Tag Archives: classical

Listening to Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa (1940 – 1993) was one of these rare geniuses that are simply impossible to classify. Composer, singer, multi-instrumentalist, lyricist, producer, as well as filmmaker and actor, he switched with ease from one genre or style to another, blending various disparate influences into a highly original musical idiom.

An accomplished guitarist, Zappa also left a rich legacy of dazzling guitar work, such as his electrifying solo in Willie the Pimp from his early masterpiece Hot Rats (1969).

His virtuosity aside, it is evident that Zappa’s unique, and constantly evolving, musical language was only one part of his multifaceted artistic expression and creative vision. His often provocative stage presence, caustic -and at times censored- lyrics, as well as controversial role as a public figure were equally important aspects of his artistic persona.

Bust of Frank Zappa in Vilnius

There are, thus, various ways of listening to Frank Zappa. First, through his innovative and unconventional music. Then, through his sharp, sarcastic, and often infuriating lyrics. Last but not least, through his public commentary and interventions.

The latter is the focus of the recent documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words. Featuring numerous excerpts from interviews and TV appearances, it provides a general overview of Zappa’s ideas and views on a variety of topics such as music, politics, education, religion, drugs, censorship, and freedom of speech.

Not unlike his music, Zappa’s talk and language are playful yet always well structured; his remarks can be humorous and sarcastic, yet extremely serious.

Unsurprisingly, many of his views, such as his stance on American culture and foreign policy, ring the same as timely and poignant today.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Zappa’s influence in Europe has been arguably greater than in his native US. The subversive character of his art had a particularly big impact in the avant-garde and underground scenes of Central and Eastern Europe during the 1970s and 1980s.

Notably, Zappa went to Czechoslovakia following an invitation by president Václav Havel in January 1990. Havel was a fan of Zappa, and would later refer to him as “one of the gods of the Czech underground.” The two men developed a friendship, further consolidating the special connection between Frank Zappa and the Czech Republic that endures to this day.

Another, more tangible, testament to Zappa’s lasting and far-reaching influence can be found in downtown Vilnius, Lithuanian’s capital city. It is a bronze bust of the American musician erected in 1995, which has since become one of the city’s most visited sights (I took a photo of it myself when I visited Vilnius some years ago).

Listening to Frank Zappa, then, has been quite tricky: his attitude towards the status quo and established processes always remained critical, his iconoclastic art causing great provocation all the way from the US (where he fought a long battle against music censorship) to Soviet countries (where his music was banned and his records had to be smuggled illegally).

Be it Zappa’s groundbreaking music or thought-provoking commentary on society and culture, it is a listen most definitely worth having.

Tales of various Stradivarius

A sound like no other

When it comes to the construction of stringed instruments, no artisan has ever come close to achieving the fame of legendary Italian craftsman Antonio Stradivari  (1644 – 1737). From the approximately 1,000 instruments he made during his lifetime, 650 (including around 500 violins) survive to this day, better known as Stradivarius or simply Strad.

Stradivari

Edgar Bundy, “Antonio Stradivari” (1893)

Along with their unique sound, many Strads also carry with them a fascinating history. Like the 1721 “Lady Blunt” violin (sold in 2011 for £9.8 million), named after Lord Byron’s granddaughter Lady Anne Blunt who owned it for 30 years. Or the 1697 “Molitor” Strad, said to once have been owned by Napoleon himself (it belonged to Gabriel Jean Joseph Molitor, a general in the emperor’s army).

S(tr)ad stories

Given their extraordinary reputation and sky-high value, it is perhaps not surprising that several Strads have gone missing or stolen over the years under obscure circumstances. One such case occurred only last month when Frank Almond, the concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, was attacked shortly after a performance by two thieves who disappeared together with his precious Strad.

The stolen violin is known as the “Lipinski” Strad and was built in 1715 (which is during Stradivari’s “golden period”, i.e. 1700- 1725). Its first known owner was no other than Italian composer and virtuoso violinist Giuseppe Tartini (1692–1770), whose Devil’s Trill sonata remains hugely popular to this day.

Another famous Stradivarius violin with a tumultuous past is the “Gibson” Strad, named after its early owner George Alfred Gibson, a prominent English violinist. On February 28, 1936 it was snatched backstage at Carnegie Hall during a recital by Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman, who had left the Strad in his dressing room while performing on his -equally precious- Guarnerius  (a violin made by Stradivari’s contemporary Giuseppe Guarneri). When Huberman went backstage after the show, his “Gibson” Strad was gone.

Bell’s Strads ringing

Some 50 years later and after a deathbed confession by the thief, the “Gibson” Strad was finally recovered and bought by American virtuoso Joshua Bell. Its unique tone can be heard in Romance of the Violin, Bell’s first recording with the long-missing Strad.

