Thursday, March 26, 2015

Schumann's Drei Fantasiestücke, op. 73, for clarinet and piano

performed by two separate teams:
the clarinet and piano duo here

or a truly splendid performance by Capucon and Argerich (cello, not clarinet)

Welcome to part two of our three (and a half?) part clarinet series. Today's piece was originally written for clarinet and piano, but it seems that it is more often performed on cello. That isn't against the composer's wish, though, as he'd directed that the clarinet part could be played either on violin or cello as well.
Schumann is a composer I'm not terribly familiar with, as evidenced by my poor attention to his symphonies I wrote about a year and a half or more ago, which I won't even link to. They are getting revisits at some point, but for this series, I wanted a chamber piece, a solo or piano accompaniment, and a concerto, and this is obviously the second of those. But there are some unique things about this piece that we'll talk about shortly. Let's get to the piece itself.
It was written in the span of just two days in 1849. Two days. The composer had originally decided on the title Night Pieces, but later decided to go with Fantasy Pieces, and it seems he liked the idea of 'fantasy,' not only as a Romantic-era concept, but with a sort of freeness of expression, evidenced perhaps by how quickly these pieces were written. The work is made up of three

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Concert Review: Taipei Symphony, Gilbert Varga and Karen Gomyo

Bear with me here. This concert (or the general experience of the evening) was far more outstandingly outstanding than I'd prepared for. 

There are some concerts you look forward to and know will be once-in-a-lifetime chances, like being able to hear Gurre Lieder live last year (quite a production), or The Philharmonia last month, and some you go to just because it’s a nice chance to hear a piece live again, with no real concern for the performer or real anticipation for the program…? Think of it this way. 
There are different kinds of dinner plans: I may make plans far in advance for a fancy restaurant, maybe even save money ahead of time and splurge on the chef’s tasting menu. Other times, I may just call up some friends and to go some local watering hole (in the wall) and enjoy the experience or company more than the actual meal itself. Does that make sense?
That may sound negative, but hold on. 
In my recent efforts to widen out my musical tastes and fill some gaping holes (read: Classical era), I saw the program for this show with Mozart’s fifth violin concerto and that was reason enough to buy a ticket. It’s our very own Taipei Symphony orchestra, whom I’ve heard a number of other times, each of which has been absolutely delightful. As for the pieces on the program though, (as of when I bought the ticket) I hadn’t ever heard a single one, which is rare for a concert I decide to attend. In any case, I was looking forward to the concert at the end of a very busy week. As you are reading this (assuming you are reading in within the first few hours of its posting), I am in a plane somewhere over… Alaska? Canada? The North Pole? And spent a week preparing for a last-minute trip, so it made for a nice Thursday evening (fantastic seat didn’t hurt either). 
But having planned for just a nice night at the symphony, I had a number of surprises. The first was that the program had changed. There was a piece added to the top of the program, by a late Taiwanese composer, in his honor, and the very last piece on the program was Prokofiev’s ‘classical’ symphony no. 1. Wonderful!
I walked into the hall and heard one of the lectures discussing the first movement and immediately recognized it, but thought… why are they discussing this piece? I got a program and saw it was on the menu for the evening. Seems I would have remembered that, so I assume it was added later. 
As I said, I had an excellent seat, perhaps one of the best in the house. First balcony (our ‘third floor’)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Mozart clarinet quintet in A, K. 581

performed by Sabine Meyer and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields string quartet

So... The first few listens of this piece were almost as boring as the first time I listened to Mozart's clarinet concerto, which I am kind of eager to get back to listening to after having really come to enjoy this work. 
It's been a glaring weakness in my coverage of classical music that I haven't really addressed anything before Beethoven's time, and even his works have been rather sparse here, but we're fixing that, as per the article two weeks ago about Beethoven's first piano concerto. 
So when I decided that I would be doing this three-part miniseries (sounds like a television show) on the clarinet, I had originally decided on what I felt was the obvious choice, the clarinet concerto. But seriously, it's boring. That's a bit too negative, but I at least found it that way at the time. My clarinet friend, my consultant in this series, suggested I give the quintet a try instead. And in the three-part series, we already had a concerto on the program, which we will get to in a few weeks.
For our classical-era piece, I feel this one is a fantastic choice, but only came to feel that way after repeated listenings. It was more an obligatory listen for the first few weeks that I started giving it attention. 
While it's a shocking contrast from, oh, Babbitt's clarinet quintet (which is, relative to that composer's other works, quite.... approachable. Our series won't get that modern), it has its fantastic merits. Listening to the extremely modern and dense works of Schoenberg and beyond can make something like Mozart's work seem.... dry and boring. If Schoenberg or Webern are like a complex, intense smoky whiskey (Ardbeg, perhaps) that takes time to develop a palate for, then Mozart's music, and this quintet as an excellent example, is a fine, crisp, chilled, high-quality champagne. 
It's just different. I've thought this about classical music for a while, the idea of attaining to the pinnacle of clean beauty. And with that in mind, with that as the goal of the piece, viewing it from that angle, you cannot help but really come to love what's been done here. It may not challenge modern listeners, or shock or surprise in any modern sense, but it may do in its beauty.
I thoroughly enjoyed this EarSense article (which very sadly seems to be offline now) sharing the virtues of this piece. I hadn't though so.... technically about the structure and purpose and strategic decisions of the piece. What, after reading the above article and listening again, struck me the most was the amazing versatility shown by such a small ensemble of only five performers. It works, at turns, as a very small-scale clarinet concerto, a string quartet, duets, etc. so that at times it sounds like a full-fledged orchestra, and others like a small, quaint string quartet. It has such diversity in its sounds and the treatment of the instruments individually and in their various combinations. There are times I forget it's only a quintet, and others when I forget there's a clarinet. And that is so

