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Archive for the ‘Frédéric Chopin’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: LANG LANG-Tiny Desk (Home) Concert #11 (April 17, 2020).

Lang Lang is a superstar pianist whom I have never heard of.  But I agree with the blurb that it’s neat to see a fantastic pianist playing at home.  He seems relaxed and loose.  And the camera angle allows us to see his fingers (and his whole swaying body) pretty clearly.

Here’s something unique: a chance to eavesdrop on the superstar pianist Lang Lang at home.

The 37-year-old pianist, who typically plays sold-out shows to thousands, says he’s taking his recent solitary time to learn new repertoire at home in Shanghai, China. And home is where he thinks we should all be.

He opens with Chopin’s calming “Nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp minor.”  I loved watching him slowly and deliberately play that last note.  It seems like he holds his finger above it for minutes, but it fits in perfectly.

Lang Lang’s latest passion is Bach – specifically the Goldberg Variations, a 75-minute-long cycle of immense complexity grounded in the composer’s durable beauty. Lang Lang offers the “18th and 19th variations,” pieces that in turn represent the strength of logic and the joy of the dance. It’s music, Lang Lang says, that “always brings me to play in another level of artistic thinking.”

These pieces are just magical.  Even if I don;t know them well, I can tell pretty immediately that they are Bach.  Lang Lang’s fluidity is wonderful, as is the way his whole body seems to be absorbing the music as he plays.

[READ: April 11, 2020]: Carnet de Voyage

From March 5 thru May 14, 2004 Craig Thompson was on an international book tour celebrating the success of his (fantastic) book Blankets.

This journal was his visual diary (no cameras were used, only his memory) of his trip.  His editors thought it would be interesting for him to document his trip (and it is).

He flies into Paris then a 2 hour plane trip to Lyon.  He draws pictures of where he has been and the people he has met (and some of their fascinating stories).  There’s some wonderful sketches of rooftops from hotel windows.

He does interviews for radio and magazines. He laughs that one of the photos shoots was in the streets of Paris, where he is all dressed up.  But really he’s a county bumpkin from Wisconsin. The drawing of himself as a glamorous guy and his bumpkin alter ego together is pretty hilarious.

On March 15 he left for Marrakesh, Morocco and this exotic location rally sets the stage for most of his artwork and what is sort of the only “plot” in the book.

He had also just broken up with his girlfriend which weighs on his mind quite a lot on the tour. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: KIRILL GERSTEIN-Tiny Desk Concert #958 (March 11, 2020).

I can’t really keep track of classical pianists. There are so many who are truly amazing.  But I love hearing them.  I also like it when they have a good sense of humor, which most of them seem to have.

The last time pianist Kirill Gerstein was at NPR we gave him a full-size, grand piano to play in a big recording studio. But for this Tiny Desk performance, we scaled him down to our trusty upright. “What will you ask me to play the next time,” he quipped, “a toy piano?”

Even if we had handed him a pint-sized instrument, I’m sure Gerstein could make it sing. Just listen to how Chopin’s lyrical melodies, built from rippling notes and flamboyant runs, flow like a song without words in Gerstein’s agile hands.

What sets Gerstein apart?  Perhaps its his connection to jazz.

The 40-year-old pianist, born in Voronezh, Russia, taught himself to play jazz by listening to his parents’ record collection. A chance meeting with vibraphonist Gary Burton landed him a scholarship to study jazz at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. At age 14, Gerstein was the youngest to enroll at the institution.

He opens the set with Chopin: “Waltz in A-flat, Op. 42.”  It is fast and amazing with some slow, jaunty parts.  Near the end, wow, doe he pound out those bass chords.

Before the second piece he says that it hasn’t been heard on a recording yet–it’s a newly written piece by Thomas Adès.  Two lovers want to hide in the closet and … sleep with each other.  They emerge dead in the morning, so its lascivious and morbid and a very beautiful piece.

The Berceuse for solo piano was written for Gerstein by Thomas Adès, adapted from his 2016 opera The Exterminating Angel. The work, both brooding and beautiful, receives its premiere recording at the Tiny Desk.

