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Music For The Day

The spirit of New York City, in three movements

A complete performance of Concerto in F for piano by George Gershwin, performed here by Marc-André Hamelin with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin.

This is one of those more classical/less jazzy performances of the work, which I actually quite like – I went so far as purchasing the score and trying to get to grips with the piano part back in my Cambridge days, when I had regular access to a Steinway model B and D.

While the Tin Pan Alley heritage of the work is important, one can sometimes make it swing too much, I think, and many modern performances seek to emphasise the jazz aspect over the work’s classical structure and elements. Such performances overlook the fact that Gershwin wrote the concerto in part to burnish his credentials as a “serious” composer rather than a mere songwriter, going so far as to take lessons in orchestration rather than relying on Ferde Grofé to translate from a two-piano version (as he did for Rhapsody in Blue).

As Ileen Zovluck writes in describing the work:

The Concerto in F was a more ambitious project than the Rhapsody and took the composer several months to complete. The work was given a trial performance before its formal premiere in 1925 by Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Orchestra at the Aeolian Hall, with Gershwin at the piano. The critic Samuel Chotzinoff wrote “Of all those writing the music of today…he alone actually expressed us.” Like the Rhapsody, the Concerto also uses sharp contrasts but its integration through cyclic form and thematic transformation reflect Gershwin’s study of 19th century techniques. More than the earlier Rhapsody, the Concerto forms a convincing whole, the impact of which derives as much from its entire structure as from its separate parts.

The exposition of the opening Allegro of the F major Concerto is a perfect example of the perception of sonata form. The components of the second lyrical theme recall the 18th century and is made up of a series of of ideas rather than a single theme. Gershwin varies these ideas with great resource and creativity, restating them and extending them into new shapes throughout the duration of the Concerto. These consist of three motifs: a wind and percussion fanfare, a Charleston melody and a dotted arpeggiated figure. These themes are expanded almost immediately, are filled with contrast, and no portion is thematically irrelevant. The development returns to F major and the Charleston motif, which eventually becomes its own subject in a miniature Moderato cantabile. The recapitulation is introduced unambiguously with a reprise of the second theme and closes with a quodlibet that made up the first theme. As in conventional sonata form, the two main themes are now stated in the tonic in a transposition that is formed by adding the subdominant to itself.

The Adagio second movement is a song form set as a rondo in A-B-A-C-A. In the context of faint praise, in the New York Times review of the first performance, Olin Downes managed to cite the refrain theme, “a stopped trumpet playing a ‘blue’ melody against a sensuous harmonic background,” as being “perhaps the best part of the concerto.” The lush melodies of the Adagio, paired with the lilting rhythm of the strings illustrate both similarities to the Rhapsody in Blue, yet still exhibit progressive composition not seen until Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

The connection between the Adagio and the Finale, marked Allegro agitato is very strong. Within this Finale, the composer shows us a rondo form from a more rhythmic point of view. In its form of an almost-classic rondo, the orchestra opens with a furious theme in G minor. Without any indication of modulation, the piano enters on F, initiating the second statement of the rondo refrain, now its home key. Gershwin employs the highly regarded “new” American technique of a dazzling stretto with bursts of technical wizardry before returning to the rondo of the second movement. The Finale reintroduces the initial theme to form its own climax before closing on a brief coda.

My favourite studio recording of this work remains the André Previn / LSO recording featuring then-principal trumpet Howard Snell in the second movement – again, a performance that I would consider more toward the classical end of the spectrum, despite Previn’s proficiency in jazz. The LSO brass were on their usual top form throughout this excellent recording, though some of the percussion is unfortunately drowned out at times.

For a more jazz-leaning performance, the New York Philharmonic’s season-opening concert this year, with Aaron Diehl at the piano and live-streamed on Facebook, was an excellent and equally enjoyable example.

 

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Music For The Day

One of my favourite pieces today, the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1. Here we have the second movement, in a recording by Emil Gilels with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Eugen Jochum.