Bell’s former violin had also been a Stradivarius. It was the 1732 “Tom Taylor” Strad, which he played in the Oscar-winning score for The Red Violin (1998), an absolute must for violin aficionados. And what a score that was…

Modern-day Mozarts

Masters from the cradle

I was always fascinated by stories of music prodigies: Mozart composing already at the age of five, 10-year-old Camille Saint-Saëns offering to play any of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas from memory as an encore at his debut public recital, or Hungarian virtuoso Georges Cziffra entering the Franz Liszt Academy at age nine, after four years performing in a traveling circus.

Several instances of young children displaying extraordinary musical talent have been recorded in recent times. Among them one can find famous performers such as Martha Argerich, Glenn Gould, and Yehudi Menuhin, to name but a few.

The Canadian Mozart

However, the list also includes many less-known musicians whose early promising careers did not always match the expectations of their patrons and audience once they reached adulthood. One such case was Canadian pianist and composer André Mathieu (1929 – 1968). While still 7 years old, Mathieu gave a recital of his own works in Paris. His performance was received enthusiastically and critics unanimously hailed him as “Canadien Mozart”.

However, the aftermath of WWII found Mathieu a changed man and his return to Montreal was followed by alcoholism and emotional problems that led to his premature death at the age of 39.  Mathieu’s life story is explored in the film L’enfant prodige (2010) by Luc Dionne, which features much of his beautiful music performed by -also Québécois- pianist Alain Lefèvre.

Rise and fall (and rise again)

L’enfant prodige bears a close resemblance to the film Shine (1996) by Scott Hicks, which deals with the formative years of Australian concert pianist David Helfgott and his subsequent struggle with mental illness. Both films explore similar themes such as the beginnings of a promising music career, the strong influence of family on the child’s character, and the early claim to fame followed by a sudden fall.

There is, however, a crucial difference. While L’enfant prodige is the tragic story of one’s descent to alcoholism and despair, Shine is essentially a film about overcoming seemingly unsurpassable obstacles and surviving life’s misfortunes.

A great challenge even for the most phenomenal talents, no doubt.

Wagner’s 200th and the adventures of the Ring

I was first introduced to the Nibelungenlied (‘The Song of the Nibelungs’) through Fritz Lang’s magnificent Die Nibelungen, a series of two silent fantasy films (I. Siegfried & II. Kriemhild’s Revenge). Based on an epic poem written around 1200 AD, the screenplay follows the story of dragon-slayer Siegfried, his murder by Burgundian warrior Hagen of Tronje, and finally the revenge of his wife Kriemhild.

File:Nibelungen film1.jpg

Siegfried on horseback with Alberich, king of the dwarfs (still from Die Niebelungen by Fritz Lang)

Wagner’s famous opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (‘The Ring of the Nibelung’) is also based, however loosely, on characters from the Nibelungenlied and the Norse sagas. Not long ago, I happened to come across a wonderful 2-volume edition of Wagner’s Ring with some exquisite illustrations by Arthur Rackham that date back to 1910-11.

‘Siegfried awakens Brünnhilde’, illustration by Arthur Rackham

Lang’s visual artistry and Rackham’s captivating images notwithstanding, the most remarkable and ambitious work of art related to the Ring and the myth of the Nibelungs by far remains Wagner’s monumental opera cycle itself. I have wanted to watch Wagner’s operas on stage for a long time, and the opportunity finally arose this year on the occasion of the composer’s bicentennial. So far, I’ve had the chance to watch Siegfried in Amsterdam’s Muziektheater, which also stages the Ring cycle in its entirety.

Wagner’s 200th birthday was celebrated through a series of events and festivities booth within and outside Germany. Meanwhile, the composer’s strong anti-Semitic views and later association with the Nazis have continued to spark controversy up to this day. Same goes for the staging of his works, as it was made apparent this year in Bayreuth. Powerful as Wagner’s music may be, it seems to carry with it such a heavy load of historical allusions and connotations it often becomes impossible to be freed thereof.

125 years of sublime sound

On April 11, 1888 an orchestra of 120 musicians together with a chorus of 500 singers performed works of Wagner, Handel, Bach, and Beethoven in a new building in what was then called Nieuwer-Amstel. It was the beginning of the story of the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam’s famous and much beloved concert hall. And no doubt it’s been a long, fascinating story…

This year, the city’s oldest and grandest classical music venue celebrates its 125th birthday. Due to its remarkable acoustics, the Concertgebouw is considered one of the finest concert halls worldwide – and for good reason. Anyone who’s been fortunate enough to attend a concert in the magnificent Grote Zaal (‘Big Hall’) is familiar with the unique aura and enchanting atmosphere of the venue.

The Concertgebouw in 1902

The Concertgebouw in 1902

Throughout its long -and at times turbulent- history, the Concertgebouw has been host to an astonishing string of world-renowned composers who came along to present premieres of their works, such as Gustav Mahler, Sergei Prokofiev, Richard Strauss, Maurice Ravel and Béla Bartók.

But by no means is the list confined to the classical genre alone. Legendary figures from the world of popular music have also performed in Amsterdam’s historic venue. Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Shirley Bassey have all been guests of the Concertgebouw, along with rock giants such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.