It is slow and beautiful, full of sadness and longing.  Until the end when the bass comes pounding and rumbling, full of ominous threat and dread.  And listen to how long he lets those last bass notes ring out!

Up next is a piece by Liszt who I am particularity fond of (even if I only know a few of his pieces).  Gerstein says that Liszt is perhaps the greatest composer that ever touched the instrument.  There are several hundred not famous pieces.  This is a late piece called “A quick Hungarian march.”  Technically it’s called “Ungarischer Geschwindsmarsch”

Gerstein follows by dusting off a truly neglected – and quirky – Hungarian March by Franz Liszt. To my knowledge it’s been recorded only once.

It is jaunty and spirited until the middle where it goes back and forth between fast runs and bouncy melodies.

Since I hadn’t read about his jazz background the first time I listened to this concert I was really surprised when he said he’d be playing the Gershwin-Earl Wild standard “Embraceable You” which he says is for dessert at this lunchtime concert.

Gerstein’s jazz background is still close to his heart. Which brings us to his lovely-rendered closer: Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” arranged by the American pianist Earl Wild.

Like all master performers, Gerstein gives you the illusion that he’s making it all up as he goes along, even though the virtuosic transcription is intricately mapped out. And somehow, he makes that upright piano sound nine feet long.

It really does sound like he is working on the fly–playing beautiful runs. It’s hard to imagine transcribing and learning all of those notes instead of just improvising them, but that’s what make a great pianist, I guess.

[READ: November 2019] The Abyss

I saw this book at work and thought, a turn of the 20th century Russian author writing about the Abyss?  What’s not to like?

I had not heard of Leonid Andreyev, perhaps because much of his work has not been translated into English.  He died in 1919 and is considered “the leading exponent of the Silver Age of Russian literature.”

This book was translated by Hugh Aplin and it is remarkable how contemporary these stories sound (aside from obviously nineteenth and twentieth century details).

Bargamot and Garaska (1898)
Bargamot was a policeman–a big, thick-headed policeman.  His superiors called him numskull.  But the people on the streets he looked after were quite fond of him because he knew the area and what he knew he knew very well.  This story is set on Easter Saturday night.  People would soon be going to church.  But he was on duty until three o’ clock and he wouldn’t be able to eat until then. The day was going smoothly and he would soon be home until he saw Garaksa, clearly drunk, heading his way: “Where he had managed to get sozzled before daylight constituted his secret, but that he had got sozzled was beyond all doubt.”  Bargamot threatened to send Garaska to the station, but Garaska talked to him about the festivities of the day and was about to present to him an egg (a Russian custom).  But Bargamot’s rough handling smashed the egg.  This story turns surprisingly tender and sad, with a rather touching final line.

A Grand Slam (1899)
This has nothing to do with baseball.  It is about a card game called Vint, which is similar to bridge.  For six years these four people have been playing it: fat hot-tempered Maslennikov (whose name is Nikolai Dmitriyevich, we find out about five pages in) paired with old man Yakov Ivanovich and Yevpraksia Vasilyevna paired with her gloomy brother Prokopy Vailyevich.  Dmitriyevich desperately wanted a grand slam but he had been paired with Yakov Ivanovich who never took risks. Ivanovich was very conservative and never bet more than four–even when he ran an entire trick, he never bet more than four–you never know what might happen. They speak of news and local happenings (like the Dreyfus Affair), but Dmitriyevich stays focused on the game because his cards are lining up for a Grand Slam.  As he goes for that last card, he falls out of his chair, presumably dead.

Silence (1900)
This story is divided into sections.  Fr. Ignaty and his wife need to speak with their daughter Vera. They have a fight and Fr. Ignaty refuses to speak to her any more.  Soon enough she goes out and throws herself under a train [I would hate to be a train conductor in Russia].  In Part II silence has fallen over the house.  In Part III he tries to talk to his wife about his feelings and his sadness over their daughter, but she remains silent.  In the final part, Fr Ignaty finally breaks down.  But is it the silence that has gotten to him?