Against some stiff competition, this remains my favourite recording of the work (though Radu Lupu gave it a run for its money in a live performance with the LSO / Colin Davis I attended at the Barbican back in 2002).

Listen to the piano’s final entrance, from 12’02” onwards, the delicate falling notes from 12’18” and the trills from 13′ leading to the hushed re-entry of the orchestra. Magical.

 

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Music For The Day

This Remembrance Sunday, take some time to switch off from “broadcast” mode and enjoy a few moments of quiet reflection

The second movement (Andante) of Samuel Barber’s violin concerto, Op. 14, performed by Hilary Hahn with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra under Hugh Wolff.

As Michael Steinberg summarises in programme notes for the San Francisco Symphony:

The Andante begins with another inspired melody, this one given to the oboe. With touching tact, Barber lets the oboist bask in that glory, for the violin enters and occupies itself with quite different, more rhapsodic material; only at the recapitulation does the violin take the oboe theme, singing it molto espressivo low on the G-string. The coda, one of Barber’s most beautiful pages, is one of the products of the revision.

Listen to the whole piece here.

Now seems to be a particularly good time to enjoy the music of a quintessentially American composer. What were Samuel Barbers’ own personal political views? Would he be a Clintonite or a Trumpist if he were still alive and lived through the 2016 presidential election campaign? Would he believe that we are Stronger Together, or want to Make America Great Again? Would we consider Barber acceptably progressive or deeply intolerant by today’s standards?

Who cares? Today we know Barber as an American composer, not as a progressive or a conservative. Some things – like art, at its best – transcend our fierce little contemporary political debates. A point well worth keeping in mind on a day in which we recall that we are very much part of history, but blessed to be burdened with the the problems of 2016 rather than those of 1916 or 1936.

 

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The Age Of Anxiety

Now is the age of anxiety

Both professor and prophet depress,
For vision and longer view
Agree in predicting a day
Of convulsion and vast evil,
When the Cold Societies clash
Or the mosses are set in motion
To overrun the earth,
And the great brain which began
With lucid dialectics
Ends in a horrid madness.

W. H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety

 

We are just back from a refreshing weekend away in Paris, where we were able to soak in some culture and indulge in excellent food.

If you find yourself in the vicinity, I strongly recommend a trip to Yam’Tcha for lunch or dinner. In an horrific act of oppressive cultural appropriation (…), chef Adeline Grattard makes an amazing dim sum style bun filled with molten Stilton cheese and cherry, a sublime Franco-Chinois combination that works so well that you just want to stuff one into the whining mouths of every little SJW on tumblr, only of course they are far too good to waste. It is a beautiful but small space, so you will need to book well ahead to get a table. Non-celebrities like us gave it a month.

We also took in an excellent exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie, entitled “The Age Of Anxiety“, a display of American art from the depression-era 1930s. The exhibited works (featuring paintings by Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Cadmus and Grant Wood, including the first overseas loan of “American Gothic” from the Art Institute of Chicago) give an insight into how different artists of the period captured or reacted to a period of great economic turbulence, uncertainty and (for many) deprivation.

The theme of the exhibit picked up the thread of my last blog post, in which I pondered why it is that Americans were able to endure the Great Depression with its attending sufferings and indignities without coming close to electing a hyper-authoritarian strongman as president, while today’s America may potentially elect Donald Trump to the presidency on Tuesday.

As I wrote last Thursday:

Now, this blog has every sympathy for many of Donald Trump’s supporters, who feel utterly let down by an American political class which has alternately pandered to them before betraying them, ignored them or held them in open contempt. And while this blog is very much pro free trade and managed immigration, the fact that Americans have not even had a choice when it comes to these issues based on the position of the two main parties is sufficient reason alone for the rise of a populist like Trump, albeit not necessarily a candidate with Donald Trump’s gargantuan personal flaws.

