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.

↑ less ↑

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.

↑ less ↑

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.

↑ less ↑

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!

↑ less ↑

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.

↑ less ↑

make a fashion statement with LACO

On September 16, 154 Days ago and Day 1 of the #LACO205 challenge, LACO staff and musicians all received a #LACO205 t-shirt.

read more →This t-shirt represents the Orchestra’s goal to generate a donation a day for the 205 days of our concert season. Its design encapsulates everything about LACO’s largest social media fundraising campaign: optimism, passion and guts.

Personally, #LACO205 deserves more than what this t-shirt offers. Our Orchestra helps make great music possible for thousands in the greater Los Angeles community. The large, bright neon lettering asking supporters to “bring great music to life” is not enough. I need a bolder fashion statement for a cause which one Friend of LACO claims, “brings life to life!” So, I decided to take matters into my own hands and reference a very handy DIY site.

Visit our Facebook page to see pictures of the complete process as well as my final “look.”

Now, it’s up to you. Take the opportunity to help bring great music to life and look good while doing it! Make a $25 online donation this April and receive a #LACO205 t-shirt. Be sure to show off your “new look” at the upcoming Orchestral series concert on April 26 & 27.

↑ less ↑

sound investment with Hannah Lash

In LACO’s latest Sound Investment Salon on February 20, composer Hannah Lash shared insights about her approach to composing and her world premiere composition, This Ease.

read more →

On her approach to composing:

  • If I were asked to write a piece for an event that involves four people then that might have something to do with how I approach the piece. But if it is something a little bit less specific, then if I really could tailor my piece to the hall or to the size of the audience then I could really limit the playability of the piece after the premiere. So I try to let it sit somewhere in a comfortable place where it can be done in various different contexts.
  • I guess the thing that probably influences the way that I approach a piece more than whether it’s a commission or not is if I’m writing for, say a soloist that I know very well as a person. That will probably have a greater impact on how I approach that process creatively than anything. And you know, it’s a sort of a blessing and a bane to be able to write for your very close friends. Then you have a potential judgment (fall out). You don’t want that to happen.
  • One of the parts of my job in the very beginning is to try and figure out how the material moves and what it needs to do. And for me, normally what happens when I play with an idea usually I’ll do that idea for quite some time before I commit to too much of the piece. Usually when I play with it for a while, what I’ll get is the first say four or eight bars of the piece that I feel really good about and from there I pretty much know how it will move. Of course there will always be those surprises because it’s hard to kind of preempt anything that might happen later on, and sometimes you know something will pop up that is a result of the potential that you might not have seen in the very beginning. So there might be something that feels like a gift that the material gave you that you had no idea was coming along.
  • Despite the fact that I may have a pretty clear idea of the general architecture, some characters may emerge in ways that I never imagined. You start with an original idea and you know something may crop up later because you begin your interaction with other parts, and you realize suddenly a window opened up, and a whole bunch of lights spilled in. Then you want to highlight those things that are highlighted by the light somehow. And bring them to the foreground much more than you imagined in the beginning.
  • I have to write the full score because the way the piece and the material work for me is so integrated in who plays the material that it would be very weird for me personally to conceive of an extract type of material than to score it. I just find that the surface of the piece is so connected to the background structure that I need to keep that sense of fluidity and connection throughout.

On her world premiere This Ease

  • I certainly had a very strong feeling about This Ease. And I would say in all of my work, I have a very strong emotional feeling about it. I don’t necessarily want to label the emotion that I feel, it’s not necessarily sadness or lost or happiness or tension or any specific emotion. But I do find myself feeling deeply stirred by the material that I’m using. The fact that I have carefully decided to build something allows me to feel much more about it then if I were just sort of to make a “left to right” suite.
  • The beginning starts out much more sparsely. The strings, the glockenspiel, the vibraphone, and then the harp begins to participate more. And then gradually the winds start to come in. So, there is sort of a variation of texture. In the beginning, as I say, it’s much sparser. And it doesn’t return quite to that amount of sparse until the end. So different instruments wind in and out.
  • For This Ease, the idea was to set up a very fluid not so “beaty” feel and part of that I did by making that eight note grid in the glockenspiel in the beginning, which in some ways gives actually a much more disorienting feel than orienting because we just hear these little raindrops just going along.
  • I have never really spent much time in LA before. And my wonderful hosts Allen and Anna have been helping me discover certain parts of LA and I have had a wonderful time driving around throughout the day and see various beautiful parts of it. So I am not intimately familiar with the feel of LA. But one thing that I felt very much about it was this kind of beautiful color a lot of beautiful color and in some ways kind of a “mutedness” to that color while has a certain bright quality. So the sound atmosphere that I started with, and it really retains itself throughout This Ease by reflecting that impression that I have.

