This summer, our classical music hosts have been enjoying a vast variety of music in their time outside of the station.
With everything from a Japanese melody to a Gershwin classic, a bombastic Tchaikovsky piece to an innovative choral work, Jennifer Reason, Victor Forman and Kevin Doherty are giving you a peek into their personal favorites with this month’s Ear to Ear playlist.
As a professional performer, I’ve spent a good amount of my life onstage. As such, the odds of routine public embarrassment are greatly increased. I’ve decided to let you in on a few of these gems for this month’s Ear to Ear. Shall we call them my Musical Mishaps? (I mean, the alliteration alone...)
Musical Mishap One: Frederic Chopin — “Ballade in F Major, Op. 38 No. 2” — Performed by Janusz Olejniczak
I was preparing for my junior recital in college. I’ve always preferred to give a couple trial performances before it’s time to do the official recital, so I scheduled a solo performance at a local church to try out all the music in public for the first time. Also to be tried out for the first time? My concert gown.
So there I was, in front of a sold out audience, almost to the end of the final, fiery descending chords in this piece, and what descended instead was… my gown. One arm flourish too many, and the cute pink off-the-shoulder number fell right off. The entire top half of the dress was down in my lap, center stage. With half the program still to go.
I’ll just leave that right there.
Musical Mishap Two: George Gershwin — “Blah Blah Blah” — Performed by David Craig & John Morris
I was doing an outreach performance for a prominent organization in town, I won’t say which… but I will tell you it was outside in the Capitol Rose Garden. There I was, joined by lovely singers, happily playing this cheery song, the breeze in my hair, smell of roses in the air, blissfully unaware that anything was amiss, when all of a sudden... BAM! The piano bench I was sitting on completely collapsed without warning.
Yes, I hit the ground, feet up in the air. Yes, it made a huge noise, and yes, audience members screamed. When asked about it later, the gentleman who had delivered the instrument said, “Oh yes, well I noticed a screw or two fall out when I unloaded the bench, but they didn’t seem too important!”
……..I’ll just leave that right there.
Musical Mishap Three: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky — “1812 Festival Overture, Op 49” — Performed by U.S. Air Force Singing Sergeants & Concert Band
Tchaikovsky wrote this work to commemorate the Russian victory over the French in the Battle of Borodin in 1812. And what better way to commemorate a war victory than with cannons!
Allow me to set the stage: Every summer for years, I would go out and play piano for two weeks at a wonderful music camp in the Tahoe National Forest. The camp drew lots of talented students, was set in a tiny narrow canyon far out in the mountains and surrounded by rivers and wildflowers and pine trees and bears and had no cell phone reception. Bliss, right?
So there I was in my little staff pianist cabin, cozy in the afternoon sun taking one of those perfect naps where you don’t even know you’ve dozed off. I’d seen that week’s concert program but I wasn’t on this particular piece so I hadn’t paid much attention. What no one told me was that they were going to have real cannons at the show. What else had no one told me? The cannons were arriving that day and would be tested at… oh, right about my blissful nap time. Words cannot describe that first BOOM that ripped through that cannon. Suffice it say: I fell out of the bed. (Certain, of course, in my still completely asleep terrified stupor, that the propane tank right outside my window had blown and I was in fact waking up…on “the other side”, if you know what I mean.) Oh, and I injured my elbow hitting it on the hardwood floor on the way down, which definitely impacted my piano playing the rest of camp.
I’ll just……leave that right there.
Pardon my lack of brevity but I thought I'd demonstrate something you've probably experienced: When certain pieces of music touch you and you remember the stories behind discovering them. You likely have your own emotional recollections and associations with certain pieces of music. Share your stories in our CapRadio Music Group on Facebook.
“Kojo no Tsuki (Moon Over the Ruined Castle)” — Performed by Jean-Pierre Rampal and Lily Laskine
Perhaps because I learned about Japan in second or third grade (in Pacifica), I've always loved Japanese melodies. But I've never had the pleasure of learning about many of them specifically — except one. Even before I toured parts of Japan in my early 30s (LOVED it!), in my late teens I first encountered the beautiful melody of "Kojo no Tsuki" on the live 1978 album "Tokyo Tapes" (recorded in Tokyo) by the German rock band Scorpions.
To honor the wonderful reception they received in Japan, they learned this folk song. The singer begins a capella, and the stadium audience sing along solemnly, before the heavy metal Germans kick it up and really rock the tune.
About a year later, a Japanese gal (Hi, Kyoko!) in my dorm at UC Santa Cruz gave me the backstory on how special the song is in Japan and some of its meaning. I also happen to love flute and harp and listen often to this combination and so on a CD that I own, "Kojo no Tsuki" played by flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and harpist Lily Laskine hits so many points for me.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — “Serenade in B flat, K.361 ‘Gran partita’: 2. Menuetto (Allegretto) - Trio I&II” — Performed by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Wind Ensemble
There was a piece of music in the 1984 movie "Amadeus" that I absolutely fell in love with and, in those days before Google, I had to search high and low to discover what it was. I figured that it must be Mozart (but could be another composer) and that it included wind instruments. Those were my only clues. I began buying CD after CD of Mozart (and other composers): clarinet quintets, serenades, this and that.