Once Upon a Time There Lived (1901)
Laventy Petrovich was a large man. He went to Moscow for someone in the city to look at his unusual illness.  He was a silent and morose man and he specifically asked for no visitors.  The hospital assigned Fr. Deacon to him.  Fr. Deacon was another patient, unfailingly positive.  He and Petrovich were at opposite sides of the spectrum.  But even as it became clear that Fr. Deacon was deathly ill, he remained positive.  Until Petrovich told him that the doctors said that Fr. Deacon has a week to live.  There was also a young student who was daily visited by the girl he loved.  They liked Fr deacon and did not like Petrovich. I’m not sure if the ending is a surprise, but it is certainly sudden with happiness doled out in very specific ways.

A Robbery in the Offing (1902)
That night there was to be a robbery and maybe a murder.  A man, alone with his thought is scared by nearly everything–he is very jumpy because he is the one about to do the robbery.  The man was frightened by a noise until he saw it was a little puppy.  The puppy was shivering and the man tried to frighten him to get him to go home. But the puppy seemed too ignore him.  So began the battle of wits between a big strong man and a tiny freezing puppy.  Imagine a man with a robbery in the offing worrying about a little puppy.

The Abyss (1902)
Two young lovers went for a walk.  Zinochka was 17 and very much in love.  Nemovetsky was 21 and similarly in love.  They wandered into an area they didn’t recognize and happened upon three men.  The men punched Nemovetsky and knocked him out then they chased Zinochka . When he came to, he found her body, naked but still alive.  This was a hard story to read.

Ben Tobit (1903)
This was one of the first stories in the book that I really really liked.  It is set on the day of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion.  On that day, Jerusalem merchant Ben Tobit had a terrible toothache.  Ben was a kind man and did not like injustice, but it was hard to be kind with this much pain.  His wife tried to help by giving him various medicines (like purified rat droppings). She then tried to distract him when the thieves came trudging past on their way to the crucifixion site.  It distracted him somewhat but mostly didn’t interest him.  She said, “They say he healed the blind.”  He replied, “If only he’d cure this toothache of mine!.”  The next day he felt better and they walked to the site to see what they missed.

Phantoms (1904)
Yegor Timofeyevich had gone mad so his relatives collected money to send him to a clinic.  He knew he was in a madhouse but also knew that he could make himself incorporeal and walk wherever he wanted.  He was exceedingly happy. There was a patient who would continually knock on any locked door.  He would walk through all the unlocked doors but when he got to a locked one he would knock and knock and knock.

There was a doctor’s assistant the hospital named Maria Astafeevna, whom Yegor was certain liked him.  He thought very highly of her.  But another man Petrov could say nothing nice about her.  He felt that she was like all women: debauched deceitful and mocking. This attitude upset Yegor tremendously.  Maria was actually in love with Dr Shevyrov. But she hated that he went to Babylon–where he drank three bottles of champagne each night until 5 AM.  She imagined that one day she would ask to be his wife bit only if he stopped going there.

The man Petrov was also terrified of his mother, believing that she had bribed officials to lock him up. He would become hysterical when she would visit.  It was only Yegor’s assurances to her that her son was a decent man that made her feel okay.

Most days things went on exactly the same, the same faces, the same conversation and the same knocking.

The Thief (1904)
Fyodor Yurasov was a thrice-convicted thief.  While on the train, even though he had plenty of money, he stole a gentleman;s purse.  As he tried to blend in, he imagined everyone thought he was an honest, young German (he came up with the name Heinrich Walter).  But when he tried to be civil, everyone ignored him.  Some were downright rude to him.  Later when he hears that the gendarme are looking for someone, he assumed it is he.

Lazarus (1906)
This story looks at what Lazarus’ life was like after he came back–appearing a few days dead and with a shorter temper.  People understood and forgave him, but still.  Soon, however, people began to avoid him and claimed that all of the madmen in the village were people whom Lazarus had looked upon.   It’s such an interesting (if exceeding dark) tale that no one bothered to investigate before.

A Son of Man (1909)
As Fr. Ivan Bogoyavlensky grew older he grew more disatisfied with his role in life.  He wanted to remove his surname and replace it with a five-digit number (The church elders assumed he’d gone mad).  He then bought a gramophone and listened only to stories of Jewish and Armenian life.  His wife hated it and it drove their puppy mad (?!).  Indeed he kept trying to get the puppies to listen to the gramophone and they consistently went crazy and eventually died.  The church sent a deacon to help Fr Ivan through this but he the deacon and Fr Ivan butted heads immediately.  Fr Ivan began mocked everything about their religion.