↑ less ↑

fiddlefest: history in the making

When I hear the word ‘fiddlefest,’ my mind paints a very specific picture: bales of hay, people wearing overalls and biting pieces of straw, lots of “yee-haws” filing the air, and a crowd of folks dancing and having a great time. But thanks to LACO’s astounding Stradivarius FiddleFest concert, that image will forever be replaced with the memories from last Friday night. I’ve enjoyed my share ofLACO concerts over the years, but I’ve never left a venue feeling so in awe, so invigorated, and so giddy.

read more →The set-up was simple: 5 violinists. 5 violins. Occasional accompaniment on piano or bass. But they weren’t just any violinists, and they weren’t just any violins.

The musicians were all world-class, exceptional violinists, and all of them were playing Stradivarius violins. Each and every one of them.

I didn’t know much about Stradivarius before I arrived at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. I knew the name, and that it’s synonymous with the best violins ever made. I remembered how a Stradivarius figured into a tense scene in “The Prince of Tides,” and can clearly recall Homer finding a Stradivarius at a yard sale in a classic episode of “The Simpsons” (“Stradi-who-vius?” he exclaimed, before tossing it aside).

There was plenty of time for me to read the program before the concert began, and I’m glad I did, because LACOincluded bios of not only the musicians, but the violins themselves, and I gained a new appreciation for the history on that stage. And man oh man, there was a TON of history on that stage. There was history oozing from every corner, during every moment. The violins were all around 300 years old. They predate the original settlement that would eventually turn into Los Angeles by 50-60 years! There were violins that had “disappeared” for centuries before surfacing again. Violins that had been played by the violin masters of generations past. Violins that had traveled the world, again and again, decade after decade after decade.

And to compound the amount of history on hand, let me mention this: During the FiddleFest, these violins were the instruments that brought the music of 12 composers to life. Composers from all corners of the western world, some dating back 300 years to the time when these violins were crafted, to one that’s still alive today.

Every minute of every piece was a celebration of orchestral music’s illustrious and glorious past, and the five immensely talented violinists (Margaret Batjer, Chee-Yun, Cho-Liang Lin, Philippe Quint, and Xiang Yu) proceeded, again and again, to make it startlingly vibrant and alive. The stand-out pieces for me were the two Piazzola tangos (each of which featured 4 violins and Nico Abondolo on bass), which swelled and surged with passion, pride and overlapping rhythms. Chee-Yun captivated with her performance of Saint-Saens’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso (accompanied by Jeffrey Kahane on piano), which built to a jaw-droppingly vigorous and exhilarating finale.

Most of the concert featured some, but not all, of the violins. Philippe Quint performed a soulful solo of music adapted from John Corigliano’s score from the movie The Red Violin. It appeared that Xiang Yu performed much of Franck’s Sonata in A major with his eyes closed, and Margaret Batjer was one of a few musicians who performed an entire piece (in her case, Brahms’ Scherzo in C minor) from memory, without a music stand. It was one impressive, superb performance after another!

It wasn’t until the finale of the concert that we got to hear all the violins at once. The piece was Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, and it certainly provided a bang to end the evening with. Each violinist had a section to themselves, accompanied by Kahane, and then they all joined in together for the final rousing, animated movement. The crowd jumped to their feet in a boisterous standing ovation. It was a concert 300 years in the making, and one that I won’t ever forget.

↑ less ↑

what do you get a 329-year-old music icon?

