting. Because of its essential playfulness, I have a bit of difficulty taking it seriously, so I was very interested in what I would learn from Maestro Kahane about JS Bach’s Cantata No. 140 “Sleepers Awake,” at this past Saturday’s Discover Concert in Pasadena.

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Jeffrey Kahane first explained the Cantata was written for the last Sunday in the ecclesiastical year, which calls for giving thought to the second advent of Christ. The spoken sermon for this date would be taken from the parable of the ten virgins waiting for the arrival of “the bridegroom”. The Cantata is a celebration of the “soul’s impending union with its Saviour”. Kind of heavy stuff, right? He also broke down the structure of the piece, giving vocal and instrumental examples of recurring themes and motifs so we would have a better understanding of the import and meaning of what we were hearing when, after intermission, the entire Cantata was performed flawlessly by the Orchestra, the USC Thornton Chamber Singers, the LA Children’s Chorus and soloists Kathryn Mueller (soprano), Colin Ainsworth (tenor) and Andrew Craig Brown (bass). We were also provided with a translation into English of the German lyrics, which was great as it allowed me to connect with the story (with which I was unfamiliar).

Kahane also gave us some examples of current events that personally connected him to the sentiments of Bach’s Cantatas. They were beautifully bittersweet true tales of unconditional love and unreserved sacrifice for one’s fellow humans and they made me cry, at both the inhuman cruelty of the situations that led to the sacrifice and the power of true brotherly (sisterly) love. Even though the individuals involved made the ultimate sacrifice, their stories gave me hope that the “best” in us will prevail overall. I felt the examples were much more connected to the passion and crucifixion of Jesus, rather than the resurrection or the Second Advent, but I got the general connection he was making. I enjoyed very much receiving insight into Kahane’s intellectual and emotional process when preparing to present a piece to the public.

One of the coolest things about Bach’s creative gifts was his ability to conjure up seemingly endless, expressive melodies within the symmetry of two chorale fantasias and a four-part closing chorale, which framed two sequences of recitative and aria. Another thing I liked was how he jumped in with both feet and gave us not one, but two duets with slightly over the top romance-y, almost bedchamber entendres (“I am yours, – love will never part us. I will with you – you will with me – graze among heaven’s roses, where complete pleasure and delight will be.”) that seemed designed to make everyone fidget a bit. It very effectively brought home the human experience of a passionate readiness to accept Christ into the physical body as well as the heart and soul. It was shameless. Bach was a Cantata original gangster.

A final comment – the audience was invited to sing along with the last chorale after the performance. More audience fidgeting, but I thought it was a nice touch. All in all, an enlightening evening.

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