Incaution (1910)
A priest arrived at a railway station and saw a steam engine for the first time. There was no one around, so he climbed aboard.  It wouldn’t be dangerous to flick some switches and pull some levers.  Would it?

Peace (1911)
A dignitary was dying and an devil–an ordinary devil–came to his bedside offering him eternal life in hell.  The man didn’t want to suffer but the devil said that suffering was terrible until you got used to it and then it was nothing.  The devil makes a stronger and stronger case if only the man would take this pen and sign.

Ipatov (1911)
Nikolai Ipatov was a rich merchant who went bankrupt. Soon he became silent and despondent.  The local priest chastised him saying that the house of god was a house of joy.  He refused to let the merchant back in until he grew happy again.  Which he didn’t.  Eventually his children took over the situation and and put his house up for sale.  But when someone came to look at the house, they heard Ipatov’s moaning and grew existential realizing that a man without guilt could still be afflicted this way.

The Return (1913)
The narrator had been in a cell n St Peterburg for three years because of a political incident.  His wife, who was supposed to be waiting for him in a hotel room had stepped out with another man.  He hired a cab to follow them.  They kept driving around and around, some streets seeming to stretch on endlessly.  Then the cab driver told him that they had been at the same intersection many times.  He finally arrived at the gate and when he banged on it, who should open the gate but his prison guard.

The Flight (1914)
Yury Mikhailovich was an experienced pilot.  Twenty eight flights and no troubles.   He always felt, “If I crash, I crash, nothing to be done about it.”  Despite everything he had on earth, he longed to be up ion the sky…possibly forever.  It’s incredible that Andreyev wrote a story like this in 1914!

 

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SOUNDTRACK: DANIIL TRIONOV-Tiny Desk Concert #691 (January 12, 2018).

It has been quite a while since there had been a classical pianist on Tiny Desk.  And man, what a return.  Trionov is just stunning and he makes some of the more complex piano pieces in musical history seem easy.

NPR’s Tom Huizenga has written a splendid blurb which I’m putting here because he covers far more than I could:

When we invited Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov to play a Tiny Desk concert, we rolled out the big guns. In place of the trusty upright, we wedged a 7-foot grand piano behind Bob Boilen’s desk in preparation for the artist who The Times of London called “without question the most astounding pianist of our age.”

That’s a pretty lofty claim, but watch and judge for yourself. His performance here is extraordinary. Still in his 20s, Trifonov seems to have it all: jaw-dropping technique and interpretive skills beyond his age. He’s also a composer — the night before his NPR visit, he played his own knuckle-twisting piano concerto at the Kennedy Center here in Washington, D.C.

But for his Tiny Desk show, Trifonov focused on Chopin, beginning with the mercurial “Fantaisie-Impromptu” in C-sharp minor, a work that mixes sweeping melody, turbulent passion and wistful repose. Hunching close over the keyboard with feline agility, Trifonov’s slender fingers glide effortlessly. He coaxes the instrument to sing tenderly in the slow central section.

Trifonov follows with a pair of short tributes to Chopin by his peers. Robert Schumann’s “Chopin” accentuates the lyrical side of Chopin, filtered through the German composer’s forward-looking harmonies, while Edvard Grieg’s “Hommage à Chopin” offers volatility, lovingly rendered.

The smartly programmed set is capped with more Chopin, but with a nod to Mozart: the finale from a set of variations based on an aria from Don Giovanni. It gives Trifonov a chance to display his lightness of touch, plus a few pianistic fireworks. Smiling, he treats the tricky filigreed runs and hand crossings as if it were a child’s game. Look closely and you can see the piano shake.

So Trifonov plays four pieces.  The middle two are quite short.

Chopin: “Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 66”  This is one of my favorite pieces.  The fast part is jaw-dropping and the slow part is achingly beautiful.  His fingers flow over the keys like he was simply petting a cat.