I finally found it: Mozart's "Gran Partita" Serenade for twelve wind instruments (plus double bass), which to this day remains an all-time favorite of mine not just for being great music but for its personal meaning to me: it's what got me listening deeply to Mozart. In my search for this piece, I loved what I heard and branched out and started listening to all his other music. I even later attended a performance of the "Gran Partita" with Herbert Blomstedt conducting members of the San Francisco Symphony. Here's my favorite movement from it, to which I owe my love of Mozart.
Gaetano Donizetti — “Com’e bello! Quale incanto” — Performed by Montserrat Caballe
In 1982, Luciano Pavarotti was to sing at San Francisco's Opera in the Park. I was still very young and not "into" opera so much as photography. As I lived in San Francisco near Golden Gate Park, I thought I'd go over to get a photo of him.
With Opera in the Park still held in the Park's Bandshell, I was easily able to get up to the front of the stage; camera in hand, ready. Longtime director of the San Francisco Opera Kurt Herbert Adler stepped out and apologized, saying that Pavarotti would not appear. Disappointed, I stayed only because I had a good spot for photos when Adler said that he had a special surprise guest we'd love equally. Some lady named Montserrat Caballé.
“Whoever,” I thought. She began to sing and I do not exaggerate when I say that my mouth was hanging open and I had goosebumps. "How can these incredible sounds come out of a human being?!" I don't think I even came out of my trance to take a photo. The next day I went to Tower Records and bought an LP of Caballé (I hadn't yet transitioned to CDs).
This recording ends that album. Even today, as I previewed it for this article, this literally brings me to tears. It's her aria "Com'e bello! Quale incanto" from Donizetti's "Lucrezia Borgia."
Essentially, she sings to her beautiful young sleeping son, Gennaro, who doesn't know she's his mother. She begins by noticing how beautiful and enchanting he is and ends the aria lamenting that sadness should only be hers and that he should not awaken but enjoy the beauty of his dreams.
For this month’s Ear to Ear playlist, I’ve picked some of the coolest, most captivating, and unconventional choral works in the canon today. I have a new release, a Pulitzer Prize winner and an iconic choral movement from a 20th-century opera that defied all of the rules.
Christopher Cerrone — The Branch Will Not Break: No. 1, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” — Performed by various vocalists & wild Up
It’s hard to put a label on Christopher Cerrone’s music. The images that come to mind are light, ice, and winter. He embraces post-minimalism but also employs a metallic, bell-like sensibility reminiscent of the Estonian composer Arvo Part.
“Lying on a Hammock…” is the first song in a choral cycle based on the poetry of James Wright called The Branch Will Not Break. This track begins with only two voices and is haunting and emotional and leaves an indelible impression on the listener. One gains a strong desire for more as the other six voices join in on the line, “I have wasted my life…” As I said, “Lying in a Hammock” is the first song in the cycle and leads right into the next track - therefore, I suggest you keep going with the entire piece if time permits! Here is a link to Wright’s poetry.
Caroline Shaw — Partita for 8 Voices: “III. Courante” — Roomful of Teeth
This is a virtuosic choral piece that, on the surface sounds as though it’s having a little fun with the musical genre. And you know what? It is. However, it’s not a parody of choral music. What Shaw and the Massachusetts-based choral ensemble Roomful of Teeth have accomplished here is a masterclass in how to utilize the human voice.
Shaw became the youngest composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and the Pulitzer website describes Partita as “a highly polished and inventive a capella work.” There are some jarring moments, but they are all so well contained that this piece becomes nearly impossible to walk away from. Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices is a unique expression in vocal harmony and expression.
Philip Glass — Einstein on the Beach: “Knee Play No. 5” — Michael Riesman & the Philip Glass Ensemble
The iconic Einstein on the Beach is a monumental collaboration from the 1970s between Philip Glass and avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson. Einstein, Glass’ first opera, makes no attempt at kowtowing to the conventional rules of opera. The plot evades narrative and is almost nonsensical.
“Seeing the show for the first time can be almost like space travel,” writes Hilton Als of The New Yorker. And well there actually is a spaceship scene in the opera — so I guess it’s an appropriate reaction.
Immediately following the spaceship scene is the fifth knee play. Glass uses numbers instead of words here and in the other four knee plays noting that the idea came from using the numbers as a memorization device in rehearsal. Glass and Wilson opted for the actual text to be spoken as you’ll hear in the lovely soliloquy by Samuel M. Johnson at the end of the piece.
“How much do I love you? Count the stars in the sky. Measure the waters of the oceans with a teaspoon. Number the grains of sand on the seashore. Impossible, you say? Yes, and it is just as impossible for me to say how much I love you.”
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