This weekend LACO celebrated Bach’s birthday and in a major social faux-pas, I plumb forgot to bring a present.Whoops! Johann Sebastian Bach was born this month in 1685, and I’m not exactly sure what you get for a man firmly rooted in his fourth century of being a major player in the international music scene. Perhaps something that he wasn’t able to enjoy during his lifetime? After all, Bach died in 1750, before many commonplace things we use daily even existed, including the first published dictionary (1755), carbonated beverages (1767), the flush toilet (1775), and the hot air balloon (1783). Hell, Bach never got to see the horrors of the guillotine (1789) – but that’d make for a pretty lousy birthday present.

read more →It turns out a present wasn’t necessary. In fact, I was actually the recipient of a present from the talented musicians of LACO: the gift of music, lovingly given to me and the hundreds of others gathered at the Alex Theatre on Saturday night. And how did I respond to this beautiful and gracious gift? By promptly falling asleep. I’m making light of it now, but I really am embarrassed, primarily because I’m given this space on the blog to write about my LACOconcert-going experiences, and I literally slept through the entire first two pieces. I considering faking my way through this post, but honesty in the best policy. So here’s the truth: The concert came at the end of a long day that began at the gym and included a drive from the valley to Orange County and back again. I love LACO concerts, but I was pooped. And whatdoyouknow? A dark room and beautiful music can be a winning combo to induce a spontaneous nap.

I’m bummed I missed out on the Mendelssohn, and especially the West Coast premiere of Prince of Clouds(because I love hearing new music), but I was fully awake when the man of the hour, Bach himself, was honored with a performance of his Concerto in D minor for Two Violins. This performance featured two guest musicians, Jaime Laredo and Jennifer Koh, playing the featured violin parts, and while the rest of the evening was conducted by James Feddeck, making his Los Angeles debut, this concerto was led by Koh and Laredo. I loved the way the piece wove those two violin parts in and around the rest of the orchestra, including the other violins on stage. Ms. Koh was especially enjoyable to watch, as her performance style was incredibly physical. She lurched and swooped and twisted and leaned, all while never missing a note on her violin – and, might I add, all this while wearing a strapless gown! Her playing was magnificent (as was Mr. Laredo’s), and probably even proved some laws of physics, too, but you’d have to ask a scientist about that!

After intermission, the orchestra played Schubert’s 3rd Symphony. This was my favorite piece of the evening (of the pieces I was awake to hear) – in particular, the first and fourth movements. I’m not sure how I could best explain it, but they both sounded, by design, like they were continually on the cusp of completely falling apart. There was so much movement, such complex layering of sounds and melodies, and so many notes to play… and yet the LACO musicians pulled it off with ease. Their precision, under Mr. Feddeck’s leadership, was impeccable.

Next year, Bach will be turning the big 3-3-0. PerhapsLACO will pick another of Bach piece and honor his birthday during their March 2015 concert. If so, I’ll be there. And I’ve give myself a special gift before the concert begins: the gift of caffeine!

↑ less ↑

the comeback kid

So it’s JS Bach’s birthday again. LACO will be celebrating with the composer’s music, of course. This time it’s the exquisite Concerto in D minor for Two Violins. In addition to being a fine example of the Baroque concerto, the work will also showcase the talents of Jaime Laredo and Jennifer Koh.

read more →It might seem a little funny to continue celebrating a birthday so long after someone has died (Bach’s final year was 1750), but I think it’s truly worth noting the day when a particular talent entered the world (March 31st). Bach would be 329 years old this year, and it’s an amazing wonder that we celebrate him at all. He died mostly unknown, a dinosaur whose ornate musical style was quickly falling out of favor and giving way to the clarity and symmetry of the Classical period. It is largely through the efforts of Felix Mendelssohn—whose overture “The Fair Melusina” also appears on LACO’s next program—and a few others, that Bach’s music became known to a wider public.

In 1829 Mendelssohn gave a concert in which Bach’s masterpiece the St. Matthew Passion was performed. Mendelssohn was just 20 years old at the time, and this concert not only bolstered his own reputation, but brought Bach’s music to a new audience. It’s a wonderful story of a lost masterpiece coming to life, and of a forgotten artist making a posthumous comeback. For most people in the audience, Bach must have seemed like a miraculous talent who came from nowhere. But that isn’t the whole story.