So yes, things are bad, and yes, the political class has not been responsive. But America managed to survive world war and economic depression in the twentieth century without coming this close to electing a dangerous authoritarian. Whatever afflictions the struggling “left behind” class said to make up much of Trump’s support may now be experiencing is nothing compared to the suffering of, say, the Dust Bowl. To react to these present circumstances by reaching for Donald Trump when their ancestors typically bore their tribulations far more stoically is in some way a reflection of American moral decline, which is very worrying indeed.

A few Trumpian defences immediately spring to mind – the fact that the stagnation of real wages and living standards among the squeezed middle is in some cases decades long now, leading to a much greater build-up of anger than was perhaps the case prior to 1929, or the fact that the alternative to Donald Trump is such a flawed candidate. But I think the criticism remains valid, and the question a pressing one.

Regardless: given that we are but two days away from the American presidential election in what is very much shaping up to be a 21st century age of anxiety, today’s Music For The Day is the Masque (Part 2, Section B) from Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony no. 2, The Age of Anxiety, performed here by the Simon Bolivar Youth Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel, with pianist Kirill Gerstein.

This nervous, skittish piece with its odd syncopated rhythms and unpredictable air seems to perfectly encapsulate the current American political climate (and my mood).

I’ll be live-blogging the election results here on Semi-Partisan Politics on Tuesday night and through into Wednesday morning, while also hosting an election watch party and serving up some of Sam Hooper’s famous Buffalo chicken wings.

Do pour some strong coffee and join me.

 

 

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Bottom Image: New York Movie by Edward Hopper, 1939

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Music For The Day

Something suitably brooding for a cloudy, unrelentingly grey autumnal Sunday

The third and fourth movements (Passacaglia and Burlesque) from Violin Concerto no. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich, performed by Hilary Hahn with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Mariss Jansons.

Michael Steinberg gives us this analysis:

Almost anyone, seeing a piano reduction of the third movement, would suppose the fanfares at the beginning to be trumpet music. It is in fact the horns who play them, another instance of a certain muted quality. This movement, the concerto’s great center of gravity, is a passacaglia, a series of variations over a repeated bass. Like his friend Britten, but arriving at the idea independently, Shostakovich found the passacaglia with its stubborn reiterations to be a marvelous device for creating slow movements of great mass and power.

The bass here is long—seventeen measures of Andante—beginning and ending on the keynote, F.

Here is an outline of what happens:

Variation 1: Low strings play the bass, horns add stern fanfares, timpani support both lines. (In most passacaglias the composer introduces the bass by itself, but here Shostakovich in effect starts with the first variation.)

Variation 2: English horn, clarinets, and bassoons play a chorale while bassoon and tuba take the bass.

Variation 3: The bass is in low strings again and the solo violin, after its first minutes of respite in the concerto, enters with an expressive counterpoint.

Variation 4: The bass stays in the low strings, English horn and bassoon repeat what the violin played in the previous variation, and the solo violin continues its meditation.

Variation 5: A solo horn plays the bass, the violin becomes more passionate and forceful, low strings add a new counterpoint, woodwinds bring back their chorale.

Variation 6: All the horns, tuba, and pizzicato low strings play the bass, the violin adding increasingly impassioned commentary in triplets.

Variation 7: With a rich string accompaniment, the solo violin plays the passacaglia bass in fortissimo octaves.

Variation 8: The bass goes back to bassoon and tuba, the violin adding a song, molto espressivo, on its lowest string.

Variation 9: Timpani and pizzicato low strings take the bass, the violin recalls the horn fanfares of the first variation.

With timpani, cellos, and basses on a long-sustained F, the music dissolves. The violin plays wide-ranging arpeggios and, as the orchestra falls silent, begins an immense cadenza. This is the bridge to the finale.

The violin begins with the fanfares from the passacaglia. As speed and intensity build ideas from the first two movements recur as well. After scales in fifths and octaves, the orchestra comes crashing back in for the Burlesca, a torrential finale.

 

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