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

What does your taste say about you?

.... if anything
Music, in whatever form, is just one of those things. It is, for most humans, an enjoyable, even integral, part of life. It is very rare that I meet someone who doesn’t have an opinion about, taste for, or love of music, and I remember just about every one of them. It baffles me.
Music, no matter what kind, is a unifying, identifying, telling thing. I read into lots of things when I meet someone, not even really consciously, and there are a lot of things that say a lot about a person.
I’ve had this conversation with a few people recently. Say you’re among a group of people who you know of, but you don’t know very well, like friends of a good friend of yours or something. One of the first things I go to for a topic of conversation is music, because it’s something almost everyone at least has an opinion about, if not passionately loves. “What kind of music do you listen to?” is such a broad topic, especially in today’s media-soaked age of exposure, YouTube, Pandora, iTunes radio, and whatever else. More specifically, I’d ask something more along the lines of “what’s in your CD player" (well, ten years ago maybe) or “what’s on you iPod right now?” or "what have you listened to or been impressed by most recently?” Granted, someone may have just happened to be listening to like, old showtunes or Gregorian chant or Mary Had a Little Lamb or something, which may be completely non-indicative of their tastes in music. But it’s a good place to start.
Not only do other people begin to form a basis for what kind of person they think you are based on certain things, but more and more people (well, a specific type of people, I feel) begin to define themselves by or at least identify themselves with or as listeners of a specific type of or trend in music.
Let me elaborate. Let me also preface. This may sound like I judge people based on certain seemingly insignificant things, but I try to be observant. I feel that making observations and forming tentative opinions is different than judging. For example, do your socks match? It would be rare that they didn’t… but it would certainly say one of a few things about a person if they didn’t, and

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Grainger: Molly on the Shore

performed by the Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra (or below by the North Texas Wind Symphony)

This is the second piece of the great and interesting Percy Aldridge Grainger that we'll be discussing, the first of which was his Children's March. 
We played this one in school as well, and it's just so much fun. I know Grainger was Australian, but this is perhaps the reason I think of him as so Irish, because this piece is the first of his that I had any familiarity with, and it's a setting of two Irish reels. As usual, Wikipedia serves as a nice little resource for the piece. It was originally written as a string quartet (or string orchestra), and was a birthday gift for his mother in 1907. It was later arranged by the composer for wind band. He says to Frederick Fennel of the piece (in a letter, originally from the liner notes to a North Texas Wind Symphony CD):
in setting Molly on the Shore, I strove to imbue the accompanying parts that made up the harmonic texture with a melodic character not too unlike that of the underlying reel tune. Melody seems to me to provide music with initiative, wheras {sic} rhythm appears to me to exert an enslaving influence. For that reason I have tried to avoid regular rhythmic domination in my music - always excepting irregular rhythms, such as those of Gregorian Chant, which seem to me to make for freedom. Equally with melody, I prize discordant harmony, because of the emotional and compassionate sway it exerts.
That statement may not seem too terribly related to this work, but the following is. Fritz Kreisler arranged it for violin and piano, and I haven't heard it, but the idea seems less than fitting. Grainger was highly unimpressed, saying it:
was a thousand times worse than I had fore-weened, & I had not fore-weened anything good.
I don't think you can listen to this and not think Irish. There are also times in the piece where I hear it and do think of the shore. It's during one of the key changes, the quieter middle part where the clarinet gets its solo again before the brass and the whole band reenter. 
In any case, this piece, while not solely for the clarinet, features woodwinds heavily, and the clarinet has its solo to start the whole piece off. I remember in playing this that bassoon, clarinet, and