Manuscripts of some of Bach’s works were entrusted to his children after his death. Bach had fathered twenty children in total, ten of whom reached adulthood. His son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, was a successful composer in the first generation of the Classical period. Mozart even called him “The Father of Classicism.” With CPE Bach traveling around, memories and manuscripts of “Old Bach” (as he was known by some) must have traveled with him. Composers in the know circulated JS Bach’s manuscripts among them, valuing those works as pedagogical tools. Baron Gottfried van Swieten, a patron and musician, came into possession of some of Bach’s manuscripts, which he brought to Vienna in the 1780s. He would invite musicians to his home and they’d play through Old Bach’s works. Mozart was known to have attended some of these gatherings. In England, composer and publisher Muzio Clementi dedicated himself to practicing Bach’s harpsichord pieces. So Bach was never entirely gone, he was just that amazing composer that only the chosen few had ever heard of. These connoisseurs knew Bach “before he was cool,” as they say.

And although it would be wonderful to give all the credit for the Bach revival to Mendelssohn, he couldn’t have done it alone. Right at the turn of the nineteenth century, German musicologist Johann Nikolaus Forkel wrote a biography about the then mostly-unknown JS Bach. Forkel dedicated the book to van Swieten. Meanwhile, German composer and conductor Carl Friedrich Zelter was quietly amassing a sizeable collection of Bach’s works. More than a dozen years earlier than Mendelssohn’s triumphant concert, Zelter was thinking about putting Bach’s massive B Minor Mass on a public concert. He decided against it for some reason. Zelter was one of Mendelssohn’s teachers, and it was at his behest that the young composer and prodigy learn the music of Old Bach.

When Mendelssohn undertook the task of reviving the St. Matthew Passion, it was Zelter’s copy he used as reference. Mendelssohn arranged the piece and rehearsed it with quite large forces over two years. The Berlin Singakademie premiere took place on March 11, 1829. Following its grand success, more works of Bach were performed. Publishers began to put out Bach’s works, and his reputation as a genius—and the quintessential composer of late Baroque instrumental works—was set. In 1850, 100 years after Bach’s death, musicologists began collecting works for the Bachgesellschaft, a monumental, multi-volume edition of all of Bach’s surviving works.

The idea of using Bach’s works as pedagogical tools is one that survives until today. Every school year, every semester or quarter, students in music theory classes analyze Bach’s keyboard works to discover their harmonic language. Teachers assign counterpoint lessons based on the rules that are evident in Bach’s compositional style. Now, these lessons are often quite difficult, and prove to be a challenge for even the most enthusiastic students. I often field questions from my own students who ask, “Why do we have to learn this antiquated style?” Or “How does knowing Bach’s music help me write my own music?”

To these students I explain that Bach’s music achieves a very particular kind of perfection. Sure, our modern ears don’t hear music the same way Bach did, and there’s no reason that a young songwriter has to write fugues into his or her tunes. But that isn’t the point of studying Bach, or studying counterpoint, for that matter. The point is to give students a model to work within, to impose strict limits on composition, because, let’s face it, composers are faced with a wealth of choices whose stunning variety might seem paralyzing. Bach not only worked within these limits, but created art in a set of rules that today seem arcane and even mathematical. I think educators are still thinking about how beneficial it was for Mozart and Mendelssohn to learn from Bach. Why should our students get anything less? To be honest, I don’t think we’ve come up with anything better.

I was once one of those students laboring to figure out how to write a fugue that sounded like actual music rather than some school assignment. I didn’t want to be a composer, but I learned from Bach, just as Mendelssohn and Mozart did, just as students have been doing for the last century and a half. Although I’m sure there’s a theory student right now lamenting the rediscovery of Bach, I for one feel grateful for Mendelssohn, Zelter, van Swieten, and of course Bach’s children, for keeping the legacy alive and giving us something amazing to celebrate every March. Happy birthday to the master.

↑ less ↑