Schumann: “Chopin. Agitato” (from Carnaval)  Trifonov says Schumann wrote a tribute to Chopin called “Chopin,” which was a portrait of the man.   This is a quiet, delicate piece and it is so much fun to watch his hands float seemingly weightless above the keys.

Grieg: “Hommage à Chopin, Op. 73, No. 5”  This tribute focuses on the more stormy and turbulent aspects of Chopin’s faster work.  It slowly builds in intensity with very fast finger work.

Chopin: “Variations on Là ci darem la mano‘ (from Mozart’s Don Giovanni) – Coda. Alla Polacca”  Chopin wrote a variation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.  This is the finale. There are some amazingly intense runs up and down the keys in this piece as well. And again a lot more bouncing around with his left hand to high notes.

This was a tremendous Tiny Desk Concert.

[READ: December 13, 2017] Crafty Cat and the Great Butterfly Battle

I really enjoyed this third Crafty Cat book.  Anya continues to be an unreasonable character (and I want someone to stand up to her!), but her awfulness allows for some good humor and good setups in this book.

The book opens with Crafty Cat saving an ant after dusting it with glitter (the ant now feels pretty special).  But then it’s soon time for Birdie to get to school.  She tells us that they are picking roles for the class play about butterflies.  Everyone is supposed to pick a bug they want to be:  “Be creative in your choices, we don’t need ten ladybugs.”  Birdie confesses that she is going to be the butterfly she has even crafted a small model of the wings that she can make.

Then Evan shows up.  He rescues a glittery ant from the sidewalk (that was amusing)  and then reveals that he is going to be an ant for the play.  When Birdie says she’s going to be the butterfly, Evan has reservations.  When they enter the school we see 10 students all wanting to be the butterfly–especially Anya.  And image HER surprise when other kids want to be the butterfly–which is her role, after all. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: SHIRIM KLEZMER ORCHESTRA-Klezmer Nutcracker (1998).

I love this klezmer version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.

The first 7 songs of the disc are the popular, quickly recognizable melodies from the ballet.  But each song has been klezemerfied–which means minor keys and clarinets and spirited dances that are really peppy.

So even though the musicianship is top-notch, there’s plenty of humor here.  As this review puts it

It combines the zany wit of a Spike Jones with the class and craft of a Duke Ellington and recasts the Nutcracker as a Hannukah classic with images of a dancing Latkes Queen and marching Macabees.

The humor even extends to the titles:

A Klezmer Nutracker

  • Kozatsky ’till You Dropsky
  • Dance of the Latkes Queens
  • March of the Macabees
  • Araber Tants
  • Dance of the Dreydls
  • Waltz of the Rugalah

The rest of the disc is made up of Other Klezmer Classics.  Despite the abundance of Satie, these songs don’t quite do it for me.  They are fine, but Gustav’s Wedding and Romanian Rhapsody are a bit too long.  Although Hungarian Goulash is wonderful

Perhaps I just prefer the songs with which I’m familiar.  Having said that, the second half is full of very good klezmer, so don’t dismiss it outright.

  • Gustav’s Wedding 4:25
  • Romanian Rhapsody by G. Enesco 4:40 (see, these two are too long)
  • Gnossienne 1 by E. Satie
  • Gnossienne 2 by E. Satie
  • Gnossienne 3 by E. Satie
  • Hungarian Goulash (based on Brahms)
  • Nekhome–Solace (after “Prelude 4,” Chopin)
  • Turk in American
  • Russian Bulgar
  • Gymnopedie 3 by E. Satie

[READ: July 9, 2017] 100 Girls

I really enjoyed this book (first in a series apparently), and was about to say it’s really good for an Orphan Black-type premise, and then I saw that it came out in 2005–many many years before Orphan Black. So, three cheers for the originality then.

The book begins with Sylvia waking up from a nightmare.  Right off the bat the drawing style is notable–Todd Demong’s style is really interesting–angular and exaggerated but not “cartoony,” the proportions and angles make the story more hyper-real than cartoony, which is pretty great.

When she wakes up, she hears her parents talking about her…how she has changed and become more difficult.  Her dad blames it on her being a teenager, but her mom thinks its something more.  As she walks to school with her friends, we see that a car is doing surveillance on her. (more…)

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