Personally, I always regard a visit to the Concertgebouw as a kind of pilgrimage to one of the world’s unique music temples. Along with Vienna’s Musikverein or London’s Royal Albert Hall, it ranks as one of the most beautiful concert halls I have ever visited. But more importantly, it is a place where music can be experienced most fully and intensely, and thus I think the word ‘temple’ should not ring too much out of place.

In all my years in Amsterdam, I’ve had the chance to see some truly amazing performances at the Concertgebouw. I was there for a solo piano recital by Daniel Barenboim for the celebration of Chopin’s bicentennial. I saw Earl Wild performing shortly after his ninetieth birthday, attended recitals by some of the world’s greatest pianists (Evgeny Kissin, Alfred Brendel and Grigory Sokolov to name a few) and saw celebrities like Chick Corea, Yo-Yo Ma and Lang Lang showcasing their extraordinary skills and virtuosity on stage.

One of the most-visited concert halls worldwide, the Concertgebouw seems to have not only a glorious past but also a promising future. And I look forward to being part of the experiences it yet has to offer.

Changing of the seasons

Antonio Vivaldi composed The Four Seasons (‘Le quattro stagioni’) in 1723. A work of unmatched artistry and elegance, it would become one of the most popular pieces of baroque music, if not classical music in general. It is also an early example of program music, with the four concertos named after the different seasons and following closely a set of corresponding sonnets.

The Four Seasons is an integral part of the violin repertoire, a work literally hardwired in the brain of every violinist. As might be expected, there is an abundance of recordings: approximately 1,000(!) different recorded versions of The Four Seasons have made their appearance since 1939 by various soloists and orchestras.

My personal favorites include the recording by Yehudi Menuhin and Camerata Lysy Gstaad from 1981, as well as Nigel Kennedy’s popular 1989 recording with the English Chamber Orchestra. Kennedy had studied with Menuhin as a child, and his recording of the The Four Seasons would become one of the best-selling classical works of all time. An eccentric figure, Kennedy has never hesitated to introduce improvisatory elements in his playing, which often makes his live performances electrifying.

Inevitably, some approaches to Vivaldi’s great composition have proved to be more daring and stylistically innovative than others. This is the case with French pianist and composer Jacques Loussier (b. 1934), whose main claim to fame have been his magnificent jazz adaptations of J.S. Bach. Apart from its sheer musicality, the fact that Loussier’s rendition manages to capture the essence of the original work by means of a piano trio alone is impressive.

More recently, British composer Max Richter (b. 1966) offered us a truly astonishing re-composition of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (its premiere was on 31 October 2012). In describing the 1st movement of his Summer, Richter talks about “relentless pulsed music”, adding that perhaps he “was also thinking about John Bonham’s drumming.” He has also referred to the connection between the harpsichord’s sound in the 2nd movement of his Autumn and the style of various pop recordings, including Abbey Road and several albums by the Beach Boys.

The metamorphoses of The Four Seasons throughout the ages show how a baroque masterpiece can survive in modern times through assuming different forms and incorporating elements from such diverse genres as jazz, pop, hard rock and minimalism. Seasons may keep changing, yet Vivaldi’s music remains.

When the Beatles met the sugar plum fairy

When I was still a little child, my acquaintance with the world of classical ballet (and I suspect not just mine) was made through The NutcrackerIt was love at first sight (and hearing), as the delightful music of Tchaikovsky coupled with a most extraordinary set of characters such as the Mouse King, the Nutcracker Prince with his soldiers, and of course the Sugar Plum Fairy.

One of Tchaikovsky’s most celebrated works, the immense popularity of The Nutcracker owes much to a tradition that started in 1954, when the New York City Ballet first performed the ballet choreographed by George Balanchine. The company has since performed the ballet every year during the Christmas season with great success, paving the way for a growing number of performances across the world by several ballet companies in the years that followed.

‘Best of Balanchine’, performed by the Dutch National Ballet in the Amsterdam Music Theater

In 1965, the British orchestral composer Arthur Wilkinson made a very special arrangement of music by The Beatles, blending some of their well-known tunes with movements from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. The result of this peculiar musical marriage was called the Beatle Cracker Suite.

A musical allusion to Tchaikovsky’s popular ballet can also be found  in the film Magical Mystery Tour. It was the Beatles’ producer George Martin who, seeing that the opening strain of All My Loving is almost identical to the melody from Nutcracker’s Pas de deux but turned upside down, decided to arrange the song à la Tchaikovsky for the film’s background music.

The most intriguing manifestation of the unique relationship between the Russian master and the British pop stars was perhaps one not made through notes. It would be, however, captured on record through the soft, rather lazy and yet mysterious-sounding voice of Lennon, as he was whispering “sugar-plum-fairy, sugar-plum-fairy” into the microphone during the intro of the epic A Day in the Life (as can be heard in the Love version of the song).

It appears the little fairy’s dance had taken her all the way from Russia’s imposing music theaters to the Abbey Road Studios in London amidst the swinging sixties. What an honor indeed to have been summoned by The Beatles on such a special day in their life. No doubt Tchaikovsky would not have minded her leaving home!